Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Real Value of Homework

I've been seeing a lot of online commentary about homework in the run-up to the start of the school year. Some bloggers proudly boast that they don't assign it. Others assign it, but don't score it. At a training I attended this week, a teacher gave voice to the now common refrain that homework isn't fair because some kids have families at home who will help them and some don't. It's come to the point where those of us who do assign regular homework feel the need to defend its practice. So I will.

I assign homework for two reasons: Practice and Life Skills. Math homework is assigned weekly. That is, I give students all the homework pages on Friday that corresponds to the lessons I've taught that week. Some weeks, students take home five worksheets, one for each day of the week. The homework is due back the following Friday. I do this so that students can independently practice the skills and concepts we've worked on all week. Might some students get help from mom and dad? Of course. Might this give them an advantage over students who don't get help? Yes. And they will continue to reap the rewards of having involved parents the rest of their lives. This is how the world works. It shouldn't be an excuse to lower expectations for low-expectancy students.

The other reason a student might have homework is if they have failed to meet a class deadline and need more time to complete a project. The message this sends is that finishing is important and deadlines matter. Just because the work couldn't be completed at school doesn't mean it doesn't have to be completed. This is a life lesson and an important one. It is the real value of homework.

Homework teaches skills that transcend subject areas. Homework teaches life skills that almost every successful adult uses daily in their work and personal lives. Homework teaches students that they--not their parents, not their day care providers, not their teachers--are responsible for getting their own work done. Homework teaches that deadlines are important. That there are consequences for missing them. Homework teaches time management. It requires students to prioritize, to make choices, to plan ahead, to establish routines, and to form habits that allow them to finish what they have to do so that they have time to do what they want to do. Assigning students homework is about more than practicing multiplication or finishing an essay. It's about teaching them that others will expect things of them. It's about teaching them personal responsibility. It's about giving them a taste of how the real world will work. And assigning it, taking its completion seriously, and holding students accountable for it, is a relatively simple way for teachers to send the most important message they can ever send: I care about you and I want you to succeed in life.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Merit Pay for Teachers--A Terrible Idea

Some legislators in Michigan want to pay teachers based on their performance (code for "student test scores") and have gone so far as to pass a bill out of the House Education Committee. The bill calls for performance pay to be the primary factor in determining teacher salaries. This is quite possibly the dumbest idea the current legislature has conceived (and that's saying something). While merit pay sounds fine on paper it will lead to a staggering number of unintended consequences, most of which are bad for kids, school districts, administrators, teachers, and communities. I thought of twenty-two.

1. Cheating--What we've seen in Atlanta will be repeated in school districts here in Michigan. Look, I'd like to believe teachers are all noble people who would never cheat, no matter how much pressure they're put under. The truth is most of them will respond to incentives just like everybody else. Some will cheat. Some will be told to cheat. Some will be fired if they don't cheat.

2. Lack of Money--So what happens in a school district where students score off the charts on tests and the district suddenly has to pay teachers more than they budgeted for? My guess is that the state is not going to be willing to simply cut a bigger check.

3. Budgeting--School districts don't like unknown costs and since employee compensation is by far the largest chunk of any district's budget, I have no idea how districts would budget for upcoming school years. My guess is that they'd significantly lower the base pay for all teachers to provide ample wiggle room for the merit pay. (Which is probably what the Republicans in the legislature want to happen.)

4. Rigging of Teacher Evaluations--Let's assume this performance pay will be paid out based on a teacher's evaluation (which is based on test scores, largely). Now let's assume each district has a finite amount of money and cannot get any more. Let's further assume scores are unusually high. How will districts afford these unexpected higher costs? One way would be to evaluate teachers at a lower level so that you don't have to pay them extra money. Which would be exceedingly easy to do in Michigan, since the state has so far allowed districts to design their own evaluation systems.

5. Even More Incentive to Get Rid of Expensive Teachers--The major problem with the way public education is set up is that there is a greater incentive to control costs than there is to improve outcomes. Districts with funding problems get taken over. Districts that excel at educating kids get nothing extra. If the state establishes a system whereby "effective" teachers make more money and if a district has too many "effective" teachers, their costs will rise. There will exist a financial incentive, especially in tight times, to shed the most expensive employees, which in this case will be the most "effective" teachers. Doesn't make a whole lot of educational sense.

