Saturday, December 19, 2015

OK Capitol Christmas Carol

My first year of teaching was in a tiny elementary school, where I was one of the two sixth-grade teachers. My shiny English teaching license didn’t get me a job, so I taught my first of four years with an emergency certificate…but that’s a story for another time.

I was not a very good math and science teacher (read woefully unprepared! If only I could have related them to Irish playwrights of the 20th century!), I could have been a good social studies teacher if the textbooks actually referred to countries currently on the map. But I rocked reading and grammar.

In December I decided to share A Christmas Carol as my after-recess read-aloud. My little Indiana farm kids didn’t have Mr. Dickens’ vocabulary, so I revised a lot as I read. The last day before Break was a quiet one, with kids finishing their crafty presents to their parents, and I read nearly all day. When we finished the book, and I read, “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” There was a silence, and then, to a child, they clapped. I was permanently hooked on kids from that moment as we shared that universal moment of being moved by literature.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Scrooge recently, as we learn how the economic policies of our state leaders are playing out. Rick Cobb has analyzed the situation better than I ever could here and here. Rob Miller adds his own insights here and here. We in #oklaed are so lucky these two educators are on our side.

A Twitter conversation with a new blogger, @ marvelsagentedu, and a Facebook conversation with a former student, now teacher, brought me back to this classic, and one scene in particular.

The Spirit of Christmas Present lets Scrooge peek into the homes of people enjoying their Christmas Eve, without his wealth, but without his angry heart. He marvels, but is not yet touched. But he also shows Scrooge strangers who struggle. Then he puts faces onto that struggle as he reveals two innocent children.

He pulls his robes back and there are Ignorance and Want, “… a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility…” Looking into their eyes, their tired, old eyes, Scrooge recoils. The Spirit’s words warn us all: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. 

We have seen the work of modern-day Scrooge and Marley – yes, I know. Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. But we have at the Oklahoma Capitol Speaker Bingman and Senator Jolley and finance secretary Preston Doerflinger. Spinning our troubles with maniacal fervor.

They spoke about our $900 million hole, on its way to being a $1 Billion…yes, Billion.  Mr. Doerflinger called it ‘an opportunity.’ Said it’s not as bad as other years, and blamed OPEC, not the failed policies of his own party. Brushing off any sense of responsibility to the people of Oklahoma.  

Speaker Hickman talked about our schools…He again asserted they ‘…have more money to spend than they ever had..” And, more students – he ignored that fact. Those Ignorance and Want students who need so much from us. He told us our teacher shortage is just a reflection of a national trend, hinting that the abysmal teacher salaries are not the problem. He swiped at districts for not putting all that money into teacher salaries. “…those dollars haven’t gotten to where they needed to go.” He must not have paid a bill recently…prices are going up. Maybe because schools were required to pay utility bills and buy new computers and band width to support the mandated testing, and the tests. His disingenuous posturing does so remind me of Scrooge: “Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?”

Senator Jolley piled on with the same message – districts have more money than they’ve ever,had…and tried to brush off the evidence that Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to education. He ignored evidence that Oklahoma has the second highest enrollment among regional states, and we spend the very least pupil. More kids, fewer dollars. Facts.

Scrooge and Marley and Friend…blaming their policies on OPEC and teacher insurance.  Steadfastly ignoring our children, Want and Ignorance and all their classmates.

Scrooge and Marley and Friend, brushing deep cuts to  schools and other services to children off with a dismissive gesture…”are there no work houses?”  They seem to want their tax cuts and their tax credits. They want their ESAs and our vouchers. They want our for-profit charters. Our children will have to wait.

Our Governor is planning to let the tax cut in January occur on schedule, costing the state another $147 million dollars…”Once the price of oil rebounds, I am confident this tax cut will prove its worth in the long term.” And Want can languish with Ignorance until that time comes, I guess.

Scrooge can blithely ignore the effects of poverty and ignorance when it’s abstract. But, like most of us, when face-to-face with “…wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable..” children who suffer, not because of their own actions, but because of the actions and neglect and abuse of others…adults, policy makers, decision-makers, he cracks.

Our Scrooge and Marley and Friend doubled down and looked Oklahoma in the eye and told us our kids and their futures are not as important as a tax cut for the rich, and tax credits for the oil industry. The tax cuts will go forward. Want will continue to want. The attacks on our public schools will continue. Ignorance will continue to threaten us all. Will our policy makers listen?

In the novel, Marley learns…in death, but he learns. He saves Scrooge before it’s too late.

"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!''

Our children cannot vote; they cannot advocate. We must vote and we must advocate for them. We must push back against lies and half-truths told with numbers. We must push back against starving agencies that assist children and their families, and strangle our schools.

