Friday, May 22, 2015
Some nights sleep just won’t come.
I toss and turn, crumpling the blankets until I have to get up and read or pour myself a glass of water.
Sitting up in the pre-morning gloom, that’s when they come back to me.
A parade of faces. No names. Words are all lost in the haze of time.
But the faces remain.
Kids I’ve taught and wondered about.
What ever happened to Jason? Did Rayvin ever get into dance school? I wonder if the army took Tyler…
But there’s one face that always comes last.
A strong straight lip. Soft nose. Brooding eyes.
Terance… Terrell… TYRELL.
Yes. That’s his name.
One of my first students. One of my biggest failures.
And I don’t have to wonder what happened to him. I know with a dread of certainty.
He never got to play professional basketball like he wanted. He never even made it out of high school.
No, not dead – though I do have I gaggle of ghosts on my class roster.
He’s a murderer. Life in prison.
I was his 8th grade language arts teacher. It was my first year teaching in the district.
I had a reputation for being able to relate with hard to reach kids so they put me in the alternative education classroom.
I had a bunch of students from grades 6-8 who simply couldn’t make it in the regular school setting.
These were kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities, appalling home environments, and/or chips on their shoulders that could cut iron.
But I loved it.
I taught the Read 180 curriculum – a plan designed for students just like mine. We had three stations: silent reading, computer remediation and small group instruction.
The class was divided in three – students rotated through each group. Though I somehow monitored the whole thing, I spent most of my time meeting with kids in small group instruction.
I had an aide who helped the whole thing run smoothly, too. Lots of planning time, support and resources.
Everyday was exhausting. I could barely stay awake on the ride home. But it was worth it, because I felt like I was making a difference.
And there was Tyrell.
Few days went by without at least one of the children having to be disciplined. Sometimes it was just a simple redirection or even standing in close proximity to kids who seemed set to explode. Other times it was a brief one-on-one counseling session to find out why someone was misbehaving. And sometimes it was so bad kids had to be sent to the office. Once we even had a child escorted out of the building in handcuffs because he brought a weapon to class.
If you’d told me one of those children would end up killing someone, I wouldn’t have blinked. If you told me it would be Tyrell, I wouldn’t have believed you.
He was a gentle giant.
Almost always calm and in control. He was well above the others academically. When one of the others lost his cool, Tyrell would help talk him down.
I wondered why he was there. Turns out he was involved in a bloody fight on the way home from school the year before.
But that rarely made its way into the classroom. It was like he was already doing time – serving out his sentence with these misfits until he could be placed back with the rest of the student population.
I remember when Carlos got caught with the knife, Tyrell’s back had stiffened but he hadn’t moved.
The knife had fallen from Carlos’ pocket across the table and slid to the floor.
Tyrell watched it slide across his desk but said nothing.
“Is that a knife, Carlos?” I asked.
“No!” he said picking it up and putting it back in his pocket.
“Why do you have a knife, Carlos?” I asked.
He shrugged and refused to say anything.
Then Tyrell spoke up.
“It’s for the walk home, Mr. Singer.”
“What?” I asked.
“He needs it,” Tyrell said.
And the look in both of their eyes said it was true.
But what could I do? If he used that knife, I’d be liable.
I had to report it, and I did.
Would I still do that? Was it a mistake?
I don’t know.
But I went to the administration and told them the truth – that I BELIEVED the knife was for self-defense. That something had to be done to protect these kids on the walk home.
Nothing changed. Our district saves a ton of money by forgoing buses. Richer kids get a ride to school. Poorer kids walk.
And Carlos got charged.
Tyrell never said anything about it. But I wondered what we’d find if we searched HIM.
We have metal detectors, but they are far from 100% effective.
I remember one day Tyrell stayed after class to talk to me. Talk quickly turned from grades and assignments to what he wanted to do with his life.
Tyrell loved B-ball. Often wore a Kobe jersey to school. And always the cleanest, brightest Jordans on his feet.
He was going to play ball, he said. No doubt about it.
I tried to convince him to have a backup plan, but he just shook his head.
“What kind of options you think there is out there for a guy like me, Mr. Singer?”
I’ll never forget it. Me trying to convince him he could do anything he wanted, and he just smiling.
“Guy like me only do one of two things,” he said, “He plays some ball or he runs out on the streets.”
I asked him to explain, and he told me about his brothers – how they sold drugs, bought fancy cars, took care of the family.
I kept insisting there was another way – a better way. And finally he agreed but said that his way was easier, safer, more of a sure thing.
“Why should I work my ass off on all this?” he said pointing to his books, “I can make a stack on the street.”
Was there anything I could have said to change his mind?
I don’t know. But I tried.
