Sunday, December 14, 2014


Well, another non-educator has all the answers...but she writes very well and she tells a good story. 

I was asked to read this book by a local lawmaker who wants to discuss the points. So I took notes...7 pages of 8-point notes.

Let's start with the title...'smartest kids in the world.' How is this measured? Life accomplishments? Nobel Prizes? Inventions? Nope. Test scores. The PISA test, in particular. Kids are measured as smart or not smart based on the scores of one test. AND how many US kids take this test (along with all the mandated tests, the NAEP, and whatever our policy makers decide to throw at them)? Just over 5000 kids from random schools. There are 49.8 million kids in public schools in the US, and PISA tests a random 5000. Already I'm not sure her premise stands up to scrutiny.

But, let's pretend a test that only 5000 of 49.8 million kids take really does measure smarts...and that is up for debate. Ripley has accepted PISA as the be-all-and-end-all, but others, most of whom are educators, are not so certain.

Now, we have a test that was administered to a pitifully small sample, and a test that may not be the shining start it portrays itself to be.

Onward. Ripley takes three US students who spend a year abroad -- one to Finland, one to S. Korea, and one to Poland -- attending schools in three countries who supposedly have kids who are much smarter than our kids. She introduces us to them in their US home schools, and follows their adjustments in their host countries.

Ripley seems to thoroughly enjoy ripping OK schools...where I spent 34 of my 39 years as a teacher. She appears to have interviewed teachers and administrators in good faith, but her chosen quotes are not-so-subtle swipes at our (I am an OK educator)worthlessness, our excuse-making, our inability to prepare kids for the real world. Of COURSE I got my back up in those sections...and she spends much more time ripping Oklahoma schools than the Pennsylvania and Minnesota schools the other US kids attended.

Then, she examines the three countries' schools and tries to suss out what makes their kids so much smarter than our kids...

Finland changed everything -- teacher preparation, rigor, curriculum. They took it all on. The most intriguing piece of this is the teacher's hard to get into education school in Finland. Here, schools of education are the cash cow that keep US universities solvent, so lots of colleges have schools of education, and they accept too many applicants.

I thought Finland's system only let applicants try once, but Ripley tells a story about one teacher who applied three times, and his life experience as a substitute teacher finally tipped things in his favor. I like this idea...

But in the US, where do we start? Schools of Ed are seeing a decline in the number of applicants, and that is NO surprise. Most of us know, going in, we won't become millionaires, but there was a time when US teachers had the respect of the community and policy makers, and enjoyed a measure of autonomy. Now, teachers are poor, reviled, overworked, under-respected, and are micromanaged by reformers. How can colleges raise standards for admission now? I am mystified about how to end the cycle of attacks so that standards can be raised. I'm not against making teaching more prestigious by raising the standards...but I don't see how we can start here...

Finnish schools receive funding according to need -- schools that have challenging populations have more money...quite the opposite of what happens in US schools. Special education is also handled very different...special ed is seen as an intense intervention of limited time...something to give a kiddo a boost through a tough, temporary time of struggle.

All Finnish kids take a grueling series of matriculation tests. Ripley tries to equate this to OK's End of Instruction tests, but there is no comparison. I'm not against a true matriculation test, where everyone, teachers, students, parents, policy makers, agree on exactly what will be tested and how it will be tested. The Finnish tests are NOT low-level multiple choice tests...She also equates this experience to the ACT and They are exams that supposedly measure a student's ability to do college work...I say 'supposedly' because, come to find out, they're not so good at predicting college success.

One teacher's advice is priceless: "You should start to select your teachers more carefully and motivate them more. One motivation is money. Respect is another. Punishing is never a good way to deal with schools." Indeed...I don't see reformers jumping on that bandwagon with both feet.

On to abusive system where kids may attend school of one kind or another for up to 18 hours a day...where everything is focused on the test, and getting a good score. The entire country is hyper-focused on tests and scores. Kids sleep through their day-time classes, and attend private tutoring schools at night. PRIVATE...parent-funded. Inequitable. 'In 2011...parents spent almost $18 billion on cram schools...' And the wealthy parents got the 'successful' schools and teachers...Ripley calls the system a hamster wheel, but she says she prefers it to the US moon-bounce attitudes. I do not. This system beats up kids, it bankrupts parents, and it causes a system of inequity for its students.

Poland seems to be in this book because they adopted national standards, and it's apparent Ripley loves Common Core...on closer examination, Poland may not be the miracle she touts it to be.

She says these countries are committed to teaching students high level thinking...and implies we don't. She throws around the word 'rigor' without telling us what it means...does it mean 18 hours a day of school? Two six-hour writing tests to graduate from Finnish high school? Is it constant drilling, humiliating kids when they don't know the answer? Is it publicly announcing the scores to the latest test to everyone in the room? Those are all practices of the schools where the world's smartest kids attend.

Do I defend US schools to the death? No. Ripley makes some interesting observations I've wondered about myself.

US schools are teeming with technology...white boards, interactive clickers, iPads, Chrome books...we've go it all. But... The three countries here do not have that technology...and their kids perform well on international tests. I think we need to ask ourselves with complete honesty if we're getting return for the millions we spend on technology...when it could be spent in other ways.