Mankind is our business. The common welfare, charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence…care of our youngest and most vulnerable. Not because we can score political points, but because they need us.

Our children are our business. The well fed children, and Want. The bright and warm and Ignorance. They are all ours and it’s past time for us to act like it.

Merry Christmas…and God bless us, every one.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Fund Us. Support Us. Or STF(flip)U

The decidedly rude title for this blog piece was inspired by a dear friend who will go nameless. I’ve changed one word to give it a PG-13 rating, but  I want my frustration to be easily understood, and sometimes strong language makes a point more quickly…so forgive my crudeness. And remember…I changed ‘the’ word.

Every time I talk to a lawmaker…well, probably not every time, but close…I’m told with a smile that said lawmaker has a mom or an aunt or a grandmother who was (operative word) a teacher. Then I’m told how much said lawmaker loves and respects teachers. I sit with a stiff smile, thinking about my family…I’m fourth-generation educator; my son and his wife are fifth. So is their cousin. We are and were teachers.

I’m not feeling the love from these lawmakers who drag out their relatives who USED to be teachers as evidence of their respect for my profession. I watch their actions. I watch their votes. I listen to their speeches on the floor of the House and Senate.

I’ve written about our teacher shortage and teacher pay before, here and here and here

So, we are loved and respected and valued? Then explain these facts:

I’ve asked teachers to talk about their struggles to support their families and continue to work as teachers. The stories are heart-rending. We ask so much of our educators. Demand so much. And we pay them so little.

“I just hit $40,000 with my bachelor's and master's degrees and 16 years of experience. That is less than half the national average for people with the same education and years of experience”
Ironically, the figures will tell us that $44,000 is the average teacher’s salary in Oklahoma. Believe me when I say, a teacher with 16 years experience and a master’s degree is NOT the average.

“My contract before taxes is $29,908 with a bachelor's degree in education. I'm a single mom of two young boys…. None of us went into teaching for the money, but we still need a reasonable pay for the amount of work we actually do.”

And this post that started our conversation:

“My salary after taxes is $27,800. That’s with a college degree and a graduate certification. I could make more at Chipotle. I am paid less than what is considered a liveable income for Oklahoma's already low cost of living. I have student loans. I have bills. I will never own a home. I will always live paycheck to paycheck. I'm glad I don't have to raise a family on this. I deserve better.”

Throughout my entire career I said my salary would cover the mortgage and some of the bills one month, and the mortgage and some other of the bills the next. I could not have supported my family of four on what I earned. I would have been forced to leave teaching, or leave the state. This is the reality for far too many of our educators now…get out of teaching, or leave the state.

So, to review…Lawmakers love and respect us. They proudly tout family members who used to be teachers. They think the world of us…

They just will not pay us a living wage, support our classrooms, fund our schools. They won’t work to strengthen the profession. They won’t work for equitable education for all students in Oklahoma. They still want to play ‘choice’ games by starving the public schools and then giving wealthy parents tax dollars to take to private schools.  They won’t be courageous leaders and commit to raising taxes, cutting loopholes, ending tax credits. They apparently won’t stop plans for a new arch and reflecting pool on Capitol grounds.

To these policy makers, I saw, with all the fatigue of an old woman with a 39-year-career in the classroom, “Fund us. Support us. Or STF (flip) U.” 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

FINNISH LESSONS by Pasi Sahlberg

“…John Dewey dreamed of the teacher as a guide helping students formulate questions and devise solutions. Dewey saw the pupil’s own experience, not information imparted by the teacher, as the critical path to understanding. Dewey also contended that democracy must be the main value in each school just as it is in any free society. The education system in Finland is…shaped by these ideas of Dewey and flavored with the Finnish principles of practicality, creativity, and common sense. What the world can learn from educational change in Finland is that accomplishing the dream of a good and equitable education system for all children is possible. But it takes the right mix of ingenuity, time, patience, and determination”
                        Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons

Two professional books in a row have raised my blood pressure…two books that showed us what we should be doing in education, and aren’t. Two books highlight the fact our American educational research has been systematically ignored by reformers in our country. Instead, this research has been instrumental in creating the Finnish Way, a school system that aims to educate each child, and has resulted in extremely high test scores. Funny thing about Finland's reform: those test scores were never the goal. 

Lawrence Baines’ The Teachers We Need vs. The Teachers We Have ignited my frustration with its focus on alternative certification in our country…the only nation that has loosened the rigor of teacher preparation, as it imposes more and more controls and mandates.

Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons blew a crack in the top of my head. Finland built their education system, not to get high scores on international tests, but to create equity of access and opportunity for all students. And high test scores followed. Their commitment was, and continues to be the students in their charge. They built this system with highly-trained, independent teachers leading the way.