And that was it, really. I never had another chance. They moved him back to regular ed. a few weeks later.
He finished the year with a different teacher in a different part of the building.
I saw him occasionally, and he’d dap me up, but that was about it.
The next year there was an opening for me in regular ed., too.
Eighth grade with the academic track population.
I had to really think about it. My colleagues thought I was crazy not jumping on it at the first opportunity.
But it was no easy decision.
What finally pushed me over the edge was the rumor that alternative ed. was being downsized.
They would no longer pay for the Read 180 curriculum. No more aides. No more resources and extra planning time.
So I put in for the move and have been there ever since.
Of course, with a much reduced alternative ed. most of the students I would have taught had moved up with me to the regular ed. classroom. Now they’re just bunched in with the regular population.
But I don’t regret it. I love these kids. I love being there for them.
And Tyrell? About a year later, I read about him in the newspaper.
Police think it was a drug related hit. Tyrell was in the backseat. He put his gun to the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.
No more future for either of them.
Except on restless nights when Tyrell’s face keeps coming back to me.
Is there something I could have done? Do the words exist for me to have convinced him to change his path? Would he have listened if I hadn’t reported Carlos?
And most importantly – why am I the only one who seems to care?
NOTE: A slightly condensed version of this article was published on Nancy Flanagan’s blog “Teacher in a Strange Land” in Education Week.
I was teaching my classes.
I was grading assignments.
I was procrastinating.
I should have been working on my class rosters.
My principals wanted me to calculate percentages for every student I had taught that year and submit them to the state.
How long had each student been in my grade book? What percentage of the year was each learner in my class before they took their standardized tests?
If I didn’t accurately calculate this in the next few days, the class list generated by the computer would become final, and my evaluation would be affected.
But there I was standing before my students doing nothing of any real value – teaching.
I was instructing them in the mysteries of subject-verb agreement. We were designing posters about the Civil Rights movement. I was evaluating their work and making phone calls home.
You know – goofing off.
I must not have been the only one. Kids took a half-day and the district let us use in-service time to crunch our numbers.
Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t left to the wolves. Administrators were very helpful gathering data, researching exact dates for students entering the building and/or transferring schools. Just as required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
But it was in the heat of all this numerological chaos that I saw something in the numbers no one else seemed to be looking for.
Many of my students are transients. An alarming number of my kids haven’t been in my class the entire year. They either transferred in from another school, transferred out, or moved into my class from another one.
A few had moved from my academic level course to the honors level Language Arts class. Many more had transferred in from special education courses.
In total, these students make up 44% of my roster.
“Isn’t that significant?” I wondered.
I poked my head in to another teacher’s room.
“How many transient students are on your roster?” I asked.
She told me. I went around from room-to-room asking the same question and comparing the answers.
A trend emerged.
Most teachers who presided over lower level classes (like me) had about the same percentage of transients – approximately 40%.
Teachers who taught the advanced levels had a much lower amount – 10% or below.
Doesn’t that mean something?
Imagine if you were giving someone simple instructions. Let’s say you were trying to tell someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But in the middle of your instruction, a student has to leave the room and go right next door where someone is already in the middle of trying to explain how to do the same thing.
Wouldn’t that affect how well a student learned?
If someone was trying to give me directions how to get somewhere under those circumstances, I’m willing to bet I’d get lost.
And this assumes the break between Teacher A and Teacher B is minimal, the instruction is disrupted at the same point and both teachers are even giving instruction on the exact same topics.
None of that is usually true.
I did some more digging. Across the entire building, 20% of our students left the district in the course of this school year. About 17% entered mid-year. So at least 37% of our students were transients. That’s 130 children.
The trend holds district wide. Some schools have more or less transients, but across the board 35% – 40% of our students pop in and out over the year.
Taking an even broader view, student mobility is a national problem. Certainly the percentage of student transience varies from district to district, but it is generally widespread.
Nationally, about 13 percent of students change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office analysis. One-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once over two years, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP).
And it gets worse if we look at it over a student’s entire elementary or secondary career. In fact, more students moved than remained in a single school, according to a national longitudinal study of eighth graders.
This problem is even more widespread among poor and minority students. The type of school is also a factor. Large, predominantly minority, urban school districts attract the most student mobility. In Chicago public schools, for instance, only about 47 percent of students remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.
And this has adverse affects on children both academically and psychologically.
Several studies at both the elementary and secondary levels conclude student mobility decreases test scores and increases the drop out rate.
A 1990s Baltimore study found, “each additional move” was associated with a .11 standard deviation in reading achievement. A similar 1990s Chicago study concluded that students with four or more moves had a .39 standard deviation. Highly mobile students were as much as four months behind their peers academically in fourth grade and as much as a full year behind by sixth grade, according to a 1993 Chicago study by David Kerbow.
