Sunday, March 31, 2013

"We Legislate; You Pay Two-Step"

It seems there's a theme to the proposed legislation in the OK Legislature this year: mandate and make someone else pay the bills. I call this the "We Legislate; You Pay Two-Step." Dance merrily away from the messes they create, high-fiving along the way.

There are three pieces making their way though the House and Senate that will create sweeping changes, and give already-strapped districts the bill. My cynical self sees this as a way the Legislators can shrug and say, "Well, we gave them this and that...not our problem now." I disagree. I believe we need to lay complete responsibility at the doorstep of the lawmakers desperately trying to deny their own accountability. They want everyone else to bear the burden while they slap each other on the back.

HB1659 deals with National Board stipends and changes not only the amount of the stipends for National Board Certified teachers, lowering it from $5000 a year to $1000 a year, it also makes the payment part of a teacher's salary, thus transferring responsibility for the payments from the state to districts. I've written about this before -- it will make NBCTs less and less attractive as employees, and more and more expensive. The school districts never agreed to pay these stipends -- and in the current climate, they can't. But I see how attractive this is to lawmakers trying to find a way to fund their new teacher merit-pay scheme. Making districts responsible will instantly free $12 million-$15 million from the state budget. Win for them -- lose for districts.

Moving on, HB1062 'frees' school districts to allow teachers and administrators to carry guns on campus. I have linked to the latest version I could find. I've learned that versions change online and it's impossible to retrace the changes. It originally required 240 hours of training for an educator to carry a weapon, but that has been amended to 120 hours. The bill further requires any School Board that participates to pay for all training costs for educators...the cost of the actual training, any transportation and lodging costs. There are provisions that will free districts from any liability...I'm assuming for WHEN something goes very wrong and someone is hurt or killed. I can already hear them: "Well, we GAVE those teachers the right to carry guns. We can't be responsible for their mistakes." So, once again, the Legislature plans to make sweeping gestures of support for school safety, but to step away from any responsibility. How are districts who choose to participate going to bear the extra costs of training? Not their problem. They're too busy dancing away from accountability.

SB425 is the new voucher bill -- with a twist. As explained to us by Ryan Owens, of CCOSA, at the OKC Metro-area PLAC, it will allow students who graduate from high school early to take their per-pupil expenditure and pay college tuition. We were told the difficulty with this is the fact students are no longer generating this per-pupil payment, since they are not in a public school. So, schools will have less money generated for their per-pupil payments from the state. It sounds incredibly complicated...but is also sounds like public education money is being stolen from us to provide tuition to higher education institutions. The phrase from the bill that resonated with me: "The State Department of Education shall then reserve or retain from the total amount appropriated to the State Board of Education for State Aid purposes and any other revenues available for allocation for State Aid purposes the total cost for all scholarship payments." My question is: " Does this money come off the top of the State Aid, or is it taken from each individual district who has early graduates?" Either way, the answer seems to be public schools will see a loss of funds. More dancing...encourage early graduation, but don't support schools that produce these graduates. Punish them, instead. Add this to the punitive changes in the ACE scholarship program, and we see more tip-toeing away from our schools and our students.

Two-step: We make the rules and the laws; you pay and pay and pay. We give you less money; you pay and pay and pay. I wish our lawmakers were as serious about our students' safety and education as they pretended.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Notes from Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC)

I attended the informational meeting for PLAC, held in Norman. Speakers were informed and helpful. I hope we'll have more meetings in the future.

Parent Legislative Action Committee
Parent Meeting March 28, 2013
Meredith Exline – Metro PLAC – their group is nonpartisan and has no funding
Three legislators attended: Standridge, Nelson, and Martin