Finland started with solid educational research. They didn’t generate that research; instead, they searched out the best thinkers and incorporated their ideas. Who were these educational thinkers, you ask? Americans! John Dewey. David Berliner, Linda Darling Hammond, and a new name for me, Andy Hargreaves. Our own thinkers and researchers. The ones ignored, ridiculed, passed over for the job of Secretary of Education. Ours. The research that should be informing the work in American schools.

Sahlberg is very honest about several issues that make their success hard to emulate – yes, Finland is not as ethnically diverse as other countries (read ‘the US), but diversity is growing. Yes, poverty rates are extremely low, but they’re growing too. Yes, Finland is a smallish country where consensus would be easier to build around truly improving education.  Those Finnish students who have such high graduation rates? Because of the Finnish system of upper secondary school, they’re only 16 years old.  I wonder how that would compare (or contrast) with US students. And the elephant in the room we’re all tip-toeing around? Finland’s strong welfare state, where every child comes to school healthy, well-fed and well-housed. A state where families are supported in their child-rearing efforts.   

So, what is it that makes Finnish schools great? “…improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.”

“That’s all”…she said in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “That’s all.”

I was lucky enough hear Salhberg speak to a room full of educators. He’s approachable and confident in his message; passionate about the fact there is another way to create great schools…and not just schools that score well on tests. His energy lit up the room. This book sets out to explain the Finnish education system, not to convince us to follow slavishly, but to show…there is another way.

In this book, he gives us a history lesson, grounding the book in the realities of Finland after WWII, and the schools that needed reforming. In the 1970’s, they launched the great experiment, to provide equal access to a quality education for all youngsters, and to help develop every student’s potential.  “This philosophy included the beliefs that all pupils can learn if they are given proper opportunities and support, that understanding and learning through human diversity is an important educational goal, and that schools should function as small-scale democracies, just as John Dewey (OUR John Dewey) had insisted…” Finland didn’t decide it wanted to ‘compete’ with the world, and raise scores on international tests. Finland wanted to create a system where each child could learn and grow, and each secondary student had options for post-secondary learning. They wanted to teach each child, and teach the whole child. Their initial goals were lofty and sincere.

That meant changing the curriculum and structure of the schools, revamping teacher preparation, making it one of the most competitive (one of the only times I read that word in relation to anything about education in Finland) systems in the world.  It meant putting the power of decision-making in schools into the hands of these highly-trained professional educators, and doing all this with minimal standardized testing, and only one high-stakes test.

He is honest about the push back, from politicians and from the business community, to the new reforms: rigorous teacher education, special education for whoever needs a temporary boost, complete reworking of the secondary school landscape, municipal (yes, schools are run by cities) schools, a climate of collaboration and trust, and a philosophy that less is more…less homework, less time in class, but more responsibility. There was push back…until the first PISA test results showed Finland at the top of the world in test scores…test scores they had not chased in their reforms.

I am intrigued…and intimidated…by Finland’s teacher preparation programs. From The Smartest Kids in the World, I learned that only about 1 in 10 applicants out of high school are accepted into teacher education programs. But, applicants can work on identified weaknesses and reapply. One of the teachers interviewed in that book worked as a substitute teacher for several years, and was finally accepted into college. Sahlberg told us that his own niece had not been accepted the first time she applied. He talked with her about where in the process she derailed, and they decided it was in the interview portion of the interview.  She prepared more specifically for the interview, and was successful the second time she applied.

So, it’s not ‘one and done,’ as I feared. It’s extremely hard to get into school, but you have more than one opportunity if that is your goal. To be accepted in teacher preparation, a graduate must have high grades, high Matriculation Test scores, “…positive personalities, interpersonal skills, and a commitment to work as a teacher.” Previous experience in teaching working with young people is a requirement. After an applicant fulfills those requirements, there is a tough interview. Only then is an applicant accepted into a teacher preparation program.

Teacher preparation culminates in a master’s degree, with a rigorous course load, original research, and concentrations in at least two multidisciplinary fields. There are field experiences where students are given more and more responsibility for student work. Where did they find the research and development to create their teacher preparation system? American universities. While the US is trying to churn out as many alternatively-certified teachers as possible, Finland went in the opposite direction, using American research to craft their programs. “There are no alternative ways to earn a teacher’s diploma in Finland; only the university degree constitutes a license to teach.”

Oh, and did I mention, higher education is free? Teachers graduate, ready for the classroom, well-prepared and well-challenged, and debt-free.

