Little Fanfare

With little fanfare the once much publicized plan to require high school students to pick majors went away today; this year it will no longer be required. This also goes to show once again that education in Florida is a little bit like the weather, if you wait long enough it will change. Unfortunately to often the people dictating the changes are far away from the classrooms and have a very limited idea of what schools, children and education needs and even more unfortunate is schools, children and education suffer for it.

The high school major idea didn’t cause much damage but many of the ideas that come down the pipeline from the state often have dramatic and unimagined consequences. The F-CAT introduced an era of high stakes testing which has seen schools exchange creating well rounded students for students who can take just one test. Increasing the graduation requirements has led to the dumbing down of many classes. The list could go on and on.

Picking majors sounds good right? It could give kids a bit of direction, though at fourteen most of them only want directions to the mall. If only the powers-that-be would take some direction and stop meddling in education. They often do so to it’s detriment.

Teacher Raises

Times being tough is one of the few things most people can agree upon. As a result I certainly understand why some people can become upset at the notion of teachers getting raises. However acutaly teachers aren’t getting raises they are getting steps.

A step says a first year teacher will get paid this much, a second year teacher will get paid a different amount and a third year teacher something different and so on. It’s the equivalent of a company paying a wielder a certain amount, a mason another and a carpenter yet a third sum. The steps themselves unless you are at the top end of the pay scale are very small and teachers haven’t seen an actual raise in several years. Okay if some of you are thinking maybe a step increase and a raise is actually a distinction without a difference, fair enough but here is where some real differences come into play.

Many teachers annually spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their students and their rooms’, money that is not reimbursed by the district. Then this year teachers saw their out of cost payment for health benefits rise substantially. As a single person my payment went from nothing to forty-seven dollars a paycheck or nearly a hundred dollars a month (my step increase as a tenth year teacher would be 22 dollars a paycheck). Single mothers and teachers with families saw their costs increase even more dramatically. Finally and this is just my opinion, I think people complaining about teachers step increases during tough times is a bit disingenuous unless they called for teacher to get raises during good times.

I doubt above is going to change anyone’s mind. I just thought some accurate information might be beneficial.

To see the teacher pay scale, click on the link below.
http://www.duvalschools.org/static/wearedcps/employeeinfo/teacher_salary_schedule.asp

Hello, my name is Al Brennan, I am the principal of Forrest high school and I hate teachers (revised)

Principal Brennan didn’t actually say that, and I doubt he feels that way, too. Sadly, that’s what numerous teachers heard when he told them at the welcome back staff meeting that if they didn’t park in their designated spots he would have their cars towed; if they didn’t turn in a classroom key, he would say they stole it (and words to the effect that he would prosecute them) and that if they were one minute late they would be disciplined. “ I wouldn’t dream of talking to my students that way, and if I did I would rightfully get in trouble”, a teacher friend of mine said.

Principal Brennan has also taken to monitoring (or having monitored) his teacher’s social networking sites, telling teachers that they can’t have students on their pages and taking umbrage to some of his staff’s status updates. I have better things to do than look at my student’s pages, and I would hope people entrusted to run schools would, as well.

It’s common practice for teachers to start the year strict with their students; that way, they have room to lighten up as the year progresses. It is also not uncommon for a principal, reappointed to an unfamiliar school, (and Mr. Brennan will be Forrest’s third principal in three years), to lay ground rules and expectations – but, like teachers shouldn’t, principals shouldn’t come off like bullies, either. Teachers try and protect their students from bullies, and should they expect any less?

I am not saying bosses can’t be bosses. I am saying the teachers that are most successful are the ones that get the kids to buy into what they are teaching; the ones that get the kids to want to work for them. The teachers that bully and browbeat their kids are usually the ones that are least successful, and so to will be those principals and administrators that act in the same fashion. In education, the message is important, but how you convey the message determines if people are going to hear it or not.