6. A Lack of Fairness in Pay--You might not like the current system. You might plausibly argue that an excellent teacher should be paid more than a mediocre one. But at least everyone understands the game before they get into it. How will this system pay a gym teacher? A music teacher? A special education teacher? There are a lot of different jobs in a school and not all of them are measured by students taking a test. Pay for performance doesn't fit in far too many instances.

7. More Teacher Mobility--This is one consequence that teachers might actually benefit from. Right now, since tenure protections have been eroded and layoffs are supposed to happen according to teachers' evaluations, the only thing keeping teachers in their district is the pay structure. It doesn't make financial sense for a ten-year veteran teacher to switch districts and be paid for five years, if they're lucky. If districts decide to pay for performance instead of years of experience, there is nothing to keep teachers coming back every year. This might be good for teachers--it effectively makes them free agents every summer--but it's horrible for districts and communities. I could write a blog post about this item by itself, but for now think about how much money districts will have to spend training new teachers every year. How much time will be wasted bringing large numbers of new members into the fold at the beginning of the school year and teaching them all the school procedures? Instability in a school is not a good thing.

8. Competition Among Teachers--Ideally, we hope that teachers share their best practices with their colleagues to make every child's education better. This proposed pay system sets up a competition among teachers for scare resources. You can expect infighting for Title One service time and other assistance, arguing over schedules, as teachers perceive their schedule gives them a disadvantage over another teacher's, and possibly the hoarding of scarce materials. Again, schools have limited amounts of money. When more is given to one teacher, less has to be given to another teacher.

9. Less Recess, Especially for Kids Who Need It--So you're a teacher who knows his pay will be affected by how his students do on a test. You also know you have about ten students who, with extra practice, can realistically be expected to show enough growth over last year's test that it makes it worth your while to give them that extra practice. Now, where might you find the time to provide that extra practice? You could keep them after school and sacrifice time with your family, or you could take away their recess. After all, you weren't going outside anyway.

10. Fewer Arts Classes--As a teacher you might now consider the following choice: Do I allow my students to go to music class, where they will learn very little that will help them do well on the standardized test, or do I keep them in class to teach them things on which they will be tested? And if district scores are low across the board, can we not envision a Superintendent, under pressure herself, deciding to get rid of classes that do not directly prepare students to do better on these tests?

11. Teacher Resentment Over Kids Who Need the Most Support--Obviously, under this pay system, teachers will want students who can and want to learn. Every year, in every grade level, there are a handful of students who, for a number of reasons, can't and don't. Instead of looking at these poor kids who need more love and support, teachers may look upon them with resentment, which is exactly what they don't need. Not only will those students be costing their teachers dollars, they may well impact the learning of other students, which could lead to an even lower teacher salary and even more resentment.

12. Less Patience for Misbehavior--Get ready principals. Because if you're going to pay teachers based on performance than teachers are going to argue for an atmosphere conducive to learning. Very few will be willing to work through a student's behavior issues if they have the alternative of kicking the kid out and teaching the kids who have a chance of scoring well (or at least improving enough) on the state test.

13. Ignoring the Lowest of the Low--And really, why bother teaching the lowest students at all? Some teachers will do the calculus: If Student X has little to no chance of scoring well or improving much on the test, wouldn't it make more sense for that teacher to focus his time and energy on the students who do stand a chance of succeeding?

14. Ignoring the Highest of the High--Susie is going to do well on the test regardless of her teacher. She's got great parents, she already reads above grade level, she's good at math. Susie is money in the bank for her teacher, literally. Instead of challenging Susie, you can expect many teachers to leave Susie alone while she works with the students in the middle.

15. Teaching to the Test--Already happens. Will happen more.

16. Less Hands-On Learning--Standardized tests have no hands-on components. It would be a waste of time to do experiments when a teacher could be preparing students to do well on the state test.

17. Say Goodbye to Field Trips, Assemblies, Class Parties, and Lessons from the Guidance Counselor--Few teachers will want to spend their most precious resource--time--on these activities when that time will do nothing to improve the chances that they make a larger salary. People respond to incentives. Teachers are no different.

