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Where Kids Learn It

“Teens Say Bullying Is Widespread,” is the unsurprising headline in USA Today.  In a survey released this week, roughly 50% of teens say they’ve bullied someone in the past year, and 50% say they’ve been bullied themselves.  I’d like to see these numbers represented in a venn diagram so we could determine the overlap.

The survey, by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, discovered additional unsettling statistics:

•52% of students say they have hit someone in anger

•28% say it’s OK to hit or threaten a person who angers them (37% of boys, 19% of girls).

“There’s a tremendous amount of anger,” Michael Josephson, the president of the Institute observes.

Huh.  Wonder where that comes from. 

On the same page on which this story appears, another headline says, “R.I Candidate Says Obama Can ‘Shove It.’” The lead story is all about midterm elections and how “angry” voters are. 

Professor Sally Kuykendall at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says that somehow kids are “getting the Father-and-son message” that violence is an acceptable way to deal with conflict.

The study also found that one-third of high school students say violence is a big problem at school and almost 25% said they don’t feel safe at school.  Ten percent admitted to taking a weapon to school, and 16% say they have gone to school intoxicated.

“The combination of bullying, a penchant toward violence when one is angry, the availability of weapons, and the possibility of intoxication at school increases significantly the likelihood of retaliatory violence, “ Josepheson says.

One of the first lessons we learn as new parents is that whatever we do, our children observe us and learn from us.  And as children grow older, they learn from adults in private and public life.  Telling the President to shove it?  Nice.










First Amendment Rights for Teachers

A teachers who wants to challenge her students through her choices of materials, discussion topics, writing Firstamendment1 assignments, or units of study may provoke opposition from parents who disagree with those choices.  Under a worse case scenario, she may even lose her job.

Tipp City, Ohio teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall found herself in that situation in March of 2002 when the board of education terminated her contract.  Evans-Marshall sued the board on the basis that it had violated her First Amendment right to free speech.  In the end, the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit last week handed down its decision that teachers in fact have no First Amendment free speech protection for curricular decisions.  Instead, the board of education has the right to “regulate the content of what is or is not expressed in the classroom.”

The details of the situation will sound familiar to many school administrators.  Evans-Marshall’s reading choices offended some parents, who complained to the principal.  The principal, wishing to avoid conflict with parents, told the teacher to pick other books.  But the controversy had already gotten legs, and 500 parents signed a petition ostensibly against the teacher’s choices, even though it seems unlikely that most of these folks had ever read the books in question or had children in the teacher’s classes.

In the ensuing months the relationship between the teacher and her principal rapidly deteriorated into negative evaluations.  The result was that the board unanimously voted to terminate her contract; she subsequently charged the board with violating her right to free speech.

Well, if it weren’t for poor judgment, none of them – teacher, principal, or board – would have any judgment at all.

Let’s focus, for a moment, not on the court’s decision, but on how the whole situation might have been avoided in the first place.

To begin with, every school district should have a policy in place for how to deal with parental objections to materials.  It shouldn’t be up to the principal to decide what he or she personally thinks are appropriate materials.  The American Association of School Librarians or the National Council of Teachers of English provide resources for the development of a policy.  When an objection occurs, the teacher and administrator simply follow the policy.  It’s protection for the teacher, the principal, and ultimately for the board.

Secondly, many teachers have learned to minimize conflict by sending a letter home   listing book titles, acknowledging they contain language or situations some may find objectionable, and explaining their place in the unit of study.  Parents may request that their child have alternate choices, but those books must be at the same level of difficulty.  Being proactive may not completely diffuse the situation, but it lets parents in on the ground level of decision making.

I agree with the court’s decision that the district didn’t violate Evans-Marshall’s First Amendment rights.  The judge, after all, questioned how a school district could operate if all teachers simply made their own individual curricular decisions.  But if the administration and board had established policies and procedures for parental objections to materials, both the district and the teacher might have fared better.


Back in the Day

Catholic schools When a friend of mine taught in the Catholic schools 35 years ago, she had 45 students in her class.  They were packed in so tightly, she says, they had to move the desks to close the door.  Yet students learned, behaved, and didn’t feel deprived because their class was so large.

Of course, that would never happen today – 45 kids in a class in which they not only learned, but behaved.  But the cultural expectations were different then, and so were the financial options.

Today, with a national student to teacher ratio of 15:1, some are nostalgically harkening back to those days.  Maybe a good way to save money would be to increase class sizes, they suggest, citing a dearth of evidence showing a positive relationship between learning and class size.  Rick Hess suggests an unfortunately named “Gold Star” program that would pay teachers to carry a greater workload.  In order to be considered for the program, a teacher has to have demonstrated two years of better-than-average achievement among his or her students in smaller classes.

