A Teachers Viewpoint

Location: Texas, United States

I am a teacher with 33 years experience in public education. The purpose of this web log is to critically examine the present state of education in our great country and, particularly, in Texas.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

On standardized testing

A great article about standardized testing here.

From Fairtest another resource.

Rethinking standardized testing from Seattle. (one of my favorite places)

A real audio story from NPR about parent opinion on standardized testing.

Another point of view


And finally over at google blog

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Spelling bees and equality

Today I found an article (here) about a school district that decided to cancel a spelling bee so that.... well, I can't follow their reasoning. If I understand this logic the spelling bee was cancelled so that kids could be successful. Assistant Superintindent of schools Linda Newman stated that "No Child Left Behind says all kids must reach high standards," Newman said. "It’s our responsibility to find as many ways as possible to accomplish this."

Ok, if I remember from my experiences with spelling bees many students participated. I participated in bees. I was busy as a bee, so to speak, learning the words on the list. I derived a lot of benefit from studying my word lists. I think what small ability I have in spelling today is because of bees. Yes, I got nervous. Yes, I was disappointed when I did not win. The adults around me had the sense to things to the effect of "you win some and you lose some, try again next time". I did try harder next time. And the next time I won. The person who was 2nd was a very near second. In other words the effort everyone put in raised everyone up.

When a group of students compete over a set of things to learn, they study harder than they normally would because they are inspired. They all improve. Yes, there certainly is one winner. Uh, the fact is that someone knows one more word than everyone else. And, yes, those students were disappointed momentarily. But, most, if not all of them, were inspired to come back and try again. That is they would unless the adults around them actually did make them feel inadequate.

A few years - ok I lied - many years ago I played trumpet with some degree of excellence. At that time I wanted to be a professional performer. I went to an audition to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. When I arrived there were already over 100 trumpet players there. When we started to warm up, it was soon apparent that the competition was going to be stiff, then one more player started warming up. He was able to do things that I didn't until that time believe human beings could do. He played like I imagine Gabriel must play. His playing was magnificent. He got the job, should have gotten the job because on that day at that time he was the best player. As I talked to other players after the day was concluded, I found no one --- no one --- who felt belittled or hurt. To a person everyone was ready to go to a practice room and get to work. That competition was so inspiring because I was able to see a goal that I could take on. And, I reached it. I wish I could say that I went back again and won the day, but the job didnt open again when I wanted it. But, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

What can an administrator possibly think. One thing I know without a doubt is that anyone who can cancel an event has never taken part in such an event. If they had they would understand what the competition does --- it inspires. IT INSPIRES! It makes one want to be as good as that student, because you know that you put on your pants the same way in the morning. It doesn't depress your or make you want to quit school. No, it makes you want to do it again. Can these people understand that when many people reach for excellence they all get better.

This is another one of those examples of aggressive stupidity that harms kids. This school district was not happy to just find something stupid to do. No, they took their stupidity and aggressively used it against the kids. That I cannot abide.

In taking away the spelling bee the geniuses in the Lincoln School District choose to take away a huge incentive for exellence. Instead of hundreds of kids working hard on those spelling lists learning those words, non will be. They have strangled savagely to death one of the golden gooses of motivation - striving for excellence.

Ok, Assistant Superintendent Newman try to rub two brain cells together to get a spark and see if you can listen for a bit. Kids do best when they have a goal to work toward. Kids work hardest to learn when they are all trying to reach a goal. Yes, one kid will get the trophy, but all of them will have worked harder and will be better for it.

I hate to do it but Assistant Superintendent Newman you must turn in you right to be around any living child today. Your very presence is harmful to learning. You must go to the back room because you are an embarrasement to the profession. You should go there and hide in shame. Then please prepare a resignation letter that you will hand in to resign your job before you do any more damage. Until you rethink your philosophy, find out what universe you are in and get back to ours, you are USELESS. You are doing actual harm to the ability of children to learn. You are completely without understanding. Please resign now ----- or some superior please fire her before she does any more damage to the kids in your district. In fact, please do not allow this person around kids because she does not believe that kids can learn. If she did believe that all kids can learn, she would praise the effort the kids put out on spelling bees. She is without understanding and is completely incompetent in her job. Please someone get this person out of her position before she can do any more damaging things to the kids. Rid your school district of this Newman plague before it crosses into the distant lands where there may yet be some learning going on....


Friday, January 28, 2005

Thinking about gifted children

Today I only have a few reading assignments. So, just drifting around the net.... One of my goals as an educator is to advocate for gifted children and developmentally appropriate programs for all children. Here is a wonderful article that covers most of the bases. Check out "When gifted children have problems". The next article about a trail drive is just fascinating. While I know not many situations lend themselves to this, maybe it will strike some ideas. Read A "Diary provides map for trip across Texas".
I wonder what happens when kids start breaking 100 dollar bills to get bubble gum? Well here is the answer. And for all my yapping about zero tolerance in schools, here is a kid who needs zero tolerance, I'll be the first to admit. Check out what happens when a coach gets in the middle of a fight.
You need to read at least one travesty a day. This is one of my favorite examples of what I think of as aggressive stupidity on the part of a school. Check out this zero tolerance example for the nice little town of Conroe.
Here is the all time example of critical problem solving - suds division.giv

Well, that may give you some nice reading tonight. All the best, see ya tomorrow.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

What is a felony of the second degree

After discovering that two boys aged 9 and 10 were charged with a second degree felony, I decided to find out what is a second degree felony. A felony of the second degree carries a term of improsonment of up to 15 years. There is a fine of up to $10,000 or any higher amount equal to double the pecuniary gain derived from the offense by the offender or double the pecuniary loss suffered by the victim.