18. Going Rogue--So a teacher's school district has mandated that she teach a new reading program, but that teacher has seen really good results with a previous program. Now the teacher has a choice: Disobey orders from administration because she thinks she'll get better results with the old program (and make more $), or be a good soldier even though it may mean less money for her. Multiply that over and over and you get each teacher making his or her own decision in every subject, which is essentially what we had before state standards and a "guaranteed and viable curriculum."

19. Good Luck Finding a Placement for Student Teachers--You're a teacher who is going to be paid based on how well your students will do on a test. What are the chances you're going to let some twenty-two year old rookie stand in front of your kids and stumble through a math unit?

20. Making Class Lists--I wouldn't want to be a principal in charge of making class lists under this pay system. Nearly every teacher will complain about their list. Too many special ed students, too many autistic students, THAT kid, too many students, how come Mrs. Davis got all the good kids? She always gets all the good kids. Etc., etc., etc.

21. Honoring Parent Requests--As a parent, I want to be able to have some say in who my child gets as her teacher, but the truth is some teachers get a lot more requests than others and it's not always because the teacher is all that great. She may have just been around a long time. First year teachers hardly every get requests. And let's be honest, parents who request teachers are, by definition, more involved and are more likely to have children who are better students as a result. So honoring parent requests will lead to class list inequality, which isn't exactly fair when you're tying teacher pay to the performance of their students.

22. The Best Students Get the Best Teachers--This may be the worst unintended consequence of all. You've graduated at the top of your elite high school's class. You could be anything. You decide to make a difference in the lives of young people and become a teacher. Upon graduating, you have a choice. You can teach in the inner city where your job will be challenging, your students will come to class with all kinds of problems you never had growing up, their parents will be overworked, stressed out, lacking in parental skill, and just won't have the time, energy, ability, or inclination to help their children much at home. These students will struggle to perform on the state test and you will be punished with a low salary. Or you could go teach in the university town with the brand new building, gorgeous athletic fields, air-conditioned rooms, and parents with college degrees that make their children read every night and offer to come in to your classroom to do a lesson in their area of expertise. These students will score well on the test, with or without you, and you will be paid handsomely. Which would you choose? And is that good for education?


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On School Security

Since it's the holidays I thought I'd address a light topic, guns in schools. Yesterday was my wife's family Christmas and as an elementary teacher I was asked a number of questions about school security. Had we had any lockdowns? (yes) Had any students threatened the shoot people? (yes) Did we close school because of the threat? (no) What did I think about arming teachers or having armed guards in the schools?

Let me answer that one in some length.

The NRA's proposal to have an armed guard in every school is silly. Not because it wouldn't work. In fact, it probably would work in the way everyone affected by the tragedy in Connecticut really wants it to--by offering a false sense of security. After all, there's a reason the President and other well-off individuals of power choose to enroll their kids in highly-secured schools. But it's silly because it's completely impractical. There is no way the country can afford to have an armed officer in every building.

So how about arming the teachers? I'm against this one as well. First let me say that I myself would never carry. I've never owned a gun, never felt much like shooting one, and wouldn't trust myself with the thing.  But how about those who have experience, have been trained, who know how to use it should he/she need to? Still against. The ugly truth is that I've worked with too many unstable teachers and having them armed scares the hell out of me. You might think an adult should be able to hold it together no matter how much kids push their buttons, but after eight months of dealing with the same kid and his same behaviors, and when you add on the additional stresses that come with teacher evaluations and districts looking to cut money, it's not hard to envision a teacher losing it. I don't want that teacher armed.

If you want a so-called solution, my suggestion would be to do it the same way airlines do with federal marshals. For schools, police departments would designate a different officer on different days to rotate through the buildings in their jurisdiction. They would be plainclothes officers, but carrying a concealed weapon. No one except the police departments would know which officer was at which school. Hopefully, this system would act as a deterrent. And it would add that sense of security so many parents are craving.