Hess admits that this idea would be a heavy lift with parents, who want the individual attention that should come with small class sizes.  It may be a heavy lift for teachers too.  The classroom strategies that good teachers use in a small class may need to be modified with twice as many students.

The often overlooked reason that smaller class size doesn’t seem to impact learning is, of course, that many teachers use the same strategies whether they have 15, 30, or even 45 students.  Smaller classes should not mean less work, although they are often interpreted that way.  Instead, students should get more 1:1 instruction as needed.  Students who need remediation should be able to get in within the classroom; students who need enrichment should be able to be challenged within the classroom too.

But if there is little evidence that smaller classes improve achievement, there is even less   evidence that larger classes will work better.  Kids who flourish in larger classes are often kids who have a strong work ethic, personal discipline, and adults in their lives outside of school who make their expectations clear.  Interestingly, these are the same kids who do well with online courses that require a similar work ethic and discipline.

Increasing class size to save money seems like a great idea for someone else’s kid. The focus should be on improving instruction, not enlarging class size.  Improving instruction, by the way, saves money by not having kids repeat grades or qualify for remedial reading and math.




Food Fight

Many years ago we were on food stamps. 

My husband was finishing grad school and we had a small baby.  I worked a few hours a week at home for an agency for the blind, tutoring a legally blind Cuban woman in English.  I would put the baby in the swing, wind it up, and teach uninterrupted for a good 20 minutes while she slept (the baby, not the woman). 

Mexican-shrimp-cocktail When that job ended, we found ourselves unable to cover our meager expenses, so we swallowed our pride, hauled ourselves down to Social Services, waded through the paperwork, and came away with grocery money in the form of food stamps.  Our lives were much improved.  That spring and summer we were able to get most of the things we needed for the baby and for ourselves if we ate frugally.  I don’t remember if we bought soda.  Probably.

At the end of the summer my husband graduated and found a job.  We still had a couple weeks’ food stamps left, so we decided to put aside our guilt and celebrate.  We bought 5 pounds of frozen shrimp and invited our neighbors over for dinner.  Since it was clearly an upscale party, they thoughtfully brought Mateus.

I was reminded of this experience when I read New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s  proposal that people on food stamps in New York should not be allowed to use them to purchase sugared soft drinks.  The Mayor points to the correlation between increased soft drink consumption and increased obesity. 

The mayor’s proposal has provoked the righteous on both sides.  The city’s health commissioner says the measure would save lives.  Others note the underlying politics of targeting the poor, suggesting they are incapable of making good choices.  After all, not only do they buy soft drinks with food stamps, but they may also buy pop tarts, pork rinds, white bread, candy, sausage, whole milk, and Fritos.  Maybe even shrimp.  Sort of like people not on food stamps do.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the politics of food continues.   Hopping on board with the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, the Senate is working to improve school nutrition.  The new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would be paid for by … (wait for it) $2.2 billion saved by cutting food stamp allocations. Happily, no action has yet been taken as Congress breaks for midterm elections.

The opportunity to weigh in on the politics of food wasn’t lost on Newt Gingrich, of all people.  “Which future do I want?” he asks (rhetorically, as usual).   “More food stamps?  Or more paychecks?”

Who knew you could just choose?

But in a New York Times Opinion piece (“Running Against Food Stamps”), Francis X. Clines points out, “Unlike the upper-income tax cuts Republicans furiously protect, food stamps, minimalist as they are, are antirecession sparks that generate $9 in economic activity for every $5 spent, according to federal statistics. Everybody wants a paycheck, but people have to eat.”

Caught in the middle of all the politicians’ posturing and bloviating are the kids.  Anybody worried about them?







The Best Defense


Why do unions defend “bad teachers”?  Why do lawyers defend “bad” defendants?

Peter Goodman asks these two great questions in his post, “In Defense of Teachers and Teachers’ Unions.”

Goodman argues that it’s about due process in both cases.  It’s about the right of the accused to meet his accuser in court and to defend his actions.  The role of unions, Goodman says, is to ensure that the rights of the accused are not trampled upon. 

Defendant I agree wholeheartedly.  The union’s job is to represent its members, whether the leadership agrees or disagrees with a teacher’s actions.  And good union leadership understands its role in protecting due process.  Union leadership may even admit privately that what the teacher did (or didn’t do) was indefensible; nonetheless the leadership is required to do their job.  And the school district’s leadership is required to do theirs.

During the probationary period a teacher can be let go not quite “at will” as Goodman suggests, but with a minimum of union intervention.  However, once a teacher is granted tenure, the teacher has earned a due process hearing. “Tenure hardly guarantees a teacher a cushy job for life,” he writes.  That notion, he says, is “nonsense.”  This is where Goodman and I part ways.

