Friday, February 26, 2010

Starting school after Labor Day?

There are a lot of changes coming to education in Indiana - actually to almost every state in the country - but I live and teach here, my daughter goes to school here, so it's Indiana I'm concerned about.

On Tuesday this week, the state senate passed HB 1367 with some amendments of their own. It is my understanding that the biggest portion of HB 1367 is dedicated to giving school corporations more discretion as to how to spend their money, i.e. money can be moved from fund to fund. I see this as a good thing. If a corporation has enough money to build a new gym but not enough to keep its lights on or pay its teachers, it ought to be able to transfer money from the building fund to the operating costs fund. Makes sense, right?

One of the amendments the senate added to HB 1367 mandates that children cannot be passed on to fourth grade if they can't read at a third grade level. This seems to me like a no-brainer, but evidently there is evidence this is happening. Personally, I think we need to work on remediation much sooner. It's not as though a child hits third grade and suddenly can't read. However, I do know that I've had way too many children in middle school (and yes, high school) who don't read as well as they should, so the problem is out there. If your child is lagging behind, if you're worried about your child's progress but you don't believe your child's teacher is worried about it, speak up. Ask questions. Be an advocate for your child. I think we need these things - remediation and more parent involvement - more than we need a law like this, but that's just me.

Another amendment the senate tacked on to HB 1367 is to begin the school year AFTER Labor Day. The state (I'm quite sure) is still going to require 180 days in the school year, so the year will extend well into June if it doesn't start until September. I have one major issue with this, but in talking to my students about it in depth yesterday, they brought up many more.

My issue has to do with ISTEP. Currently, the ISTEP is given in two sections. The first section is being given next week - the first week of March - when we still have three months of school left. The second section is given the end of April or first of May, when most schools still have at least a month left. As (hopefully) any parent or teacher knows, these tests are incredibly important for all involved. A student's success on the test influences his assignment to future classes and grade levels. ISTEP scores are going to very soon begin influencing teacher evaluations and job retention. Students' cumulative scores influence the corporation's evaluation by the state and affect how much or how little state intervention the corporation receives.

When these tests are given at a point in the school year when there are still months of instruction left, it is unavoidable that there will be some standards left unaddressed. There simply isn't enough time before the tests to get to everything - to teach it well and ensure student understanding. English - my area - is probably the easiest to try and cover all of the core standards before testing because so many of them are used throughout the year. However, we're on the trimester system, so the students I have now, I have only had for a week. They have only had one-half of eighth grade English so far. So have I taught all of eighth grade standards to my satisfaction to those students yet? I certainly haven't. Give me another three months and it will be a different conversation. Even if I had had them all year, I would still be concerned about a few of the standards. There just isn't enough time.

Now, think about science (which is tested in fourth and sixth grade), social studies (which is tested in fifth and seventh grade), and math (which is tested in all grades 3-8). Math and science build throughout the year, right? What do you suppose those kids have yet to be exposed to when they still have months to go in the year? Regarding social studies, students are taught Indiana history in fourth grade. How far will they have gotten by March?

The ISTEP tests what students should know at the end of each year, but they are given before we reach the actual end of the year. Now, we push the end of the school year into June, so, if we don't move the testing dates, what do you suppose will happen to the ISTEP scores? That's my main concern. It took a Herculean effort to move that test from the fall to spring a year ago. How long do you think it will take to move it again?

The students' concerns were no less valid, even if they weren't quite as academically centered. The athletes are concerned about playing seasons. Will fall sports seasons be shortened? Will they be playing football in the snow, or in 30-degree temperatures? Many young athletes today play in summer leagues whose seasons kick into high gear in May and June. Those who plaly in these leagues are concerned about the effect this new school year will have on their ability to participate in those leagues.

Another concern was for 4-H members. Most 4-H fairs take place in July, which means members are incredibly busy during June completing projects for the fair. If school lasts into the second or third week of June, they fear they won't have the necessary time to complete their proejcts.

This proposed change to the school year is far-reaching in its ramifications. As usual, I'm worried that the people considering the change are people who are clueless when it comes to actually working in education or are people who are influenced by strong lobbyists.

The whole point of this post is to let you know that it isn't a done deal. The bill passed the senate by a vote of 31-19, so it has strong support in the senate. However, it was sent back to the house for reconsideration because of the amendments the senate added. If you have an opinion about the bill, get a hold of your local legislators. Tell them how you feel.

I'm going to.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Courage looks different to everyone. It can even look different to you on one day that it does another day. Let me tell you what it looked like to me today.

Today was the last day of our trimester. Yesterday, one of my classes revised essays they wrote last week, so I took them home and graded them last night. When I returned them to the kids today, I also delivered the news that they were going to have to stand up in front of the class and read them. I heard the expected moans and groans, as well as the, "Do we have to?" questions. Yes, they had to.

There are several English standards that require the students to speak or present in front of their classmates. Luckily, our school also has a communications class that covers many of these standards, but I like to try and incorporate a little of it in English. It's hard for most kids to get up in front of their peers and do this, I know, but I chose today's essay because it wasn't a personal one. It was about a book they had all read, so the topic wouldn't be embarrassing for them to talk about in front of others, and they would gain some (a little) public speaking experience.

