5 Changes I Want to See in Schools Right Now

1. I want schools to be beautiful spaces. 

Television is full of beautiful rooms. Every sitcom and drama has a crew of designers paying attention to every last detail from the paint color to furniture and accessories. In movies, actors and actresses move from one decadent set to another even in low-budget films. Commercials are shot in stunning, immaculate homes making many families green with envy. Reality television is teeming with renovation and design shows.

Yet our children, who are supposed to be our pride and joy, spend hours, for 180 days a year, in schools where little attention or money is paid to design. Sure some schools have a mural or two. And many teachers do a stellar job of making their classrooms more inviting than just slapping a few store-bought posters on the walls. But overall, most schools are painted drab industrial colors with flooring that is uninspired at best. Our children sit in uncomfortable chairs and look out unadorned windows.  The problem is even worse in low-income areas. In Baltimore City, I taught in a school with roaches and mice running across my classroom floor and lead in the drinking water. Many schools need to improve their cleanliness way before they consider design. But, wouldn’t it be nice if there was just a little more beauty? Don’t our children at least deserve quality lighting and a soothing wall color that doesn’t scream institution?

2. I want tissues in every nurse’s office and classroom to be softer. 

Don’t laugh. I am not asking for Puffs Plus with lotion or anything (though that would be nice), but kids have runny noses A LOT. It is so sad as a teacher when I would run out of the tissue I bought from home and my students would have to use the cheap industrial ones from the nurse’s office or classroom supply. Their sad red, raw noses are so unnecessary. We adults like soft tissues, so why not give our kids that same comfort at school.

3. I want suggestion boxes in every classroom and main office. 

I have written before about how important it is to listen to the kids. Read my post here. But really, schools would be much better places if the adults stopped more often to ask the kids what they think. Sure you would get some silly ideas and comments, but those are harmful compared to the wisdom that could be discovered. Their perspective is so different, if we were to get down on their level, who knows what we might see.

4. I want to see a student representative from every school in the district at every school board meeting. 

I have attended quite a few school board meetings over the past 2 years and most of the time they are very poorly attended events. Some school boards do have student representatives, but usually just from the high school. Why wouldn’t a school board want to hear from their younger students as well? Is their school experience any less valuable?

Secondly, I want to hear those representatives report more than just a list of events at the school. Sure I love the positive stuff. I want to know how many cans were donated at the food drive and how many scholarships were awarded to the senior class. But I also want to know if those representatives have heard their classmates talking about an increase in heroin usage or if they have concerns about graduation requirements. I want to hear if the middle school students want more arts programs or want more guidance with the challenges adolescence throws at them. I want to hear if the elementary students are stressed out by too much homework or struggling to learn typing skills for the upcoming PARCC test.

So many decisions are made in education without anyone asking the students what they think or what they need.

5. I want to see just as many parents at PTA/PTO meetings and school board meetings as I do at sporting events. 

I like sports. I played sports. I grew up in a home where sports were always on the television no matter what time of the year. But any good coach will tell you that number one should be your family, number two your schoolwork, and then maybe number three would be your sport. Yet many adults do not model this belief system and practice what they preach.

Family gatherings, dinnertime, and reading or other educational pursuits are often sacrificed or curtailed to make room for practices and games. With travel and competitive sports leagues starting younger and younger, many children are getting the message that sports is number one. And parents are so spread thin that they are not making time to stay informed and involved in the type of activities, instruction, and testing going on in their children’s schools.  And while many parents were not paying attention, education changed drastically right under their noses.

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Testing: You Can Refuse, But You Can’t Hide

Reading and math have had a long history of being tested with standardized tests. The classic notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic has been the center of people’s perception of what kids learn at school. But this idea represents a very narrow understanding of what really goes on at school.

Standardized testing usually starts in the third grade. When I first started teaching in Baltimore City, it was a big deal if you were assigned to one of the testing grades (grades 3 and 5 in that K-5 school). If you taught in a tested grade, the pressure for your kids to perform was much greater, especially if your school, like mine, was drastically under-performing and in danger of being taken over by the state.

Also, the more your test scores improved, the more funding the school would receive. (This is particularly important if your principal, like mine, was misusing thousands of state funds for her own personal gain in the form of lavish “professional development” trips and paying friends’ salaries for positions they didn’t actually hold or qualify for.)

But this added pressure of testing was reserved for those teachers teaching the third or fifth grades. The other teachers were left out of the test prep activities and the proctoring of tests. They weren’t held accountable for the test scores at all, as if the third graders hadn’t had to go through K, 1st, and and 2nd grades or the 5th graders hadn’t had a teacher for 4th grade that contributed to their learning as well.

In the middle school, this inequality in testing is even more pronounced. Since teachers teach specific subject areas, even if they switch grades, they can still remain teacher untested students for their entire career. Yet math and reading teachers are doomed to a career dominated by standardized testing. In NJ and many other states, social studies has never had a standardized test and that has led to it being marginalized, particularly in the elementary school.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is increasingly alarmed by the erosion of the importance of social studies in the United States. This erosion, in large part, is a consequence of the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since the introduction of NCLB, there has been a steady reduction in the amount of time spent in the teaching of social studies, with the most profound decline noticed in the elementary grades. 1In addition, anecdotal information indicates that many American children are receiving little or no formal education in the core social studies disciplines: civics, economics, geography, and history. That such a situation has evolved is untenable in a nation that prides itself on its history, its system of government and its place as a leader in the global community.

