Friday, May 15, 2015

OUR KIDS...Every Last One.

I recently read Robert Putnam's OUR KIDS: The American Dream in Crisis. That experience, along with conversations on social media, and John Thompson's latest blog all converged to make me want to rant...again.

OUR KIDS. They're OURS. Every one. The kid who lives in his mother's car, the kid who didn't sleep because he was watching younger siblings. The kid who was brought to school in Mommy's Lexus SUV. The kid who didn't get her homework done. The kid who lashes out at the world. The kid who just wants to disappear and not be noticed. The kid who's in agony that we cannot see. The kid who seems to have it all and is hiding depression. The kid...the kid...the kid.

They are all ours. And until we get that and start acting like it, our kids will suffer. 

I'm tired of parents blaming teachers and teachers blaming parents. That does not help our kids. That keeps us from trying to help. When we punish children for the sins and bad luck and bad choices of their parents, we throw them away. When we punish them with unsafe schools, under-resourced, staffed with inexperienced teachers, crowded into classrooms, we throw them away. When we punish those under-resourced, unsafe schools, we assure more kids will be thrown away.

We know books in the home and access to libraries help produce readers. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to do something.

We know healthy kids learn best. Instead of talking about 'those parents' we need to do something.

We know children deserve two parents who are economically able to care for their needs. Instead of arguing about 'welfare moms' and minimum wage jobs, we need to do something.

For our kids. We don't have to like each other, admire each about each other. But we must care for our kids. They did not create the world into which they were born. They didn't choose the economic conditions of their families. They didn't choose the educational attainment of their parents. Those things matter, and they give some kids a huge advantage and others a crippling disadvantage. From the moment of their birth. 

No amount of grit or perseverance or bootstrap tugging will help until WE help. Until we assure our kids stability and safety and books and time. 

Schools can't do it alone. Churches can't. Community centers can't. 

I've been mulling over Putnam's book, and my take-away for days now. 

Our kids. Ours. Every. One. 

What are we going to do about that? 

Rant review follows.

Putnam, Robert D. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. 2015

Not a lot of this information was new...but Putnam put it together, along with stories, in a way that makes the big point: Our kids, all our kids, do not have an equal opportunity for success.


Things are different now...the Horatio Alger, bootstraps, grit and determination, stories do NOT overcome the inequities faced by a growing number of our kids.

Talking of previous generations: "Though it might seem natural to label them 'self-made', in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from...modest backgrounds." This is the point of this book...previous opportunities have disappeared for kids and their families.

There are gaps...but nowhere did Putnam call it an 'achievement' gap. He named the opportunity gap, and the 'savvy gap..." that, being able to find mentors, teachers, chances for yourself. Having those connections that will let you find a good first job, a helping hand...having families who have made those connections for you. Having parents who are not desperately trying to keep their heads above water, who can actually create a network that will benefit their children.

So, opportunity gap...savvy gap...these are the two he names. BUT within the pages, within the stories, are other gaps that doom some of our kids from the start...a health gap, a neighborhood gap, an economic gap, a safety gap. A trust in the authorities gap. In schools, kids from working class parents with less education go to schools with empathy gaps, extracurricular gaps, mentoring gaps, resources gaps.

The suffer from empathy gaps...and ultimately from civic and democracy gaps. They will tend to participate less in civic life than better-educated, more affluent, adults.

Putnam grounds his stories of gaps in his own background: a high school where rich and poor kids attended together. Where networks and connections were forged, and where poor kids were nurtured by the community. Yes, there were families who were not well off, but the community worked. Because it was smaller, because people were not isolated behind gated walls, because we knew each other.

Putnam shows how many of those connections no longer exist. Kids are isolated with people who have similar levels of education and similar economic stability. He shows how the rich are getting richer, better educated...while the poorer see themselves falling farther and farther behind.

“Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility, because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.”

Then Putnam turns to schools. Aren't they supposed to be the great equalizer? Aren't they supposed to give poor kids that resiliency and grit needed to rise above circumstances? That's certainly the rhetoric of our reformers who blame schools for the woes of our society.

