Hoodwinked

Hoodwinked, bamboozled, had the rug pulled out from under or just plain lied to all fit for what the state did to thousands of teachers the other day. With little fanfare the Florida Department of Education announced they ended the Critical Teacher Shortage (CTS) loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement program. They did so because the legislature decided not to fund it anymore.

This is the same legislature that told thousands of people in the business world and prospective teachers that if they joined the profession and taught in areas of critical needs, math, science and special education that they would have their loans forgiven. Now all of these people are going to be saddled with debt that they were told that if they did the right thing that they wouldn’t have to pay. Though it’s not only the unfulfilled promise that’s the problem here but why would teachers stay or go into the most challenging areas of education now?

This happened during the same legislative session where they capped the amount of taxes that the buyers of new yachts have to pay.

This happened during the same legislative session where they tried (and may still do) to circumnavigate the will of the people by rolling back the class size amendment.

This happened during the same legislative session where it took a veto from the governor to stop from passing, the punitive towards teachers and badly written senate bill six.

This happened during the same legislative session where they continued to violate the constitution of Florida by refusing to fund education in a first class manner.

This happened during the same legislative session that approved increased tax breaks to companies that finance vouchers taking even more money away from the already cash starved public school system.

This happened during the same legislative session where they dramatically increased graduation requirements despite the fact that thousands ands upon thousands of students can’t reach the requirements already in place.

The other day thousands of teachers who counted on the promise of having their student loans forgiven if they agreed to teach in an area of critical need were hoodwinked but they weren’t the only ones. Parents who believed the legislature had the best interest for and actually cared about their children had the wool pulled over their eyes too.

Hoodwinked, bamboozled, had the rug pulled out from under, the wool pulled over their eyes or were just plain lied to all fit for what the state did to thousands of teachers the other day. Sadly that’s the same thing they have been doing to parents, children and the citizens of Florida for a while.

School Reform

The editorial about school reform had several significant statistics about the high school in Rhode Island that recently garnered national attention when it fired it’s whole staff. Though it omitted a few. Like the fact there were recent fairly impressive gains in reading, gains in math and that the staff was only fired when the teachers there balked at working for free. I think it’s important that after years of neglect the Times Union editorial board has suddenly taken an interest in education but I think they would do their position and the city of Jacksonville more benefit if they didn’t cherry pick facts.

Furthermore the article talks about teachers and the school board working together but at the same time several schools here in town have had school improvement grants forced upon them without the approval of their staffs. One of the possible outcomes of the grants is a firing of a schools entire staff if certain criteria is not met.

The truth is there are serious problems with education here in Jacksonville and until we as a city decide we want to take then seriously and the first step is to stop blaming teachers for what is going on, then we’re going to have the same problems, and our children and are city will continue to suffer because of it.

The girl with muddy feet

She came to my class with mud up to her ankles, I looked at her and shook my head, I considered asking what had happened, but I decided not to, I had Individual education plans, behavior plans and lesson plans to write along with a class to teach and twenty other disabled children to attend to.

She took her seat and within a few moments her head went down to her desk, I considered asking her to sit up and participate in class, but experience had taught me this was probably not the best thing for everybody involved. She rarely does her work and most of her interactions are negative. I would love to save them all but the reality is I can’t, days like this I didn’t feel like I could save any.

Later I saw a few colleagues in the lounge and I considered asking them how the muddy footed sleeping girl was doing in their classes, and this time for some reason I followed through. “How is little Suzy doing?” I asked.

I wasn’t surprised to hear she rarely came to their classes, though I thought to myself what am I doing wrong, because she is always in mine, nor was I surprised to hear she didn’t do any work for them either. I shook my head and said something that you will hear daily in schools across the county. “You know that girls not dumb, she’s just so immature.”

“What do you expect” another teacher replied, “She was in fifth grade two years ago, socially promoted to sixth grade last year, a few months later grade adjusted to eighth and then boom she’s in high school after one year in middle school, I feel sorry for her, really I do.”

Welcome to special education in Duval County.

I feel sorry for her, really I do, is a sentiment I share, sometimes when you look into her eyes you can see a fast fading spark of potential. There have been a few times when she was bright and engaging but sadly there are sandwiched around to many wasted days.

Despite the fact she is in an age appropriate class, she is clearly overwhelmed. But it’s as if the powers that be have decided the grade adjustment is the cure-all for children with disabilities, though I have to say this is better than their last plan which seemed to be to sprinkle fairy dust on their heads and then sit back and watch their disabilities fade away.

