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When Legislation Encourages Discrimination

It is possible to enact legislation that justifies discrimination and panders to our least attractive inclinations.  Such was the case with the decision to detain Japanese-American citizens during World War II and the enactment of the Jim Crow laws that existed until the mid-nineteen-sixties.  The current anti-immigrations laws enacted by some states like Arizona and Alabama are kin to those laws in that they suggest that it’s really OK to discriminate on the basis of color.

I recognize the frustration of citizens regarding our country’s lack of a sound, thoughtful, workable immigration Alabama_immigration_opt policy.  Alabama argues that the state law will reduce the number of illegal immigrants on public assistance; perhaps it will.  The state also argues that the law will open up jobs for legal residents; it will not. American workers have shown little inclination to apply for the low-paying, strenuous jobs on farms and in poultry factories usually held by illegal immigrants in Alabama and in other states.  Indeed, some farmers and fruit growers are complaining that their harvests rot in the fields because there are no workers to pick fruit and vegetables.

Courts have struck down some of the provisions of the Alabama law, including the provision requiring public schools to verify the citizenship status of students.  As a result, some Hispanic children are returning to schools across Alabama, although many in the northern part of the state have already officially withdrawn.  Albertville, Alabama lost about 9% of its 1,170 Hispanic students.  School superintendent Dr. Frederic Ayer says it has been an emotional time for students and teachers.  “Many of the students who withdrew said good-bye to their teachers and friends before leaving,” he says.  “Many had been in our system for years.”

A side effect of Alabama’s law appears to be an uptick in bullying incidents directed toward Hispanic kids, according to parents interviewed by the Associated Press.  The Justice Department is attempting to track whether the incidents are related to the new law by establishing a bilingual telephone hotline and email account for residents to report incidents of bullying.  Interestingly enough, the Alabama Department of Education hasn’t received any complaints about bullying relative to the law according to a spokesperson. 

Of course it hasn’t.  It doesn’t seem likely that Hispanics, legal or illegal, would be contacting government officials in Alabama in the wake of the new law.  In the meantime, what happens to Hispanic kids, legal or illegal, who are in this country and who need to be educated?











How to Improve Performance

Tingley-021 color-1I admit that I sometimes refer to college players drafted by the NFL as Future Thugs of America, so I was surprised to see Andrew J. Rotherham’s article entitled, “Super Bowl School:  What the NFL Can Teach Teachers.”

It turns out that the point of the article is that reliance on data and performance evaluations is a key factor in success for NFL teams.  That’s what schools could borrow from the NFL (whew).  Even Randi Weingarten, talking about giving feedback to teachers, notes that “Football teams do this all the time.  They look at the tape after the game.  Sometimes they’ll do it during the game.”  Well, Randi, maybe some look at tapes during the game, but only if they want to risk an NFL rules violation.

But Weingarten’s point is a good one:  We need to help teachers continually evaluate their game by providing them with feedback and the means to corrective action.  Rotherham interviewed Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, and his brother Brendan Daly, a former teacher who coaches the defensive line for the St. Louis Rams.  Brendan says, “We evaluate everything… We grade on technique and we grade on production … Players have each other’s grades in front of them as we go through this.”

Says brother Tim, “In schools it’s almost the opposite … There are not many conversations in general between administrators and teachers about what’s happening in the classroom and how to adjust quickly.”  Tim Daly NFLalso notes that when teachers are evaluated once or twice a year or maybe not at all, it’s impossible to make strategic adjustments to classroom technique.  “In the worst situations in education,” he says, “there is very little feedback and very little support.  You can go years without anyone telling you you’re not doing well.”