Putnam is clear...schools do not create the opportunity gaps, and they cannot, alone, overcome them. "...schools themselves aren't creating the opportunity gap; the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten...and does not grow appreciably as children progress through school."

And there's this: "Among elementary-age children, for example, test score gaps expand faster during the summer, while kids are out of school, and then stabilize when the kids go back to school in the fall." I had never thought of this as evidence that schools are being successful with our most vulnerable kids.

What IS inequitable in schools is availablity of resources, of highly-trained experienced teachers, of higher level courses, and of extracurricular opportunities: clubs, athletics at no cost to students, of art and drama. Affluent parents can afford to pay-for-play. They can afford to give kids trumpet lessons, art lessons. They can afford to take their kids on excursions that have great enrichment potential. The opportunity gap widens, not because of schools, but in spite of us.

Part of the inequity in schools, is what Putnam calls 'residential sorting' -- choosing where to live, if you have the resources, in a neighborhood that has strong schools with enhanced resources...families are becoming more and more isolated from others who are different. Different racially, and more important, different economically. Who among us would NOT want our kids to go to a strong school, with experienced teachers, and strong co-curricular programs? Who among us is capable of choosing those schools and those neighborhoods? The more affluent and more educated.

So that 'achievement gap?" "...the gap is created more by what happens to kids before the get to school, by things that happen outside of school and by what kids bring (or don't bring) with them to school -- some bringing resources and others bringing challenges -- than by what schools do to them."

And, "The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in whch the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids...what this means is that schools as SITES probably widen the class gap. We've seen evidence that schools as ORGANIZATIONS sometimes modestly contribute to leveling the playing field."

Putnam looked at families, parenting, schools, and communitiesfor signs of how these gaps occurred, and for suggestions. I appreciated his discussion of what could be done by strong, courageous leaders.

To support healthy families, an increase of $3000 in family income during a child's first five years can visibly improve that child's chances...Earned income tax credits, protecting anti-poverty programs can help. Keeping families together by reducing sentencing for people found guilty of non-violent crimes, and rehabilitation programs for those re-entering society.

For schools -- more moeny to schools, more experienced teachers in high-needs schools, longer school hours with enrichment activities for kids. Social and health services at schools -- that community, wrap-around model! He suggests vigorous vo-ed programs and workplace training programs. I highly support these suggestions. He acknowledges that community charters can be part of a solution as well.

Communities have a responsibility as well. Mentoring programs ("our data on mentoring today sho amassive class differences in access to mentors), support of extra curriculum programs that might not be offered in the schools--these all can support kids. Neighborhood regeneration programs can help with the safety gap for kids as well. Putnam suggested if readers want to do something immediately, they should contact schools and ask if a donation to offset 'play for pay' programs would be helpful. Just offering to pay for a student's fees for extracurricular activities can support that kiddo thrive.

I love the title: OUR KIDS. If we don't start claiming every child as our own, these gaps will continue...we will lose a generation or more of young people who will not have the skills and tools to parent and to thrive in the society that appears to be turning its back on the undereducated and the working poor.

Putnam and his research teams reached out to families of different ethnicities to highlight the fact the inequity is now more economic and educational...of course racial divides will continue. But we must find ways to help these kids whose parents didn't have opportunities to higher education, to better jobs, to better neighborhoods, to that 'savvy' one needs to navigate in today's society.

I found Putnam's discussion of schools to be even-handed and without blame. That was refreshing. I found his suggestions to be doable. The devil's in the details, but I have long screamed for community, wrap-around schools. I'm watching with interest as more schools begin to move in that direction.

OUR KIDS deserve OUR BEST. They deserve opportunities and safe communities and experienced teachers and supportive communities. And access to higher education, whatever their parents' attainment might be.

Are we willing to help bridge all these gaps that hinder our kids?

Are we ready to look beyond their parents' mistakes and reach out? I certainly hope so.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dan Nolan's Remarks on the 25th Anniversary of HB1017

  One of my friends, a colleague at Norman North High School, and fellow NBCT, Dan Nolan, was invited to speak at the press conference marking the 25th anniversary of then-Governor Henry Bellmon signing of HB1017. Dan is a gifted history teacher, and well aware of the ironies facing our profession. I always sent him books about current events, or historical fiction to read for accuracy. I could read for story and character, but Dan understands the deep connections that tie the past to the present, and countries of the world to each other.