She is just one of a dozen kids grade adjusted to Ed White this year many of whom are doing poorly, though the problems in special education don’t just stop there.

Another ESE girl has sat in, in school suspension (ISSP) for weeks, because there was no where else for her to go. When you ask her teachers about her, they say she rarely comes but when she does she is incorrigible. She has been in a half dozen fights this year along with multiple other offences, last year she earned one credit and she is on a pace todo worse this year. She is the poster child for needing an incredibly restrictive environment, social work services and counseling, but instead of getting those things, here she sits in ISSP a danger to herself and others. Special education children can only be suspended over the course of the year for ten days, and I don’t think it has dawned on the powers that be, that perhaps the reason these particular children are suspended so often is because they are misplaced.

It is incredibly difficult to move the special ed. child, regardless of their needs or what is best for them. The students in my classes remind me of Goldilocks porridge options. I have students in the same class that with accommodations and modifications could be successful in regular classes, students who should be in functional classes lower than mine and then the ones that are just right. When I taught severely emotionally disturbed kids (normal intelligence severe behavior problems), I had mentally handicapped kids in my class. When I taught trainably mentally handicapped kids I had a young autistic man, when I taught autistic students there was a little girl in my class I believe there just so her family could receive a social security check and when I worked at the magnet high school for severely disabled children one of my students drove to school. The process to change misdiagnosed children placement is time consuming and complicated and supposed to be done by teachers that already have incredibly full plates.

Warehoused studentsthat aren’t gettign the attention and services they both need and deserve, new edicts, which force teachers to teach water downed academics to kids that will neverget it,instead of life and employability skills, increasingly complex individual education plans, which no one can decifer and fewer people care about, people never in the classroom passing down new rules during the middle of the school year which just serve to cover the counties ass, and not the children, it’s maddening, and it’s depressing and it’s defeating.

Don’t get me wrong there are so many caring teachers who despite all this roll up their sleeves and everyday do great things and countywide there are many success stories, but they take place within a system that is broken, run by a school board that is afraid of being sued and has lost sight of why they are here and that’s to help kids, not just warehouse them until the age out. Children can’t be done halfass which is what is happening herein Duval county.

A colleague once told me that years ago many of the students I teach would have been institutionalized years ago. The thing is, for a lot of these children as things stand now, they may have been better off.

I later learned the girl with the muddy feet was skipping her early classes so she and a few other students could go to the woods, most likely to do just what you are imagining. She would return and attend my class because it was later in the day and she needed to be able to catch the bus home. I considered doing something, taking up her cause, demanding she get the help and services she needs, like I said I considered it but then I thought why should she be the one lone exception that happens to, why should she be special. I can’t save anybody. I can’t even save me .

I then went home with my shoulders slumped and my head down and despite the fact the sun was still out and would be for quite some time, I went to bed.

I went to bed.

Statistics

There is an old saying that I think is somewhat appropriate when discussing education and that’s only liars and politicians use statistics. Friends that’s the set up.

I recently read an editorial in the Times Union describing how over the next decade the nation will desperately need more individuals with college degrees and we were projected to fall about three million short. They sited several impressive statistics from several impressive organizations and implied America’s economic future was at stake. I was sold, just like that.

Just like I was sold when years ago the school board gave a talk about how children who fail the sixth grade rarely finish school and like I was sold when the same school board explained why they needed to tweak ninth grade promotion requirements. It seems if a kid fails sixth grade their percentage of reaching high school is greatly diminished and if they failed ninth grade their chances of finishing high school also drop greatly. That’s why it only takes five credits to pass ninth grade. The powers-that-be reasoned students would be able to make up the missing credits over the next three years.

On the surface I found none of the aims and statistics unreasonable, after all we want kids to pass, we don’t want kids to drop out and we want kids to go to college and I also believe we should do almost anything we can to make sure those things happen. Nope none of it is unreasonable at all, when taken in a vacuum that is.

Though that’s the thing with statistics, they can give you percentages or odds but your son or daughter, niece or nephew or neighbor is not a number on a spreadsheet they are an individual and should be treated as such. When we don’t fail kids, push them along or put many in situations they have no business being in then they pay they price not the statistics. Furthermore when the above statistics play a role in developing our policy and philosophy as a district we can easily see the problems that they create, and that my friends, is the rub.

