"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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Counting down the days...5

It's the weekend...five days left.

Last week I attended a retirement dinner for the four people from my school who are retiring. One thing that came out during the "entertainment" was that I don't particularly care for standardized tests.

While that's true, what was left out of the discussion was why I don't care for them. In my opinion, standardized tests have their place, however, that "place" has long since been removed from the educational landscape.

Standardized tests are just that - standardized. They tell us how students compare to others who have taken the test. This can give us information about what academic weaknesses a student may have compared to others. In other words, it can be diagnostic. Limitations of standardized tests have to be considered when using them to diagnose. There is information, however, that standardized tests supply which can be helpful.

Walt Gardner wrote about the standardized tests which teachers take to "prove" that they are good teachers...and about how the paper and pencil test does not really prove performance ability. The same is true for students. Standardized tests do not measure everything. They need to be used ONLY for what they do measure.

The issue of standardized tests being misused is further complicated by the push by the current administration to use student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers. Standardized tests do not cover everything learned in school. They weren't developed for that purpose. Further, there is no evidence that they are accurate measures of teacher effectiveness.

One of the most important things about science and statistics is that in order to make a conclusion about a hypothesis, one has to make sure that external variables are not influencing the outcome of an experiment. In other words, if you are hypothesizing that sunlight is necessary for plant growth, and you have designed an experiment in which some plants receive more sun than others, it's important to make sure that other variables like the amount of water, soil quality, and air temperature are kept constant. If they're not, then you cannot assume that a change in growth was due to light differences, and not something else.

The same is true for standardized tests. Teacher A works in a school in a wealthy district. Her students are well cared for. They receive regular dental checkups, adequate meals, plenty of rest and exposure to literacy rich environments at home and at school. Teacher B works in a school where 80% of the students live in poverty. Many of them only have two decent meals a day...the breakfast and lunch they get at school. They may have dental problems which have never been identified. They may have difficulty sleeping in crowded homes with little exposure to print. There may be absent parents. Their medical, nutritional, and emotional needs may not be adequately met.

It's clear that the variables outside of the school make things more difficult for the students of Teacher B to learn. Should both teachers be subject to evaluation based on student test scores?

Even if we use a "growth model" in which the amount of growth the students make during their time with a teacher is used to grade the teacher, the variables get in the way. Middle class and wealthy students will have fewer outside influences which interfere with their growth than children living in poverty.

Finally, much time is spent norming standardized tests to make sure that they accurately measure that which they claim to measure. There are, as yet, no methods for establishing whether standardized tests of students accurately measure teacher competence. There have been no studies done to establish the effectiveness of standardized tests for that purpose, and the tests themselves were not developed for that purpose.

During the presidential campaign Candidate Obama said that we shouldn't judge students based on one standardized test. Yet, the department of education is now encouraging school districts and states to rely on those tests to judge teachers and teacher quality.

Using inadequate and inappropriate tools to measure teacher quality will not help improve teaching and learning. We need to develop better and more complete ways to evaluate teachers. We need to develop better and more complete ways to evaluate students.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Just Say NO!

Diane Ravitch has 10 great reasons for saying "no to Race to the Top." These are good!
1. The money that states win cannot plug budget gaps, but must be applied to meeting the requirements of the Race.

2. The Race demands that states evaluate teachers by their students' test scores. Some states are legislating that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student scores. There is no basis in research or science for 50 percent or 20 percent or any other number. Of course, supervisors should take test scores into account when evaluating teachers, but they should not be required to use a fixed percentage, determined arbitrarily by legislators.

3. The issue of how to evaluate teachers should be resolved by professional associations, working in concert, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and other professional groups. The state legislatures do not determine how other professionals should be evaluated; they don't know. Nor do they know how teachers should be evaluated. Why doesn't the U.S. Department of Education convene the leading professional organizations and give them a grant to design the ideal method of evaluating teacher performance? Why should such an important issue be determined by political negotiation rather than by professional standards?