While I can't imagine that any court would actually put away two boys of this age for 15 years and charge them minimally $10,000 I have no faith in the system when it comes to kids. Imagine a school going for 15 years imprisonment over two stick crayon drawings.


More on stick figures and felonies

Here is another excellent point of view over at the Education Wonks.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Test scores and stick figure arrests

I think I can stop screaming now. I went a little further and looked up Ocalas test scores on the Florida standardized test. They speak for themselves.

Ocala test scores


Stick figures and felonies

As I plan to travel to my state capital to attend a conference on zero tolerance issues there is breaking news. Apparently two children, aged 9 and 10, drew stick figures that resulted in felony charges. Article. The two special education students drew what were referred to as "primative" (what else would most 9 or 10 year olds be able to draw) stick figures.

The two children were taken from thier school in handcuffs and charged with a second-degree felony. Another child was depicted in the drawings. Thus the two special education children were charged with making a "written threat to kill or harm another person" according to Local6.com. Additionally, the boys were suspended from school. So, if I read this correctly, the boys have already been punished by the school through suspension. Now the city of Ocala, Florida is going to use its full legal power and taxpayer money to prosecute two 9 and 10 year olds on second degree felony charges.

Would every parent in America and the world please turn in their children tonight. I have to confess, too, that when I was a child I did also draw stick figures that I am sure sometimes illustrated violence to someone else. Or, at least I am sure I did. Also, while everyone else is turning themselves in would the Ocala school district also turn itself in for not teaching these kids anything about respect. Oh, I forgot -- how about THE PARENTS! I am suggesting that the parents, teachers and any other adult involved in the lives of these kids turn themselves in because the kids obviously WEREN'T TAUGHT ANYTHING! Or, alternatively, they were taught something about right and wrong and then in whatever silly bullying mood they were in forgot it BECAUSE THEY ARE KIDS! WHAT WOULD A SCHOOL KNOW ABOUT HOW KIDS CAN BEHAVE? WHAT WOULD A SCHOOL KNOW ABOUT TEACHING KIDS HOW TO RESPECT OTHER KIDS.

Help me I think my head is going to explode.

Obviously, this particular school doesn't know how to accomplish the task. Nor, do they give a care for either of the parties.

Here is a news flash for the geniuses who had these kids arrested today. I am sure that this could not be tried because it is such an old-fashioned notion. How about doing what my mother would have done. She would have taken me aside and sternly told me that what I did was wrong, that I was never to do that again, and that if I did I would be spanked or lose many things I liked to do. Heaven forbid - that would be child abuse of the worst sort. No, obviously it is better to arrest two 9 and 10 year old kids. Obviously, it is better to drag them out of their school and take them to the police station - I assume. No, better to put them through the juvenile justice system. No, so much better to spend who knows how much money prosecuting the two stick drawers. Absolutely, it is better to use what amounts to capital punishment for schools -- that is -- suspend them for something that could be corrected by TEACHING. Is it possible that these brilliant minds have forgotten that you TEACH 9 and 10 year olds how to behave instead of arresting them. Einstein move over - you place in intellectual history is insecure.

And, how about the other kid, the one who felt threatened? Is it better to teach him that the adults in school can't protect him. Obviously, he couldn't have been told he did the right thing to report it to the teacher. Obviously, he should now understand that if he draws stick figures he, too, will be arrested and taken away. No, he couldn't be told that what the other two boys did was wrong, but that the school will see to it that he is safe. No, he couldn't have been told that the other two boys were going to be punished. Absolutely not, no, he has to believe that his life was actually threatened as surely as if some child molester abducted him. No, he couldn't have been assured that some people behave badly, punish the "evil-doers" and let it go at that. No, we have to involve the whole legal system. They must be hanging people who drive faster than the speed limit in Ocala.

Another aspect of this example of school absurdity is that now that the process has started three will not be any turning back. According to the article the "Ocala police said they stand behind the decision to arrest the children". Brilliant, where are they going to go from there - the death penalty for 5 year olds who push another kid down? They must blow away jay-walkers on the spot.

The arresting officer was particularly eloquent. And, please forgive me, I absolutely do support the police when they are fighting real crime. But, the arresting police officer had to rise and say "when an adult or even myself look at the picture looked at it first I was thinking there is really not much to the picture or I would not be scared by the picture those children drew".

No kidding? First, is the police officer not an adult? Someone, please, please, please tell me that the wording of the statement is not a direct quote. Someone tell me that local6.com got it wrong.

Second, is there no adult on the staff who could have sat down with the child to calm his fear. Must he be so afraid of this - an infantile stick drawing - that it requires police intervention? Must this child be that afraid of other children? What have they taught this child about fear. How is he to respond when he is confronted by a barking dog?

What will happen when a child on some playground actually hits him or pushes him to the ground? What recourse will he have? Logically, he must call 911 and summon the swat team. Given the logical path of ascending consequences you have to think the police will come on the play ground and empty a revolver into the kid who pushed him. Really, what will this school do to a kid who actually touches another child? Do they have a guillotine set up on the stage of the cafeteria?

The officer went on to say "However, we have to put ourselves in his mind and that's the bottom line here. It is his well-being and the way he perceived that picture to be. It actually put him in extreme fear and he was in fear of his life".

Most likely the officer is right. The poor kid probably was afraid. However, having taught for 31 years I absolutely know that it is remotely possible that he might also have gone up and told the teacher in the manner of a child sticking out his tongue and waggling his hands in his ears at the other.

More is the reason to sit the child down and talk with him about the incident. Teach him about what happened. Teach him that he is strong enough to withstand the assault of stick drawings. Please, don't teach him that a silly stick drawing requires the intervention of the police. Teach him that he can stand the unholy stress of having two other 9 and 10 year old children drawing admittedly distressing drawings about him.