Sadly, this is where we find ourselves in 2010. Principals are told to shake things up, as teachers and principals have both become the scapegoats for the district. On one hand, teachers have gone from valued colleagues to someone who can be browbeaten, intimidated, marginalized and, worse of all, disrespected, while being put in positions where success is hard to achieve. Then, on the other hand, principals (thirty seven of which were reassigned last year), are also put in almost unattainable positions as they are told they can’t discipline, and to move as many kids along as possible. This, whether they are prepared for the next level or not, and the less than forty percent of students who read at grade level at the neighborhood high school, would seem to indicate that many are not. So much about doing both jobs successfully is about fostering positive relationships, and when both groups are put under such impossible pressure and in opposite positions, it’s really a tribute to the fine professionals we have that things aren’t worse.

The chasm between the administration and teachers is widening everyday, and that can’t be healthy for the Duval County school system. If you want more proof , look at how the superintendent declared a financial emergency just days before the school year began in order to stop teachers from getting their step increases. Many teachers took it as the district flexing their muscles as if to say, ‘look who the boss is’. Mr. Superintendent, our bosses, both yours and the teacher’s, are ultimately the children of the district and we should be doing whatever we can to make sure they are successful, and putting both principals and teachers in impossible positions is doing the opposite of that.

Andrew Carnegie once stated “you can take my buildings and resources, leave my workers, my greatest asset, and I’ll be back on top”. The school district, in contrast, treats many of its teachers and principals as if they are disposable, while at the same time playing them against each other. The sense of comraderie and teamwork between the two groups is quickly dissipating and the esprit de corps that had both groups believing they were in this together has been replaced by ‘it’s the teacher’s fault’ and ‘if this principal doesn’t crack the whip, we’ll find another one that will’, by the county’s administration and school board.

If we want to have a truly successful school system, it’s going to require a partnership between teachers and their administrators. I think teachers are the district’s number one resource and should be treated with dignity and respect. I believe the better teachers are, the better they will be for their students, as well, and I also believe if they are supported – put in positions where success is attainable, and not overwhelmed with task after task – then the district will prosper. Ater all, if the teachers didn’t show up one day, then school would slam to a halt; but if a principal didn’t show up, school would merrily chug along.

I also think schools need leaders – people that teachers can come to when they need help and someone students can look up. A principal is like a quarterback of a football team, or like the rudder of a ship. Quarterbacks probably get too much credit and too much blame when a team flounders, but they are still the ones who keep the ball moving. A ship may still be able to float without a rudder, but at the same time its sense of direction will be seriously impaired.

I wrote above that Mr. Brennan hates teachers, but let me make emphatically clear he did NOT say that in so many words, that’s just what several members of his staff felt after their welcome back staff meeting, and how they once again felt when he monitored their social network sites. He did not say that and I sincerely hope he does not feel that way, because if he did, then the faculty, staff and students at Forrest High School are all in store for a very long year.

In actuality, however, this piece has very little to do with him and the problems at Forrest High School, which are being repeated at numerous schools throughout the district. It is more about the deteriorating relationship between teachers and administrators because of the impossible expectations put upon them and the impossible positions they are put in. It’s about how the district is fostering a contentious relationship that, unless changes are made, will inevitably collapse upon itself.

John King, school board district 2

I wouldn’t go to a Doctor to take care of my legal needs and I wouldn’t go to a lawyer to take care of my medical ones either. Yet the city, election after election, chooses to go to politicians or people only with a tenuous connection to education for it’s educational needs. This Tuesday however we can say enough is enough and put educators on our school board.

Will teachers automatically be better than businessmen or politicians? I think yes. They have been working with the counties children, next to it’s teachers, in its schools and this more than running a business or being a career politician makes them better qualified. John King has been teaching for the last seven-teen years, dedicating himself to the cities children and this makes him better qualified than his opponents. Though it doesn’t stop there.

I’ll let his own words speak for himself.

John’s desire to become a School Board member is not an intentional launch of a political career. He would rather refer to it as a detour. He wants to expand the reach and services of education to all students of Duval County. He believes losing students to home schooling and private schools is unacceptable. Failing Schools can be improved. Failing students can be motivated. But this will take patience, compromise, courage, and money.
John exercises the first three, as for money, the state must be forced to re-allocate funds by active parents/voters. High reaching educational goals cannot be sacrificed nor can they be obtained on a skeleton budget. John will fight all budget cut plans.