I wrote about the broken promises of HB1017 here. The anniversary was bittersweet for many of us who remembered the hope and optimism we all felt.

Here are his remarks. We are lucky to have Dan's eloquence representing all of us.  

 I am attempting to reconstruct my speech at the 25th Birthday of HB 1017 conference from my battered and sweaty 3X5 cards.  I’m sure some of the following wording is clearer or better chosen than my actual speech but it also lacks the passion of the actual event so I will call it a draw.

    " I was making my transition from Air Force officer to civilian. One of the things that brought me to my current profession of teaching was the passion I saw during the passing of HB 1017.  The teacher’s sense of justice and feeling for a greater good was something that pulled me into public education and the classroom.  I felt I was going from service to my nation to service to my community.  It is twenty-five years since the passing of HB 1017 and from the perspective of a classroom teacher it is not pretty.

     Excessive testing is negatively impacting our students and the teaching environment. Endless teaching means no access to computers and writing labs for weeks on end. Teachers, counselors and administrators are pulled from their jobs of working with your children and instead end up administering countless tests.  The students lose classroom instruction time and for what?  The great irony is that this testing nightmare was driven by the need for accountability.  In my district, and many other districts in this state, parents have the ability to check their student’s progress on-line at any time.  They can see their student’s grades and upcoming assignments 24-7.  Parents have the ability to email their student’s teachers at the parent’s convenience.  They also have the choice of one-to-one contact on teacher conference days, open houses and individual conferences.  You have the option of a teacher who knows your kid, provides timely and individual feed-back and cares, or you can spend millions for a drive-by, multiple-choice, out-of-state, for-profit company.

     Lack of funding results in growing classroom size.  I informally polled my students and this was their number one priority.  In the words of one of my students large classes, “make teachers mean.” She was right; large classes change the classroom dynamic from one of informality to being reduced to crowd control. Look at the English teachers’ workloads.  Thirty plus students in five classes at a minimum of five minutes per essay. (Most spend far longer writing personal feedback.) Do the math; it is over twelve hours for one assignment. The past semester I had thirty-six students in a class with 28 seats, what was I supposed to do? Perhaps I could turn over the stools and sit students on each leg?
     Underfunding results in 1,000 teacher vacancies in our state.  Many teachers are simply moving to other states.  I currently work four part-time jobs to pay for my teaching habit.  It is hard to teach the American Dream when you have lost your own chance to be part of it.  Many teachers are simply falling out of the middle class.

     One of the reasons for the lack of teachers is the outright vilification of teachers often led by people with money and influence, but no teaching or educational background.  Ask yourself why a computer billionaire would declare education broken, and then propose technology and computers to fix it? Our former Superintendent of Education personally told me that we had a crisis in education and that India was the model to follow. Has she ever been to India? That would be the country where they recently published a picture of scores of parents scaling the side of a high school to pass cheat sheets for the final examination. I guess Indian style high stakes testing is the answer.

    Personally for me the final straw was this session’s bill that implied that Advanced Placement history teachers were not patriotic enough.  On my classroom wall is the picture of my father and his crew chief before he flew fighter sweep over D Day.  A photo of his headstone at Arlington is next to that.  My papers for crossing Communist East Germany to the island of democracy of Berlin and my picture in an F-16 during my time of service are also on my classroom wall.  There are thirty years of uniformed military service on that wall and we are not patriotic enough? 

     Another blow was the mismanagement of our National Certification program, in some ways the closest thing the state has to merit pay.  Our national certification program took teachers with proven best methods who passed rigorous certification standards and allowed Oklahoma teachers, such as myself, to attain the highest level of professional certification in the nation.  Our state support of NBCT made Oklahoma a model state for professional education.  We were rated as one of the top states for the number of teachers who had achieved certification.  Our past superintendent pulled money from the program, diverted funds to pay speech pathologist instead of teachers and gutted the stipend.