The process to remove a tenured teacher is long and involved and expensive.  The teacher is removed from the classroom, so the district needs to hire a substitute.  Now the district is paying two people for the same job (because the removed teacher still receives his salary).  There are lawyer’s fees.  There is the distraction from teaching and learning.  Parents are wondering what’s going on.  There’s no guarantee that in the end the issue will be resolved to either party’s satisfaction. 

Proving incompetence is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  In many cases supervision by administration may be spotty or nonexistent.   Even regular classroom observations may be politely vague about a teacher’s shortcomings.  Unless the teacher has committed a flagrant foul that cannot be ignored, it’s possible that there will be little on file proving incompetence. 

In addition, the idea of “progressive discipline” is foreign to school districts.  Districts may not simply reduce a teacher’s salary, give him days off without pay, or demote him (it’s all the same job).  So it’s all or nothing (save a letter in his file, perhaps).

Because due process is such an arduous issue, administrators need to take seriously their recommendations for tenure.  I understand that new teachers need to get their feet on the ground and need time to develop.  They need to be mentored.  But if you’re not seeing real progress and realized potential in 3 years, you’re probably not going to see it.

Second, administrators need to make supervision and evaluation a top priority.  Principals have lots of reasons that they don’t get into the classroom regularly.  But nothing is more important than the quality of teaching that goes on daily.  Principals need to schedule classroom observations and stick with the schedule.  They need to drop in to see what’s going on.  And they need to give honest feedback and opportunities to improve.  How does it happen, for example, that 91% of Chicago’s teachers were rated “excellent” or “superior” when 66% of Chicago’s schools failed to meet state standards? 

Goodman says that “jobs for life” is nonsense.  Unless supervision is a top priority, I’m not so sure.







Speaking Out

Kudos to the 16 heads of big city schools who affixed their names to the “Manifesto” published in Sunday’s “Outlook” section of The Washington Post.  Bravely entitled, “How to Fix Our Schools,” its main point is simple and direct: Give kids the good teachers they deserve and release teachers who are not up to the task. 

The writers believe that the current political climate presents an opportunity to make real change in our Martin-luther-theses public schools, which, up to this point, they say, “have long favored adults, not children.”  Taking aim at tenure and seniority, the writers declare, “There isn’t a business in American that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance.”  In addition, these leaders want to be able to deliver education to children in a wider variety of ways and to give parents greater options in determining how their child is educated.

What is remarkable about the manifesto isn’t the original thought; it’s that these leaders publicly put their names to a document calling for an end of union control of our kids’ education.  What is also remarkable is that the manifesto is written by those actually responsible for the education of our nation’s children on a day-to-day basis.  They are not professors, researchers, or politicians (although school leadership requires a little bit of all of these professions).

So the writers constitute and impressive group of educational leaders who are actually on the job.  But I would make one observation.  This is a transition period in American education.  Schools have favored adults over children, but we want to be careful not to promote another of those false dichotomies so common in education.  When schools hum with fine teaching and competent administration, they are great places for both children and the adults who work with them.



Rick and Adult Ed


Teaching adults is not the same as teaching kids.  Adults often have already identified what they need to know and want the information clear, succinct, and applicable.   They are ready to learn from someone else’s experience and appreciate when the teacher distinguishes between fact and opinion.  Adults don’t need to role play to understand how they would feel in the situation; they can draw on their own life experiences and extrapolate.  Like most adults, my attitude has always been, “Just tell me what I need to know.”

So I’m back from 3 weeks in Europe.  We went independently – that is, we weren’t part of a tour.  However, before we left we studied with Rick Steves, well-known travel guru, through books and videos.  And I have to say he hit the mark 95% of the time. Backpacks

“Pack light, pack light, pack light,” Rick says.  Nobody, he notes, comes back from a long trip and says, “I wish I had taken more stuff.”  We each took one carry-on.  OK, washing out stuff in the B&B each night was a drag, but it enabled us to look with supreme pity on other travelers dragging along 100 pound suitcases plus other smaller unmanageable bags. 

So we walked a lot, saw what we wanted to see, avoided the long lines, ate in out-of-the-way local restaurants, took local transportation, and learned to manage our hair without hair dryers.  I mentioned that my husband had broken his ankle about 3 days before we left, so the biggest challenge was pushing a wheelchair up and down cobblestone sidewalks and streets embedded with trolley tracks in Prague and Salzburg (don’t look for curb cutaways).  But by the time we got to Florence, he was walking with just a crutch, which he abandoned for just a walking boot in Rome.  A miracle.

Wondering about the  5% of advice that wasn’t on the mark?  Well, he was right about women not wearing shorts.  But jeans?  Yeah, we could have worn them.  But then we wouldn’t have had that traveler chic that comes with a Sierra Trading Post wardrobe. 

High point?  The Mozart Mass in the Salzburg Cathedral.  Low point?  The Rome metro.

So thanks, Rick, for telling me what I needed to know and what I wanted to know for immediate application.  I think you get adult ed.







Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.