Sports came under fire also. The US is the only major country where sports are the focus of so much time and energy and money. Again, we must ask ourselves...does this investment reflect our values?

I REALLY liked her advice to parents who are looking for a new school...We should all be asking those suggestions: Watch the kids. Talk to the kids. Listen to the parents. Ignore shiny objects. Ask the principal hard questions.

But she feels duty-bound to return to OK, talk to the CEO of BAMA Pies, and rip us again...our high school graduates are so lousy they can't get jobs at BAMA, and the company must leave OK for an international plant; didn't have anything to do with lowering their own production prices, I'm sure.

And in her spirited defense of CCSS, she reviews OK's recent repeal of the standards she loves and defends and accepts without question...and she quotes Sally Kern to show how backwards we all are. To quote the FaceBook group title: "Sally Kern does not represent me!"

She makes good points about parents -- parents from countries with 'smart' kids don't coddle, but DO coach...the read to them daily, they ask about school and discuss current events. They make it clear that kids' job is to work hard in school, and parents' job is to make that happen. That attitude is not universally practiced in the US.

I found Ripley's tone snarky when speaking of US schools or educator, or parents. She obviously looks down her nose at us all, and sees us 'wanting'.

At one point, she writes, “There is much to be said for American teachers, who, in many schools worked hard to entertain and engage their students…” Excuse me?? ENTERTAIN? Entertain?? How dare she who has never taught a day in her life talk about my efforts to ‘entertain’ my students. I am a teacher. I teach. I am not an entertainer.

Of all her snarky comments, the one that sent me over the edge was her dismissal of Diane Ravitch as 'one of the most popular education commentators in the US.' Is she aware Ravitch is a PhD, a professor of education history, and was a member of the US Department of Education? Her credentials are legendary...she is far more important than 'a popular commentator.' I don't know if this is Ripley not doing her homework, or if it's her trying to negate Ravitch's arguments about the PISA and international testing in general. Either way it is insulting to an educator who's devoted her life to our kids.

So, questions for reformers: 
  • Are you willing to pay teachers more so that you can truly recruit the best and brightest? 
  • Are you willing to drop your infatuation with alternative certification and Teach for America, neither of which are rigorous teacher prep? 
  • Are you willing to address the role of sports in our schools? 
  • Are you willing to revamp special education? 
  • Are you willing to trust educators to do their jobs without the machinations of teacher evaluations designed to punish and label? 
  • Are you willing to work with teacher organizations for the good of our kids? 

An interesting book that obviously made me think a lot. But in the end another attack on US schools and educators. Just better written than most.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I Couldn't Stop the Bullying--My Biggest Failure

I had an amazing career as a teacher:  39 years, 3 states, 7 schools, 10 principals, teaching K-12, as an elementary teacher, a school librarian, a Title I reading teacher, and an English teacher. It was wonderful. But there was a huge failure…one I felt every day, one I could never remedy.  Bullying happened all around me, and sometimes I was oblivious, and sometimes when I confronted it, I didn’t help the situation.

Bullying in our schools is systemic. We put signs up that declare our schools as Bully-Free-zero-tolerance zones. But we don’t know how to stop bullying, and our efforts when bullying is reported to us is pathetic.

I tried so hard to be aware of bullying or teasing in my classroom. As a visual learner, I saw the subtle expressions on my students’ faces and the body language during a lesson: the hunched shoulders, the sly, sideline glance, the eyes caught and laughter barely suppressed, the glares, the bunched fists. The eye-rolls. When I would see this, I had a choice. Do I interrupt the lesson and say something? Do I ignore? Do I add my own glare to the mix? What do I do? What is the right lesson for ALL my students at that moment? The answer is. “Yes.” I did It all at one time or another. Not always successfully.  Sometimes I just acknowledged that I was aware of ‘something’ going on as an undercurrent in the classroom and I needed it stopped. Sometimes I would ask kids to join me in the hall to assure a more private discussion.  Every  one of those little ripples distressed me.

I was proud of my Reading for Pleasure class because it brought very different students together, sometimes for the first time in their high school career, in the same class, everyone working beside each other, but everyone working on his or her own book. A student once told me mine was the most democratic class in our school: jocks, artists, cheers and poms, student leaders, special education students, kids who used wheel chairs, kids who have mental handicaps and Aspergers and mental health issues. Straight kids and LBGT kids. Highly religious students and ones who were confident atheists. Kids who were in all AP classes and kids who were barely passing their classes…all together, all reading, all (I HOPE), interacting with respect.

That respect started with me. I hold to the philosophy that, as your teacher I give you my full respect immediately. Then, day-by-day I will earn yours. I earned respect (I HOPE) by treating students with equality and equity, by listening, by learning about their lives and their hopes. By learning about their educational struggles, and how I can help. By creating a classroom climate of positive acceptance. By telling them I cared about them and believed they would succeed in my class. That they were partners in this endeavor. That I could be trusted with their thoughts and reflections. I knew it would take time, and I invested that time.