4. The NCLB-induced obsession with testing and test-prep activities will intensify under Race to the Top because teachers will know that their future, their reputation, and their livelihood depend on getting the scores higher, by any means necessary.

5. By raising the stakes for tests even higher, Race to the Top will predictably produce more teaching to bad tests, more narrowing of the curriculum, more cheating, and more gaming the system. If scores rise, it will be the illusion of progress, rather than better education. By ratcheting up the consequences of test scores, education will be corrupted and cheapened. There will be even less time for history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature, and other important subjects.

6. The Race requires states to increase the number of privately managed schools. There is no basis in research for this requirement. Privately managed schools have been compared with regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2003, and they have never outperformed them. The Stanford CREDO study found that 17 percent of charter schools were better than matched traditional public schools, 46 percent performed about the same, and 37 percent were worse than traditional public schools. Not an impressive showing.

7. The Race promotes the de-professionalization of education by encouraging alternate paths into teaching and leadership. No other nation has built a successful public school system by increasing the number of non-professionals in the classroom or in the job of principal or superintendent. We need better-educated, better-prepared teachers; we need principals who are master teachers; we need superintendents who are knowledgeable educators.

8. Many public schools will be closed down to comply with the demands of Race to the Top. These schools will be heavily concentrated in poor and minority communities, robbing them of their social capital. This will destabilize communities without any assurance that better schools will be created. Schools that enroll large numbers of low-performing students will be heedlessly closed, even if their staff is doing a good job in the face of difficult challenges.

9. Race to the Top erodes state control of public education, a basic principle of our federal system of government throughout our history. Now, states will dance to whatever tune the U.S. Department of Education feels like playing. Will a different administration demand school prayer and vouchers in exchange for billions?

10. Race to the Top erodes local control of education by prompting legislatures to supersede local school boards on any issues selected by federal bureaucrats.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Counting down the days...9

Monday is over...only nine days left.

For the last 19 years, I've been a Resource Teacher. In most school systems the Resource Room is a Special Education room. Not so in mine. Resource teachers are general education teachers working with students who are struggling. Our job was to help accelerate the students...to analyze their deficiencies and make recommendations for helping them. Sometimes the recommendations included testing to determine placement in special education. I consider myself a reading specialist. I have worked with at-risk students trying to figure out ways to accelerate their academic growth. For 6 of the last 19 years, from 1996-2002, I was also a Reading Recovery teacher.

There are 11 elementary schools in our system...all have a Resource Teacher. At least this year. Next year the position is being eliminated -- which is one of the reasons I decided to go ahead and retire. Only a few of the schools are getting "reading specialists" as replacements. But all of the schools are getting "Instructional Coaches" who will help our teachers implement a new curriculum supposedly designed to heal all academic woes.

Earlier this month the Resource Teachers got together after school for dinner and a last "good-bye" to the program, as well as to those of us who are retiring. I got sick and couldn't make it.

