Category Archives: Teacher

Comments from a teachers perspective

California Bullies at work in your Teacher’s Union

I was scanning through my teacher’s union magazine when something caught my eye, a conference session on adult bullying.  It was an article on a CTA (California Teachers Association) Issues Conference, and presumably the session was on how to prevent or deal with adult bullying, but it struck me as ironic.  You see, in my view, the CTA is a bully.  The top hit on a Google search defines bullying as, “ to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.”  I didn’t start my career as a California public school teacher 13 years ago with this opinion of the CTA.  As a matter of fact, after spending more than 20 years in the private sector as an educator and administrator (working far too many hours for way too little pay and no benefits whatsoever) I specifically sought out a union job in the public sector.  Who doesn’t want to earn a more competitive salary?  Who doesn’t want to secure favorable insurance benefits for their family?  Who doesn’t want access to a guaranteed retirement plan?  Who doesn’t want to have a reasonable assurance of continued employment and predictable pay raises?  The CTA has the superior strength and influence to help secure those things; however, I have come to believe this position of strength comes with a high cost.  A cost that comes from tactics that, I believe, can only be viewed as adult bullying.

The CTA presents itself as an organization that is out to help the underdog.  “CTA has been at the forefront of the labor movement since its inception more than 150 years ago, fighting for educators’ rights and the rights for every public school student to have access to a quality education,” reports their website.  A scan through their monthly magazine reveals articles about teacher views and opinions; inspiring teachers, programs and schools; and ways that the CTA is advocating to help students and educators fight for their rights.  Its self-portrayal seems to indicate a group of educators, united in mission and values (for the most part) that have willingly come together.  In some ways the union even presents itself as an underdog, forced to provide services even to those who are non-deserving.  In the February 2016 issue of “California Educator,” CTA President Eric C. Heins says, “As an educator, it’s your right not to agree with your union on every political position.  And it’s your right not to join.  No one is forced to join the union, even though the union is required by law to represent nonmembers in contract-related issues.”  Mr. Heins has a very different view of how things work than I do.  First, I am not sure what being forced to join the union would look like, but I don’t really recall being given a choice.  Of course there was paperwork that I had to fill out to join, however, the default was, “You are now a member of the union, sign here.”  I was not even aware that there was an option until I ran across an article on the internet on the procedure to leave the union.  Second, I certainly have no recollection of being asked for permission for union dues to be taken from my paycheck.  When money is automatically withdrawn from my paycheck it does not feel as if I have a choice.  In my view Mr. Heins overstates that there is a “choice,” but let me give you more information and you decide.  You decide if the actions of the CTA remind you more of a group that gives choice, or a bullying organization.