The simply stated mission or role of the Duval County schools should be to provide each and every student with a good start in becoming a productive citizen. The school systems failure to provide differentiated pathways of graduation excludes many students whose objectives in life do not include an immediate four-year university degree. His motive is to be a VOICE for those who feel unheard, a LISTENER for those who feel ignored. By being actively involved with the student body he has continued to hear the student’s concerns about graduation requirements and the instructional path forced upon them. He wants to foster a Duval County School System that graduates more students prepared to be productive citizens in our community. (Taken with permission from, http://votejohnking.com/)

Friends Tuesday you have a choice. You can say you are okay with the status quo and how things have been running or you are not. You can say lets continue to allow career politicians to use the school board as a stepping stone on the way up or on the way down or not. You can say the school board should be made up of people who have never been in classrooms but despite this think they can fix our schools problems or not. You can do those things or not. To not do so, and to instead vote for our cities children is to vote for John King, school board district two.

Chris Guerrieri

The Times Union doesn’t get it

The Florida Times- Union

My mother worked for the Florida Times- Union for thirty years. I learned to read by reading the paper. When I was little, I would sit at the kitchen table reading the paper with my mother. I still sit at the kitchen table to read the paper. The Florida Times- Union has been a big and important part of my life, and believe me – it gives me no pleasure in saying the Florida Times -Union “just doesn’t get it”. This is hurting both Jacksonville and its children.

Jacksonville intersects two major highways. It’s on both a major river and the ocean. It has a seaport and an international airport. Our city has lots of room to grow and much of the infrastructure in place to do so. We have a professional football team, are close to entertainment hubs and have one of the best park systems in the entire country. We are a pro-business city in a pro-business state that doesn’t have an income tax, and I haven’t even mentioned how great our weather is, yet. On paper, Jacksonville should be one of the fastest- growing and most prosperous cities in the nation – but we’re not. High-wage businesses should be fighting to come here, but they are not. We should be picking and choosing, and thriving, even in these very difficult times; but, again, we’re not. And the biggest reason why we’re not is our school system.

Half of our kids can’t read at grade level. Seventy percent of our kids have to take remedial classes when they get to Florida State College. Our graduation rate and drop- out rates are some of the worst in the state. Employers report a hard time finding a capable workforce. Crime is up, employment is down and civility (or , rather, the lack thereof) is rampant. All of these have their roots in our local public school system.

When the Florida Times- Union, (who would greatly benefit, by the way, from Jacksonville reaching its potential), gives the School Board and the district administration a pass, it’s saying we don’t understand how important a good public school system is. It must be saying that, because if they understood and acted in the same manner, they would be saying they didn’t care.

The Florida Times- Union often acts as a shill for the school board as it merrily reports whatever they say and applies little critical thinking or analysis. In the past year, they have run articles on suspensions being down; grade recovery making an impact; reading programs that are making a difference and an increase in the number of students enrolled in advanced placement classes as all being positives. Unfortunately, discipline is being eroded and grade recovery has become a mockery in that students can attempt it for whatever reason. When I asked the reading teacher of the student profiled in the piece on reading programs, she had never heard of grade recovery. And, kids who have no business being put into AP classes are being put into them. These are just a few examples.

Furthermore, the school board and the Florida Times-Union often like to point out that the Department of Education has ranked us a B district. Both also like to mention all the A and B schools we have. Yet, where is the article on what makes up a B district? Where is the story about how most of these schools funnel into F and D high schools? Where is the story about how private school enrollment is declining everywhere in the state except in Jacksonville where it is growing? Where is the story about how the school system is contracting as the city slowly grows? The Florida Times- Union has also printed several articles about the library’s travel budget, which is meager when compared to the school district’s $450,000 travel budget. Why is the library system vilified at the same time the school system gets a pass?

I recently read an editorial in the Florida Times- Union which called for patience, and reiterated that change takes time. My question is, how many kids do we have to sacrifice on the altar of patience before we say enough is enough? Our problems did not miraculously appear overnight and, if anything, many people in the schools think they are getting worse. I read another editorial that in one paragraph talked about the problems with this year’s F-CAT and in another paragraph pointed out the schools that did very well. Well, which is it – do we like the F-CAT when it tells us what we want to hear and don’t like it when it doesn’t?