Receiving feedback that is consistent, candid, competent, and frequent is essential for teachers to improve their game.  One of the concerns I have about the current wave of enthusiasm for including test scores in a teacher’s evaluation is how this change will affect classroom supervision and feedback.  Now that everything has to be quantifiable, what will feedback look like?  Will principals sit down with teachers and talk about a lesson, provide candid feedback, and suggest ways to improve?  Or will every classroom performance be reduced to a number?  On a scale of 1-5, Classroom Interaction is a 3.  Student discipline is a 2.  Appropriateness of materials is a 4.  Your average score as a teacher is 3.  And your test scores, which will appear sometime next fall, will count as 40-60% of your evaluation.  The performance sheet will be in your mailbox.  Just sign it.

I do believe that test data should be included in a teacher’s yearly evaluation if it’s reasonably accessible, but test data is one measurement.  Test data, after all, is summative, not formative.  It doesn’t tell teachers how to improve, just that they may need to.  Regular classroom observation with frequent feedback is like viewing the tapes.  Of course, in the NFL there are monetary incentives for all players to improve.  Maybe that’s another lesson we could take from the NFL.   Kind of boggles the mind.


An Apple FROM the Teacher

The 50 or so kindergartners jumped off the bus this beautiful October morning, ready to pick apples and find themselves a pumpkin (the rule was that you had to be able to carry it yourself out of the patch).  There were dogs to be petted and Indian corn to be touched, and cornstocks to be examined too, but first the kids needed to sit down and listen to Mrs. Farmer Brown talk about apples and Johnny Appleseed.

Apple pickingThey were squirmy at first, and their teachers hovered over them to make sure they behaved themselves. Not to worry, though, because within three minutes Mrs. Farmer Brown had the kids’ rapt attention.  A petite, fit woman over 70, Mrs. Farmer Brown asked the kids what they already knew about apples and Johnny Appleseed.  Building on their knowledge, she showed them different kinds of apples and pumpkins.  Her teaching materials were big enough for everyone to see, attractive, and at her fingertips.  She kept the discussion moving, and doubled back to reinforce little bits of information.  She asked for volunteers, and the kids eagerly waved their hands to be chosen as a pumpkin in “Five Little Pumpkins, “ which they all sang with abandon.  Finally they were ready to climb onto the wagon to go out to the orchards.  Mrs. Farmer Brown drove the tractor herself.

That woman was a teacher, I said to myself.  She just knows how to work with little ones.  She knows how to talk to kids without being condescending.  She understands how to build on what they know and how to get them involved in their own learning.  She has to have been a teacher.

So when the kids had picked their apples and were having lunch under the sun-dappled trees, I introduced myself to Mrs. Farmer Brown and asked if she’d ever taught, explaining that I suspected from the way she worked with the kindergartners, she knew her way around a classroom.  I was right:  She had spent 43 years in the local schools as a teacher and principal.

Marsha Brown (she really is Mrs. Farmer Brown) grew up in New York City and came to Virginia to attend the College of William and Mary, intending to return to the city.  Instead she spent a lifetime teaching local kids and later teaching local teachers in her job as principal.

“Watching you with those kids, “ I said, “reminded me that I don’t really believe that anyone can teach.  Sometimes when I listen to all the criticism of teachers nowadays, it’s almost as if some people think that there’s really no skill involved – like anyone off the street could do just as good a job.”

“You’d like to see some of those folks try it, wouldn’t you?” she said.  “A friend of mine believes that good teachers are born, not made.  Now, I don’t believe that.  I’ve  always believed that if the spirit was willing, I could teach anyone how to teach or how to be a better teacher.  You can’t teach people to like kids, but if they already do, you can teach them to be a better classroom teacher. But it’s not that it doesn’t take skill.”

“And, “ she added, “I don’t buy the excuse today that kids can’t learn because they’re  poor or they come from dysfunctional homes, or whatever.  I always taught whoever came through the door.  I’m not going to say that I was completely successful with every student, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  I felt that it was my JOB to teach every student in my classroom, and I really believe that all kids can learn.  You just do your very best for each individual child.”

The kids had eaten their lunches, wandered through the pumpkin patch, and were ready to hop back on the wagon to be taken back to their school bus.  They had had a wonderful day.