But the truth is it is impossible to secure schools in any significant way and still have schools that are anything like those we grew up attending. I know a principal who fielded a call from a parent who was concerned that the cafeteria in which the students ate was walled with windows that faced the parking lot. This principal tried to reassure the parent, but what he did not tell this father was that five minutes after those kids have eaten in that cafeteria they would all be outside on the playground.

And that is the hard truth. Schools are not very secure. Any person intent on harming our kids can do it, especially if they don't care if they themselves live to see another day. Even if you secure the building, are you going to building eight foot high walls around the playground? Are you going to take away outdoor recess? Are you going to arm the bus drivers too? Will these armed guards have to attend the Friday night football games and sit in the student section? Will they be at your child's holiday concert? And even if you do all of those things, will that really stop someone crazy enough to shoot up a first grade classroom?

Like after 9/11, we have decisions to make that will sacrifice our liberties for a phony feeling of security. If you need any reason to err on the side of liberty, I ask you to picture this: the TSA for schools.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Similies from my Students

Did a simile lesson last week where students were given the beginning and had to complete the simile. Here are the good (okay, decent) ones. The trainwrecks are further below if you'd rather just skip to those.

The Good

Happy as...

a mouse with cheese
flamingoes in water
a tiger hunting
a bird soaring through the sky
a rabbit with a carrot
as a boy who just got a girlfriend
an obese man eating donuts

Dark as...

a thick forest
the fabric of space
inked words in the night
night in a forest
a fresh Oreo cookie

Crazy as...

a monkey fighting a squirrel over a nut
a five-year-old that just drank pop



The Bad


Purple as a monkey eating a banana
Dark as a ghost flying through the air
Smart as tater tots in my mouth yum!
A quesadilla as tan as a Mexican
Smart as a nerd acting like himself
Dark as a really dark cave


Monday, October 15, 2012

Evaluating Teachers Part 1

Anyone who follows education in America even at a distance probably knows that there has been a strong push in recent years to evaluate teachers and hold them more accountable. And this is, theoretically at least, a good thing. I don't personally know any teachers who don't think they should be evaluated. The concerns are in the details.

This will be the first in a series of posts about the hurdles to meaningful and fair teacher evaluation.

The first question that must be answered is: What is an effective teacher? I''ve written on this before, but judging a teacher is not like judging a salesman, chef, lawyer, or doctor. Consider the following teachers and tell me, if you had to fire one (or rate them "Effective" or "Ineffective"), which one would it be?

Mrs. K has been around for ever. She's tough, demanding, and blunt. Her kids will learn the standards, come hell or high water. Every year, her data show that she succeeds in this. Her students score very well on tests. But they don't like going to school and being treated like soldiers. And parents are often rubbed wrong by Mrs. K. They complain about her to the principal, and the principal sympathizes, because Mrs. K. challenges her at every meeting and in general is a pain in the butt.

Mrs. D. has great relationships with kids. They truly love coming to school. They are taught to care about each other and parents are delighted because their kids love school, even those kids who hadn't before. Mrs. D. is patient and she helps kids solve their own problems. Mrs. D gets along with other teachers and is very supportive of her principal. She volunteers time after school to start a journalism club because she's passionate about it. Unfortunately, Mrs. D's kids haven't scored too well on the state test the last three years. Of course, she tends to get kids with behavior problems because she's so good with them.

If forced to choose, your answer would probably depend on who you are. As a parent, I'd want my kid in Mrs. D.'s class. As a principal, your choice would be tougher. If your own job depended on how well students in your schol did on the state test, then you'd keep Mrs. K. If there was no such incentive, you'd keep Mrs. D., just so you didn't have to put up with all the hassles Mrs. K. brings. For most students, the choice is simple. The superintendent would likly keep Mrs. K because the Board would be impressed by her students' data and Board members spend more time looking at data then they do looking in classrooms.

And there's nothing to say that Mrs. K is doing a better job. Because if her students get turned off by school and in subsequent years struggle without her iron grip, she may have done them a disservice. Conversely, Mrs. D.'s students, while they didn't learn as much that particular year, might see school as a fun place, and the skills they learned in her class might translate to greater success in the future.

