Sunday, September 30, 2012

Teachers and Political Action: Getting into the Swing of Things

I've been thinking lately about how most teachers are not very political, and they're not very politically involved.

Sure, there are a few who are, but it seems to me that if they were politically active then there would be much more pushback on all the things that are being done to them by legislators who don't know much about teaching. And I've been wondering why that is. Is it because they fundamentally prefer working with individuals rather than systems change? Is it because during the school year they are overwhelmed with teaching? I'm interested in your opinions about this. Why???

Yesterday, however, I heard about something that made me think maybe I could be wrong. You might recall that over the past two years, Ohio's Senate Bill 5 proposed major rules changes for labor rules affecting public employees. It was far-reaching, and it passed. It was then repealed.

And in the process, it energized a lot of teachers. This fall, there are ten teachers running as Democrats for the Ohio legislature. Ten!

I heard about this from my friend Rebecca. One of her closest friends, Maureen Reedy, is running for the Ohio House of Representatives in Ohio's 24th district. Maureen has been a teacher for 29 years, and in 2002, she was the Ohio Teacher of the Year.

Maureen's web site has this to say about education:
As a 29-year veteran educator and Ohio’s Teacher of the Year, I am convinced that strong public school systems are not only the foundation of our democracy but also the cornerstone to lasting economic prosperity.
I am the mother of two wonderful children who are graduates of our Districts’ public schools and are second generation Buckeyes at The Ohio State University. As parents and citizens, we invest in our schools and communities so that our children come through our classroom doors ready to learn, thrive and build successful and secure futures.
In our District and in Ohio, we are looking for stellar school systems whose bottom lines are not based on a “For Profit” business model, but on the betterment of society by cultivating young minds that can meet three complex challenges of the 21st century. (Emphasis added.)

Maureen Reedy is also featured in this piece on Diane Ravitch's blog.

Learn more about some of the other teachers running for office in Ohio in this NPR article. One of them is the Cleveland Heights Teachers' Union President.

Here is a piece from Plunderbund about why teachers may be good for the state legislature. This line caught my eye:
the ability of a teacher to organize and convey information using a variety of methods to large groups of immature and uncooperative individuals seems like exactly what we need in the Statehouse.

OK Michigan teachers--how about you?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Skyline High School: Two Pluses and a Wish

When my children were in their middle elementary years, they had a teacher who would have students read and evaluate other students' projects. In their evaluations, they were asked to write down "two pluses" (things they liked about the report), and "a wish" (something they wish the student had done better).

A typical comment on a project might be:

Plus: I liked the pictures in your report.
Plus: I liked hearing the music they play in that country.
Wish: I wish you would speak louder when talking to the group.

Since I have a recent graduate of Skyline, many people have asked me what I thought of the experience, and I think that "two pluses and a wish" is a good format for me.  The pluses are really strong, and the wish might be even stronger.

Plus: On balance, the teachers and extracurricular staff were truly excellent. I don't mean to say that there was never a poor teacher (of course there were a few), but in general the level of teaching was fantastic and the teachers were not burned out. The same was true of the people who worked with my daughter on extracurricular activities. THANK YOU, teachers and staff!

Plus: Mastery learning. Although it's not always been implemented all that well, I think having a goal of every student mastering material, and grading them for mastery, is fantastic. Keep working to improve this.

Wish: I wish, I wish, with all my heart that the school would drop the trimester system. I've written about this before, but at this point I could add some more reasons:
  • Teachers report to me that when students get behind, it is harder for them to catch up because the pace has to be faster.
  • It causes many more conflicts between classes. As a student moves into their junior and senior years, it is much more likely they will have to choose between AP Biology and Orchestra.
  • If you want to take band, orchestra, or choir, you end up needing to use 50% more credits.
  • It makes dual-enrolling at Community, taking a CR class, or taking a class at Pioneer or Huron much more difficult. (Even if you can get to the other school, it's likely the timing won't work out.)
  • Most students end up taking math over three terms instead of two, so they end up using 50% more credits on math too. This reduces the number of electives they can use.
  • Many of the AP classes end up being three trimesters instead of two. Again, this ends up eating up elective credits.
In my dream world, at lunchtime, there would be a bus allowing students to switch schools to take that German or Mandarin class, that Physics or higher-level math class that can only be offered at a single school. But even if we don't get the bus, can we at least offer students who can figure out how to work things out the opportunity to make sure that the schools are on the same, semester-long, system? That's my wish.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Externalizing Transportation Costs: Yes, We Pay