OK Policy Institute – Megan Benn, Outreach
School funding is 60% state, 10% federal, and 25-30% local
State has cut $220 million to schools, with an increase of 31,000 students. This means $200 less per pupil in expenditures
34% of the budget for common education…has steadily dropped since 2000
The state’s 20% drop in funding is third largest cut to education in the nation…behind only Alabama and Arkansas
Federal $$ will be affected by sequestration
Local – OK is 48th in the nation in property tax collection per capita – paying 43% of the national average. We pay $597 – national average is $1388
State questions both resulted in less $$ for education: 758 will mean $3.5 less per year; 766 will decrease available funds anywhere from $32 million to $60 million.
FY ’14 Barresi asked for increase of $290,000,000
                Gov proposed increase of $13.5
                Legislature thinks $75-100 million increase is possible

CCOSA – Ryan Owens talked about school legislation
No attempt to work with OU/OSU, who called A-F ‘unsalvageable’…Legislation was to provide accountability program that was ‘valid, reliable and useful.’ Three bills:
HB2044 – Henke – CCOSA supports this
HB1658 – Denney – both these bills are by the original authors, tinkers around the edges
SB635 – Jolley – CCOSA has little confidence in either
Guns in school  
 HB1062 – passed the House. Gives local boards right to arm teachers – MODIFIED CLEET training (cut from 240 to 120 hours). Schools required to pay for training and all expenses. Unclear who buys the gun. Contact John Ford of Senate Ed Committee

HB2101 – Fourkillers – trains personnel to administer epipen injection to student who seems to be in anaphylactic shock from unidentified allergy. Liability issues if the bill passes and schools don’t train personnel, AND if they do. Bill is a solution looking for a problem. No child in an OK school has died of this shock.

School Safety
SB256 – Shannon and Bingman – response to the Lt. Gov. Commission. Requires 8 drills a year – 2 lockdown, 2 intruder, 2 fire and 2 tornado…isn’t that fewer than we do now??
SB 259 – Bingman, Ford and Burrage –  Requires school to report presence of firearm on campus – Owens wonders how that will work with 1062.

SB425 – would allow students who graduate early from HS to take per pupil $$ they are no longer generating to a college for tuition. Will result in less $$ in schools. Early-graduates do NOT generate $$ for the schools they no longer attend, and yet the schools would be forced to pay for them.
OK Education Coalition unanimously opposes this bill

Virtual Charters
HB1660 – Denney
SB267 – Stanislaw – both will stop small districts from setting up Virtual  Charters, and then recruiting from other districts, snagging per pupil $$. Disenfranchises local taxpayers. Sets up a unified Board. In the House Ed Appropriations Committee

Unfunded Mandates
HB1711 – Thompsen, Brecheen – "changed the conversation!" Would demand all reforms be funded at 70% to become law. Owens listed current reforms that are unfunded or underfunded: TLE, CCSS, A-F, 3rd Grade Flunk Law, ACE (EOI testing). This is not active legislation at the moment

Questions and Answers

  • Pointed out OK EOIs are not recognized by higher ed or workforce as predictive of success
  • Talked about deregulation of class size, library and textbook funding
  • Question about the Lottery -- $$ is dumped into common school funding formula and is difficult to trace back to the source. Early $$ was used to fund teacher pay increases…61 districts receive no lottery $$ at all.
  • I asked about ALEC and if they saw its influence. Answer was politically correct, given Legislators in the room: ALEC provides a forum for Legislators, some of our OK Legislators are ALEC members, ALEC does provide model legislation, but they weren’t ‘aware’ of ALEC language. I should have asked a follow-up question specifically about the Parent Trigger bill. My purpose was not to put the speakers on the spot, but to remind the Legislators that we DO know who’s a member, and we DO know that legislation is being given to them by ALEC.
  • IDEA was mentioned…Owens said to contact Sen. Coburn…he is committed to feds paying their share.
  • A question was asked about testing companies and costs…Pearson and McGraw Hill are the two main companies…OK DID have a contract with Pearson – now with MGH – current contract is for $8.9 million. Owens pointed out if OK used ACT or SAT, cost to the state would be $1-2 million
  • Pensions were mentioned. OK’s unfunded liability for TRS is strong, but a new bill popped up in the last 48 hours to combine ALL pension funds into one…cannibalizing TRS (my words!!)
  • A question was asked about the Governor’s proposal to cut taxes…$40 million will be taken out of the budget…still think a $13 million increase in education is possible
  • A mother made an impassioned plea to talk – tell your story. Don’t try to debate the bill, but talk about how actions affect your families and your children.
  • Meredith Exline: “We are not there (State Capitol) to debate the bills (with Legislators), but to share our hearts!”