Today, when I got to school I found the gift that the other Resource Teachers had left for me...a clock. What follows is my combination "Thank you note for the kind gift" and "Comments about life in our school system without Resource Teachers."

~~~

Hi all,

I'm sorry I missed the Resource party earlier this month...[insert comments about being sick]

Thanks so much for the clock...although once I am retired I'm not sure why I'll need to know what time it is...unless I want to keep track of my naps. :)

Seriously though, I've enjoyed being a Resource Teacher, and proud that I have been part of this group of excellent professional educators. I know that sometimes those who aren't in our shoes don't really know what we're doing...or what the value of our work is...but I really believe that we have all made important contributions to the improvement of our schools and most of all, to the academic growth of our students.

I have some doubts about the decision to remove "reading specialists" (which is what I consider myself) from all but the Title I buildings. I know the administration says that the new curriculum, combined with the RtI process will take care of those students, but even if I accept that, I worry about the transition from where we are now, to this "new, improved" academic place. Nothing works perfectly the first time, and the students I am leaving will have no "safety net" any more. Those of us who have been around a while have seen "great ideas" fizzle. Unfortunately, when that happens, kids suffer. Hopefully, I'm wrong and everything works out fine...we'll find out soon.

I acknowledge the weaknesses I carried with me throughout my teaching career. Each year I would try to overcome something in the way I taught which I felt was holding me back...or not allowing me to give my students the opportunities they needed. Sometimes I succeeded...and sometimes I didn't. I believe one mark of a good teacher is the ability to analyze what they are doing, and focus on improving...daily. I think most of the time I was able to improve as I went along. The new "coaching" position, which is going to replace Resource should, in my opinion, help teachers focus on that sort of analysis. That is, "What am I doing?" "How is it working?" and "How can I make it better?" Unfortunately, our school corporation has had some experience with coaches which has not been entirely positive. Hopefully, this time attention will be paid to ways of working with teachers, some who have taught for a long time, which does not intimidate, irritate, patronize or insult them. If the coaches can't do that, then the entire process will be a failure, people will be filled with resentment, and everyone will lose.

In any case, I know that every "former Resource Teacher" will continue to bring excellence to the education of the students under their care.

Best of luck to all of us!! Those who are leaving...as well as those who are staying. Remember...don't save so much stuff (cleaning out after 30+ years is awful!!). Take more pictures. You'll be glad you did when you pack up for the last time.

Stu

Sunday, May 23, 2010

* A New Plan for Education from Congresswoman Judy Chu *

It's no secret that the country has been obsessed with standardized testing and the (seemingly) purposeful dismantling of the nation's public school system, replacing it with corporate sponsored and run charter schools. Current "school improvement plans" are set up for schools and students failing the tests. If a school fails to make "adequate yearly progress" on getting its students to pass a test, then they are labeled "Failure" and punished in one of four ways.
  • Replace the Principal and at least half the staff.
  • Privatize the school (Charter school plan)
  • Close the school and send its students to schools which are not "failing"
  • Implement 4 strategies from the USDOE beginning with replacing the principal
Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) has come up with a better idea...a plan called Strengthening Our Schools (SOS).

Read about it...read the report (or as much as you can)...and then let's get the word out to congresspeople. Ask them to back this plan!
~~~

May 20, 2010 1:22 PM

Washington, D.C. - Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) officially unveiled a plan today to improve our nation's education system using a new framework of school improvement grants, a proposal that is being supported by AFT, NEA, PTA and the National Association of School Psychologists, among other groups.

The Congresswoman's new framework constitutes a radical departure from existing guidelines on School Improvement Grants, replacing the overly punitive and restrictive model with a more flexible, holistic approach and giving schools a broader menu of research-driven options and more time to show improvement. Under the new framework, school closure would strictly be a last resort option.

"The current school improvement grant program is admirable in theory, but some of the tactics haven't been successful in practice," said Rep. Chu, noting as an example the recent mass firings, and subsequent rehiring, of staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. "What we need is a system that promotes flexibility and collaboration instead of tying the hands of administrators, teachers, and parents. We must remove barriers to student success instead of ignoring them. And finally, we must support teachers and leaders, instead of breaking them down."

That is the approach taken by Rep. Chu's proposed new framework, called Strengthening Our Schools (SOS) (see attached report). The plan would promote flexibility and collaboration between schools, parents, community leaders, businesses and other stakeholders; provide support to students facing crisis, both inside and outside of the classroom, by offering mental health services for behavioral problems, ESL resources and other wrap-around services; and giving teachers the tools they need to reconnect with disengaged students and help improve performance through personalized teacher training and specialized instructional support.