If we pass sixth graders without the skills they need to be successful we have just sent their problems down the line and we can do so all the way to high school where even there it only takes five credits to pass the ninth grade. However once they get to tenth grade there’s nowhere else for them to get moved to, then friends it’s sink or swim and many aren’t swimming. I would be very interested to know what grade sees the most kids drop out. I would bet it would be right around tenth grade where promotion requirements loose much of their flexibility. But hey we got them there right?

Then not every child is going to college and our push to make every child do so is littered with failure. Our graduation and drop out rates are high. Seventy percent of our graduates have to take remedial classes and the rates of kids passing advanced placement tests has been steadily declining. What good is having all these rigorous classes like algebra II and chemistry if we don’t have the rigor.

Friends you have to realize that just passing kids along and then them not being prepared are directly related to each other. We can have the great hopes and dreams but don’t our children deserve realistic ones. Then you have to realize we have to make a change before more of our kids become nothing but statistics.

We can’t govern how we do things based on statistics generated in far off think tanks by people who have never worked with our kids. We need to get in with the kids ourselves and find their strengths and weaknesses and deal with them individually. If it’s fail them in sixth grade that should be all right as well as long as they use the extra time to get the skills they need to be successful. If that’s go to college great, if it’s not that’s great too. Regardless our aim should be to prepare them to be good and productive citizens.

Teachers can’t be forced to worry about how their students will do in a global economy if they can’t keep the students awake in their classes. We can’t demand that every student is prepared for college but at the same time be okay that more than a few don’t make any effort in school.

We need to worry about the students we have in front of us not the students we wish we had. We need to do what we can do and not be so fixated on what we wish we could do. We can look at the statistics and odds but we need to know that sometimes people beat the odds too.

If we don’t we’re going to have other statistics to worry about such as a spiraling economy that never recovers, a higher crime rate and more and more children neither prepared for college or the workforce who just drain society of what few resources it has.

If we don’t make any changes what do you think the odds of that are?

That my friends is the tragedy.

Recent Headline

An 18 year old was charged with a fatal shooting in Arlington.

Another teen 16 was part of a gang that murdered a man over a drug deal and stuffed his body in the trunk of a car.

Three teens, ages 15, 16 and 17 recently killed a man for three dollars.

This on the heels of last springs killing of pizza delivery woman Sarah Hotham being murdered by three teens age 18, 17 and 15.

When I read these tragic headlines about teenage murderers I can’t help but think, after I stop shaking my head in disgust, how were these kids in school? My guess is they weren’t the best and some undoubtedly were the worse. That and after a moment of reflection, that I also wouldn’t be surprised if their school experience led at least one of them if not more down the tragic and disastrous paths they took.

Schools are often a place where you meet your best friends at, the ones you go to the movies with, to the mall with and sadly these days where some children decide to kill with.

When schools don’t give children consequences for their behavior they learn however they act is acceptable and believe you me this is a lesson they will keep a lot longer than how to break down a sentence or how to do a quadratic equation. When other children see those students receiving no real consequences they learn that bad behavior is acceptable as well. This causes many to start, repeat or imitate bad behavior. Schools in effect are teaching numerous kids, even kids from decent homes with involved parents that bad behavior is okay. It’s an unfortunate fact but when schools ignore bad behavior they accept and teach it.

Many kids no longer look up to their teachers. We’re not the role models we were a generation ago. Now they look up to the kid who is always in trouble and I use the word trouble loosely. They are the cool ones to followed and revered and teachers are green or worse for not understanding why. It’s the norm to talk back, question and argue with adults, to curse in class or to dress however they want.

Students look up to those kids who always seem to get away with whatever they do or are unfazed by punishments. I have had kids come back from jail and captivate their peers with their stories. Jail sounds fun, are actual words I have heard from some students.

Teachers at many schools now days either accept a lot of bad behavior or just look the other way and hope for the best. There are so many battles we choose not to fight because there is usually a bigger battle coming or because we don’t get any back up when we decide to make a stand. What have you done we are asked or quizzed to prevent the bad behavior, almost as if kids aren’t supposed to know cursing, threatening, arguing, yelling, not doing their work or sleeping in class is okay to do.

Did you stop class and call the parents? What are you doing wrong? The student said this, what do you have to say about that? Are things I and others have heard from administrators. Though what I have heard from students is worse.

