"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, June 30, 2007

R.I.P. Brown...

R.I.P. Brown vs. Board of Education.

It's ironic that a few months after the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision the Bush court would be so bold as to find yet another way to screw the people.

Brown said that integration was needed...that race shouldn't be an issue in giving good schools to kids. Now Roberts, twists that argument to say that race must not be used to determine what school a child goes to...ever...at all...

Does anyone remember that integrated schools actually reduced the "achievement gap" between majority and minority students? Does anyone remember that not only is "separate but equal" illegal, but so is "separate but unequal" (which is what we have now - again)?

Kozol said it best with simply the title of his latest book...The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent, said Chief Justice Roberts’s discussion of Brown “rewrites the history of one of this court’s most important decisions.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer, also dissenting, said the opinion “undermines Brown’s promise of integrated primary and secondary education” and “threatens to substitute for present calm a disruptive round of race-related litigation.”

The bigots have won again.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

The 31st Summer...

It's summer again. Time to recuperate from the stresses of the school year. Time to relax and regroup for the next school year. Time to let the worries about individual students fall away for a while.

This is the 31st summer since I started teaching...and this one is different. I'm a member of my teacher's association's bargaining team and this summer we're bargaining for a new contract with the school board.

Our team has been working since early in the last school year (see Time to Teach posted on November 17, 2006). At first there was talk of getting a contract before school was over...then there was talk of getting it done before the end of June. Now, we're all pretty sure that when we start school in the fall we will still be bargaining.

This is a new experience for me. I've been active in the "association" since I started teaching. I've been a building representative, committee chair person, delegate to the state assembly and officer...but this is the first time I've sat on the negotiating team.

What strikes me about this process is not that there is a need for give and take between the parties, or that we are cooperating and compromising in order to make a good contract. The thing that stands out to me is something that the team representing the school board has not said. No one on their team has mentioned doing what is best for the students.

In all my experiences with the "association" one thing has been constant and is mentioned at nearly every meeting I've attended locally or at the state level. The constant has been that we are doing what we do to benefit our students. We want a contract which is good for us, but so far everything we have talked about is directly related to students' well being whether it's more time for teachers to prepare for their lessons, more arts and physical education, or smaller class sizes. The benefits to students are foremost in our minds. My impression so far from the school board's team is that this school system wants to get by with doing as little as possible and the students be damned.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Let Children be Children

Let Children Be Children
Is your 5-year-old stressed Out because so much is expected?

As I was watching one of my second-grade girls try unsuccessfully to tie her shoes the other day, and I thought, "This is a person who is supposed to be learning plural possessives?" I think not.

We've just finished test time again in the schools of California. The mad frenzy of testing infects everyone from second grade through high school. Because of the rigors and threats of No Child Left Behind, schools are desperate to increase their scores. As the requirements become more stringent, we have completely lost sight of the children taking these tests.

For 30 years as a teacher of primary kids, I have operated on the Any Fool Can See principle. And any fool can see that the spread between what is developmentally appropriate for 7- and 8-year-old children and what is demanded of them on these tests is widening. A lot of what used to be in the first-grade curriculum is now taught in kindergarten. Is your 5-year-old stressed out? Perhaps this is why.

Primary-grade children have only the most tenuous grasp on how the world works. Having been alive only seven or eight years, they have not figured out that in California there is a definite wet and dry season. They live in high expectation that it will snow in the Bay Area in the winter. They reasonably conclude, based on their limited experience with words, that a thesaurus must be a dinosaur. When asked to name some of the planets after he heard the word Earth, one of my boys confidently replied, "Mars, Saturn, Mercury, Jupiter and Canada!" to which a girl replied, "No, no, no, you gotta go way far outer than that."

Research has shown that it takes approximately 24 repetitions of a new concept to imprint on a young brain. The aforementioned plural possessives come up twice in the curriculum, yet they are supposed to know it when they see it. This is folly.

Currently, 2 1/2 uninterrupted hours are supposed to be devoted to language arts and reading every morning. I ask you, what adult could sustain an interest in one subject for that long? Yet the two reading series adopted by the state for elementary education require that much time be devoted to reading in the expectation that the scores will shoot up eventually. Show me a 7-year-old who has that kind of concentration. Show me a 64-year-old teacher who has it. Not I.

The result of this has been a decline in math scores at our school, because the emphasis is on getting them to read and there isn't enough time to fit in a proper curriculum. Early math education should rely heavily on messing about with concrete materials of measurements, mass, volume and length, and discovering basic principles through play.

There is no time for this. The teaching of art is all but a subversive activity. Teachers whisper, "I taught art today!" as if they would be reported to the Reading Police for stealing time from the reading curriculum, which is what they did.

It is also First Communion time in second grade. Yes, I teach in a public school, but First Communion happens in second grade, and it is a big deal, the subject of much discussion in the classroom. The children are excited.

A few months back one of my girls exclaimed, "Jeez, I have a lot to do after school today, Teacher. I gotta do my homework, go to baseball practice and get baptized." I laughed to myself at the priorities of this little to-do list, so symbolic of the life of one second-grader. But there was a much larger issue here. What is happening to their souls? You may ask, what business it is of the schools what is happening to the souls of these little children?

I will tell you. Any fool can see that those setting the standards for testing of primary-grade children haven't been around any actual children in a long time. The difference between what one can reasonably expect an 8-year-old to know and what is merely a party trick grows exponentially on these state tests.