I called the kids up alphabetically and everyone participated good-naturedly. The ones who were sitting and listening actually sat and listened, being respectful and considerate in ways they often aren't when it's me up there. I was proud of them.

Then I came to a boy I'll just call "T." This boy is an odd mixture of personalities. He has a good sense of humor and will once in a while participate in discussions and read-alouds. He often has stories to share about his life, but he doesn't always do his homework. He's usually respectful. Today, though, when I called his name to read his essay, he said, "No. I'm not doing it."

I don't like to be told no.

I started to tell him he had to, that it would be insubordination if he refused, and then he started to sob. Not weep. Not tear up. He sobbed. Head down on his desk, he bawled in my classroom. My jaw hit the ground.

Another boy caught my eye and said, "This happens when he has to speak in front of the class."

I looked at T for a second or two, listening to him cry, and I said, "T, I want you to calm down and take a few breaths. I'm not going to make you do this, but I want you to think about something. Everyone in here is doing this and living through it. Everyone is being kind to each other. At some point, you're going to have to do this for school and if you don't, it will really hurt your grade. I want you to try and do it here, where no one will laugh and you can see that you can do it."

I didn't know if my words had any effect on him because his crying continued, but I hoped they had. I called the next name and three or four students took their turns. Time was running out on the class, and I noticed that T had stopped crying and was sitting up straight in his chair. He had his essay in his hand.

Before I called the next name on my list, I said, "T, are you thinking you want to try it?"

He said, "Yeah, I'm just gonna do it." The entire class clapped as he went to the front of the room.

T stood at the front of the room, read the first few words on his paper, and started crying again. Hard. He'd read a couple words, sob a little bit, wipe away his tears with his arms, and read a couple more, then cry, dab his tears, read a few more, and so on.

I told him very, very early in his attempt that he didn't have to do it. But I guess something inside him said he had to. Because he finished that essay. He sobbed all the way through it, but he finished it.

I had tears in my eyes as I watched him. I have tears in my eyes now as I type this. Several of my other students turned at various times to look at me as T struggled in front of them, their eyes as wide as mine felt, but I had no answers.

I had given him an out. He refused to take it.

When he finished, we all clapped vigorously for him. I was standing, and I'd wanted to hug him, but that never felt quite right in that moment, so I just stood where I was and clapped really hard and really long.

When the clapping died down, I said, "T, that's the bravest thing I've ever seen a student do."

I'll never forget it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

We aren't all dumbing it down

I'm aggravated.

I turned Headline News on this afternoon as I often do and Chuck Roberts was soliciting opinions on a recent USA Today editorial, Our view on education: To boost graduation rates, states water down standards. My aggravation didn't sprout after I read the editorial; it came after I read comments people posted, both to the original editorial and on Chuck Roberts's Facebook page.

I will not argue the fact that some school districts, even some whole school systems in certain states, are struggling to maintain their academic standards. But even in those states whose numbers - graduation rates, test scores, etc. - are less than exemplary, I am certain there are school districts here and there that are doing it right and doing it well.

I have worked in five different school districts in Indiana. In every single one of them, I worked with teachers who care and who go above and beyond their contractual duties to help - often PUSH - their students to succeed. I have had the privilege of working for principals and superintendents who are constantly looking for and procuring the best for their students - the best teachers, the best methods, the best equipment and materials, the best facilities - that their funding allows.

But all of this - all of us - are tangled up in so much red tape that the general public (at least those who were posting on Facebook) doesn't take into consideration when they rant about greedy teachers, or school communities that don't care or that care only about numbers and statistics.

No Child Left Behind began the establishment of national standards for education. I believe the impetus behind this act was to help bring the US up to the academic levels of some other nations. That national act spawned (here in Indiana) Public Law 221 (and similar state laws across the country). These standards (which are stupefyingly long and involved) are what we teachers, as licensed state employees, are required to teach to our students. Our employers, the school districts, are responsible for holding us accountable for teaching those standards.

Everything is tied to the standards. Everything.

The standardized tests evaluate students' mastery of the standards. Their individual scores on those tests determine whether or not the students graduate from high school. The overall student scores on those tests determine a school's "success" rate which in turn determines the level of government involvement in the management of the school district, the funding provided to the school district, and - at its most extreme - the existence of the school district. Soon those scores will also help determine whether or not I keep my job (regardless of the motivation level of my students, parental involvement, and plain academic ability).

If the general public isn't happy with what the students are being taught there are several things they should do rather than rant on social networking sites about how terrible things are in the school system. They should acquaint themselves with their state's standards. (I wonder how many of those who were posting such negative comments even know what these standards are.) They should take an active part in their school community. So many of them said that our country is going downhill because of our educational system. If that's what they believe is true - get involved, get educated, and ask what can be done to help.

We educators have so many responsibilities to so many different people it's unbelievable. How many bosses does an average employee have? I have more than I can count. I am answerable to my principal, my superintendent and my school board. I am answerable to the parents' of my students. But most importantly, I am answerable to the kids who sit in my room every day and count on me to prepare them for the tests they will face in their lives - academic tests and life tests as well. And I can tell you this - I go into every day prepared for the challenge and I do it (almost every day) with a smile on my face. I love my job, and I'm tired of listening to people who don't have a clue run it down.