     On the anniversary of 1017 we must look at the course of education in our state and nation.  We are Americans; we can do better.  The battered pickups are again leaving Oklahoma again, and they are full of teachers." 
Dan Nolan NBCT, former Norman Teacher of the Year and finalist for Oklahoma Teacher of the Year


Monday, May 4, 2015

Our Third Graders Deserve More.

Oklahoma’s Legislative laser-focus on third grade readers has been a personal interest of mine for several years. I am a reading specialist, and spent 10+ years teaching remedial reading in elementary and high school in Oklahoma. I understand assessment and instruction. I understand that all students develop the complex skill of reading, but all students are on their own timetable, not a legislative timetable.

Several years ago, I had an interesting dialogue with Sally Kern, the author of an RSA (reading sufficiency act), which would fail all students who did not ‘pass’ the third grade test.

Then, Jason James examined the reading test that would be used to fail our third graders, and found it  was not a reading comprehension test. It’s a reading/English Language Arts test. There are no grade-level equivalencies for a student score. As a criterion-referenced test, the passing score is NOT grade-level performance, but an arbitrary number that changes at the will of politicians. So many things wrong with using this test to measure reading comprehension!

This year, we have discovered evidence that some students who ‘failed’ this test actually ‘passed’ the reading questions, and ‘failed’ the literary elements, research, and information section of the test. Students were identified as being poor readers, who were, according the test, proficient readers, just not proficient encyclopedia and almanac users.

Last year I  spent a busy day up at the Capitol, visiting with Legislators as they considered whether to override the Governor’s veto of Katie Henke’s HB2625, which would add a committee of parents and educators who would have the right to study all the data about a student…test scores included…and make a decision about the child’s placement for the next year. Governor Fallin must assume that parents have no right to that voice.

I watched the debate and the vote in the House. I watched Rep. Henke, pregnant with her first child, stand in her high heels, and answer stupid questions, just to avoid the inevitable vote.

I watched as Representatives voted to extend to parents and teachers the right to have a say in students’ futures.The House, overwhelmingly Republican, overrode a veto from their own Governor. It was a true celebration when we saw we had the override votes. After a long day, I returned home, knowing the measure also had to pass in the Senate, not knowing if we had the votes.

When I got home, I learned that the Senate voted immediately, no debate, no discussion. HB2625, passed by both Houses, vetoed by the Governor, was given overwhelming support in the Legislature with a strong override.

I also watched the immediate response from our Governor and then-Superintendent.  I responded to their willful ignorance of teaching and learning.

But there was a catch. The committee would only be in effect until 2015 -- this May. NOW I had skin in the game. My youngest Grand’s class would not benefit from the committee of parents and teachers. My daughter would not have the right to have a say in her daughter’s education. My Grand, for whom reading has been difficult, would be on the chopping block unless we could remove the sunset clause of HB2625, and make that committee permanent law.

That "one brief shining moment" of victory for kids and parents would be too brief unless Legislators worked together as they had with the override.

Representative Henke had a bill that would do just that, but to my mind, she suffered a political hand-slap from her own party’s leadership…her bill was never heard in committee…Last year she had bucked the Governor, the then-Superintendent of Schools, and leadership in her own party to do the right thing for our kids. This year, I fear she felt that sting, and her bill to extend the committee died.

There was a Senate bill, SB630 to extend the committee…again only temporarily…but there was a huge trade-off. In order to get the committee for five years, the bill required schools to now fail all third graders who did not score ‘proficient’ on the reading/ELA test. The test that does not give us a reading level…even though we are telling parents their child ‘can’t read.’ Politicians and test makers and those who decide the cut score on tests now have the power of pass-fail on our 8-year-olds.

Oh, but never fear! The committee will be in place…until 2020. BUT  the labeling of students who score ‘limited knowledge’ will continue. No sunset on that portion of the bill. What a destructive trade-off. We in #oklaed have been told a political deal was made, and the only way to extend the committees, temporarily, was to accept limited knowledge as the new cut-off for failure.

How many kids will now fail third grade, unless a committee promotes? I’ve heard figures of 30% in suburban districts, to 65% in urban districts.