Next Tulsa PLAC Capitol Day April 23 – 9am-1pm

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Review:BOOK LOVE by Penny Kittle -- with only 46 more days left in my career.

Sometimes books find you at an opportune time in your life. This book found me too late...only 46 days left in my career, I find a professional soul-mate I would love to visit with for hours. We share a vision for what schools and teachers should be doing, and yet we came at it from different directions. We had amazing mentors early on: she worked with Don Graves and Don Murray. My teachers at Indiana University included Roger Farr and Carolyn Burke--and her mentor Kenneth Goodman called me his granddaughter. We've learned from the best, and we've both taken those lessons to heart.

We both know relationships are what matter in a classroom. Her stories of nudging students into books, and into more complex books, are fun for me, because I could tell her MY stories too. We know kids need to enjoy their books or they won't read. We both have seen too much 'fake reading' in our careers, and are savvy enough to call kids on it.

I appreciate Kittle's bravery to revamp her traditional Englishclasses to incorporate more pleasure reading...along with the required elements. Close to 20 years ago, my colleagues in my English department all incorporated a reading Friday into our classes. We modeled reading with the kids, and we began work on helping kids select books. But we kept it responded.

I decided more than 10 years ago, that wasn't going to be the route that worked for me, and I 'invented' my current class, Reading for Pleasure. This class allowed me the opportunity to concentrate solely on choice reading, reading for fun, and reflecting on reading. Hearing Kittle talk about her success, I wonder if I bailed too soon from the traditional English classes....I know our 9th and 10 grade teachers have students read during class...but not with the intentionality Kittle displays. I really like the combination of reading in class, and the reading homework she assigns. A creative way to add without overwhelming her kids.

I learned new ideas I wish I had the time to incorporate: Reading Break, similar to DEAR...I appreciated her honesty about the teachers and students who tried to subvert the school wide reading. That's kept me from pushing. She admits she teaches at a small high school -- 900, as opposed to the 2400 students we have at my school. More opportunities for resistant teachers and kids. She said her school confronts that by having administrators roam the halls and classrooms during Reading Break, and keeping everyone honest. I like her ideas.

Summer reading AND summer book groups sound awesome. Having school libraries open during the summer to allow students to check out books! Genius.

I'm trying desperately to figure out how to start using her Big Idea Books these last days -- a group of small notebooks, each dedicated to a Universal Theme, in which students can contribute reflections on their books. Kittle says she keeps hers from year to year -- what an amazing idea to connect readers over time...still thinking of how to pull this one off.

There are many ways we work in sync -- we both aim to build stamina and flexibility; we understand the importance of a 'books to read next' list. We both know we must read with our kids, read what they're reading. We both share books with passion. We build relationships with students, knowing that's the door into the books. We are both widely read, in popular books, YAL books, and professional books. We both feel the same frustration with teachers (especially English teachers) who are not readers and writers, who 'cover' a book and assume their job is finished. She highlights several difficult conversations she's had with colleagues who cling to that status quo thinking. I love her courage to confront, and can see she does it with respect and gentleness.

Those long conversations I wish we could have would be focused on some of the ways we diverge: she does conferences; I have students write and provide lots of feedback, carefully crafted to 'listen' in a different way. I read with my students; she does her conferences while they're reading. Because she does her work in the English class, she is able to have students be 'interdependent' readers, and make year-long connections among the books and the canon. 

I had a wonderful epiphany as I was reading. She brings up a concept I've heard of before: Fixed and dynamic we believe our intelligence is fixed, and if we don't get something the first time, it's just too bad...and if we don't get something the first time, we just need to try another way. She says to her kids what I've heard my experienced readers say to each other..."You just haven't found the right books yet." I had my students create a sticky-note chart of their attitudes about reading at the beginning of the semester, and then asked students to comment on the data. It was an identifiable pattern from students who'd taken my class more than once, that the kids who 'hate' or 'HATE' reading just needed to find that book. My students understand the dynamic aspects of reading and especially reading for their own pleasure.