Mrs. Farmer Brown shook my hand and then climbed back up on the tractor.  Once a teacher, always a teacher, I thought. We’ve always needed more like her, and we probably still do.







An Occasion to Rejoice in the 5 Freedoms

Tingley-021 color-1Can you list the 5 Freedoms identified in the First Amendment?

In 2005 the Knight Foundation released the results of a survey it had conducted across the country in 544 high schools with a combined total of over 100,000 students.  The survey was an attempt to discover what students understood about the First Amendment.  The answer?  Not much.

As a result of this survey, Congress passed a law declaring that on September 17 of every year, schools and colleges receiving public funds must teach about the Constitution (the Constitution was adopted on September 17 in 1787).

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could name all of the 5 Freedoms when I went to the Newseum in Washington,
D.C. a couple of years ago.  I certainly could by the time we left (and still can). The Newseum is an interactive museum about news, journalism, and the media in general.  It’s located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the
White House and Sixth Street, N.W., adjacent to the Smithsonian museums.  The exterior of the Newseum features a 74-foot high marble engraving of the First Amendment.  We arrived when the building opened and left when it closed, not even stopping for lunch.

The Newseum tells the story of our lives as Americans. Best. Museum. Ever. Occupy-wall-street-rich-homes.gi.top

Anyway, I was thinking about the 5 Freedoms and how hardly anyone knows what they are as I watched the spreading demonstrations on
Wall Street and Times Square and in other cities across the world.  I can’t help thinking that if people understood the 5 Freedoms, they would be exceptionally proud that in this country, people have a right to assemble peacefully.

If people understood the 5 Freedoms, they would be thrilled to watch crowds of people exercise another of our First Amendment freedoms – the right to petition the government.  Of course, “thrilled” is theoretical hyperbole.  (I remember how “thrilled” by father was when I protested against the war in Viet Nam years ago.  He did not see it as an exercise of the 5 Freedoms either.)

Gene Policinski notes in a recent post on his First Amendment Center blog, “Let’s hope everyone keeps in mind the unspoken but eminently valuable safety valve provided by the First Amendment – the right to voice criticisms of those in power, and to assemble peaceable with like-minded people to petition for a ‘redress of grievances.’”

So the Occupy Wall Street movement provides a perfect catalyst to teach kids about the First Amendment just in case your school gave it short shrift last month.  And by the way, here are the other three you’ll want to mention:  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.












Choosing My Religion

Florida Governor Rick Scott says no one should major in anthropology.  “How many jobs you think there is for anthropology in this state?” he asks plaintively and ungrammatically.  “You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology?” 

The governor, apparently, wants state funds to be used only for majors in which jobs might currently be available.  Perhaps the governor is thinking that colleges should institute majors in picking fruits and vegetables, jobs that are plentiful in some states that have aggressive anti-immigration laws.  Gardening and landscaping jobs are also available, along with housekeeping in large hotels.  Oh, wait!  Americans don’t want to do those jobs.

One job that Americans would like to do, however, is teach, but there aren’t a lot of teaching jobs currently available, especially since some teachers who had those jobs have been laid off.  So maybe the governor thinks we shouldn’t prepare any more teachers either. Follow-your-dreams

Scott says he hopes to have a plan to encourage young people to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Like he did.  Oh, wait!  His degrees are in business and law.  Lucky for him he got elected governor so he can tell other people what to major in.

I don’t know if the governor has kids of his own, but good luck with telling young people what they should study in college.  Maybe some kids who are ambivalent could be talked into a science major even if they’re not crazy about the subject.  Many, however, lacking interest or aptitude, let alone passion, cannot be cajoled into preparing for a career they don’t want to do.  “Follow your dream” is more than a slogan on a puppy poster hanging in high school libraries.