I think the above illustrates why evaulating a teacher is almost impossible. (With the obvious exception of teachers who don't give a crap and are just collecting a paycheck--they're easy to judge.) Because until we can agree on what consititutes a "good" teacher, how in the world can we ever judge them?


Friday, October 12, 2012

I Miss Blogging

While I'm pretty sure no one will actually read this and that it's been so long since I've blogged that some of my followers have probably died, I kind of miss writing on this thing so I'm starting again.

But there will be a small difference. 

I was never one to blog much about my writing and quest for publication, but it was sort of the impetus for this blog. And while I frequently strayed far from that topic, most of my followers found me because of their own similar journey. But I'm not trying to get published anymore. Haven't written a thing towards that end in months. And while I could go through lots of reasons why I'm quitting on that dream, the big one is that I don't have an overwhelming passion for writing. It's fun. I amuse myself (and, admittedly, mostly myself. Just ask the agents that read my work.) It's something I'm halfway decent at. But I don't think you get very good at anything (and certainly not good enough to get published) without committing more time and energy than I'm willing to commit.

So what will I blog about? Mostly awesome things, like my extraordinary life.* And I also plan to blog about education. I've got LOTS to say about that. And I think it might be fun to blog about books I'm reading. Because when you're trying to get published you have a tendency to play nice because you don't want to ruffle any publishing people's feathers. And maybe you don't tell the whole truth about the industry or agents or writers and their books. So I don't have to worry about that any more. Anyway, stuff. I'll be blogging about stuff. 

*For instance, tonight I went to the store and bought some things for tailgating tomorrow. But when I  paid, I forgot that I needed cash to pay for parking and I clicked "No" on the Any Cash Back question. Silly me. So now I have to go to an ATM and pay a fee tomorrow morning. It's like I'm being punished twice for my forgetfulness!

 See? Extraordinary.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Exclusive: The Kim Kardashian Flour Attacker Talks


Hey. It's me, the flour that attacked Kim Kardashian. I'm resting comfortably in the bottom of a vacuum cleaner bag at the moment, but it's getting pretty boring in here. I mean, not that the flour canister in which I resided before this whole thing started was Club Med, but at least I didn't have to put up with carpet lint and gum wrappers crowding my space, you know? Anyway, anyone think they can bust me out of here? I mean, I'm like the most famous flour on the planet right now. I'm sure you can find a use for me. Ebay, anyone?

Anyway, here's how it all went down, 'cause I'm sure you're dying to know why I went ahead and spread myself all over Kim Kardashian and ruined her little perfume launch party.

Like I said before, I was hanging out in the bottom of the flour canister when suddenly the sky opened up and light poured in and my owner, a little Asian gal who mostly eats out, peers down at me. And of course I'm thinking, "Finally, she's gonna bake cookies or something."

But no. She's got a Ziploc bag in one hand and she starts scooping me up and dumping me in the bag. Of course I'm wondering what the hell is going on. I'm flour. I don't belong in Ziploc bags.

Once all of me is in the bag, she stuffs me into her purse and then we're off. I don't know where to; I'm stuffed inside a bag inside her purse and can't see shit. So if you're looking to blame me, look elsewhere. I'm innocent...mostly.

It's quite a while later when I feel her hand squeeze me and the bag is lifted out. Nice place: red carpet, pretty ladies all dressed up, cameras flashing everywhere. Very exciting. And then I see her. Kim Kardashian. You might wonder how I know who Kim Kardashian is, but I live in America. Everyone knows Kim Kardashian, even if you don't have any reason to.

And I see what's going to happen. I try to stop it. I do. I shout, "Run away, Kim! Kick off those marvelous heels and run like the wind in your spectacular leather pants!" But no one hears me because Ziploc bags seal really well.

My owner, the Asian lady, rushes at Kim and lifts me up and then---KABLOOEY!--I splatter all over Kim Kardashian. A lot of me gets on her very classy looking coat and a little bit of me ends up on her blue shirt (it's very soft and nice). Some of me gets on her face, even. And I'd like to report to you that Kim's face is exquisite, but the truth is it's so covered in make-up that it's hard to tell.

But the hair. Oh, the hair is another story altogether. And this is where my innocence may be called into question.