"In the upcoming ESEA Reauthorization I will be pushing for a complete revision of school improvement grants that is based on Strengthening Our Schools," said Rep. Chu, who was joined by representatives of major national education associations, teachers groups, former administration officials, parents and others as she unveiled the details of SOS at the Rayburn House Office Building. "As a Member of the Committee on Education and Labor, I plan to work with Chairman Miller on school turnaround and push for this framework to be adopted in ESEA Reauthorization."

The Congresswoman's plan was lauded by prominent members of the educational field.

The goal of SOS is nothing less than to achieve dramatic improvements in student achievement at priority schools, said Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the National Education Association.

"The only way for schools to succeed is if all the adults involved in public education work together collaboratively and make decisions based on our common purpose to give students what they need to succeed," Eskelsen said.

"Congresswoman Chu has developed an excellent framework for redefining the federal role in K-12 education. Her proposals recognize that the path to school improvement is through positive, not punitive, measures. She understands that teachers do their best in atmosphere of respect and encouragement, rather than incentives and sanctions," said Diane Ravitch, education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education. "The federal role should be to support school improvement, not to mandate closings and firings. She is a breath of fresh air in a stale and nonproductive discussion."

"PTA is appreciative of the opportunity to provide input on the proposal and the framework's
inclusion of family engagement and collaboration with parents," said PTA National President Charles J. "Chuck" Saylors. "We cannot turn around struggling schools without parents at the table."

Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor, UCLA researchers who have investigated many of the successful methods included in the Congresswoman's proposal, lauded the new SOS framework and its holistic, multi-tiered approach.

"Good teaching and, indeed all efforts to enhance positive development, must be complemented with direct actions to remove or at least minimize the impact of barriers, such as hostile environments and intrinsic problems," said Adelman and Taylor in a written statement. "Without effective direct intervention to address barriers to learning and teaching, such barriers continue to get in the way for many students and interfere with teachers' efforts to close the achievement gap."

The goal of SOS is nothing less than to achieve dramatic improvements in student achievement at priority schools, said Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the National Education Association.

"The only way for schools to succeed is if all the adults involved in public education work together collaboratively and make decisions based on our common purpose to give students what they need to succeed," Eskelsen said.

CLICK HERE to see full SOS Report

Here's Lily Eskelsen (VP - NEA) talking about the plan...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Counting down the days...12

Twelve teaching days left...counting today.

Some thoughts...

Every child is different.

The last 15 plus years of my career have been spent working with students who are "at-risk." Simply put, that means that they have trouble succeeding in their general education classrooms for a variety of reasons.

The most common area of failure in a general education classroom (at least where I have been working) is in the area of Reading and Language Arts (writing, spelling, etc). Why is that? What is it about Reading that makes it so difficult for some students?

Obviously that's a question that has stumped educators and researchers for decades. The "Reading Wars" which pitted "Whole Language" against phonics is proof enough of that. In my opinion, there is no "right" way...there is only the way that is best for each child and that's not the same for everyone.

Standards and Standardized Tests: One Size Fits All -- or Does it?

The "Reading Wars" is just a small example of one of the most pressing issues in the education system of the USA - the idea that there is one quick fix which will solve all the problems. I've been guilty of that myself, looking at poverty as the focus for all our public school ills. There's no one size fits all solution to teaching Reading, just as there's no one size fits all solution to general achievement in the public schools.

In her short, but powerful book, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards, Susan Ohanian maintains that standards are made to make education neat and tidy. The problem with that is that education is not neat and tidy...it's messy. Children don't conform to our rules and requirements. We can't shape minds and personalities, we can only guide them.

She wrote about her conversation with an editor of USA Today,
"...he knows his own child's reading and math scores; he even admitted that he's satisfied with those scores and is well-satisfied with his child's school. 'I know my daughter's teacher is excellent,' he said, adding, 'I know you're probably an excellent teacher, too, but we need high standards to raise up all those teachers out there who aren't excellent.'"
She continued...
"This is the tactic made infamous by Joseph McCarthy. Point to the unnamed dastardly creatures who are bringing the country to the brink of disaster. In the old days we were going to make the country safe for democracy by instituting loyalty oaths. These days, we'll do it by testing kids and testing their teachers, too....