Our Superintendent, Ed Pratt Dannals, said something almost verbatim in a letter to the district published on the district’s website. He has also, in the last few months, blamed Florida State College’s entrance exam as a reason why so many of our graduates have had to take remedial classes. He mentioned how parents and teachers need to improve and said, ‘the school system is one good community away from having a good school system’. These are paraphrased quotes taken from the Florida Times –Union, and you can go back and look if you think I have taken them out of context. In short, it’s everybody’s fault but his that the school district is struggling. School Superintendent Ed Pratt Dannals gets a pass from the Florida Times- Union. Could you imagine Mayor Peyton getting a pass if he said some similar things?

Then, when the Florida Times- Union endorses status- quo politicians for the school board, it’s saying that they are okay with business as usual. When it supports state politicians that are obviously anti-education, then the Florida Times-Union is saying that they are anti-education as well. If education is the motor that drives our city, it’s sputtering and badly in need of an overhaul, yet the Florida Times- Union wants to go another hundred thousand miles or so before it looks under the hood. I get how reasonable people can disagree on solutions, but to think the status- quo is allright or that people who are anti-education should be representing us is unreasonable. A common definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over yet expecting a different out come”. I don’t know if the Florida Times- Union is crazy or if they are just okay with the same outcome.

What the Florida Times- Union doesn’t get is that if there are going to be real changes, people are going to have to be made aware of the problems. They can’t be glossed over, ignored or made to sound like successes. It’s only in the Florida Times- Union that the public can get thoughtful analysis and detailed pieces; there is no other local media where that can occur. If the Florida Times- Union isn’t going to do it, who will? And, if nobody is going to do it, then the city is going to continue down the same path we are on. If nobody is going to do it, then at best, we’ll continue with the status-quo and never reach our potential – or, we’ll become the Detroit of the south, a dying city.

I read the Florida Times- Union every day, and it breaks my heart that they seem okay with how things are and that they have abdicated their responsibility as steward of the city. It breaks my heart that they just don’t get it (I hope that’s the case). To think that they do get it but don’t care is almost too terrible to contemplate. But, what’s worse is if they never get it, then the children of Jacksonville may never get it, either; what they need and what the city needs is a first- class school system.

Differentiated Disaster

The latest cure-all for education is “Differentiated Instruction”. It means ‘meet the students where they are and teach them to their ability’. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately it’s not – it’s actually very harmful, and this is why:

Imagine you are watching a football game. The running back takes a toss from the quarterback and rushes around end. It’s the defense’s job to stop him, except, in this case, all the defensive players have their hands and feet tied together. There is no way the running back can’t score unless he doesn’t try at all or just fails to show up. This is what the powers-that-be want to turn education into and they want the teachers to do it.

Let me give you another example. Three kids are in a tenth-grade biology class. They finish a unit and a test is given. Kid One is required to answer fifty questions and to write a short essay. Kid Two is required to answer twenty-five questions and write a paragraph and Kid Three is required to answer ten questions and draw a picture. If you don’t think that’s fair you, are not the only one – unfortunately, teachers are being told “what’s fair isn’t always what’s equal.” In this example, the teacher is meeting the kids where they are and teaching them to their ability. In the end, all three can get the exact same grade and earn the exact same credit and they can do so because they are in the exact same class.

People from the district and state say to teachers all the time “differentiate your instruction”, and they say it like it’s as easy as breathing, but it’s not. In high school and middle school teachers often have 125-150 children. Teachers can’t possibly come up with 150 variations of the same lesson each day to teach. However, what is possible is for teachers to group their lessons in a couple of different ways, but all options leave something to be desired.

I would say the most prevalent way for teachers to do this is by teaching to the lowest common denominator – planning their lessons for the kids on the lowest end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, this means the kids at the top end of the spectrum often become bored and go unchallenged. They are getting the material but not much more.