And what kind of world do these new teachers join once they’re employed? One where teachers have the respect and trust of parents, the community, and the nation. One where teachers have autonomy in their schools and classrooms. One where they are expected to collaborate. One for which they are paid a professional salary. “The true Finnish difference is that teachers in Finland may exercise their professional knowledge and judgment both widely and freely in their schools. They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement, and community involvement….Finnish teachers…have…latitude and power…”

Teachers are chosen carefully, trained rigorously, because they will be entering a prestigious profession that has the trust of the nation. Sahlberg asked Finnish teachers ‘what would prompt you to leave teaching?’ That question is especially pertinent right now in Oklahoma and the US. Why would Finnish teachers choose to turn their backs on their profession? “If they were to lose autonomy... [if] an outside inspector were to judge the quality of their work, or a merit-based compensation policy influenced by external measures were imposed…Many Finnish teachers have told me that if they encountered similar external pressure regarding standardized testing and high-stakes accountability as do their peers in…the US, they would seek other jobs.” Once again, the US is on the wrong side of a policy to truly improve schools.

But our wrong-headed reforms hardly end with teacher preparation and the perception of the profession.

Sahlberg has coined the term GERM to describe education systems that contrast with the Finnish Way: Global Educational Reform Movement. He describes GERM’s symptoms: standardization, setting goals, increased focus on core subjects (reading and math), prescribed curriculum, transfer to the corporate model of education, and adoption of high stakes. Ugh…we’ve been infected.  The US gave up constructivism, conceptual understanding, multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills in schools, according to Sahlberg, when we were infected. Again…the US in on the wrong side of this issue. We have been forced by corporate reformers to turn our backs on our own research and chase test scores. Can you see the steam rising from my ears? We generated the research and our reformers systematically ignore it in their quest to wring public education dry.

For those of us keeping score at home, we in the US, desperately chasing Finland’s international test scores are ignoring our own research, ignoring our own teachers, ignoring our own students. How wrong-headed can we be?

Well, the answer is EVEN more wrong-headed. Finland has accomplished this education reform with no charter schools, nonexistent private schools, no vouchers, no ESAs, and nearly all public funding. No phony competition (remember, the only time Sahlberg speaks of competition it's in relation to getting into teacher college), no phony choice. PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Funded with PUBLIC MONEY. As #oklaed gears up to fight ESAs and vouchers again, it would be good to note the country we're chasing sees equitable education of all children as its mission.

Instead of "trust the parent" when the parent wants to leave the public school and take the public tax funds raised to educate the child in the public schools and use it in a private school, Finland takes another view of what's important in their schools: " identity...shared responsibility...personalization...collaborative efforts...sharing ideas...solving problems together. Equal education opportunities." How ironic that Finland is living out the dream of equal opportunity that our country gives lip service to. 

Can we, even if we could convince reformers to emulate the Finnish Way? It would take completely changing teacher preparation…making the profession highly respected, so there would be competition for spots in teacher prep programs. How do we stop the toxic spiral we’re in, with the demonizing of educators, with veterans leaving the classroom, with youngsters choosing other professions? This is not a rhetorical question for me. It’s the core of this book, and Baines’ book. Raising the standards without attending to the profession will accomplish nothing but more alternatively certified teachers, with quality being a huge issue.

What’s the Finnish Way? Research-based teacher prep, comprehensive schools for all, special education for all who need an extra boost, small schools, teacher leaders, assessment in the hands of those teacher leaders…it’s also the Finnish “…welfare system [which] guarantees all children the safety, health, nutrition, and moral support they need to learn well in school.”

Salhberg is clear:

 “We should reconsider those education policies that advocate choice, competition, and privatization as the key drivers of sustained educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems currently rely primarily on them…Finnish experience shows that a consistent focus of equity and shared responsibility – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system in which all children learn better than they did before.”

He also sees challenges ahead for Finland, challenges that resemble our own – more second-language students, more students in poverty. More immigrant. One of the hallmarks of Finnish education is there is the fact there’s only a little achievement gap between their highest and lowest students. That is changing. “The challenge for Finland is not to try to maintain high student performance but to strive to keep the country an equal society and maintain its leading position as having the most equitable education system in the world.” His big dream? “…create a community of learners that provides the conditions that allow all young people to discover their talents.” Test scores be damned. Attend to the student, teach the student. Create a system of personalized learning for each child. Build a teaching force that is trusted to make decisions about students’ learning.

Two calls to action. Two dire warnings about everything education in the US seems to revere and value. Two courses that could make a difference.

My profession has been hijacked by non-educators who want to make a quick buck. By non-educators who have no patience for the kind of sustained change it will take to right our course. By non-educators who will abandon us all, and then blame us for their failures.

How can we wrestle control back to educators and students and parents? And is it too late for us?

On to Finnish Lessons 2.0, as soon as my blood pressure goes down a bit.