Who will hire the new third grade teachers required to teach all the incoming students, and the 30-65% of kids who could be retained? Guess.

Who will pay for all the intensive remediation required by the bill? Guess.

Who will pay the ultimate price for these filthy political machinations? Guess.

Rick Cobb wrote today about the added work that the parent-teacher committee adds to a large suburban district with the retention current cut-off of ‘unsatisfactory’.  Under SB630, that work will more than double.

Who will pay for the committee’s work? The hours filling out paperwork? The hours spent contacting parents and setting up meetings? The hours of after-school meetings? The hours reporting the recommendations of the committee? Guess.

So, the price of the parent-teacher committee is this:
  • Now intensive remediation must be given to all students potentially scoring below proficient (BTW, districts are already spending time with those kiddos…not because it’s the law, but because it’s the right thing to do for students).
  • Now all students who do not score proficient will be targeted for retention
  • Now districts must schedule meetings with parents, meet, report their findings, and make recommendations for placement.
  • Now, administrators in districts must review these recommendations and make the final decision.
  • Now districts must find more teachers to teach third grade…
  • Now districts must find ways to pay for all of this…with no funding from the state.
  • Now third graders who are learning to read at their own rate will be labeled failures by a Legislature who has never heard these kids read…
  • Now the battle begins again. The committee is not permanent if this bill passes. Only the labeling of children is permanent. Only telling a child who scores below that magic cut score…on a test that does not measure reading levels…on a test that combines reading and language arts…on a test given one day in April.

I’ve got skin in this game, and so do thousands of other parents and grandparents.

Why didn’t the Legislature pass the clean RSA bill?

Why is the current bill under consideration the ultimate in tit-for-tat negotiations?

Why are politicians playing their nasty political games with the lives of our children?

Why are our youngest and most vulnerable citizens playthings to Legislators who’ve never taught a day in their lives?

Because this is a personal issue for me, I spoke up. I campaigned for candidates. I voted.

Now my Grand is paying the price for all the voters who didn’t bother…who didn’t vote education issues…or worse, didn’t vote.

Friday, May 1, 2015


I am an omnivorous reader...and the month of April proves it: a Pulitzer-Prize winning play,  picture books, graphic novels, nonfiction, classics, contemporary fiction and YAL...but the most important book I read last month was also the most frustrating, and the one I still reflect on. It's one I will heartily recommend to my teacher friends who are willing to dig deep into their practice.

The Thinking Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education, by Vanessa Rodriguez challenges our thinking about teaching and learning. Teaching is a social act -- learning may not be. Teaching by expert teachers is dynamic and messy and complicated. Attempts to 'teacher proof' curricula with scripts, and attempts to evaluate teachers solely on student test scores are not at all compatible with what teaching really, relationship-driven.

Think about it...we can learn by ourselves. Not everything we need to learn, but it is possible to learn alone. It is not possible to teach alone...teaching, is at heart, about relationships. It's social. You cannot teach without a connection to a learner.

A lot has been written about the learning brain, but this is the first book I've seen that concentrates on the teaching brain...and assures us that teaching is a skill that we can and should be improving through deliberate practice.

Many of us teachers know this and make certain we work hard to create and nurture a connection with our students, with their parents, and anyone who is significant to our students. This relationship is hard-wired into the teaching ignore its power is to risk negating the teaching-learning process.

What follows is my review from, enhanced with more quotes from the book.

"We don’t expect learners to be expert learners right away; we know that becoming a resourceful, self-regulated, persistent learner happens over time. Learners develop. The same is true of teachers."

At once fascinating, boring, heavy, entertaining, challenging, affirming. Both too deep for me and not deep enough for me.

But at the heart is the truth about teaching: it is a relationship. It only exists within the framework of a social interaction. It is a learned skill. Studies with children show everyone has the rudimentary skill, and that as we mature, so does our teaching ability.

Rodriguez went through the behaviorist theories which drive today's reform...where teaching is ramming facts into heads so students can pass tests. She makes the point that to truly improve learning and teaching, we must take the time to understand why and how we teach. And what the heck happens as we teach.

