Monthly Archives: May 2012

Educational Politics

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, featured writer Joel Klien lamented at the appalling lack of attention, less than 1% of campaign time, is spent discussing the future of education in our country. I for one am a little relieved although I don’t believe my relief will last very long. Political leaders all have their “great ideas” on how to reform education. Like the “No Child Left Behind” brain-fart of the past administration. The phrase is cute, the intention was good, but the practical application is off the mark. In a classroom of 30 kids, there are going to be those who need to be left behind because they just can’t cut it. Forcing America’s educators to spend an inordinate amount of time on the bottom 10% dumbs-down the rest of the students. Florida recently announced it was going to “lower the bar” so more students could graduate. Not the answer. Recognition that there are those who are intelligent, smart, college ready — and those who are not is the solution. Not college ready does not mean stupid. As evidenced by the enormous number of college drop-outs, there are just other skills in which they are proficient, even gifted. Those who are not college material should not be forced to meet the same criteria as those who are. Our problem is we cannot seem to get to the point that we formally recognize that fact in our children. Not everyone is college material. Not everyone should be working on sensitive material or handling dangerous products. We need people to clean up after the elephants and there are students who are up to that type of challenge.
Is it our national social and moral compass that keeps us from admitting that this is a problem? It is the elephant in the room when educational discussion begins and the topic of raising the bar, and college preparedness is discussed. The is little or no discussion about how to accommodate those students who are not able to perform on the same level as others. If we so chose to recognize this issue, set up a system where the college bound test the standardized collegiate type tests and those not college bound were excused from such testing, you’d see a vast improvement in school test scores across the board.



A few years ago I sat in during a professional development seminar on a topic new to me, then known as the “doughnut effect“, While I initially thought this would top the charts of the most boring seminar I’ve ever been through, it in fact turned out to be the most interesting.
Essentially, looking at the map in the link above you can see that the middle of the country is losing people to the states on the edges, the water access. If you overlay this map with ethnicity you’d see the effect is greatest amongst whites — fleeing to the shores as the white population, becoming a minority population in not too distant future, ages and seeks the warmth of the beach.
The educational field has its own doughnut effect when it comes to parental participation and student focus. Just think about kindergarden and first grade graduation ceremonies, parent teacher meetings, and school assemblies. You can’t get a seat and the wait is horrendous to see your kid’s kindergarden teacher. Meanwhile your other kid’s 9th grade algebra teacher is making paper-airplanes and staring into space just down the hall.
Then comes high school graduation. Again, the numbers attending the ceremony, all the out of town family in attendance, the attention placed on this day is not only a big local and national money maker, but it is a sign of social advancement. It’s a recognition of adulthood as kindergarden is a celebration of a educational coming of age. But as the white population and their social codes fade away, an eclectic group, having predominantly hispanic roots, begin to change the flavor of this educational donut to a “churro
Hispanics possessing a more family centric moral code (like the white population of the 40’s and 50’s), predominantly Catholic/Christian religious social code, the focus can be changed to a school system where all grades are considered as important as the earlier and the later grades. This is an opportunity to really look at the school systems and embrace social change, encourage constant parental involvement and more community support, to keep schools on the cutting edge of economic change and technological advancements. School change is not a temporary, occasional event, but a river of constant movement and ever changing flow rates and speed. Now is the time to challenge the doughnut effect in our school system and adopt a school-wide climate of parental and community involvement.