If a teacher taught to the highest group, the lowest group would more than likely fall behind and not get the extra intensive help they might require. If the teacher tried to teach to the middle of the road, then those in the high and low groups still lose out. No matter what teachers do, some kids are not going to get what they need or they will fall through the cracks. This is because in many classes, the school system does not want to break kids up according to their ability because they believe it will cause a stigma to be attached to the low ability groups. Unfortunately, this dogged determination to not group kids is going to hurt more than their self-esteem – it’s going to handicap them for life.

When students get to college, do you think their professors are going to change their curriculum to meet them where they are? No, kids are going to sink or swim, and more are going to sink because in public school everything is being modified to fit them. What about when a kid gets a job? Do you think their boss is going to say ‘you stock fifty shelves, but you only have to stock twenty because that plays more to your ability’. If you think for a second that’s going to happen I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

Schools are setting up a lot of kids to fail once they get into the real world because schools are no longer teaching them how the real world works.

I am not saying if a kid doesn’t need extra help they shouldn’t receive it, and I am not saying that if a kid has a legitimate disability, accommodations and modifications shouldn’t be provided. What I am saying is there should be a minimum standard for every kid and if, for whatever reason, a kid can’t reach it, well that’s too bad – and if you think that’s cruel of me to say, that’s the exact same thing their professors in college will say, and it’s the exact same thing their bosses at their jobs will say, too. In real life, not everybody gets a trophy just for showing up.

One of the biggest problems we have in education is that the people who make the rules don’t teach the children. They come up with ideas like “Differentiated Instruction” that admittedly sound good but, in practice, are impractical and often create not only more problems, but often also fail to correct the problem they were created for. Grouping kids according to their ability may damage their self-esteem, though kids are resilient and usually bounce back, but it may also provide them with what they need, as well – and that’s tailored instruction and a snapshot of how the real world works.

Fair should be equal and the only place it’s not is at your local public school.

Shame on the Times Union for not supporting the city’s children

It’s disappointing to see the Times Union pick career politicians over teachers for two of the school board races. In effect they are saying the way we have been doing things (putting career politicians using the board as a stepping stone, undoubtedly up for Mr. Lee, and down for Mr. Smith) is working and nothing could be further from the truth.

The board desperately needs people who are working with the cities children next to its teachers in its schools. They better than people filled with hubris how have a tenuous relationship to education are what we need. Becki Couch and John King where not as experienced politically are better qualified.

Doing the same thing over and over yet expecting a different out come is a common definition of insanity. To follow the times unions picks where perhaps not insanity is certainly folly. I am not questioning the character of their picks, I am questioning their qualifications and unless they have been in the schools day after day then they are undoubtedly out of their depths.

Shame on you Times Union for supporting the status quo, when it’s the status quo that has contributed to running our city into the ground. How about next time instead of extoling experience you instead look out for the best needs of the cities children.

Very disapointing

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Reverse Psychology: Collaboration

Reverse psychology is one of the oldest and lamest tricks in the book. It’s where you tell somebody they are scared of something with the expectation that they will try and prove you wrong by doing it. Several times this week, when talking about collaboration, it’s been implied that teachers are scared of it. ‘It’s new, so teachers don’t like it’, and ‘teachers think it’s safer to rely on themselves’ have both been thrown out there.

I think collaboration is great. Teachers can often learn strategies and techniques from each other. Then, in the upper grades, students usually have multiple teachers and there we can learn from each other what is and what isn’t working with a particular student. These are strategies (and I am not sure the powers-that-be know it) that teachers have been employing for as long as there has been education; I am sure Plato ran some ideas past Socrates in his time.

For some reason, however, collaboration has recently become all the rage; it’s as if the powers-that-be in their far-off ivory towers discovered fire or peanut butter or something equally amazing – and this is part of the problem. Education will always needs tweaking and smoothing; unfortunately, the district has decided to hit education with a sledge hammer and then hit it again and again and they call the sledge hammer “Collaboration”.

In their effort to make sure I get enough time with my fellow teachers, I have been required to join a small learning community (SLC), a professional learning community (PLC), and a teaching team. Also, as an ESE teacher, I still have to meet with the ESE staff. That’s right, I am now part of four groups that will have four sets of meetings. It may be a while, but at some point down the road I am sure I will have to go to a meeting about meetings. Some teachers have it even worse, as they are in even more learning communities and in between all this collaboration we are supposed to do our planning and actually teach our classes – you know, the things that teachers are supposed to do.