Meanwhile, children who know they are bright and can read well are proved wrong time and again because of the structure of these tests. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time trying to teach the children to be careful of the quirky tricks of the tests when they should be simply teaching how to get on in the world.

Twenty years ago, I had a conference with a parent, a Sikh, whose child was brilliant. I was prepared to show him all her academic work, but he brushed it aside and said, "Yes, yes, I know she is quite smart, but I want to know how her soul is developing."

The present emphasis on testing and test scores is sucking the soul out of the primary school experience for both teachers and children. So much time is spent on testing and measuring reading speed that the children are losing the joy that comes but once in their lifetime, the happy messiness of paint, clay, Tinkertoys and jumping rope, the quiet discovery of a shiny new book of interest to them, the wonders of a magnifying glass. The teachers around them, under constant pressure to raise those test scores, radiate urgency and pressure. Their smiles are grim. They are not enjoying their jobs.

Our children need parents and teachers who, like Hamlet, know a hawk from a hand saw, who know foolishness when they see it and are strong enough to defend these small souls from the onslaught of escalating developmentally inappropriate claptrap. The great unspoken secret of primary school is that a lot of what is going on is arrant nonsense, and it's getting worse. Any fool can see.

Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

This op-ed was written by a teacher in San Francisco


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Monday, June 4, 2007

The Redshirts are Coming

Fans of college athletics know what a Red Shirt is:
Red Shirt = a term used in American college athletics. Typically, a student-athlete has four years of eligibility in a given sport, to coincide with the standard four-year calendar for obtaining a degree. For various reasons, some student-athletes may opt to attend only classes and practices with the team; this process is known as redshirting. The student-athlete does not use one of his or her four years of eligibility in that season. Using this mechanism, a student-athlete has up to five academic years to use the four years of eligibility, thus creating the phenomenon of "Fifth Year Seniors". -- Wikipedia

Star Trek Fans know what a Red Shirt is, too:
Red Shirt = A redshirt is a stock character, used frequently in Sci-Fi, whose sole purpose is to die, often violently, soon after being introduced. Redshirts are a plot device used to indicate the dangerous circumstances faced by the main characters at the start of a narrative without having to kill any of the vital main characters. The term comes from the popular American Sci-Fi TV series Star Trek, in which security officers wore red shirts, and were often killed on missions under the aforementioned circumstances. -- Wikipedia

But there is a new Red Shirt on the scene...new...and not new:
Red Shirt = in elementary education, where it refers to the practice of delaying a child's entrance into kindergarten by a year to give the child opportunity for further mental, physical, or socioemotional growth. -- Wikipedia

Parents have been holding their kids out of kindergarten for a variety of reasons...and for a long time. But things have changed.

The kindergarten curriculum under the "standards movement" and No Child Left Behind has become what the first grade curriculum was 20...no 10 years ago. The concept of a developmentally appropriate curriculum has been lost, so teachers have been forced to teach kindergartners, many of whom are not academically ready, how to do things that first graders used to learn.

Recent studies have shown that when kids are held out of kindergarten if their birthday are in April or later - now officially called "Red shirting" - the students do better. They are more confident, achieve higher, have a higher chance of going to college, and are just better off all around. If you are teaching what is actually first grade, no matter what you call it, it just makes sense to teach kids who are of first grade age.

So what have we achieved by all this? Preschools have become the new kindergarten - the place where the skills of cooperation and learning through play are taught and experienced. Kindergartens are now the first grades...first grades are now second..and so on. To give their children the most advantage, parents who are aware of this are keeping their kids in preschool for an additional year. They think it is because it will help them when they get to school...and they are right, but not for the reason they think. It will help their children because the curriculum they will get in school is not appropriate to them until they are a year older.

If this was universal, then there would be no problem. Kids would be in preschool and get the traditional developmental curriculum that they used to get in kindergarten and, since they start the new kindergarten - which is the old first grade - at a later age all is well...and everyone will be happy. The truth is however, that this is another example of the class divisions in this country. Wealthy kids, kids of the educated, will be red-shirted, while kids of the poor will be sent to kindergarten at the age of 5...and in some states 4. No only do poorer children not have the benefit of a "print rich environment" at home, they do not have the same opportunities to go to preschools - especially since the Head Start program has lost much of its funding under the Bush administration. They will come into the new kindergarten younger than their kindergarten peers around the country and with academically poorer backgrounds than their kindergarten peers around the country.

The current administration says that No Child Left Behind is working, but that is not really true (see Reading First and the Evidence: A Response to Sol Stern by Steven Krashen). The current administration whose Secretary of Education is not even an educator and whose only qualification on her government bio is that she is "a mom" and has a "personal interest" in seeing that we have quality schools...This administration is killing the public schools of America. Not only is Bush giving the rich tax advantages, but his Department of Education is now giving the rich educational advantaged too - using the public schools, the taxpayers money, and the corrupt practices of Reading First and the infamous Bush style of paying off friends with contracts. Those who have the wherewithal to send their kids to private preschools and who learn about the practice of "redshirting" will gain the advantage for their children, while the children of the poor will be more "disadvantaged" than ever when they start kindergarten.
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Read the Declaration of Independence From High Stakes Testing


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No Child Left Behind is leaving thousands of children behind!
Dismantle NCLB!
Sign the petition by clicking on the link on the side.
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