One of the beautiful and special times in a Cave Dweller’s life is when they run across one of the Pearls in education. A student who because of or in spite of some outside or inside conflict or problem manages to do their best and succeeds. I hear about these Pearls often from administrators as I visit their schools. You have to have been a Cave Dweller, or in a similar type position with teenagers, to understand the relationship.
Years ago I noticed this darkly clad freshman, who had her fingernails painted black, her eye makeup and hair was black, and as often as she could get away with it, she would hide her face with a hat. I did not have her in my class until her sophomore year, and then she sat in the back of class always looking down. She drew. Her art work was dark. As it turned out she liked me, so that by the end of her sophomore year, on traditional schedule, she would write me short notes on the tests I would give, sometimes offering alternative solutions to the problems, but more often asking deep philosophical questions about life in general.
Her story as it turns out was a life living in a car while her mom had sex for money in the house to support her drug habit. She could not go into the house while her mother was either “entertaining” or using, so she’d slip in only to wash and would sleep in her car. In the mornings she would go in and check on her mom, feed her, and then go to school. After school, off to a job at a food store. My wife and I bought her some clothes, food occasionally, and similar items throughout her junior year in school. When school began again in August her senior year, she walked into my classroom and at first I did not realize it was her. She wore color. Her hair was its original light brown, eyes a bright hazel, and she was smiling and chatting to others. She still wrote to me on all her tests, and despite dismal grades from her freshman year, carried a 4.0 the remaining three years.
On graduation night all the seniors are given a rose and told they should give it to the person who most influenced their lives — a parent, relative, friend, educator. As she approached me with her rose I could see before she made it to stand in front of me the tears streaming down her cheeks. There were no words I could say; no words came from her.
She lives in another state, happily married, a successful teacher. She is my Pearl. Cave Dweller Pearls are different in that they are often times a solitary accomplishment, not a collaboration or church or community thing, just the Cave Dweller and the Pearl. At this time of year as hosts of high school seniors cross the stage and receive their diploma, amongst every class are Pearls of wonderment. So listen while you attend graduation because somewhere in the audience there’s a Cave Dweller clapping louder than anyone for their Pearl.


I have to confess to a bit of naivety on my part. I believe I gave too many days of actual instructional credit to secondary schools. Slitting through these waining school days in high school it is tragically apparent the number of wasted hours/days given over to “Senioritis.” Overheard in this one library, “I’m not doing any f**king work, I’m just here to make up time!” out of the foul mouth of this one girl. The idea is if you miss classes you can “make-up” the time after/before school or once a month in “Saturday” school. Now with graduation looming, these seniors need to make up two or three days worth of time so they feel they can just sit “in school” somewhere and make up the lost time — like prisoners do. The disruption this brings to almost every other classroom is immense — so teachers resort to videos, board games and the like. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the process. I admit as a long time high school teacher, the end of school was fraught with all sorts of different and suspect activities, but it went by so mercifully fast I really never paid it much attention.
The end of the year is a race with time. Seniors don’t want to be in school, the teachers want them out too, the administration ignores them and often times to just avoid the issue allows them to either graduate early, take trips, spend “Senior Time” outside, or a whole host of non-educational activities. So in light of this revelation –to myself — how about a survey! Follow this link to a quick and easy survey about your school, your school memories, and thoughts on senior year “rights!”