They got it wrong; teachers aren’t afraid of collaboration, they just want to be able to get home while it’s still light outside and they don’t want to have to take a break from writing lesson plans or grading papers to be able to tuck their own children into bed.

I am going to try a little reverse psychology of my own: “Hey, powers-that-be; keep overwhelming teachers and putting them in positions where success is hard to achieve”. Yeah, that will lead to success. (I wonder if that will work)?

A Lack of honesty

There is something comforting about honesty, even if you don’t like what you are hearing. Immediately, you know what’s going on and/or you know where you stand. Sadly, our educational leaders here in Jacksonville traditionally haven’t been that honest. Remember these? “Kids can get the same education at neighborhood schools as they can at magnet schools”… “Tying Principal’s evaluations to suspensions does not affect discipline”… and, finally, among other whoppers: “The district respects its teachers and thinks they are our most valuable resource”. However, where the district has a long way to go on the honesty road, at least in the last few days they did make some strides.

For years, teachers have dedicated a disproportionate amount of time teaching just to the F-CAT test. All other facets of education sadly became secondary. Well, this year at several schools throughout the district, they have gone ahead and created an F-CAT prep class that every student will take every day. Now, since the district has not completely committed to honesty, they are instead calling it an “enrichment/remediation class”. Don’t worry though; kids will receive credit for the class. It’s what’s called an academic elective; unfortunately, I am not sure if many kids would have elected to take it had they been given the option.

Next, the district made some honest changes to the Grade Recovery program. In theory, grade recovery was for students who missed a lot of days for an illness or another legitimate reason, or for kids that came to school, worked hard and tried hard but just didn’t “get it”. They could make up work, and, if they did well improve their grade. In reality, however, any kid could do it regardless of the reason they failed a class. The district renamed “grade recovery” – it’s now called “learning recovery” . Just like the county; if they think something has a negative connotation they change the name – say goodbye, “autistic”, say hello, “communication and sensory deficit”. They also officially changed the requirements – now, any kid can legitimately take it regardless of the reasons (behavior, absences, lack of effort) they failed. Now, that’s honesty in full effect!

There’s something comforting about honesty even if you don’t like what you are hearing. If only our school district was a little more honest more often, maybe people would understand the damage they are doing to the cities children.

Steve Berrey

I received the following letter from district six candidate, Steve Berrey.

Mr. Guerrieri,

My name is Steve Berrey and yes, I am the husband of a teacher, the father of five children – four of which have graduated or are attending DCPS. No professional development is NOT what I stood for. I don’t know if you got that from somewhere else but it didn’t come from me

I want to massively downsize the bureaucracy that is 1701 prudential drive… I want to restore teacher control of the classroom and end social promotion – for the students and the administrators that have often failed as principals so we move them up. I want to give teachers more accessibility to successful training – not the one-size-fits-all Shultz Center.

My business background is secondary to my concerns for our economy. We cannot continue to lose residents to Clay, St. Johns and Nassau counties due to our poor schools.

But when a teacher is told to “stop writing referrals” that makes no sense to me. When a principal is told to “not suspend so many students” you handcuff both the teacher and the principal from doing their jobs … Then we blame them when the test scores go down.

It’s time we ENFORCED our dress code; our truancy policy; and our attendance policy. It’s time we let the teacher TEACH … Not instruct or baby-sit

Thank you for this forum. I only wish I had found it earlier.

Steve Berrey

I completely agree with all of Mr. Berreys points and if he wins I hope he can follow through with them and doesn’t get bogged down in the massive bureaucracy that inhabits 1701 Prudential Drive, like some ghoul might inhabit a crypt. If somebody else wins I hope they enact Mr. Berreys ideas and we need lot’s of ideas. A colleague earlier today when talking about the district said, we have more issues than Time magazine. I didn’t disagree.

Finally I believe I read in the Folio that Mr. Berrey was for increased professional development, and I admit profession development does have it’s place though the way the district does it leaves much to be desired. If I misconstrued that or even plain out got it wrong (it’s been known to happen) I apologize.