Besides expletive riddled tirades I have also heard, you’re the one who’s going to get in trouble if you write me up or nothings going to happen me or good I don’t want to be here anyways. These are all common responses from students to warnings that if their behavior doesn’t improve their presence will no longer be allowed. The inmates are practically running the asylum

I think I must have led my school in referrals last year writing about fifty but I could have written a thousand. Of the fifty referrals I wrote and like I said I wrote a lot more than most teachers, I would guess at least a third were ignored by the administration as I never received a copy of them back and of the rest for the most part their punishment was to finish the period in ISSP. I know teachers who have stopped writing referrals whose only defence is to accept or hope kids sleep in their class or are absent. There is a whole segment of students where for them doing work, being respectful or paying attention is optional.

I don’t know how schools fix families or neighborhoods. I don’t know how schools are supposed to make children who weren’t raised with a sense of whats right and wrong develop one but at the same time with all my heart I believe that schools must give children a snap shot of how life should work. They must say if you work hard you will be rewarded but if you act up there will be consequences and remember for a consequence to work it must be meaningful, it must make sure the child does not want to repeat the behavior. If it doesn’t do that it’s just an inconvenience and I believe an inconvenience that can lead to worse behavior, and in some extreme instances maybe even murder.

Education arguably plays a role in every facet of our city and when I read the headlines form above I become very concerned for Jacksonville. These kids should be trying out for football or preparing for prom but instead they are out committing murders. I am not calling for extreme measures. I am not saying lets blow up the system. All I am saying if we want things to improve lets do at least the minimum of what we are supposed to.

Could we have saved one of those kids above? Could we have saved one of their victims had we done just what we’re supposed to be doing? Worse however is how many more kids are we going to loose and how many others are going to loose their lives if we continue to do things the way we are? You don’t need to answer that last question, I am sure if nothing changes the headlines of the future will let us know.

Blame Game

I feel like Tonyaa Weatherbee’s heart is in the right place when she urges people to help find solutions to our education crisis and to stop playing the blame game. I just wonder how this is possible because many of the actors who have helped cause our current situation are still in charge and don’t seem to be moving forward with many ideas for improvement. Or the ones they offer are recycled and tired.

One of the things that drives me crazy is when business and community leaders get together and say what the school system needs is more mentors as if somehow that is going to be a panacea to all of educations problems. Mentors are great and do provide a service but do you know what schools need more? The need buses, lots and lots of buses.

Students who fail classes shouldn’t be given the opportunity to stay after school to improve they should be required to do so. Hey little Johnny, want to stay after and work on getting that F in math up? Nope, okay we’ll see you tomorrow.

Then students who act up should be required to get a consequence and for a consequence to be effective it must be meaningful, like say maybe staying after school to work or serve detention. And why don’t both of these things happen more often? Well in high school it’s because we don’t have buses, we don’t have a way of getting these kids home. Here’s a solution business and community leaders get off your butts and either raise money for buses or lobby the Jacksonville Transportation authority to put in bus stops at all the high schools and then to give all public school students who apply for them free bus passes.

Also last time I checked the school district was still being run by an administration who believed in a one size fits all curriculum, passing kids who don’t have the skills to be successful, doesn’t seriously believe in discipline and whose most important function seems to be putting a pretty bow on everything to ensure they stay in charge. How are we supposed to have meaningful change until those things are addressed? Friends all the mentors in the world aren’t going to able to help until we fix those things, buses might help though.

Teachers won’t speak up, the union seems only to be interested in teachers salary and time off, parents either don’t care or are overwhelmed by life, students don’t have self control, the state has saddled the district with both the f-cat and inadequate funding, and nobody wants to step and pay for a first class education system. All we have is blame and Ms. Weathersbee there is plenty of blame to go around.

The really crazy thing is it won’t take reinventing the wheel, blowing up the works or breaking the bank to make meaningful changes either. We start by enforcing the code of conduct; no longer can it be a practically ignored paper lion. Then we don’t pass children who don’t have the skills to be successful at the next level by making sure we have rigor in our classrooms. There should be no shame in failing a grade or even two if once a child graduates they are prepared for what comes next whether it is going to college or joining the workforce. Then we put in safety nets in place like social workers and counselors for our most troubled and desperate students and have both optional and mandatory after school and summer school opportunities. Then we develop alternative curriculums that service more children. We teach trades and skills and we make the arts as big a priority as math and science. We also have different tracks for those going to college because engineers, writers, and social workers all need different skills.

Some of that will take additional money but most of it will just take the will to do what is right. Until then every child who falls through the cracks, drops out, has their needs and desires ignored or graduates without the skills to be successful needs to be allowed to have their blame. Quite frankly they won’t have much else.