School’s Role In Society

The question I posed earlier was — what is school’s current role in society? What function do we need them to play? We’ve moved from an agrarian society to a manufacturing based and now to a international/technological blended society where many times the students are ahead of the faculty. Easily overheard in the teachers lounge, the discussion about using a particular student to operate the baffling technology, or the use of a student’s sophisticated electronic device to a teach a class. Educators are learning to adapt, to work-around technological barriers with the assistance of the students. Perhaps this is a “we’re in this together” mentality on the part of the teacher and student, but the administration/technologists are all in a panic.
So what is the “goal” of our school system? Clearly we are not going to be able to get past the incarceration until adulthood issue, unless we as a country re-visit the whole “age of maturity” issue. Not likely to happen. Prisons already eat up more of the budget than do schools. Allowing maturation to be recognized at 16 rather than 18 in our country would just feed an already broken system with younger inmates. Is the goal to educate students so they are prepared for collegiate life? That’s not going to work on the general population because not everyone is going to college. But this is how we operate. We seem to forget the “working class” in our schools by the assumption we make that the majority should go on to college. So what is our goal?
Comon Core State Standards talks about students’ “Workplace Readiness” — this can (although it currently is not) be defined as readiness for students both workplace and college bound.
I’m going to use a dirty word, Vocational Education, as an introduction to the way we were.
Vocational Education is the answer to school’s directional dilemma today. Not a panacea, a cure. Listen, Johnny over there in the back row carving on the desktop, Janie in the other corner braiding someone’s hair, Paula fixing your printer issues, are all people who should not be in regular secondary school. At 16 the decision ought to be made (as is in many countries) whether little Johnie is going to be a brain surgeon or a barber. Little Johnnie then would receive the appropriate English classes as a 11th and 12th grade individual that would befit his calling. I don’t know a single barber that needs to know Shakespear: But I know plenty who need to understand business English.
We do not conduct education that way because of two reasons: We tried before and it failed, and we are embarassed. Embarassed because we do not face the socal stigma in our country centered around social working placement. Someone in a suit is much better than a perosn in a blue collar, who is better than a farmer, who is better than a garbage collector. Like it or not I defy you to prove me wrong! In general, not talking specifically about your uncle Bill so don’t get offended, we as a society believe we have to send our kids to college beause that’s the path to acceptable and richly rewarding life’s work. Horse-Hockey.
So how do we change school’s role in society? It will take, just as the implementation of Common Core State Standard is doing to the curriculum of schools, a fundamental change in how we approach our educational system. I’m still hoping one of my daughters will marry a plumber! Brain surgeons in your family are generally not necessary — plumbers defiantly are (and hey what about fixing my printer/the loose electrical socket/my car makes a strange clanking noise ………. ! )


Happy Days!

There are really two time periods, a couple of weeks in a row, that are the happiest in most teacher’s lives. When school starts is one of them. Meeting new children, exciting new things to discover together, the sights and smells of the new educational year. Oh, what a joy! (Hold you hand over your heart here and sigh) The second happiest time is the two to three weeks at the end of the year when teacher’s can’t wait to get rid of all their problem children. Forgetful, disrespectful, ungrateful, bunch of worthlless ingrates, summer beckons and the more time they allow them to leave the building the better.
I pulled up to a high school at 10:30 one morning to see a long line of parents and friends picking up students. Today was “independent study day.” In reality it was “let’s go to the lake and party day.” As the school year comes to a close, about three weeks out from the end, you can witness all sorts of imaginative things happening at schools nowhere related to education. It is tradition. It has always been this way. You can’t keep them engaged. Their parents pull them out for an early vacation. They already have all the credits they need to graduate so it is impossible to keep them in the classroom. You can imagine more excuses. Many are very valid.
The average American works 49 weeks a year. That includes vacation, holidays, etc. So 49 weeks is 245 days or, averaging an 8 hour day, 1,960 hours a year.
Students average 180 school days a year. Now as a veteran educator I can tell you that out of that 180 comes, assemblies, plays, special sporting events, outside school rallies, the end of the year “special days,” mandatory fire/tornado/etc. drills, and many other crazy events that in reality remove about 18 to 24 days from the calendar of the average teacher’s class times for any given subject. Some will argue more, some less but let’s just say 20 days are lost in the process. So we then have 160 school days. Let’s say the school is on block scheduling that means that the students are in 90 minute classes, and four of them a day is 360 minutes each day, or a 6 hour work day. Total number of hours a year then becomes 1,080 — or close to 112 days a year LESS THAN the American worker — schools, especially secondary schools, are supposed to be training students to become the American worker. So what we have to do is to decide as a people, what is the purpose of the American Educational System? We were originally an agrarian society so summer, spring break, fall break were necessary and students were out of school in their early teens. Schools changed to meet the needs of the manufacturing age and the bell system was implemented to get students accustom to working on a set timed schedule. Through the mid 50’s to just before the no child legislation was enacted, secondary school’s function was to provide a level of education for students that was considered satisfactory, but the primary function was a social/legal challenge. Social maturity and keeping them “contained” until adulthood at 18, their senior year. School’s function today?