Loved this book -- wish it'd found me sooner. Add another book to the list of 'books I wish I'd've written.' Add another author who lets me know I'm on the right path...for 46 more days.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


As a teacher, I try to find books to read that will help me see my students in new lights, and interact with them more authentically. I have only read two of Alexandra Robbins' books, but I highly recommend them to anyone wanting to understand teens and the pressures we adult place on them.

My students and I judge how good a book is by the number of sticky-note flags I put into the book I tend to 'sticky' great writing, important point by the author -- anything I need to find quickly when discussing the book or the ideas IN the book. Let me tell you, GEEKS bristles with stickies. Robbins has added an important book to the literature of the sociology of secondary schools...I loved her book OVERACHIEVERS, and was eager to read this one too.

She takes six students and one young teacher through a school year, from the first day to graduation. She shows us who they are, what they value, with whom they interact. She must be a dynamite interviewer, because kids open their hearts to her and she treats that gift with respect.

The format is similar to she tells us about one of her characters, she links an issue he or she is dealing with to the research. These informational essays bring a new light and a context to her characters' concerns.

She introduces a term that is vital for her book: quirk theory: "Many differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that other will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood." In other words, wait, be patient. Trust yourself. Don't give up hope. High school is temporary -- and life is what's important.

As she returns to each character throughout the year, we learn more and more about those interactions that add burdens to their lives. I was horrified when she reveals one of her characters is a young teacher who deals with mean girl bullying from OTHER TEACHERS! The school must be incredibly toxic to allow teachers to bully each other, and talk about other teachers to the students. I was horrified.

Robbins challenges each character to change something about his or her interactions with others and the last half of the book reports their efforts to break out of the fringe they've relegated themselves to. Whitney, the mean-girl prep learns to reach out to others, but is then excluded by her original friends. Noah attempts to show his natural leadership, the leadership that was rejected by traditional elections in school. Danielle just tries to talk to others. Blue (oh how I love Blue) is dealing with a mother who ridicules and belittles him, personal depression, a secret about his sexuality, and 'friends' who take over his projects and leave him out in the cold. His challenge allows him to show everyone a whole new Blue.

I was thrilled to read about Sachse High School in TX, where they attribute an all-school 'drop everything and read' period every day to an improvement in their school. It 'really made a difference in the culture of our school.' How exciting to see a school have faith in the power of reading and fellowship to break down barriers. I want to learn more about this school.

I always DO have favorites as I read about these dynamic kids. Blue and Whitney will hold special places in my the others, theirs is not a Cinderella story with a fairy-tale ending, but there are quiet victories, lots of self-reflection, and genuine growth. My least favorite was probably the teacher who saw herself as the 'only' adult who cared about the kids. Her self-centeredness was sad...I felt some of the kids had a deeper understanding of life than she. But it was her story of victimization by colleagues that horrified me the most.

Quotes that I want to remember:

"Middle school...has been called the Bermuda triangle of education."
"Meanness can be divided into two categories" overt and alternative."
"Groups can trigger the brain's inclination to take shortcuts...the group's opinion trumps the individual's before he even becomes aware of it."
"Conformity is not an admirable trait. Conformity is a cop-out. It threatens self awareness."
"Like lady Ga Ga, the quirk theory assures marginalized young people that some day they will be welcomed for the same reasons that classmates relegate them to...'the land of the misfit toys.'"
"Students vastly overestimate their classmates' use of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes."
"Studies show that students perceive parents who have negative attitudes about alcohol and drugs to be more caring."
"The permissiveness of parents who want their kids to be popular can lead to tragic consequences."
"The overemphasis of standardized tests forces teachers to teach the same restricted, un-inventive curriculum."
"Conformity is a mask behind which students can hide their identity or the fact that they haven't figured out their identity yet."
"Better to be lonely and real than to hide behind a mask of self deception. The loneliness will pass."