Today, the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a piece by David Erik Nelson, In It For The Money: School Transportation. In it, he points out that  
If you’re wondering why there is such a crazy drag on Michigan’s economy, maybe part of the problem is that we make 40 able-bodied adults do, at no pay, the work that we once paid one dude a basically fair salary to do with a big yellow bus. Those are hours spent not making anything anyone can buy, not earning any money to buy anything from anyone else, not creating jobs for another person, not rendering or using services, not being useful to the community.
Nelson describes how, in place of each cancelled bus route, we now have many, many adults driving their kids to school, and what a drag that is. . . on the environment, on the economy, on people's time.

He has some other examples and I think the entire article is worth reading, but the basic point is that the costs don't go away. They just get transferred from the school district (the public good) to individuals. In some cases, the costs go up--how much do you think all of those parents are paying in gas? But they don't go up for the district, they go up for the individuals.

Nelson then goes on to detail the ways in which the most vulnerable get the least attention in this shuffle, because the parents with email, the parents who speak good English--they are the ones whose complaints get noticed. The ones who don't have email, who don't speak good English? Forget about it.

One of the side effects of cutting transportation--and one that definitely contributes to the number of parents driving their kids to school--has been the expansion of the "walk zone." How far away from school do you have to be to get a bus ride? Now, it's 1-1/2 miles.

Now I have no problem with an expanded walk zone, if it's safe for kids to walk, year round. Even in snowy weather. Even in the early mornings in late fall when it is dark. That would require sidewalks.

Do we meet that test? Funny you should ask. No, we don't. I'm just waiting for the serious accident to happen. How much are our savings worth?

I was glad to see, in today, an article about Clague receiving a $180,000 Safe Routes to School grant. According to the article,

The grant is one of six awards MDOT allocated to Michigan schools this month — about $990,000 in all — to help students safely walk and bike to school.
The grant will fund the installation of sidewalks and crosswalks on Nixon Road, flashing beacons on Green Road and crosswalk improvements at the intersection of Green and Nixon. Clague Middle School Principal Cindy Leaman said students currently walk on a bike path space on the side of the road to get to and from school because a sidewalk on Nixon Road is incomplete.

The picture above, excerpted from the article, shows kids walking to Clague from Huron High School on a roadside bike path. They are not walking against traffic, and I don't know if the bicycle path even exists on the other side of the road. Now imagine those kids walking to school, in the morning, in the dark. Does that seem safe to you? Not to me.

And the grant is truly fantastic. Except for one thing. There are nearly thirty schools in the Ann Arbor school district, and I don't know if there is a single one where every student within the walk zone has a safe route to school. I know for sure that my local schools, Wines Elementary and Forsythe Middle School, do not. Are we going to get these grants for every school in the district? That would be impossible. There were only six grants given out in Michigan this year. [Thurston Elementary School did get one a few years ago.]

As noted in the article, 
Students walk on the shoulder of Newport Road and over M-14 to get to [Wines] school because there is no sidewalk on the road, [City Council member Sabra] Briere said. “There is no safe route,” Briere said. “These students are forced on to Newport Road or they don’t walk — their parents have to drive them. The burden has shifted from the government to the individual.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Showing Real Promise

There's an excellent story in the New York Times about the Kalamazoo Promise. It's a nice overview, and it raises some interesting questions about incentives for learning and about the achievement gap.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It Does Matter Where You Start and Finish Teaching

Ypsilanti administrators just took a 9.3% pay cut. Ypsilanti teachers took a 10% pay cut and a 12.3% reduction to their salary scale.

Chelsea teachers got a 2% raise. Although with higher health care contributions I'm not sure if that is a pay increase or a pay cut.