"The USA Today editor seemed to be operating on a mirage therory of education. This fellow sitting in  the Virginia suburbs is telling me that poor kids in crumbling urban schools will have equal opportunitiy for a quality education if we insitute national tests and tell kids they can't graduate if they don't master quadratic equations."
Blame the Teachers

The trend now is to blame "bad teachers" for all the problems. Newsweek had an entire issue dedicated to improving the schools by "getting rid" of bad teachers and generally blames bad teachers and the nasty teachers' unions for all the ills of the educational system.

There's no doubt that there are inadequate teachers in our schools...and there's no doubt that teacher's unions protect their members (which is what unions are supposed to do). However, in Indiana, at least, unions can only guarantee that teachers  receive due process. It's the responsibility of the school leaders, the administrators and school board, to prove just cause that a teacher is incompetent. Believe it or not, teachers unions do not want bad teachers teaching. Tenure in Indiana means that a teacher has to have a hearing in which their inadequacies are proven...they get their day in court to defend themselves against the accusations of those who would fire them. A fair hearing...day in court...confronting the accusers...that's how we do things in the US.

How many bad teachers are there? The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward public schools has consistently shown that parents of students in the public schools are satisfied with the education their children receive. A full 75% of parents gave their local schools an A or a B as a grade. The lower ratings for schools came from a distance - from people who did not have children in their local schools...and people who were rating the nation's schools as a whole.

How is it that local schools are good, but the "other schools" out there in some unknown place are not? Aren't all schools local?

It's clear that Americans are happy with their local schools and the teachers who staff them.

Here's the point...
  • Not everyone learns the same way and at the same speed. There is not one best way of doing something in education. It's not like wiring a house or repairing a car. One size does not fit all.
  • A few bad teachers don't have the power to ruin all the schools in the country. Most parents are happy and satisfied with the schools their children attend.
Americans want a quick fix. If there's a problem, then there should be an answer to that problem that will "fix" it once and for all.

That won't happen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

News and Commentary

The Rich and Powerful
Diane Ravitch talks about some issues in public education...and the fact that those opposed to public education include the richest people in the country (billionaires Eli Broad and Bill Gates, for example) and the most powerful people in the country (President Obama and Secretary of Ed Arne Duncan). Together the rich and powerful have decided that "school reform" = privatization.

Diane Ravitch: Schools for $Sale: Inquire at U.S. DOE

Central Falls Teachers Rehired
The Central Falls Teachers have overwhelmingly approved the tentative agreement between the teachers and the school board. President Obama says this is a good thing. He also said that firing them all was a good thing. Read the NYT report.
 
Going Back to School: Fired Staff is Rehired

Lead Poisoning in DPS
Does it surprise anyone that many low achieving children in the Detroit Public Schools have been affected by lead poisoning from living in poverty along with lead based paint.

Lead and Learning: Detroit Public Schools

Gifted Children are Stepchildren in School Reform
Walt Gardner makes the case for improving the education of our gifted children. With all the talk about diminishing the achievement gap between low income and middle class students, gifted children have been ignored. Their academic and social needs must be addressed as well.
 
Walt Gardner: Gifted Children are Stepchildren in School Reform

Charter School Scandals
The Rich-and-Powerful, in their quest for more money made on the backs of our children, have used charter schools as the main tool to combat "failing public schools" (read: public schools serving children in poverty). But do the charter schools work any better? The research to date indicates that they don't. Most investigations show that charters are no better or worse than public schools, though there is some research showing that, in general, charter schools are "failing" more than public schools. Here's a blog (which I have also added to my blog list at right) which deals with scandals in charter schools. We're wasting incredible amounts of money and jeopardizing the future of our children on the unproven "improvement" of charter schools...money which should be spent improving the public schools.