If you're a teacher, a parent, an aunt or uncle of a teen I recommend it. If, in your work, you ever interact with teens, I recommend this book. If you were a teen, cafeteria fringe, or popular, I recommend this book.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Head or Heart? Why Must I Choose?

Recent events, John Thompson's recent blog, and my own reflections about the end of my teaching career have all combined to make me think about this dichotomy...head or heart? Which rules our teaching?

"No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship." I've heard this attributed to Ruby Payne and others, but it's actually James Comer who said it.The moment I read this quote, I instantly recognized its importance in my own life, both as a learner and a teacher. There it is -- the single most important element of my own academic life. I thought about my own schooling, and the teachers who touched me, inspired me, challenged me. They were the teachers who invested in me...who got to know me. That's what I strove for in my own teaching.

This is the way I've tried to conduct my career: build relationships. Give every student universal positive regard. Respect students first; earn their respect day-by-day with my actions and attitudes. Grade and respond to student work with honor. Find ways to encourage a little more. And then a little more. Support every attempt toward independent learning. Celebrate achievements. I hope my students see this in our work together.

That's the heart of my teaching -- but I am comfortable assessing, grading, holding students accountable for their learning. I enjoy writing test questions that will allow students to look at their own learning and articulate their strengths. I've used standardized tests to pinpoint areas of growth and areas of weakness. I track student growth and can diagnose concerns.

But, that's not what reformers mean by 'head' -- they want nothing but standardized tests, evaluation of teachers based on student tests, grading schools by tests. They want to throw out relationships and educator judgments. They want to make data king. This has begun to poison everything that happens in schools, and is stretching teachers' values to the utmost.

I have heard a school administrator chide teacher education programs for teaching preservice teachers all 'that developmental nonsense.' The administrator said, out loud, 'we have to get them to pass tests, we can't worry about development.' This leads to schools that cut recess for elementary students so they can do more test prep.

I know high schools are now telling parents that their children should take every AP class the schools offer, no matter what students' interests, passions, or aptitudes are. I've had a friend lament that if she doesn't push her child into all these classes, she'll be doing her child a disservice. This push isn't for the benefit of students. The more students enroll in AP and advanced classes, the better schools will 'look' in school evaluations.

School administrators are desperate to 'earn' high grades from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. They are saying things and doing things diametrically opposed to what they know about education, learning and teaching. Yet, they say them and they do them. They pressure teachers, who are forced to pressure students, to say and do that which we know is wrong. But we all feel trapped by those 'reformers' who value the head and not the heart...they even ignore educational research if it doesn't fit their scheme.

How do teachers and educators hold onto the bedrock values that have inspired and led us throughout our careers? How do we adjust to new times, and still hold onto these values? A friend said it best: "How do I weave my moral imperative with my will to survive?" How indeed.  How do we respond to the demands of the 'reformers' who pretend to care? How do we keep the climate in our classrooms and schools safe for learning?

I read the original piece linked to John's blog. I saw no evidence that Roterham gives a rip about kids...that he even KNOWS students. His 'heart' conflicts are abstract, amorphous. They're bogus. He doesn't look into the eyes of struggling students who are giving us their all. He doesn't listen to a mother doubt her own parenting. He doesn't sit with a teacher who struggles to do the right thing. He's comfortably ensconced in his ivory tower think tank...lamenting heart vs. head education. He has no idea what's it like to build a relationship with a young person, to watch her grow, to celebrate with her the small steps toward success. He'll never experience the joy of truly knowing a student, of being allowed into HIS heart. He'll never experience the deep satisfaction of knowing you've ended the day giving your students your best...your heart and your head.

Polonius was a blow-hard for sure in Hamlet. But he accidentally stumbled upon one of the most important truths for a life of honor: "To thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man." That will be my touchstone. I will hold true.

So, for the last weeks of my career, I will let my head be ruled by my heart...I trust both. They, together, will lead me to the right decisions for thirty-eight years. They'll lead me to decisions that will allow me to sleep comfortably every night, knowing I did the best I could for every student and parent.