Now, back to the children. Can someone tell me why it is better to drag them out to the police car than, say, Heaven forbid, give them a couple of pops, give them a couple of days of in-school suspension. No, can't do that, it would be old-fashioned. Or, it might be cruel. Well, how about handcuffing them, dragging them to the police car, taking them downtown and actually having some poor overworked police officer book them in.

To justify arresting children for this absurd "crime" you have to believe that there is absolutely no hope of redemption in pre-pubescent kids. You have to believe that these kids are so far gone that they can't be saved. You have to believe that reasonable adults have no other recourse against stick drawings than to call in the armed police. You have to actually believe that stick drawings require an ARMED WITH DEADLY FORCE response. You have to actually believe as an adult - presumably with some kind of an advanced degree, presumably with some degree of experience in dealing with children - that stick drawings require ARMED AND DEADLY FORCE. What kind of mind responds this way to CHILDREN?

This in the same United States where so many people believe that adults who murder, rape, and cut innocent people to bits should not be given the death penalty. This in the same United States where it is legal to rip a living, breathing child out of its mothers womb. Oops, ripping the child out of its mothers womb sort of fits in with this response in a perverse sort of way. Bad example.

If that is how we now should raise children in this society would you please get the manned vehicle to Mars. If it is better to arrest children, handcuff them and put them through the juvenile system instead of sitting them down and teaching them right from wrong then I most certainly was born 100 years too late.

All I think I know is simple. If that school in Florida has to call in the police to arrest kids who draw admittedly tasteless and silly stick drawings then there is no person in that school who is safe.

And finally to the school - Is there any way you can find to make education and educators look more stupid? Can you find a way to make yourselves look more like you are unable to teach children the barest essentials of civility? Can you find a way to broadcast your abject and miserable failure to do you job louder? If that is the best you can do then lock your doors today and send your children home because you are hopeless and there is no reason for your continued existence as a place of learning. Your skills with children certainly must be worthless.

John ---

p.s. Please forgive the CAPS as they were written, I couldn't find a way to actually scream online.

Monday, January 24, 2005

So why should kids do something good

In today's Houston Chronicle I found an article bearing the following goofy title; "Debakeys High Scores Draw Angst". In this article we find that "officials at the Texas Education Agency are reluctant to report that happy news, fearing it might violate a federal law." The federal law in question is the "Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act."

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is intended to protect the privacy of students. Like the zero tolerance laws, this act was not completely thought out. The act is intended to protect the privacy of educational records. First, the act provides that only parents or eligible students can inspect a students records. Second, a party may ask a school to correct records that they find inaccurate. If the school will not change the records the parent or student may place a document in the record to explain why they find the record inaccurate. Third, under general conditions the school must get written permission to release records. However, they may release the records under certain conditions. Records can be released to school officials with a need to know, for the purpose of a transfer, officials for the purpose of an audit, upon applications for financial aid, organizations conducting studies, accrediting organizations such as the TEA, to comply with a judges order, in response to health or safety emergencies, or within the requirements of the juvenile justice system pursuant to specific state law. Schools may disclose "directory" information without obtaining consent. Schools have to tell parents about the fact that directory information may be released. They must give the concerned parties a resonable amount of time to tell the school that they do not wish such information to be released.

So, all the students at the Debakey High School for the Health Professions passed the TAKS. In response to that the Texas Education Agency is afraid that if they said that 100% of the students passed the TAKS they would be breaking the federal law.

Can there be any wonder about why schools in Texas have so many problems? Announcing a 100% pass rate simply means that all the students passed - with different scores. Some of the students may have made an 80, others may have made a 90, some may have made a 100. I have a newsflash for the TEA --- the Debakey High School for the Health Professions attracts brilliant and motivated students. What do they possibly expect? I really don't have a problem with stupidity. I only have a problem with agressive stupidity. How is it that the agency in the state of Texas responsible for the education of her children can think that announcing that 100% of a population of students passed a bonehead test of minimal skills is the same as announcing the individual scores of the students. From where I sit that is just premeditated, prejudiced, aggressive stupidity in the first degree.

Geeze Louise!

This is another example of institutionalized stupidity on the same scale as the current zero tolerance laws. So, in its astounding silliness, the TEA lists the pass rate of such high performing school as Debakey as 99%. Please, can the Texas Legislature sunset the Texas Education Agency before it reproduces?


Sunday, January 23, 2005

zero tolerance for zero tolerance

Last Thursday evening I was honored to speak to the good folks at katyzerotolerance.com. The meeting at which I spoke was attended by Dora Olivio, a member of the Texas House who is very helpful in zero tolerance cases. I had a wonderful talk with Representative Olivio early in the meeting. I will be most happy to help her with any of her education concerns. I then spoke about my concerns about zero tolerance issues and the story of a student who was involved in an inapprpriate search at my school last year. I will also speak at the Texas Summit on Disciplinary Actions in Austin on January 28, 2005.

Coming up on the calendar is consideration of SB 126 of John Lindsay. The bill "does not require a student code of conduct to specify a minimum term of removal under Sec 37.006 or an expulsion under Section 37.007. The other wonderful part of this bill is the mandated consideration of Culpable Mental State Required. "A school district may not punish a student under this subchapter based on conduct that contains the elements of an offense under the Penal Code unless the principal, board of trustees, or other person authorized under Secton 37.009 to review the student's culpable mental state required for that offense under the Penal Code".