Charter School Scandals

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tentative Agreement in Central Falls RI

In March I wrote about Central Falls Rhode Island...how the entire staff was going to be fired because the school was "failing."

There has been a tentative agreement between the teachers and the administration. In her blog, The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss wrote:
The teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island who were all recently fired may get to keep their jobs after all. A tentative agreement has been reached between the teachers union and school district officials and will be voted on tomorrow
 Tomorrow is Monday. She promised to let us know what happens in this case. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Counting down the days...16

Sixteen teaching days left...counting today.

I've been thinking about what's happened over the past 34 years...the number of students I've had contact with...and the impact I've had on their lives.

I started teaching in 1976. I struggled, as many beginning teachers do, with class management, record keeping, and all the little things that keep a classroom running smoothly. From the beginning, though, there were two things that I was sure about -- reading aloud to my class, and building good relationships with students.

Read Aloud

I used Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook as a guide to reading aloud, and that book, along with that activity became my passion in education. Every day I spent in a general education classroom had a read-aloud time. If I was short on time for the day, I would skip some academic subject so I would have time to read aloud. I didn't neglect the other areas, but, in my opinion, they were not as valuable as the read aloud time.

I still believe that. In talking to former students no one has ever said, "I really liked learning math in your class" or "I always remember how we practiced our spelling." What they say are things like this...
"You read ____ [Insert Book Title here] to us when I was in your class and now I'm reading it to my _____ [insert CHILD or CLASS]."

"I loved listening to all the books you read."

"I still have the class coloring book we made with all the illustrations we did from the books you read to us."
Building Relationships

It's important for teachers to relate to their students...to give them a model of how to live...to provide them with opportunities to grow as a person. You never know when you will have an effect on a student's life.

A few years ago I got a letter from one of my former students, Ryan. He was in prison, serving a life sentence. In the letter he spoke about the impact I had on his life. Obviously it wasn't a great enough impact to keep him out of prison, but still, he was grateful for the time he had spent in my class.

Ryan was in his mid 20s to early 30s at the time he wrote the letter and he specifically remembered the day we made Father's Day Cards at the end of the year when he was in third grade in my classroom. He told me that his father had recently passed away. The memory of the Father's Day card came back to him as he thought about his father's death. He always remembered that card because it was the very last time in his life he had any contact with his father.

For Ryan, Spelling and Math were not the things about his time in school which were important. What was important was that I had given him the opportunity to make a connection with his father...I had offered him a memory to keep with him for the rest of his life. The memory was so important that, when it came back to him, he felt the need to communicate that to me.

A teacher's greatest responsibility is not to his subject matter...not to reading or math, or science. Those things are important, to be sure, but creating an environment of honesty, trust and safety is paramount. That's what's really important for students in a classroom...and for the rest of their lives.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Research-Based Hypocrisy

This afternoon teachers in Indiana received an email from Dr. Tony Bennett, Indiana's State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The purpose of the email was to make nice to teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week. You can read the kind letter HERE.

All done? By the way, did you notice the paragraph which began the letter?
IDOE needs your feedback! The General Assembly passed a new law that requires IDOE to create a plan to ensure students are able to read proficiently by the end of third grade. If they cannot, they must be retained. IDOE released the first draft of this plan to the State Board of Education earlier this week and would appreciate hearing your feedback and ideas for improving specific parts of the plan. Please click here to review the draft plan and email us at 3rdGradeReading@doe.in.gov through May 24 with your ideas. Thank you!
I read the "plan" and noticed that it mentioned "scientifically-based research" or "research-based" instruction nearly two dozen times when describing the type of reading program each school in the state needed to develop. They even included the scientifically based findings of the National Reading Panel* as emphasis.

Unfortunately it seems that no one at the Indiana DOE has read scientific, research-based information about retention. The "plan" blithely talks about retention as an "appropriate remediation technique." There's no mention of 100 years of research which shows that retention not only is expensive and not effective in the long run, but is often harmful to students.