My expectation for my students was that they would be respectful to each other…they would be patient to the student who needed more time to express herself, they’d be supportive of the student who was nervous about being in front of the class. They’d accept our differences and find a way to connect. That they would begin to lose their fears of kids who were different and had different needs. Was I successful? Not always, but I never gave up.  I wanted any bullying outside my door to stop AT my door.

I tried to be in the halls between classes to monitor…I served every possible duty station in school…lunchroom, hallway, after-school, before-school, recess…even the dreaded bathroom duty at Prom. I tried to watch interactions, aggressive or submissive body language, big groups of kids pointing and laughing…I wasn’t afraid to step up to a student and ask what was going on…how I could help. I’ve escorted aggressive kids to the office, and I’ve used my presence to discourage negative behavior. I wanted kids to know I would support them, and try to keep them safe.

Usually when I confronted kids, I could have recited their response right along with them, “I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean anything, I was just kidding, he can’t take a joke, we were only teasing, we always joke around like this.” And on and on and on. We all knew they were lying, and none of us knew what to do next. That was my failure.

When students came to me to report bullying, I tried to listen, to find the underlying story. I would talk with the other student and get that same line: “I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean anything, I was just kidding, he can’t take a joke, we were only teasing, we always joke around like this.” Then it becomes one student’s word against another. Then, I was lost in that quagmire again…lost and failing all my students.

One thing I regularly did, despite school policies, was to open my classroom up at lunch for kids who hated the snake pit that is the Commons at lunch. We had to be clever and subversive, but I loved giving kids a quiet space to eat and visit. One group, my beloved Lunch Bunch, stuck with me for all four years of their high school careers, long after they really needed any kind of safe spot.  I could be a listening ear. But that ‘what next’ was so hard.

I DID know better than to say, “Just ignore them, they’ll stop soon, they will move onto another person soon, they’ll forget you.” OR, “Stand up for yourself. Don’t let them push you around. Get physical.” I would, if I knew the kids, call home and talk to parents…with mixed results, for sure. I would talk to counselors and principals, trying to work out a response. But mostly I failed.

I read extensively on my own, looking for answers to “What do I say?” I read and read and read and read and read and read and read and read and read.  I read fiction, adult and young adult…looking for answers to the two questions that plagued me: “How do I identify bullying in my classroom and in my school? What can I do to respond and make a real difference?” Those answer eluded me then, and they still do.

All this has flooded back to me as I see my own granddaughters deal with bullying and aggressive behavior, and as we in Norman respond to the events at Norman High. I wonder…what would I say, what could I say, that would make a difference?

When the girls talk about someone picking on them, my first question is, “Did you tell a teacher?” I continue to hope the professionals in the schools will support my girls and everyone else’s girls and boys. They usually tell me, yes they did, but nothing happened. I know that the privacy laws that bind education and educators mean that often kids don’t know what happens next to another student. Schools cannot reveal conversations or consequences. But, the perception for kids who shared their hurt with teachers is, no one did anything. I then suggest they find a safe place to be, to avoid the bully, knowing that really doesn’t solve anything. Then, I just talk and listen…and listen…and listen. We talk strategies, but I have few to offer besides 'keep yourself safe.'

This year my oldest Grand is a freshman at Norman High. Earlier this fall, she told me about a friend who was attacked by another girl, a stranger; the attack was videotaped. The friend came out with sore ribs and a shiner and some hysterical parents and friends. She and my Grand learned about staying safe and aware. The police were called, but told her parents the ‘she said-she said’ wouldn’t lead to any kind of resolution. (Just like in those bullying incidents in school). The friend felt somewhat safe at school, because the girl who had hit her went to North, and there was little opportunity for the two to see each other, and there were friends around her for support. Well, soon after, the other girl transferred to NHS, and a stare-down began…my Grand and her friend began looking over their shoulders and scanning crowds.

The #YesAllDaughters campaign to bring awareness of bullying, rape, school neglect became something my Grand cared about…she was acquaintances with the girls who were raped, and better friends with others who joined the #YesAllDaughters movement. On the day of the walk-out, my Grand had her mom's permission to leave school and she joined the peaceful protest. She learned a lot about standing up for your values, and your friends…of being there for others.

But the most important moment for her was a private one, not caught on camera, not involving any clever signs or chants. The girl who had hit her friend found them in the crowd, and apologized…said she realized what she did was bullying, and bullying is wrong. The three will never be fast friends, but they reached a peace. They looked into each other’s eyes and recognized they each deserved respect. I believe all the girls were deeply affected by this encounter.

One private moment – with no teacher intervention. One private moment, acknowledging each other’s worth. One moment, brought about by the suffering of friends.

As a reflective teacher, I need to have a ‘what next’ plan, even though I’m not in the classroom any more. I need to take some kind of action, to keep learning, to participate, to reach out.  I may have failed my students, but I can still learn and grow. I can help forge a plan, a strategy. I can be a bridge between education and concerned parents.

Norman Schools has pledged to work on a plan to keep kids safe…I hope to be part of that work. Maybe I can make up for that failure to solve the problem in my classroom, in my school.

I can, and I must do something…but in the meantime, our kids are more than capable of participating in the solution as well.