This would require that a student would have to have a mental state or intent that would cause them to use and item as weapon. So a child makes a mistake and brings a boy scout knife to school he will not recieve expulsion, a ticket, a court date, a juvenile record, a long assignment in a DAEP, and other punishments. This is a major leap forward. Had this been in effect last year, my student who brought an object to school by mistake would not have expelled, ticketed, had a court date, a juvenile record, and a 45 day assignment to our lousy DAEP class where he was strip searched on the first day.

An example of why I feel so strongly about this issue is illustrated by this story. I urge you to read the stories that can be found here for a taste of what is now happening in many schools.

I am asking those of you who are residents of this state to get behind SB 126. Call your legislator in Austin to let them know you like it and want it supported.


Thanks to everyone

Dear Friends:

I just wanted to say Thank You to all who expressed sympathy in my familys recent time of loss. We would not have gotten through it without old friends andank new friends. Thanks so much for your expressions of concern, prayers and stories of your own losses.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

death in the family

Hi all:

Due to a death in my family, I will most likely not be posting until the weekend. Thanks to everyone.


Sunday, January 16, 2005

The value of gifts

What is it about the "one size fits all school" that bothers many of us so much? Why does the standardized approach bring out the radical in so many people in or interested in education? What is that ticks me off so about todays schools?

I think it has to do with gifts.

Every person is given different gifts. The various gifts afforded different people vary both in degree and nature. Everyone knows tha certain people do certain things well while others are able in totally different ways. I am a teacher and a woodworker. I do both things extremely well. I am able to get to kids that others can't even begin to deal with in their classes. I literally never knew who would try to sneak in my classes from period to period. My lessons are creative and filled with unique events. Kids who had trouble with the system sought me out.

But, I am certainly not the person who you want to organize an event. My desk was always a disaster. Most assuredly I would have been fired several times over if I had not had people blocking for me with my paperwork. Occassionally I would have a cleaning fit. My desk would be hopelessly clean. Students would come into my room and roll their eyes when they saw my neatly organized desk. They all knew that there was zero chance for me to keep it that way until the end of the period. And, by the end of the period I would have it trashed again. I have no gifts in the area of organization. You want me to come up with a unique way to help some kid understand the theory of relativity. You do not want me to plan some schoolwide event.

So, what do my lack of organizational skills have to do with modern schools? Modern schools do not care anything about individual gifts and development. Schools are organized to be factories. They are very efficient at delivering a plain vanilla curriclum. Schools may be good at delivering basic content. What most schools do not do is help any individual child realize their God given gifts.

Public education has been normed down. They try to reach the median. Schools do not reach children who are given gifts that do not fit into the institutional structure. Heaven help the gifted young musician or mathmatician. There is not hope for a child who has the potential to be a brilliant creative writer. In fact, I do not believe that traditionally organized schools do much for any child. I believe they don't because I have never met the "median" child. I have never met a child who is "average".

The greater tragedy is that I have seen so many children whose particular gifts and personality traits doom them in the traditional education system. There is no hope for some kids. There frequently hope for the child who is a gifted football player. There is not much hope for a child who can be a gifted musician.

Some years ago I was blessed to be included in a trip to England through the University of Houston. The purpose of the trip was to look at schools for gifted children. One of the schools we attended was the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music at Bath. That was a day filled with miracles. One of the miracles was a young man who played a cello recital for us. We sat down in a small room. A cello leaned against a chair in front of us. If memory serves the headmaster told us that the situation would be informal as the kids were involved in the regular school day. A moment later in walked a young teenager dressed in physical ed. clothes. He was introduced. I wish I could remember his name. His hair was tousled, he was a bit sweaty. The boy had just come off the soccer field in p.e. Then he sat down and played with skill and maturity that left us all in awe and me in tears. After he played he ran out the door and back to the soccer field.

What would happen to such a child in America's schools today? Almost certainly he would never have developed his gifts. Almost certainly he would have been normed down to the lowest common denominator of his talents.

Schools should let the musicians play. They should let the mathematicians calculate, the poets write and the debaters argue. They should let those who live for science investigate. Young builders should build. Yes, everyone must be able to spell and balance their checkbook. But, how much better to let children develop the gifts they have been given by God and become what they were created to be.


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Shaping the future

Friday afternoon I drove by my old campus. The marquee was standing by the side of the road as it has been for years. The base of the marquee reads "Shaping The Future". Above the base was a message posted by my incredibly adept school district. The message read


Now since the school is in Texas there seems to be no need to make a reference to the state of Maine when you are trying to indicate that the meeting will be at the main building. Following that I question this spelling of the phrase "SPAGHTTI SUPER". No, I am not making this up. And I have the picture to prove it. I will post the picture for your amusement soon.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Not about schools but it involves kids and our young soldiers

Please check out these pictures. Click the link above then look for "Pictures From Iraq That Are Too Shocking & Graphic for The Mainstream Media." I don't know how long this link will be live. I just got a kid back from Iraq. Regardless of what your views are on Iraq, I would like to focus on these wonderful young people. Thanks so much to the El Paso Internet Courier.

another link to the Dallas High school walk out

More information about this walkout.

And the beat goes on

This is an interesting article. Here is a short quotation from the article found at Dallasnews.com.

Students at North Dallas High School walked out of class on Thursday morning in a show of dissatisfaction with the school's principal.

More than 200 students from the school, among DISD's lowest-performing campuses, left the building and marched peacefully several blocks to DISD headquarters to complain about their principal Dina Townsend.

Even if the principal in question is not guilty of the things these kids say, there seems to be something badly wrong on this particular campus. The question I have is what caused these students to walk out. The point I would like to make is that this kind of behavior on the part of students is symptomatic of some underlying problem. Another thought I would like to offer is that I doubt that much learning will take place at this location until the underlying problem is resolved. It will be interesting to see if the students are punished and how the district reacts.