So, yeah, Gov, it’s OK with me if students use my tax money to study anthropology -- or  acting or literature or painting or sociology or French or Slavic literature in translation.  And if they really want to study math and science and technology, that’s OK too.  What matters is that they study and learn, and they can make adjustments later regarding what they need to do to earn money.  We need scientists and mathematicians, of course; but we also need stand-up comics, city planners, kindergarten teachers, painters and sports writers.   Maybe Scott needs to be reminded that Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, for example, majored in English and theater, not business.  Former Hewlett Packer CEO and fellow Republican Carly Fiorina received her undergraduate degree in medieval history and philosophy.

It’s a quality of life issue for them and for us.  In this country, even in Florida, Gov, you get to pick your own career even if it’s not lucrative. 






School Officials Are Not Immigration Officials

Tingley-021 color-1 Over the years schools have been used by lots of people for lots of things besides offering academics for kids.  After all, if you want to reach all kids or all kids and their families in a community, you try to get your program into the schools.  As Willie Sutton famously said, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.”

Many of the programs schools have adopted or been forced to adopt actually help kids:  the school breakfast program, for example, or inoculations for dangerous infectious diseases that erupt in a community.  Other programs that schools allow may collect information for agencies that help kids and their families; school drug surveys fall into that category.

But every so often schools are asked or required to perform duties or allow access based on purely political reasons. A visit from Planned Parenthood may have to be offset by a visit from an abstinence group, for example.  Some of these programs influenced by politics may further a student's education; others may actually do harm.  Alabama’s new requirement for schools based on its anti-immigration law falls into the latter category.

Federal law requires that schools provide K-12 education to illegal immigrants.  The law in Alabama, however, requires schools to verify the immigration status of children enrolling for the first time and report their findings to the Alabama State Department of Education.  So guess what happened?  Right.  Hispanic children Hispanic student are staying home from school.

The Alabama Department of Education insists that reports on a child's immigration status will stay within the Department.  And school districts insist that immigration officials will not be waiting at the school door to snatch kids and their families and deport them.  Hispanic families aren’t buying it.  Can you blame them?

USA Today reports that 231 Hispanic children were absent from school in Montgomery September 22, the day the law went into effect.  School officials say their message that school is still a safe place hasn’t reached everyone.  Actually, I think Hispanic families got the message, just not the one the schools were pushing.

Superintendent Paul McKendrick of Tuscaloosa City Schools, where at least 10 Hispanic parents have withdrawn their children and others have requested withdrawal paperwork, says, “I can understand why parents would be leery of anything that they hear and just try to protect their children and stay in the country.”  In addition, the loss of student attendance will mean a loss of funding for schools in that state aid is based on enrollment. State Education Department officials met to discuss ways to better communicate with the Hispanic community.  But it’s not about communication; it’s about trust. 

Schools are charged with educating kids, whatever kids come through their doors regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual preference, height, weight, intelligence, or immigration status.  Schools aren’t hiring kids; they’re giving them the tools to become contributing citizens of the country.  Asking schools to check immigration status of incoming students is not the school’s job.  It’s just plain wrong.


Right to Know V Fairness to Public Employees

“Too many Americans have become stupid and sheep-like because when we hear these things over and over again we begin to believe they’re true,” says Robert J. Freeman, the director of New York State’s Committee on Open Government.  The Committee is responsible for overseeing and advising in regard to the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. 

Mr. Freeman has for years been the bane of many a New York superintendent’s tenure because of his pronouncements on the open meeting laws that govern school boards.  Very little, according to Mr. Freeman, constitutes a legal reason for executive session. Convening an executive session to discuss “personnel” issues simply doesn’t meet the standard for a closed meeting, but convening to specifically discuss a personnel appointment, discipline, or dismissal does.  Of course, once into executive session, board members’ conversation not infrequently strays to topics perhaps not appropriate to either open or executive session, but that’s another topic.