  • As a new public school teacher and member of the CTA I became concerned and perplexed that much of my union dues were going to political activities that I was completely opposed to. Not only did I typically disagree with the union’s stance on political issues a majority of the time, I found that many of the political issues that the union supported had very little relevance to the education of children, or in protecting educators’ rights, and in my view were not a good choice for union dues expenditures.  From some of my colleagues I found out that it was possible to pull my union dues out of the political action funds.  However, to do so was a complicated and not well known process that had to be repeated each year.  In order to opt out members had to request a blue card, fill it out, and mail it in by a designated date.  My colleagues and I spent a considerable amount of time researching this process, and keeping track of dates so that we could participate in the process.  (Even now, a search of the CTA site provides no easily found information on how to allocate your dues money.)  Once we completed this process no money was refunded and CTA still withdrew monthly dues from our checks.  The promise was that CTA was not allowed to use that portion of our dues for political activities; however, we were never notified that the required documentation was actually received, nor how the requested portion of our dues were actually being spent.  For all we knew our “blue cards” were being sent to some big black hole (resembling a shredder) and never looked at again.  Free choice, or bullying?
  • A couple of years after I began my public school employment union members were informed that the union needed more funds for its political activities, so $20 extra would be pulled out of our paychecks. If we wanted this “Voluntary Contribution” back, we just had to ask for it.  Now why, I ask you, if I had already asked that my money not be used for political activities would I want an additional $20 taken from my check?  Free choice or bullying?
  • After struggling with this silliness for a few years a colleague presented an alternate plan. He had decided that rather than simply pull his funds from the political action category, he would actually leave the union.  It was not an easy process as one does not just choose not to join, because member or not, the union will take money out of my paycheck each month.  So, I had to not only ask to not be a member of the union, I also have to submit a letter asking for a refund of the money that is pulled out of my check each month.  If I do so by a certain date I do receive a refund check, however it is not for the full union dues.  A large portion of the money taken out of my paycheck is for collective bargaining, which you cannot resign from.  I must pay into the collective bargaining fund, whether or not I am a member of the union, and despite the fact that I am not able to vote to ratify proposed contracts nor participate in the Collective Bargaining process.  So contrary to the picture that Mr. Heins paints about “no one forcing you to be a part of the union” and “the union (being) required by law to represent nonmembers in contract-related issues” I am required by law to pay for the privilege.  Free choice or bullying?
  • The last piece of my story has to do with my local union. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, but I believe it illustrates how the CTA bullying mindset is at work sometimes even at the local level.  Let me preface this story by relating that for the most part I, and the others at my school who have left the union, do not have a beef with the local union.  The local union consists of friends and colleagues, most of whom are doing what they think best, or what they think needs to be done to provide us with competitive wages and compensation.  And most of the time I can support, or at least understand, their actions.  As a matter of fact our small group of non-union members asked to maintain membership in the local union, but were blocked from doing so by the CTA.  We cannot belong to the local union without CTA membership.  As such the local union remains a part of CTA, and at times they do things that I believe reflects the bullying mentality of CTA.  With that in mind I will share my story.  It may have seemed like a nice friendly campaign to get those of us who have left the union to rejoin.   The goal was 100% CTA membership, and a bulletin board would be placed in the lounge with all members’ names.  If the school achieves 100% the local president will provide a donut party.  Seems a bit like a PTA campaign, so what could be the problem?  Well, unlike the PTA, which is an apolitical organization designed to provide needed help and support for students, the CTA is a highly politicized, highly controversial organization designed to further its own agenda.  It masquerades as an organization that provides support for students, but its actions do not support that claim.  So, what could be wrong with a campaign that seeks to single out those who have taken great steps to leave the union because they have moral or philosophical differences with the policies and political actions of the CTA?  Free choice or bullying, you decide.  The happy ending of this story is that when one of our non-union members voiced his feeling of being singled out the campaign was suspended and the bulletin board was taken down.  I applaud our local president and vice president for listening, understanding and moving promptly to right what may have been a very divisive campaign.

 

Many of my colleagues support and agree with the CTA, their actions and political stance.  I have no argument with these people, and support their right to join and financially support the union’s activities.  However, I believe that there are a large number of union members who do not agree with the CTA’s stance, tactics or political views who continue to be a member.  From my point of view it seems that the CTA’s bullying tactics have succeeded in convincing these teachers that they have no choice but to remain a member of the union.  They believe that their jobs, livelihood and financial security are at risk if they do not support the union, even though they disagree with most of the views and tactics of the CTA.  I mean no disrespect to those who believe this, but I think this view is just wrong-headed.

One thing that teachers are charged with is teaching children how to deal with bullies.  Here is a typical list of what is taught:

If The Bully Says or Does Something to You

  1. Ignore the bully. If you can, try your best to ignore the bully’s threats. …
  2. Stand up for yourself. Pretend to feel really brave and confident. …
  3. Don’t bully back. …
  4. Don’t show your feelings. …
  5. Tell an adult.

 

And yet we do not follow our own guidance.  We surrender to the bully’s threats, and believe them.  We do not stand up for ourselves.  Instead we embrace the bully’s rhetoric, ally with, and bully others if necessary.  How does this even make sense?