The beatings will continue until the scores improve

I visited with an old friend for a while today. We talked about the bubble kid issue. If you read my last entry, you will remember that "bubble kids" are the ones who almost pass the TAKS. He described to me how his district is approaching improvement on benchmark tests that are leading up to the TAKS.

The benchmarks are supposed to determine how well a child is doing on a particular objective that has been separated out from the rest of the taught curriculum. The benchmarks in his district are rather short - often being under 10 questions. If the child does not pass this small quiz, he will be assigned to a required afternoon tutorial. The child is removed from his afterschool elective activity. That activity is often sports. This is what passes for brilliant thinking on the part of thousands of school administrators and curriculum leaders.

So in an attempt to motivate and retrain the child he gets to miss what may be his favorite activity to attend a tutorial where he will be instructed in an ever smaller chunk of the objective. What this amounts to will in most cases be worksheets or a series of discreet, short activities intended to impact knowledge of the objective. There are several assumptions that underlie this technique that I challenge.

1. Children create understanding from intense study of small chunks of information that make up a greater whole. There is a a large body of evidence that trying to offer tutorials that attempt to prescribe for small discreet objectives may be the worst way to help underachieving kids.
2. Removing kids from a favored activity to "remediate some problem" will cause them to be motivated to do better on a standardized test. My personal experience is that this causes a lot of resentment. I can't offer hard data to back up this opinion. But, I believe this causes as many problems as it solves.
3. More of the same will help kids learn. I know this is not the intended outcome. I don't think any school leader intends remedial instruction to be "more of the same". But, I believe this is what most remedial instruction in schools amounts to for most kids. There are rare teachers who make reteaching completely different and novel. Unfortunately, they are far and few between.
4. More time, by itself, will result in improvement. This is debateable. There is evidence that more time spent on a target skill may be the least effective method.

In my experience, most kids regard the intense remediation that occurs after failure on a standardized test as punishment. Many of the kids resent being taken out of their afternoon activities. Unfortunately, a number of schools have threatened the lower achieving kids with removal from their elective until they improve on the standardized test. This option may the the worst of all the attempts to help low achieving kids.

The kids who are not achieving are often kids who do not find school rewarding in the first place. They are not "school boys" or "school girls" as low achieving kids refer to successful kids in some environments.

What is needed here is to increase the richness and the complexity of instruction so that the kids can make the needed connections. Instruction needs to approach as many ways to learn as possible. I would argue that the lower achieving kids need a richer environment, more enjoyable projects that induce kids to process information in the deepest possible way, and it must be fun.

Yep, fun. Schools being the dreadful places many of them are, simply are not fun places to be. We are asking kids to learn in ways that are alien to any natural way of learning. We are asking to enjoy the beatings. And, we often tell them that the beatings continue until they improve.

John McGeough

Monday, January 10, 2005

Bubble Kids and Kids left behind

This evening I want to tell you a secret. Have any of you heard about "bubble kids"? This is a term your school district will not explain in its newsletter. The reason they won't post it is that "bubble kids" get all the help in the testing furor.

Bubble kids are those who fail by only one or two points - or bubbles. The kids bubble in their answers on test forms. So a bubble kid is one who missed the passing score by only one or two bubbles.

I sat in several meetings with the principal, the dean of instruction, and the department heads when we were told to identify the bubble kids in our subjects. These kids are important to the school because they can make the school look better in the test scores. They are so close, the reasoning goes, that they can benefit from tutoring and therefore help the scores.

So the bubble kids are identified, divided into groups, and tutored relentlessly. The kids who missed by 5 or 6 points, maybe 10 points; what happens to them. It's simple. They cant raise their scores enough to help the schools rating, so they are ignored. Why would you waste your time with them the school thinks, they can't help us. They don't get intense help with their work. After all, don't you know, they won't ever pass anyway. Why waste valuable tutoring time on them? Of course, what a brilliant idea - work with the kids who can make you look good and throw the others to the sharks. I truely wish I knew which of our administrative geniuses brought that obscene idea into the district. Thats Sheldon Independent School District, always go for the easy stupid solution instead of the complex one that would require planning, actual thought, listening to teachers, or giving a care.

You may ask what about the kids who can go on. They can't help much more either. After all they have already passed the test.

But, ohhhhh those precious bubble kids. If we could just get those kids to get two more questions right then we might be recognized. Can you imagine how wonderful that would be.

The concept of the bubble kid was created to help school ratings, not to help all the kids who need help. What morally reprehensible thing to do.

My school district - The Sheldon Independent School District did it. I witnessed it because I was in the meetings. We had to identify the "bubble kids" for each subject and design tutorials for them. The lower kids could just go jump because they couldn't help the district or the building. This was the same brilliant district that had the ever popular group strip searches.

I doubt if Sheldon will ever figure out how to be successful. That would require teaching every child to success. That would require slightly more intelligence than identifying the kids who missed passing the test by one or two points. Working with individual kids until they are successful escapes the school board and administration. No, what we were supposed to do was to identify and concentrate only on the kids who could help the district raise itself above it's already appalling status.

Parents in Sheldon and all districts across the state. Be in the power group. Find our if you too have a "bubble child". If your child is not a bubble child call your remarkable districts to find out how your child can also be a bubble child.

If it weren't so pathetic it would be funny.

John McGeough

Sunday, January 09, 2005

What if schools thought of themselves as a service?

I wonder what would happen to education if schools thought of kids as clients who had to be pleased? Thats a radical thought isn't it? Such a view would require a sea change in the way in which schools regard kids.