Meanwhile, top Ann Arbor administrators (non-union) are getting contracts that say that while their salaries "shall be subject to further adjustments throught the term of this Contract at the discrtion of the District," they "shall in no event be less than $XXX,XXX per annum."  In other words, can they be required to take furlough days or other pay cuts? No. Even though that might be the case for others in the district. Might I add, these contracts come with automatic extensions (excluding terminations for cause). [In this 12/19/2011 Ann Arbor Chronicle article scroll down to Special Briefing: New Administrators--Incentive Compensation to access .pdf files of a couple of these contracts.]

Yes, it depends on where you work.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Patricia Green "Declines to Comment"

Check out this morning's article in by Danielle Arndt about class sizes and difficulty enrolling in full classes. And what does our Superintendent Pat Green have to say about this?

"Superintendent Patricia Green declined to comment last week on what solutions the district is considering. She stated the administration will work these issues out with parents."
Check out last week's article in by Danielle Arndt about the search for a permanent Pioneer principal. What does Superintendent Pat Green have to say about this?
"Following Wednesday’s school board meeting, Green declined to provide a status update and would not confirm how close the administration is to hiring a new principal. She said the position is “still in process” and when a decision has been finalized, it will be communicated to Pioneer parents."
 What about the decision that information from the school district needs to be FOIA'd even when it is readily available? (Look for a specific example of this on the blog later this week.)

Back in May, reported that:
"Later in the meeting, Trustee Simon Lightfoot asked Superintendent Patricia Green about the process community members should employ to obtain information such as how much busing to AAO costs. Green said parents should use the Freedom of Information Act for these requests.
 Trustee Susan Baskett said FOIAs cost money and are 'not equitable to all.'"
Sense a pattern here? I do. And I don't like it. Superintendent Green, your responsibility is not just to the parents, but to the entire community. We are all taxpayers. We all understand there are budget issues. But--if you think that by failing to disclose a timeline for hiring a permanent Pioneer principal, or failing to explain how you will address overly full classes, that you will alleviate parent anxiety, you are completely wrong. What alleviates parent (and taxpayer) anxiety is open communication. Right now, we don't have that.

I find it completely ironic that the school board identified as its number one issue at the board retreat "trust and relationship building" within the board, while Pat Green appears to be completely unaware of how her actions affect "trust and relationship building" within the broader schools community.

Andy Thomas, school board member, has had a great idea of having monthly coffee hours. The first one is tomorrow, September 11th, 9:30-10:30 9:00-10:00 a.m. at the downtown Sweetwaters. (I will try to post upcoming ones in the top right section of my blog.) I hope you will go, and I hope you'll talk to him about the importance of open communications. It's even more important when budget cutting is on the horizon.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Five Thoughts About Labor Day and the First Day of School

1. Read about the history of Labor Day here. Remember that in the late 1800s, the average worker worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week.

2. In most public schools in Michigan, we have unionized teachers, custodians, secretaries and principals. If you think any of them are paid too much, get too much time off, have pensions or other benefits that are too high, just remember. . . they didn't negotiate those contracts by themselves. There was somebody. . . administrators and school board members, generally. . . on the other side of the negotiating table.

3. For a lot of schools, the first day of school is tomorrow, and in Michigan, that is going to be the first full day of kindergarten in many school districts, including Ann Arbor. Between the time that my oldest child started school and now, kindergarten has gotten much less play-ful and much more work-ful. Let's hope that full day kindergarten will still be fun for kindergartners.

4. That reminds me of a story:

When my (oldest) son was in first or second grade, he never seemed to want to read at home.
One day I said to him, "Why don't you want to read? Reading's fun!"
And he said to me, "Look mom. Maybe someday reading will be fun. But right now, it's work!"

School--it's a day of labor for both students and teachers. But that doesn't mean it can't also be fun.

5. Where I grew up, school always started the day after Labor Day. You might know that the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) also starts in September. As a Jewish kid, growing up, it never ever made sense to me that the "New Year" started in December. Clearly, the New Year started in September. I hope this new school year is a good one for you and for your kids. I foresee a lot of battles ahead. . . I hope to be writing more about testing. . . charter schools. . . arcane details of contracts. . . and more. But time presses, so we'll see how the blogging goes. I had told a friend of mine that when September starts I always feel like a Mack Truck has hit me. [She found that to be a helpful comment, because it validated her feeling. Maybe it will help you too.]

Mack AC-model flatbed delivery truck from the Petersen Automotive Museum