CTA members, I am not asking you to follow what I have done and leave the union.  I am not asking for you to fight against CTA or any of its tactics.  And I am certainly not asking you to speak out against them, but I do ask one thing: go in with your eyes wide open.  If you decide to join or remain a member know what you joining, and know why.  Not why you are told you should be a member, but why it really makes sense for you.

One of my biggest complaints against the CTA is that I cannot trust anything they say.  Most months of the year I receive a copy of their member magazine.  Yes, they still send it to me despite the fact that I am no longer a member.  Many of the topics that they report on are of interest to me, so I always scan the entire magazine, and I usually read much of it.  One of the things that we, as teachers, are charged with teaching to our students is the ability to determine the validity of arguments and analyzing the validity of purported facts.  While I am sure that much of what is reported in the CTA magazine is true and useful (specifically the non-controversial portions) I have a hard time taking it seriously because some of the articles are, in my opinion, pure and simple propaganda by any measure.  Were I to use this magazine as an example for my students, it would clearly be an example of an unreliable source.

Case in point: a feature in the December 2015/ January 2016 issue on the Friedrichs V. CTA case.  The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this case in January of 2016 and in March it was announced that an equally divided decision (due to a vacant seat in the Supreme Court) left the current status in effect.  A petition has been filed for the case to be re-heard after the vacant seat is filled.  Before I received the magazine I had heard a lot about this case, and was anxious to read an article that outlined the issues.  I don’t think I really expected a balanced view from the CTA, but it would have been nice to at least have some basic information about that case.  Instead the feature focused on Fair Share (interesting choice of words in and of itself, whose idea of fair?), why it is important and why the loss of Fair Share will jeopardize jobs, well rounded educational programs, class size, school safety, districts and families and people’s civil rights and could lead to more high stakes testing (huh?).  The feature went on to list those who support the Friedrichs case in what seems to be to me a very biased manner.  While it is true that the Friedrichs case threatens the current status quo that requires me to pay for union representation, a feature that only focuses on CTA’s version of what the loss of “Fair Share’s” would mean does nothing to enlighten me on the facts of the Friedrich’s case.  It is clearly an attempt to manipulate people’s views by reporting threats to things they care about including their very livelihood.  The definition of propaganda, according to the top hit on Google, is, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  In my view this article clearly meets the criteria of propaganda as it does nothing to enlighten me on the pros and cons of the issue, and seeks only to promote their point of view or political cause.

So I ask you, fellow teachers, if we cannot trust the CTA to tell us the truth in their own magazine, how can we trust anything they say?  They say you won’t get a fair wage or benefits without them.  They say your job will be jeopardized if they aren’t there to support you.  They say schools will not be safe or well-rounded and that there will be more high stakes testing without them.  Are these things true?  Maybe, maybe not.  I do know that there are lots of lots of people in our country today who have rewarding, well compensated jobs with good working conditions with no union support.  I do know that there are plenty of work place injustices when no union supports are available, but I am not convinced there are not just as many within a union environment.  And, I do know that when individuals or groups have unchecked power they have a tendency to become corrupt and are prone to bully those without power.  In my view the CTA has reached this point and I think it is time to check its power.

If the Friedrichs case is upheld by the supreme court Fair Share may be ended, and I may have a right to decide to pay into the union or not.  My question is, if the union is so great what are they afraid of?  If they are really giving us such a great service, won’t everyone want to be a part of that?  In my opinion the CTA only really cares about the CTA.  Sure, there are those within the union that care about kids and issues that relate to education.  But the number one mission of the CTA seems be preservation of the CTA and its superior power.  I think it is time for its wings to be clipped.  I think that teachers need to have their voices heard.  When was the last time the CTA asked your opinion instead of telling you what they decided your opinion should be?  Do you hold membership in the CTA because you believe in and support their values, views and mission; or are you just a member out of fear for what may happen if you don’t remain in their ranks?