Today, many schools are about two things and two things only; test scores and keeping order. The approach to raising test scores is to reduce the curriculum into smaller and smaller bits. Schools often attempt to guess what will be on a particular standardized test. When they think they have it figured out, they create warm-ups and drills to force feed kids those discreet facts. Schools reduce the content, water it down and dumb it down until they think they are only teaching what is going to be on the test. Because of this kind of approach, schools have become places of excrutiating boredom. They create souless, boring lessons designed to teach the trivia that is going to be on the test. Schools today have little or nothing to do with how children really learn.

Some truly great schools look at it another way. There exists a kind of school that actually tries to create activities and materials that stimulate kids. Lessons in such a school would take into account the way kids live. Kids learn through doing and through play. Great schools look at the real world to find out what children do when they are going about the business of learning as kids.

Great schools do not concern themselves much with disciplinary management. They don't have to be too worried about discipline. These places have such vibrant teaching approaches that their kids are captivated. The kids are interested in what they are learning because it fits the fact that they are kids.

Kids would be regarded as a clientele that must be served an interesting, absorbing and vibrant product. Imagine what could result if a school thought of itself as a competitor for the love and joy of children. Think of the results that could be attained if schools thought of kids less as things to be managed.

I wonder what would happen if schools structured their world so that children actually wanted to be there. Children want to be in a place of joy. They do not want to be in a place where they are assumed to be potential problems.

Presently, students can generally expect punishment instead of fulfilment from many schools. They are bombarded about their hair and their clothes. Kids often find themselves being yelled at in hallways. One of the schools in my district required 5th and 6th grade students to eat silently at lunch. No talking was allowed. I could never understand what perverse and warped logic supported that policy. The environment many kids find themselves in is often chaotic. They find themselves often sitting still for hours when they would work much harder if thier work was intrisically interesting. Many kids feel that they are despised if they learn differently, dress differently, or commit the error of bringing the problems in their lives to school.

For a school to reform itself in a new mold it would have to completely change the way it regards kids. Kids would have to be regarded as basically good. Kids would have to be treated with respect. There is absolutely nothing wrong with talking to a child as if they were born deserving respect. That in itself is a novel concept in many places. They would have to be taught in the way humans actually learn. Lessons would have to be written with an eye to interest combined with solid learning. The school would sincerely try to fashion itself into an entity characterized by deep respect for all kids. Kids would be treated with courtesy. Discipline does not suffer when respect is afforded to children. There are students who almost never hear pleasant words from the adults around them. The adults in the school would actually listen to children as if they have something to say.

Students would be thought of as precious cargo. No student would experience being forced into a mold that does not match their skills or development. This means that few would learn at the same pace. People simply do not learn at the same pace. They would not be labeled failures if the scored badly on the currently trendy standardized test. They would be helped. Standardized tests would only be used to diagnose rather than to sort and cull.

Schools would have to look at themselves as a service industry. They would remold themselves into organizations that made happiness the central to their endeavors. Every kid would be built up. Every act of the school would be to make every student believe they can be successful. Every moment in school would be filled with purposeful activity. Kids would never feel their time was being wasted. They would feel that the goal of the school was to insure their success no matter what their background, no matter what their reading level, no matter what the nature of their circumstances.

Such schools would have to hire brilliant, secure people who could actually think. Too many schools are led by rigid, dry people who do not really have any joy in their own lives. Many schools love children in the abstract but when faced with the living, breathing children, they fail miserably. In the pursuit of test scores instead of valid learning they create failure and miserable places.

What would happen if administrators believed in making a school a happy place to be?
What would happen if kids were treated warmly in schools?
What would happen if kids who aren't cut to the pattern were loved even if they are different?

I wonder.

John McGeough

Friday, January 07, 2005

a beginning continued

Anyone out there ever had a problem with zero-tolerance laws?

Welcome to the brave new world of criminalizing kids. In the past - in ancient times - when I was a kid problems were taken care of immediately. Most often a kid who became unruly was given detention, given sentences or - Heaven forbid - paddled. This very outmoded system was used for generations. Kids were treated like kids. Mistakes were regarded as just that - mistakes.

Unfortunately, today we treat kids as we would criminals. I make reference to the practice of using absolute standards that apply regardless of circumstances.

One of the things that just destroyed me last year was the practice of strip-searching students with regularity. The most amazing things can happen to kids in a school. Students who were assigned to our DAEP were supposed to be provided instruction on a daily basis. DAEP stands for District Alternative Education Plan. I will never forget the day I took an assignment down to a student and found all the male students had been taken out of the room. When I entered the room there was a huge commotion coming from an office off the main classroom where the cubicles for DAEP were kept. The sole remaining student in the room was a female child.

The individual in charge of the program had taken the boys out of the classroom to an office area. The aide who remained in the room was extremely upset. When I asked the aide what was going on, she informed me that they were being searched. The sound of yelling and raised voices was coming from the office area. I asked the aide what kind of search was being conducted. She told me the students were being strip searched. There were a total of 9 boys out of the classroom.

I immediately went to the principal to inform him of what was happening. He was not in his office. So, I sent him an email. The principal investigated. The fact was that the students were being strip searched. This was performed frequently. To make a very long story a bit shorter, the policy was changed. The individual in charge was reassigned. The program itself has been changed to some degree. To make matters more interesting the students were given a short period of time to get dressed. If they were not able to get dressed in the required time they were made to do exercises, disrobe again and dress again.

Think it can't happen to your child - think again. All the parents of children treated in this fashion thought that nothing like this could happen to their child. If you assume your school would never do this, you are being too trusting. What I would suggest that you do is read your districts search policy very closely.