It just makes sense. These students have to cope with starting over – fitting in to a new environment. They have to adjust to new peers and social requirements.
Moreover, transients have an increased likelihood of misbehaving and participating in violence. After all, it’s easier to act out in front of strangers.
What causes this problem? Most often it is due to parental job insecurity.
Parents can’t keep employment or jobs dry up resulting in the need to move on to greener pastures.
In my own district, one municipality we serve is mostly made up of low-cost housing, apartments and slums. It is a beacon for mobility. Few people who haven’t lived here their whole lives put down roots. We’re just another stop on a long and winding road.
“We should be doing something about this,” I thought.
Our legislators should help promote job security. We should make it easier to afford quality housing. We should try to encourage new-comers to become part of the community instead of remain eternal outsiders.
At our schools, we need resources to help this population make the necessary adjustments. We should encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities, provide counseling and wraparound services.
But we don’t do any of that.
Instead, we gather mountains of data.
We sort and sift, enter it into a computer and press “submit.”
And off it goes to the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS).
We don’t use it to help kids.
We use it to blame school teachers for things beyond their control.
Data has value but that doesn’t mean all data is valuable.
We need to know what we’re looking for, what it means and how to use it to make our world a better place.
Otherwise it’s just a waste of precious class time.
And an excuse to continue ignoring all the children who fall through the cracks.
By: Anthony Griffin, Lace to the Top
My son played a recorder, sang songs, and banged a xylophone last tonight at his third grade concert. It may not have prepared him for Carnegie or a career, but he did something that mattered more. And he gave up his recess to do it.
His teacher, Henry Finnegan, took every student who wanted to join the school's chorus which was over 100 musicians in just the third grade chorus. Mr. Finnegan taught them more than the words and notes to Brookhaven Elementary's school song. And they gave up their recess to get it.
When the concert ended and the applauding parents sat back down, a painted thank you poster signed by every student was presented to Mr. Finnegan. The students gave up their recess, because their teacher gave them love. Mr. Finnegan's smile and genuine gratitude made it clear why so many students joined. His passion for music brought the community together to hear our children, say hello to our neighbors, and remind us what is important in the school house. But our children had to miss recess to do it.
My son sang songs in the halls after the concert with more volume and confidence than he did on stage. He never considered it a sacrifice to give up recess to play music, but that does not excuse the fact that he had to. Music matters. Art matters. Recess matters. Physical education matters. Governor Cuomo said tests do not matter.
Our children would benefit from a school day that reflects that.
Marla Kilfoyle is the General Manager of The Badass Teachers Association. You can follow her on twitter @marla_kilfoyle
Melissa Tomlinson is the Asst. General Manager of The Badass Teachers Association. You can follow her on twitter @NJBATsA
Both are current practicing public school teachers
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
As we approach the beginning stages of the 2016 presidential elections, the stakes for the future of public education in this country could not be higher. Moreover, it is time for teachers, administrators and parents to consider whether the next president of the United States will be a true education president. Needless to say, we cannot afford another four years of an Education Secretary such as Arne Duncan. Secretary Duncan who, as a corporate education reformer with his obsession with standardized testing, has done more to privatize and weaken public education than any other Secretary of Education in the past.
Under Arne Duncan’s regime, we have witnessed the demise of the neighborhood school and the growth of charter schools as part of the privatization movement. He has imposed with his Race to the Top (RTTT) and Common Core (CCSS) programs a plethora of stifling high- stakes standardized testing - often referred to as the “Duncan testocracy” - on the schools including the use of tests to assess teacher performance. His method of education reform has grossly neglected the impact of childhood poverty on learning for children from impoverished homes. This is what happens when you appoint an unqualified non-educator to the highest education position in the nation.
Likewise, Duncan has been a champion and spokesperson for the wealthy and powerful in the nation in their efforts to privatize public schools and to weaken and ultimately destroy the teaching profession. Duncan’s affiliation with Bill Gates is a prime example. The Obama administration with its “Race To The Top” program has been a continuation of the war on teachers that began when George W. Bush was president with his “No Child Left Behind” testing fiasco. Anyone who denies this extended war on teachers is either a silly, inexperienced fool or a paid shill for the corporate reformers and the testing industry.
Based on the early polling, it appears that Hillary Clinton is a clear frontrunner who more than likely could become the next president of the United States. If she is able to attain the highest office in the country, we need to begin a grassroots movement to convince her to appoint an educator to the position of Secretary of Education. Hillary Clinton has been an advocate of universal pre-kindergarten, arts education in the schools, after-school tutoring as well as smaller class sizes and educators now need to convince her of the need to also be an advocate for a diminishing role of standardized testing in public education. There is no guarantee, however, that Hillary the politician will not follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, President Obama, as she, and especially her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have close ties to Wall Street and to their former Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin.