At the bottom of one of the pages in the Friedrichs case feature there is a drawing of teachers holding up signs, the middle one saying, “Yes to Fair Share.”  Around those signs are other signs that say, Teachers Matter,” “Enough,” Worker’s Right’s” and “Serve Students.”  At least they got most of it right.  Say Enough to the CTA.  No matter how the Friedrichs case is decided we can assert our Worker’s Rights and show them that Teacher’s Matter.  Every day we spend time Serving Students.  The question is, are you maintaining your CTA membership with your eyes wide open?  As much as they want to make us think that membership is the only reasonable choice, the choice is really yours.  Make it responsibly.

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Public School Problem: Too Many or, How Should the Funds be Spent?

It seems these days that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with public education.  Well I can’t speak for most of the world, but for my little end of the teaching world I think the problem is too many.  Too many changes too fast, too many things to do in too little time, too many kids in a room and too many people with too many ideas on how to fix it all.

A short time ago the state of California began allowing school funds to be spent differently than before.  Funds that were traditionally restricted by category were opened up for use across categories.  In addition, schools received new funds meant to assist struggling students.  This more open use of funds did not come without some strings attached, however.  Districts were required to involve staff and community members in the decision making process of how the funds should best be spent.

I have been involved in the process for the last 2 years as a teacher and a community member and while it is clear that input is being collected, it is unclear to me if it is being heard.  Therefore I made the decision to draft this letter to our local superintendent to express my feelings about how funds would best help our children and our schools.

I think there are others who have similar feelings about what is lacking in our public schools, so I am posting this letter here.  Please let me know if you agree, and feel free to pass on any part of what I have said to your local administration.

Dear Superintendent,

With California’s Local Control Funding Formula the goal is for districts is to gather feedback from employees, parents and community members on how district funds are budgeted.  I have participated in this process as both an employee and a community member, and was quite excited to be a part of the process.  However, after seeing how the whole process works I am really not quite sure that my input is really being heard or considered.  I don’t mean to say that the process is not working, nor that input is not taken into account.  However the two methods that have been used to gather my input, district survey and LCAP community meetings, seem to be more efficient at gathering broad categories of information than on identifying specifics.  When only broad categories are surveyed it leaves specific choices in the hands of district decision makers, rather than other stake holders.  With that thought in mind I made the decision to draft a letter that outlines my specific recommendations.  My hope is that this will provide clarity on what I feel would be of benefit to our students to better fulfill their needs and education.  While these opinions are my own, conversations that I have had with others in the district lead me to believe that I am not the only one who feels that what I am presenting may be of benefit to our district.  Of course the final decision of how funds will be spent is in the hands of the district, however my hope is that my ideas will at least be considered.

I think the number one priority for district finances should be to restore lost resources, most specifically support personnel.  You see, it is important to have good curriculum, safe and clean facilities, technology, books and materials, however the most valuable asset to schools are people  While I think that competitive teacher salaries are important to attract the best I think the teacher’s union does a fine job of presenting the benefits of competitive salaries.  And while district level support is needed and necessary I don’t think this is an area that has been neglected in recent years.  My intent here is to focus on a need that I have not seen adequately addressed in either surveys, LCAP meetings, nor in union negations.  What I am suggesting is that not enough resources are currently being funneled into support personnel.

I have been a part of this community and/or employed by this district since 1988.  During that time I have repeatedly seen the number of support personnel cut while class sizes has gone up and teacher responsibilities and work load have increased.  When I began working in this district, roughly 20 years ago, we had bi-lingual aides, title one aides, special education aides, custodians that cleaned our rooms nightly, TOSA’s (Teacher on Special Assignment) as well as a myriad of office assistants.  When the budget was tight many of these positions understandably were lost.  However, as money has been restored these critical support resources have remained unfilled or eliminated.  In addition, when fiscal challenges arose class sizes was increased, and to the best of my knowledge have not restored to previous levels.  While I acknowledge the importance of competitive salaries, I believe that an increase of support personnel would help decrease the workload and improve the morale of overworked teachers in a way that a higher salary cannot.  While I recognize that the district has made it a priority to provide technological and instructional support at the district level, I think that the area that is being neglected is support at the individual school levels.  While I don’t think I am alone in that I am glad to chip in when times are tough, I never imagined that my Master’s degree was preparing me to empty my own trash, dust my own room or to spend my days on some of the myriad of clerical and support duties that could be performed by classified employees.  I think that better support at the school level would free teachers to have more time for lesson development, provide meaningful feedback for student work or work with struggling students during off school hours.  With that in mind I have some specific recommendations in the following areas.