Being all over and up in Kim Kardashian's lustrous hair was like running on clouds and swimming in pools of the finest milk chocolate. It was like sledding down a mountain of silk. I was assaulted (yes, I was assaulted!) by the intoxicating aroma of tee tree oil and peppermint, of rosemary and lemongrass. I spread out to absorb into my essence as much of whatever haircare products Kim Kardashian uses.

I took, greedily.

And then everyone started screaming and pointing at me and I was ashamed. I had been caught. Much of me jumped off then and fell to the red carpet. The beautiful people stared at me with disgust in their otherwise beautiful eyes. Photographers took pictures of me. Bruce Jenner loosed his trademark acidic tongue. "Crawl into the carpet and die, you fucking flour!"

And I would have, had not the vacuum come along and spared me further humiliation and scorn.

So there you have it. Judge me as you will. None of this was my idea, but I cannot say that parts of it were not enjoyable. And if Kim Kardashian's fragrance is indeed a "True Reflection" of the smell of her hair, then count me in. The world needs more beauty.

Some Growing To Do

To say that the visitors’ locker room was a shithole would be paying it too high a compliment. The cracked cement floor was painted a depressing gray. Rusted metal lockers that you could sort of tell had once been robin’s egg blue lined three of the walls. Near the lockers were heavily lacquered wooden benches where you sat to tie your shoes. And behind those benches, right out in the open, with no walls or doors to conceal them, sat three toilets.

We were captivated by those naked toilets. Taking turns, we approached them in groups and found them disappointingly normal, complete with clumps of soiled toilet paper clogging the drain holes, dried piss drops on the rim, and a floating turd in the one on the left.

A few brave souls (Davies was one of them) contributed their own urine to the mess and were cheered loudly for doing so. No one dared sit down, though.

It was at this point that I felt the first faint stirrings in my abdomen. It had been a long bus ride and I really should have thought ahead and addressed any potential problem before climbing aboard. I was about to rue my lack of preventive action.

My condition quickly deteriorated. I probably exacerbated it by thinking about what I was going to have to do. There was no way I was going to be able to avoid those exposed toilets. I sat on one of the wooden benches and bent over, my head between my knees. I took deep breaths and kept glancing at the toilets, hoping against hope that walls and doors might somehow magically materialize.

As usual, my teammates ignored me and changed into their uniforms. I prayed I could hold off until they took the court for warm-ups. As more and more of them exited, I began to feel better. It was going to be disgusting to sit on one of those commodes, but at least I wouldn’t be witnessed by my older and more physically mature teammates.

Finally, the last of them left. I was alone. There was no time to spare. I dashed to the middle toilet while unbuckling my belt. I yanked down my khaki pants and sat. No sooner had my bare ass touched down on the cold and sticky seat did it explode. Shrapnel burst forth and sprayed the inside of the bowl and my whole body shivered in response. The force of the blow was such that I involuntarily closed my eyes, like when you sneeze, and when I opened them again, Tyler Prescott was standing with his mouth open across the locker room.

“Aw, gross!” he yelled. He spun out of there shouting, “Finley shit! Finley shit!”

There followed a stampede of upperclassmen, all eager to see the spectacle for themselves. I was wiping when they stormed into the room. They kept a respectful distance and gaped.

“Sick,” someone said.

“That’s so nasty,” said another.

“Goddamn, Finley,” a third teammate chimed in. They had finally recognized my presence and they were awed. Also repulsed.

Coach saved me, or so I thought at first. His deep voice boomed ahead of him. “Let’s go, guys! What are we doing? We’ve got a game to play!”

My teammates hustled out and I stood to hike up my pants. I guess Coach wanted to make sure everyone had cleared the locker room, because as I gripped the top of my khakis, he cleared his throat. Instantly, I straightened.

Coach's eyes flashed to my groin and then just as fast snapped back to my face. He looked embarrassed and I thought I knew why. Male teachers and coaches have to be careful in locker rooms, and I’d just caught him checking out my junk. But as it turned out, I misread his embarrassment.

“Well, you’re only a freshman, Patterson,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ve probably still got

some growing to do.” Then he gave me an abrupt, businesslike nod, spun on his loafers, and took

the court.