Sheep The occasion of Mr. Freeman’s observation regarding stupid Americans, however, was not topics that are appropriate for executive session, but whether ratings of teachers should be disclosed to the public.  Last month, on an appeal from the United Federation of Teachers, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the New York City school system is required to release the ratings for its 12,000 teacher this year, upholding the earlier decision of the State Supreme Court. 

“In a variety of circumstances, courts have said that issues about public employees relating to their duties are public,” Freeman says.  “And in this case, the court found that the public has a significant interest in knowing how well or poorly individual teachers perform.”  Freeman admits that teachers will be concerned about public scrutiny following a release of their students’ test scores, but parents have a right to know “which teachers are good and which aren’t.”

This year the only teachers who will be rated according to the new guidelines are teachers in grades 4-8 who teach English language arts and math.  Principals will also be rated.  The expectation is that all teachers will fall under the new system next year.  One superintendent noted that making scores public might have “unintended consequences” like parents insisting that their students have only the best teachers.  To my mind, parents in the know have always done that, so it’s not much of an argument.

Still, another superintendent has a point when he notes in the Watertown Daily Times, “Once the lists are published, the public will form in their minds a perception of teachers, so we want to make sure that the scores are an accurate reflection of ability.”  Superintendent Patrick H. Brady adds,  “It’s a balance of the publics’ right to know, because we’re public institutions, and ensuring that teachers are treated fairly and not impugned by (inaccurate) data.”

Well said.  The public has a right to know, but the data has to be fair and an honest reflection of performance.  That, of course, is the trick.





Banana Man and the DOE

Tingley-021 color-1 Just when I thought there was nothing funny in education, along come two prime stories!

The first, reported in USA Today last week, is from Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Virginia, where a fourteen-year-old student donned a banana costume a couple of weeks ago and ran around the football field at halftime.  The students, of course, thought it was hilarious; the principal, not so much.  In fact, Principal Karen Spillman was so unamused that she suspended Bryan Thompson for 10 days for his behavior.

The  suspension was lifted after 5 days, but not before some students had taken to wearing yellow “Free Banana Man” t-shirts.  The principal ordered the kids to stop wearing them, and that’s when the ACLU got involved.  Ms. Spillman subsequently resigned.

The second story makes a difficult, controversial plan even more difficult and controversial.  The Department of Education appears to be putting together a plan to hold teacher education programs accountable for … (wait for it) … the achievement of students taught by graduates of their programs. 

Currently schools of education receiving Title II funding must report on their students’ pass rates for licensure exams.  Compliance with this regulation is reasonable and relatively simple.  Now, however, there is a movement afoot to require schools of education to report how well the students of their graduates do on their respective tests.  Then the students will have to report on how well their dogs and cats do in obedience school.  OK, just a little joke, but it does remind you a little of the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

Perhaps no one at the DOE has noticed that value-added test score data isn’t as easy to access as some would Banana costume believe.  Tests either don’t exist or aren’t administered at some grades or in some subjects.  How will special education teachers be measured?  What about art or band or physical education?  What about stand-alone courses like physics or AP English?  And how do you control for all the variables that teacher graduates face in their jobs – overloaded classes, unsupportive administration, students who don’t speak English?

In some rural areas, school districts do not have graduates from all over the country or even the state clamoring for jobs.   School administrators often hire a disproportionate number of graduates from the closest state school.  In my experience, some of those graduates are outstanding and some are not.  Those in the latter group usually don't retain their jobs.  Both types graduated from the same program, however, and higher GPAs don't necessarily ensure better teaching.  Some graduates like kids more, bring more “extras” like coaching or advising, and are better campus citizens.  All of those intangibles help kids succeed, even score better on standardized tests. 

I’m not saying that all teacher preparation programs do a fine job of preparing teachers, but where a graduate finds a job matters. School administrators are responsible for removing ineffectual graduates of any program, and principals tend to be the people who can take into consideration the variables that the classroom teacher faces.  Student test scores don’t necessarily tell whether the teacher’s preparation program was effective.

Clearly this second story isn’t as amusing as Banana Man.







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