  • Special Education Instructional Assistants– As a Resource Specialist much of my job is spent working with and coordinating the time of RSP Assistants. There was a time that we were able to provide support within our reading intervention classes, grade level ELA and math classes and in addition support many science, social studies and survey classes.  However, the number of aide support hours allotted to our team has been diminished a bit at a time, and now many classes with a need must go unsupported.  During the same time period that support has diminished our expectations to support students has expanded.  Not only do we provide support for students with IEPs, we also support EL students, students with 504s and students with no such designation who we support under an RTI (Response to Intervention) model.  Not only do we feel handicapped by the limited number of support hours available, we also struggle with finding and keeping quality personnel for these positions.  For some reason our district has determined that SDC (special day class) Assistants work 29 ¾ hours while Resource Assistants work 25 hours per week.  I have lost quite a few good assistants to SDC classes because they need to work as many hours as they can.  I feel as if our need is just as great, if not greater, as the SDC classes since we support the entire campus, not just a small, limited number of students.  I also feel that we should be working toward attracting and keeping qualified personnel in these positions to better support our students and teachers.  Our department has 3 Instructional Assistant positions, and over the last 2 years we have had no less than 10 different individuals in those 3 positions.  In one of the positions we had a long term sub for nearly a year as an adequate replacement could not be located.  This constant turnover and lack of consistency has been a source of difficulty, challenge and confusion for both our teachers and students.  I feel that a competitive salary offered with appropriate hours would go a long way to helping alleviate this difficulty for all.
  • Bilingual Assistance– At our school we have two half day Community Liaisons, one who speaks Spanish, and a second who speak Vietnamese. These support personnel provide translation services when needed.  While they are both helpful and beneficial, I feel as if we need more bi-lingual support.  There was a time that we had bi-lingual translators in the classroom to help with instruction.  Now I must reply on other students to translate, other teachers or Instructional Assistants who may be bi-lingual or resort to Google Translate.  In addition, when I need someone to call a parent who does not speak English the correct language translator may not be available.  One part of my job is to plan IEP meetings with parents, many of whom do not speak English.  The district has a process to do this, however the process is cumbersome, inefficient and time consuming.  I feel as if my time could be better spent if we had more support in this area specialists did not have to spend so much time trying to find someone who can properly communicate with a child or parent.
  • Other Classroom AssistanceLarge class size would not be as difficult to handle if we just had more assistance of some sort in the classroom. Many students who do not speak English, an increasing number of students with severe behavior problems and higher demands on student achievement have all combined at a time when extra classroom help is less available than ever.  There was a time when our district had many title 1 aides available for extra assistance.  I believe these are no longer available anywhere in the district.  Their presence is greatly missed to assist with students educational activities, complete clerical jobs, or just provide an extra set of eyes and hands.
  • Custodial Needs– I think the cleanliness of our classroom says a lot. A clean and orderly classroom sets the tone and creates an environment for our students to learn.  Students do not thrive in chaos and clutter.  While I understand the need to ask teachers to temporarily empty their own trashcans, I find that to be problematic as a general policy.  I can’t remember the last time my room was dusted when it was not me doing the dusting.  I feel as if we show our teachers that we respect their time and view them as professionals when we provide them with a cleaned classroom.  Enough said on that topic, I just think this should be a higher priority.

 

While I think the problem in public education is too many, I think the solution may be more.  More hands to assist with the work where the work really is.  It seems that the more that is often offered is more advice, instead of more help.  Teachers in California are some of the most highly educated professionals you could ever meet.  A California teaching credential requires a minimum of 5 years, and most teachers go on to earn a master’s degree.  Why do we want to keep bringing in experts, when we are the experts?  Give us help where it is needed so we can do our job the way we know how to do it.