Be sure to look at your districts policy regarding certain objects that your child may bring to school. If your child were to mistakenly bring some object to school that can be construed as a weapon, the punishment could be extreme. You need to be there for your child every time someone talks to your child at school. Do not assume that such things cannot happen at your school to your child.

Kids are now removed from the classroom for all sorts of things. Normally, a child who has been removed will be placed in some kind of an Alternative Education setting. The children in DAEP classes are supposed to receive the same instruction as children in the normal program. Often, all a child will get in a DAEP are simple worksheets with little instruction and little help.

A child in a DAEP may have brought a weapon of sort to school. Others may have uttered a profanity to a teacher. But, don't for one moment assume that the kids who are in the school program for "bad" kids are bad.

Also, don't assume that the administrator who put the child there had any choice. Many states have enacted laws that now define mandatory punishments for all kinds of offenses. Some of those offenses would have landed the kid in a detention, brought them a couple of pops with a paddle or a call to the parents in the less enlightened past.

I should tell you that I am about as conservative about discipline as they come. I support corporal punishment as an option without hesitation if it is done with the parents knowledge and permission. If a child brings a gun to school the proper response to that is obvious. But, schools need to remember that kids are not small adults. Our job as educators is to teach children. In the past discipline was offered along with a life lesson. Kids were not crushed by disciplinary policy as they are now. Kids were treated as kids.

For some reason, our society has decided to bring the weight of the world down on a child who commits certain offenses. Many schools will now bring in the police for often simple things. Many times the child will receive a ticket. The child and the parents will have to appear in court. The courts will almost invariably find for the school. When that happens your child will have a criminal record. The sentence will often include community service, service of some sort at school, a fine. Sometimes, your child may end up in the juvenile jail for something that would have brought a paddling a few years ago.

Often these policies become a source of conflict between schools and the clientele of the school. And, in almost all cases the school will win.

Here is a simple, somewhat trivial, example. In today's Houston Chronicle there is an article entitled "Parents Join Seventh-Grader in Detention". This article can be found at http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/metropolitan/2981525.

The child in this particular case attends a middle school in the Pearland Independent School District. She was repeatedly late for the start of school. Remember that the child in question is a middle school child who does not drive. Remember also that the child is not able to impact how her parents get her to school. Basically the parents had a series of problems with their car. According to the Chronicle the mother "said the tardies came on mornings when the school bus had already passed before she found out her van wouldn't start. A recurring electrical problem with the vehicle has been remedied." As a result of the tardies the child was assigned to serve one hour of detention after school.

Yes, I know that this is a petty problem with a trivial punishment. But it is the principle underlying the situation that interests me.

The parents told the principal of the school that they were responsible for the child's tardiness. They informed the principal that the van would not start. They were honest enough to take responsiblility. Now, what would a reasonable administrator do? One might think that he would consider the nature of the problem. You might think that he would understand that a child cannot control the actions of her parents. You might think that would be all there was to the issue.

You would be wrong. According to principal Lonnie Leal "we are enforcing the handbook consequences for a student who is repeatedly late to school." It made no difference that the child had no way to get to school on those mornings other than with her chronically late parents. The comic part of this story is that the parents served the detention with the child because they were responsible for the child's tardiness.

So what? Why would I consider this a problem? Because, this is an example of a school failing to use common sense in dealing with a simple issue. Can you imagine how rigid this principal and school will be with another child who may be caught in a more serious catch 22?

The child was tardy to school. The parents told the school that it was their fault. The child is in middle school. The parents were taking the child to school. The child is not in control of the adults in charge of her. Neither the child nor the parents can repair the car with a snap of the fingers. The child cannot drive. According to the article the bus had run.

Now, who would you punish? Right, the child!

The problem here is the complete lack of common sense on the part of the school administration. What does the school expect the child to do in this circumstance? Any rational adult would understand that if there is an issue, it is with the parents. After the child is at school, moving between classes, then the child is responsible. But, the child is not responsible when the parents will not or cannot get the child to school.

So, of course, the school chose to punish the child.

Never assume that schools will look at individual circumstances when enforcing rules. Never assume that schools will give different punishments for different levels of reponsibility. We live in a one size fits all world. Never think for one instant that your child can defend himself from an assault without expecting the same punishment as his assailant. A colleague of mine told me that when her child was being bullied at his middle school, the assistant principal told him not to defend himself. The child was told to roll up in a ball on the floor with his hands protecting his head until an adult arrived. If he took the step of trying to defend himself from an assault he would be expelled with the assailant.

If you have a child in a school, believe your child. Don't immediately assume that your child is making something up. Err on the side of your child.

John McGeough

Well, its a small world. As I was closing out today's entry, I noticed this. Check this link for another example of strip searching treated as something normal by a school. Let's go to Texas City, Texas ---

Check it out.


Thursday, January 06, 2005

A beginning

I retired from teaching in the spring of 2004. I have told many friends that this is my first retirement. I did not leave teaching. I have only changed my direction for a time. I may go back next year. Who knows. The important thing for me to say is that I needed a break after the worst years of my career.

What happened in the final years before my retirement completely destroyed my confidence in my profession. If you are a parent who happens for some reason to read this blog, you need to understand one thing and only one thing; believe your child. At the very least, investigate anything your child says about his or her school day.

I left a school that was in disaster mode. I do not blame our students for this in any way. Our students were as good as any in America. Most were not rich. In fact, my school had something like 50 to 60% on free and reduced lunch. The ethnic makeup in the school was approximately 1/3 caucasion, 1/3 Hispanic, and 1/3 African-American. The kids were wonderful. They just needed to be taught. I place the blame for my schools failure, at the time, on the system and practices of the district administration.