To be fair, there are some reasons for which students would not be considered for retention in the third grade. One of those reasons is if they had been retained at least twice already. It's true that there's really not much use retaining a student who has already been retained twice. Research shows that nearly all students who have been retained more than once drop out without graduating. The school system won't have to worry about those students in the long run.

As I've written elsewhere, the idea of retaining a student in a grade until he/she can pass the one-size-fits-all test has been tried before. It failed in New York and it failed in Chicago. All the scientifically based research indicates that it is going to hurt more students than it helps.

Why do these people think it will be any different here? Are they being hypocritical or just ignorant? Either way, it's the students who will pay the price.

Check out the list of retention links on the sidebar.

Oh...and one more thing...re: the email link for us to click on to send comments... As of 3:00 PM ET this afternoon (May 7) it was a dead link. I tried it and got a "recipient unknown" response. I wonder if they really want our input.

*Click HERE for an interesting view of the work of the National Reading Panel.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Teacher Absenteeism

R and R days -- Mental Health days -- whatever you call them...teachers need them.

For the last few months we've been "fighting" with our superintendent about teacher absences. She claims that teacher absences cost the district nearly $1 million in substitute costs. This includes substitutes for teachers who are out of the building at the district's request for in-services and conferences, but the bulk is, as she has expressed, because of teachers using personal days, sick days, illness in the family days, and other benefit days.

These days are bargained as part of the collective bargaining agreement (contract) between the teachers association and the school board. Changing the number of days would require negotiations, something this superintendent has not shown an interest in doing.

One of the items in the contract allows teachers to miss up to 5 unpaid days a year. This does not cost the corporation any money since the teacher, who is paid a higher rate, is not paid, while a substitute, paid at a lower rate, is. The negative result of unpaid days, is that the teacher is out of the classroom and instruction suffers.

Last week, the superintendent instituted a policy of requiring unpaid days to be planned ahead of time. Some principals did not understand that, however and have denied teachers unpaid days. The teachers association responded with an email to teachers clearly explaining what benefit days are available and when a teacher can use them. Unfortunately, the email (written by me) implied that teachers can take an unpaid day at any time without informing the administration ahead of time. This was in error and will be corrected as soon as I can get onto the corporation's email (which seems to be down right now).

Just by coincidence, Walt Gardner, in his education week blog, Reality Check, wrote about teacher absences and its effect on the achievement gap.

He discussed how difficult it is to recruit the best teachers for the worst schools where "worst" equals schools with the highest poverty rates. Teacher absences in these schools is higher than other places and he explains why.
...Not surprisingly, absenteeism was highest in some of the poorest schools, where the problems teachers face boggle the mind.

Although the data collected came from only New York City, it's likely that similar findings would turn up if other large urban districts were examined. That's because they share certain characteristics. The most important is that the schools serve overwhelming numbers of poor students from chaotic backgrounds. As a result, the deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that teachers are forced to deal with before they can even begin to teach subject matter are daunting. Although the best teachers may be better able to cope than their colleagues, they are not immune from the cumulative effects.

The larger question, however, is why teachers take as many days off as they do in the first place. Reformers are clueless. They like to point out that there are typically 184 days in a school year. In the business world, there are about 250 days in a calendar year. So why do teachers, who work fewer days, need to take more than the allotted ten days a year that most districts provide?

It's a fair question that warrants a thoughtful answer. The fact is that teaching in many ways is like acting. Teachers are always in the spotlight. Their audience, however, too often is not there by choice. As a result, teachers are under enormous stress simply to get their attention, maintain order, and attend to non-curricular issues. In short, they have to practice triage. This demand eventually exacts a price, which is reflected in the number of days they are absent.
Teachers need to recuperate from the daily grind of teaching, and teachers in high-poverty schools need to recuperate more frequently.

Until the economic and social conditions for our most at-risk students improve there will continue to be an achievement gap, as well as a teacher absence gap.