Hence, the crucial need for a grassroots movement consisting of teachers, administrators, parents and students who are concerned about the future of public education in the country and who can help to persuade Hillary Clinton of the importance of not appointing another corporate reformer for Education Secretary. It is critical that the grassroots movement help to push Hillary Clinton to the left on education issues, especially if Jeb Bush is Hillary’s Republican opponent who will more than likely be a staunch candidate for Common Core. In essence, where else can Hillary go other than to oppose Common Core which has become a national curriculum with its ridiculous high-stakes PARCC and SBAC testing?
However, teachers and parents cannot do this alone, as we need organizations such as the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), National Education Association( NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with their clout, financial resources and numbers to influence Hillary Clinton to appoint someone to the cabinet position of Secretary of Education that is truly a champion of public education as well as someone who also has the support and respect of teachers and parents. We also need to have someone as Secretary of Education who has presidential support and will serve as a catalyst to provide a mission to the new secretary to begin to undo the disastrous harm that Arne Duncan has inflicted on public education in his eight years as Education Secretary.
One name who comes to mind and who has a proven track records in her efforts of supporting public education and teachers is Diane Ravitch, author of the best selling book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Dr. Ravitch has had experience as the Assistant Secretary of Education during the George W. Bush administration so she possesses first hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Department of Education. Dr. Ravitch has traveled the country giving speeches to teacher groups and parents as there is no other individual that corporate reformers fear more than Diane Ravitch as she is the nation’s leading public school advocate. Her blog is widely read by millions of educators and parents throughout the nation as she has a huge following. Aside from being very knowledgeable and a powerful advocate for public education, she is a highly competent and distinguished educator with a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University and currently a Research Professor at New York University. Diana Ravitch is, without doubt, clearly the person who will lead the charge of restoring public education to its rightful place in the United States.
Hence, the grassroots movement cannot wait until after the election to lay the foundation for the appointment of a proven education reformer and public school advovcate such as Diane Ravitch for education secretary but must begin now. A strategy is needed that will be persuasive in convincing Hillary Clinton to consider Diane Ravitch for the cabinet position of education secretary. Perhaps organizations such as the NEA and UFT can threaten to throw their support to Elizabeth Warren if Hillary doesn’t agree to a progressive such as Diane Ravitch for education secretary. The grass root participants need to have a strategy in which they will frequently speak out during presidential campaign events that will occur very often during the months prior to the presidential election by asking specific questions of the candidates and especially of Hillary Clinton concerning the qualities they will seek when appointing someone to the highest education office in the country.
They need to write many op-ed pieces in newspapers all over the country and will need to be certain that those individuals chosen to narrate presidential debates ask the appropriate questions concerning what qualities will the new president seek in the selection of the Secretary of Education. And finally, what has happened in the New York City’s mayoral election of Bill de Blasio , which was a repudiation of former Mayor Bloomberg’s corporate education reform policies, needs to serve as a model for Hillary Clinton. The message of de Blasio’s election is crystal clear as it indicates that the tide in the country concerning education reform is changing. We now need to see this change occur at the national level and, for this to happen, we need Hillary Clinton to rescue public education.
Students, parents and teachers need her to give serious consideration to appointing an individual to be Secretary of Education that is an educator and one who will restore public education in this country to its rightful place.
Joseph A. Ricciotti, Ed.D.
Teachers are under siege! BATs initiated a study to be done on teacher stress by the AFT. Our collaboration, the first of its kind, shows that a growing number of educators are under siege in this country. Many are reporting high levels of bullying and stress. Time to tell the United States Department of Education and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a scientific study on teacher stress and work environment. Please demand that our lawmakers press them to do this and hold hearings on the outcome.
Here is the letter you can send and our link on Action Network to send a quick letter https://actionnetwork.org/letters/congress-demand-the-usdoe-and-nihos-study-teacher-stress?source=direct_link&referrer=badass-teachers-association
The Badass Teachers Association (BATs), an education activist group with over 55,000 members nationwide, respectfully asks you to tell the USDOE and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a scientific study on teacher stress. In May of 2014 BATs and the AFT collaborated in conducting a study on teacher stress and work environment that had astounding results. Over 90,000 Teachers started the survey with over 30,000 completing.
The initial results found that teachers are under siege and suffering. Here are the base results: http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/worklifesurveyresults2015.pdf
We are asking you, our federal lawmakers, to please call Secretary Duncan and Dr. John Howard TODAY and demand they conduct a scientific study on this matter. We also respectfully ask that when they do the study that Congress hold hearings regarding this epidemic!