By requiring states to measure student achievement in language arts and mathematics and tying school performance reports and financial incentives to testing results, NCLB resulted in the diversion of both funding and class-time away from social studies and other non-tested subjects. The phrase “if it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught” resonates in the American educational community, with significant implications for educational practices and outcomes.

http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/nclbera

A few years ago, science was added to the NJ ASK and science teachers began to feel the pressure that reading and math teachers had been feeling for an eternity. But with the push to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, the standardized testing machine couldn’t stop at adding science. What about social studies, physical education, health, art, music, family and consumer science, keyboarding, and industrial arts? Those subjects had teachers too, and they needed to be evaluated. But how without creating a standardized test for every single subject?

The answer was Student Growth Objectives or SGO’s. SGO’s were based on these teachers making standardized tests of sorts. These tests were developed collaboratively by teachers in the same subject area and/or grade. Benchmark tests are now given twice a year, once in September and again in May or June. They are written, administered, and graded by the teacher. The SGO is based on a goal set by the teacher as to what level of growth they hope to achieve that school year.

So this means that your children are now tested in all areas by test standardized across every discipline taught in school. And it doesn’t even end there.

Teachers of the PARCC tested areas (elementary grades 3-5 and reading and math teachers from then on) are evaluated based on Student Growth Percentiles, which will be calculated using the PARCC data from this year. However those teachers must also develop their own benchmark tests (one or two) to determine an SGO as well. (Where I taught, this was a 200 question multiple choice test developed by teachers.)  So, in reading and math, many students face four tests a year that are not directly tied to their current lessons but rather overall academic achievement goals.

When do the teachers have time to teach? 

Right now, tying teacher evaluations to test scores is new so the percentages may change down the road. But here is the breakdown of how teacher evaluations will be calculated this school year of 2014-2015.

Teachers of PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 55%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): 30%

Teachers of non PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 85%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): none

So teachers of students that do not take the PARCC will have 85% of their evaluation based on their lessons and observations. And, the “standardized test” that they give allows them some really nice advantages. They create the test. They administer the test (with none of the oversight and regulations that come with the PARCC test) . They grade the test. They even get to set their own goals for what they want to achieve. Pretty good deal.

Teachers of students who take the PARCC have just barely over half of their effectiveness based on their lessons. 85% vs. 55% is a HUGE difference. Plus they have even less time to teach, because they have to give benchmarks for their SGO’s and take 2 weeks out of instructional time to give the PARCC.

Who in their right mind would want to be a math or reading teacher under these circumstances? If teachers fare poorly under this system, will they be able to find enough desperate, young or naive suckers or altruistic saints to fill their shoes? 

This system is unequal and guarantees a school curriculum dominated by testing. So, send in your refusal letters, I know I will. But don’t fool yourselves. Even if we “Take the PARCC” and it goes down in flames, our children’s education will not be saved.

Testing: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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The Whole School Did What?!

Not much surprises me anymore. But today something happened that left me speechless.

On the way home from school, I asked the typical, “How was your day?” Well my oldest son, who is in 2nd grade, responded, “A little good and a little bad.” Immediately, my ears perked up and of course zeroed in on the negative. “What do you mean a little bad? What happened?”

He started to explain that when he was outside playing in the snow; he realized that he had two different gloves on. One glove was too big and kept falling off.

Sounds pretty normal, except that today it was snowing (albeit it only accumulated an inch or two) and 25 degrees out here in NJ. We are new to the school district, having just moved here 3 months ago, but I felt pretty sure that it isn’t common practice to have outdoor recess in the freezing cold and especially not in the snow!

“Wait an minute! You had outdoor recess…today?!”

My kindergartener chimed in, “No mom we played in the snow in the morning.”

Ok, then I was really confused. Both of them were outside just playing in the snow?

My oldest, “We went out right after our math minute in the morning, just for a little while to play. The whole school did, but not all at the same time.”

Just in case you missed it.

THE WHOLE SCHOOL GOT A CHANCE TO PLAY IN THE SNOW.

With all of the focus on raising the standards and increased accountability and testing, a principal, our principal,  thought it was important to make a little time for the kids to play in the snow. This in a time where recess minutes are being cut and preschool is becoming universal and “standards-based.” In a time where children from age 3 are asked to start preparing for college and careers. In a time when standardized tests are claiming over 9 hours of instructional time not counting time spent on test preparation. In a time where teachers, schools, and principals are being judged by their students’ test scores.

It took me a sad number of questions, before I even understood what my children were telling me. The idea of  principal letting kids play in the snow was so foreign to me. All of the principals that I have have ever known (at least 7) have been damage control specialists. I could hear their questions in my head.

Wouldn’t parents call to complain that it was too cold? What if a child wasn’t properly dressed in a warm coat, hat, and gloves? What if their shoes got wet and then they developed hypothermia? What if a child slipped and fell on the ice? What if the kids got too wild or threw snowballs? How much instructional time would be lost?

I had a friend and colleague who once got into trouble for taking her math students outside to draw geometric shapes on the concrete walkway. The assistant principal said it was a security threat for her to have propped the door open for the 15 minute lesson, and he also wanted to know if the chalk would wash off. (sigh)

As soon as I got home, I called my mother and my mother-in-law to tell them that the kids played in the snow at school today and both were just as shocked as I was. After I hung up the phone, tears welled in my eyes. I was so happy that my children are able to learn in a school that understands and values the wonder of childhood. But those tears were bittersweet, for I know that so many of America’s children are not so lucky.

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