Same in Same out: The F-cat

If you are having a hard time judging how the county did on the F-Cat I think that’s understandable. It can be difficult to look at the statistics and know exactly what an improvement is especially when different parties might disagree. The Duval County School Board web site has a very positive spin, though if the past is any indicator they could spin a school burning down as an opportunity to practice building conservation. Then the Times Unions headline was Northeast Florida schools get mixed FCAT results and if you know anything about the typical Times Union coverage of the DCSB, that’s them pretty much blasting the district. So what to do?

Well when I wanted to know how to interpret all the data, the pluses, the minues and the pushes, to get to the real nitty gritty, I looked at one of my teacher colleagues updated facebook status which said, Checked out the FCAT Scores online …. Not pretty 🙁 Next year is gonna be a WHOLE lot of *fun*

I sighed and not because I sensed sarcasm there but because this past year wasn’t a whole lot of fun either.

This past year saw a lot of changes to the teaching profession and to what teachers were required to do. When I started teaching a little over a decade ago I could fit six lesson plans on a page, where this year I was required to create individual lesson plans that were often more than two pages long. Next Data became the word as the year as teachers were required to create complicated and time consuming data notebooks that took the place of the information most teachers could get just working with their students for a few days. Then teachers were required to create word walls, board configurations, artifact maps, agenda boards, group justifications, basically a list of extra tasks a mile long and that was before teaching even began and for many teachers this robbed them of both their creativity and enthusiasm.

To make sure teachers word walls were correct and that the standards were posted, there were stress inducing and time stealing state walk throughs, district walk throughs, academic coach walk throughs and administration walk throughs too. Unfortunately there main concern didn’t seem to be how the teacher was teaching or if the students were learning but if everything was uniform and posted in the right position.
Then this year it seemed like we gave up any pretense of not teaching just to the test. In this era of high stakes test taking it has been going on for quite some time but this year it was more focused than ever. We had blitz sessions, practice tests days, after school and Saturday sessions, and meeting after meeting all about the f-cat. Speaking of meetings I actually went to one meeting, I kid you not about all the other meetings I had to go to.

Basically for a few extra points on the f-cat the district put yokes on the back of teachers, subtly cajoling then into working hundreds of hours of unpaid over time by giving them more responsibilities to do in a day than was possible. Forcing them to be away from their friends and families in order to complete tasks that at best only had a peripheral relationship with teaching. Since Jacksonville has a school district that is almost universally believed to be struggling this begs a few questions, the first of which is, what are we doing wrong?

Teachers are working harder and longer than ever before but for the most are just concentrating on the one thing the district has deemed important the f-cat but despite all that they are doing, on average kids are making marginal gains at best. You would think since the district has put all its energies into one task, we would be doing a lot better. There’s not a lot of joy in schools these days and even though there is a lot of hard work going on we are having less and less to show for it.

I may have a solution.

The Premack principal basically says people will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity, for example, eat your vegetables before you can have your desert. There are no deserts in schools any more, not for teachers or for students.

What would happen if instead of micromanaging teachers, giving them more tasks than they can do, thus stealing some of the joy from many, the district gave teachers autonomy, just a list of what was to be covered. Encouraged creativity, telling them to find their kids strengths and to teach to them and then finally asking them to give just one extra unpaid hour a day so they don’t get burned out or feel overwhelmed.

What would happen if instead of making school a dreary place for many children filled with many classes they aren’t interested in we tailored curriculum’s to their likes and at least in high school had reasonable schedules that aided them in being successful.

I didn’t always love school growing up and there were sometimes I didn’t even like it. I grew up in an era, not that long ago where one test didn’t determine my fate. I can’t imagine the pressure that must be on some kids especially the ones just marginally interested in school or whose schedules have no classes they could look forward to. There was a time however when I loved being a teacher, I would look forward to coming up with lessons and engaging and working with my classes. Now however I often feel as overwhelmed as the kids, actually teaching hasn’t become drudgery but so much else during the day has. It would be disingenuous of me not to say that hasn’t taken it’s toll and I don’t think I am the only teacher that could say that.

I see everyday the way we do things and I see the results and like I think you should be, I am unimpressed.

Would we do worse if we tried a different approach? Could we do worse?

I would bet we would do better and much better. People typically perform a higher level when they enjoy the thing that they are doing or have something to look forward to and that goes for teaching and learning as well.

So how did we as a county do on the f-cat? You tell me. How d you think we will continue to do unless we change things? You tell me that one too.