She discusses theories of cognition, emotion, the learner's brain, memory and mind. These all need to develop in order to become an expert teacher...either knowingly, or through practice.

Then there are the awarenesses...that 'withitness' we hear so much about. Rodriguez explains to my satisfaction what's going on in the brain of a 'withit' teacher without ever using that term...she also does not use the National Board term of 'accomplished teacher,' but I see connections there too.

"Expert teachers … recognize there are multiple systems in play all at once, and they have the ability to decode those that are directly and indirectly affecting the learner. Expert teachers think, behave, and change in response to the various needs of their students, the classroom environment, and their own personal contexts. 
Expert teachers recognize the variables that contribute to the learner’s system of understanding and then manage the patterns they create. They keep these patterns in mind in order to make key teaching decisions and in order to adjust their interactions with the learner in a way that will help the student learn more effectively. teachers recognize the learner as one system, themselves as another, and their interaction with the learner as a third system, which we’ll call the teacher-learner system.  
Expert teachers are able to do this at both micro and macro levels, constructing theories of the learning system for each individual student and for the class as a whole.
Teachers who are aware and motivated to fully develop as systems thinkers also understand the level to which their own personal context affects how they interact with individual students and the classroom culture as a whole."

She uses terms I will need to look up and study later...they make sense to her, but I didn't entirely catch on: Theory of Mind, Dynamic Skill Theory, system thinkers...

Anytime a teacher is teaching, he or she could be in control of several different 'awarenesses' -- to different degrees. Awareness of the learner (or learners), of the interaction, of the teacher him or herself, of the teaching practice, and of the context...All this is bubbling in the mind of that accomplished teacher as she scans the room using feedback kids knowingly and unknowingly give her, watching the success or lack of success of the interaction...does she need to adjust? of the teacher herself...does she feel successful? Is the lesson working? Does she have the skills to adjust and rework the lesson? What is she really doing and why? All those questions that become part of reflective practice. What about the context? The setting? The school? The support or lack of support? Her freedom to work from all those awarenesses.

As I read, I would stumble across perfect descriptions of that flow that can happen in a successful lesson, and the true power of what an accomplished teacher is capable of.

Is it juggling? Walking a tightrope without a net? Is it conducting an orchestra?

I will go over my quotes again and add them to this review.

But then...right in the middle of my own 'flow' of reading, she would hit passages with 'too many words' that all needed deep analysis...passages that made sense to her, but did not work for me.

This book is part of a study she did, interviewing teachers others had identified as 'expert'. The interview excerpts were strangely interspersed, and they did not work.

What did work was the idea of teaching as a social act, of the ability of a teacher to improve, of the theories we have of our own teaching, and the awarenesses that are tools for us to deepen our teaching within that social setting...of our obligation to use every tool to be the best teacher we can be.

Why is teaching hard, sometimes impossible?

 "Teaching is not a linear process of inputting knowledge into the learner. Teaching consists of at least two variables, the learner and the teacher, and each of these variables is in turn defined by a practically infinite number of variables."

More favorite quotes:

"To be blunt, our current models of teaching are outdated and unsophisticated. Their deterministic and rigid criteria stand in the way of fully integrating current research from the learning sciences and what we know of how the brain works."

"Just as we develop emotionally, socially, and intellectually over our life span, so too does our teaching ability; it grows and adapts each time we are placed in a new context."

"Unlike learning, teaching cannot happen independently."

"On a very basic level, we teach so we can belong..."

"learning is a skill that we’re all born with that develops over time."

"Learning is dynamic and changes over time."

"Redefining teaching as a natural human skill that develops over time, as we’ve begun to do, means it is both a trainable skill and an art form, making it similar to many other skilled professions."

"The depth and complexity of a teacher’s skills depend on the teacher’s own experience, effort, and interactions with specific contexts."

"...teaching never occurs without the dyad of teacher and learner. As the leader in this interaction, the teacher gathers information both from the learner and from herself and processes what is necessary for the interaction to be beneficial for the learner. This integration of a teacher’s own personal and professional contexts is often overlooked or absent in current practice and in contemporary educational reform efforts."