Test scores were plummeting. Discipline was becoming a real problem. The halls had become so bad that I was actually knocked down by two students running and horseplaying in the hallway in front of my classroom. I am not a small guy. I weighed at that time about 280 pounds. I landed down the hallway about 6 feet from where I was standing. I was not injured. But, far worse, was what the kids were going through.

At that time we were getting kids in the seventh grade who did not read at any functional level. Many of the students had few to no math skills. Unless things change a great deal in the future, those children will experience little or no academic success. My school had attempted to address low test scores on the TAKS test and low general academic achievement by attempting to analyze the standardized test itself. The upper administration imposed policies on the administrators in my building that were questionable at best. We took to giving practice tests at the end of each grading period that were practice TAKS tests. These tests took one week each time they were given. One test was given on each day of the practice testing week. Students were required to sit silently from approximately 8:30 in the morning until dismissal at 2:50 in the afternoon. During that time students were required to take one subject area test that consisted of approximately 40 questions. After the students were finished they were required to sit still and quietly for the next several hours. They were only allowed to read or sleep. However, they could not read material that was subject matter. They were given a one gallon jug of room temperature water and a small paper cup that they were required to keep track of during the testing periods. Generally, they were allowed only one restroom break in the morning and one in the afternoon. I was extremely fortunate in that I was allowed to test in the library. I taught Pre-AP science and regular program science. In that role I taught in a lab. Because of that I was allowed to take my students to the library to test.

Students were walked to lunch where they were forbidden to talk about the test with other students. I can assure you that the test is the last thing they wanted to talk about. The lunch provided was generally a cold sandwich. Students were given a shorter period of time to eat the lunch. Then they had to go back to the testing room and remain silent the rest of the day. Most of my students and many of the students in the school finished in the first hour. After two years of this kind of routine, students in the eighth grade became extremely resentful of this routine. The test scores on the benchmarks were consistently low. Many students got into the habit of simply marking randomly. Low test scores resulted in more of the same - much more.

Teachers were then asked to analyze the "data" gained from these tests. We were asked to make reports on every student by taking data off the computer screen and writing it on copied data forms which we then turned in to the dean of instruction. She would then check off our compliance with the program.

Generally, the program that followed was a regimen of "warm-ups" aimed at improving performance on the benchmark tests - and the TAKS itself - by attempting to pinpoint material that the students had missed on the test. We used TAKS formatted questions in these warmups that were presented at the beginning of the period. This consisted of one question a day. Each question was intended to remedy or teach a particular TAKS objective.

The students in our school were bored senseless. School had become something to be endured. The time of all my students was simply wasted. Students who had mastered the material were not challenged. Those who had not mastered the material were simply not taught. The situation was terrible for everyone concerned.

All this was done at the expense of teaching a rich, varied and challenging curriculum. Our upper administration persisted in responding to low test scores by intensifying the practice testing. Teachers who protested and questioned were shut down. The administration did not allow any criticism of its orthodoxy. Our local building administration was simply told what to do. We were a district that made a great deal of noise about the value of building representation. But, the opinions of the representative counsel in the school and the faculty in general were simply discounted. Those who voiced opposition to the benchmark testing, questioned the academic value of the warmups, or objected to the time spent in test prep were labeled bad team players.

Consequently, our building was remarkably unsuccessful. Kids were unmotivated. Teachers were demoralized. The response to the problem by the superintendent could not have been worse. The most brilliant solution to a pernicious lack of curriculum development skill in the district was answered by simply arranging a whole cloth restaffing of the district. If I remember correctly, every principal and assistant principal changed position. No consideration to quality was considered. One of the most brilliant assistant principals I had ever worked for was transferred to another building "for the good of the district". Nothing was done to the upper administration staff who had presided over this travesty. Nothing was done to the curriculum practices of the district as a whole. These actions took and already demoralized staff and devastated them. The school board bought the whole package without question. As any typical school administrative body, they placed the wagons in a circle and assumed that reasoned, albeit sometimes emotional, criticism was attack.

Unfortunately, this school is not a terrible place. In fact, it is dead average. The school from which retired is unfortunately very much like many, many schools across Texas and across our great country. This is the source of my concern. I will continue in future posts to outline other practices teachers are familiar with that are as common as dirt. Among the problems that exist in our schools are pernicious and devastating zero-tolerance policies that are just destroying many, many children.

So, what is my goal in creating this web log? What I intend to do is describe to you the problems as I see them, the good things I want to congratulate, and the things that I believe you as parents and students need to know. Generally, the media does not tell the public the real problems that exist in schools. Nor do they tell you the great things that are going on in schools. Certainly, they do not showcase independent learners such as home schooling parents who often do such an excellent job of educating their children. Rather, the media tends to frame home schoolers as eccentric recluses who should be looked at with caution. In fact, most home schoolers have decided to remove their children from situations that they deem dangerous to their childrens' intellectual growth, cultural growth or spiritual growth. They are to be congratulated for the innovative people they are instead of being condemned as zealots who want to withdraw from society.

There are many great schools doing a wonderful job for most of their kids. But, if you are a parent of a child in any school environment, you should not assume that all the strange things your child may tell you about their day is constructed from whole cloth. You should question everything, examine everything and be in your childs school at unexpected times. You should look at your districts practices with a critical eye. Remember, it is your child. Their future is actually in your hands, not in the hands of the school.

More to come.

John McGeough

A Teachers Viewpoint

Welcome to A Teachers Viewpoint. My name is John McGeough. I have 31 years of experience in public education at all levels including university teaching. I am extremely troubled by what has happened to education in the last few years. I am extremely concerned about what schools may be doing to the nations children through lowered standards, violence, institutional bias and zero-tolerance policies. These are not my only concerns. The purpose of my web log is to explore what is happening to children in todays education environment.