Sorry Parents, but Common Core is probably not going away for a good, long time.

In my previous posts I talked about how we were doing Common Core wrong, and what teachers could do to make the transition easier.  Here is part 3, the part where I have some advice for parents.  Now parents, before you start to think I don’t get you because I am a teacher you need to understand.  I was a parent before I was a public school teacher.  Long before I held a parent teacher conference or consulted with parents as a teacher I was on the other side of the table.  I know that a lot of teachers have kids, but a large majority of them were teachers first, and parents second.  Trust me, it is different.  And, I had kids who struggled, so it required me to be pretty involved to get them through school.  And, that involvement was not always smooth and easy.  So, I totally get you.  I get how sometimes schools, teachers and parents don’t see eye to eye.  But here is the thing, now that I have been on the teacher side of the table, I get them too.  It puts me in the unique position to give advice, that I think is valid, to both teachers and parents.

So, parents, when it comes to Common Core I have three pieces of advice:

  • Realize Common Core isn’t going anywhere for a good long time.
  • Ask how you can help, before you complain. And, when you feel you must complain, know your facts, and be specific about the problem.
  • If you don’t get the homework, or your child can’t do the homework, feel free to send it back with a note.

#1- Realize Common Core isn’t going anywhere for a good long time

Surely, if we put up enough fuss, if we make our voices heard and if we complain to our representatives we will get rid of it, right?  Well, probably not.  True, there are some states that backed down from Common Core, but these states did not go back to the previous standards.  They adopted new standards, and most of the new standards are very similar to Common Core.  So, like it or not, these standards, or something very much like them, are here to stay for a good long time.  To help you better understand why this is true I would like to define a few things, and explain a few things that parents and the general public may not understand just because they don’t deal with the inner workings of public education.

What are standards?  Educational standards define the knowledge and skills students ideally should possess at critical points in their educational development. “Standards serve as a basis of educational reform across the nation as educators and policy makers respond to the call for a clear definition of desired outcomes of schooling and a way to measure student success in terms of these outcomes” (National Research Council 2001).  Let’s liken standards to developmental milestones.  Most parents are familiar with these milestones because when you visit your pediatrician for a well-child check up your doctor will ask you, is your child crawling yet, can he roll over, can she sit up on her own or can he say 10 words.  These milestones are based on the average age at which children typically acquire these skills.  So if your child is significantly behind other children at her age it signals to your pediatrician that there may be a developmental delay or health issue.

Educational standards are a bit like this.  They list the grade at which students should have the identified skills and knowledge.  There are some differences, however.  The first major difference is that standards are tied to grade level, not to student age.  The obvious problem of this is that students at any given grade level will represent a sizable range in age, as well as developmental level.  Of course the nature of our public school system requires this age range, but this fact makes it difficult to say that a child that does not attain a certain standard is behind other students when he or she may simply be younger or slower to develop than other students at that grade level.  The next major difference between standards and developmental benchmarks is that given a supportive and healthy environment and typical developmental abilities young children will automatically acquire the milestones.  Educational standards, however, represent skills and knowledge that students must be taught, not that they will acquire on their own.   So, the problem with judging children based on these standards is that attainment requires just the right mix of quality teaching and educational readiness, as well as student engagement.  The third major difference between developmental milestones and standards is that milestones are based on what the typical child has been shown to master.  Standards, on the other hand, are more arbitrary.  They are not necessarily developed with the typical development of children in mind.  In my opinion, this was one of the major problems with the previous set of standards in the state of California.  They did not seem to match what is known about child development.  The jury is still out on how well the Common Core standards fit developmental levels, but I do believe that one area that better fits development levels is in the area of 8th grade math.  The previous California standards required every 8th grade student to learn algebra.  This requirement in no way took into account the developmental level of the typical 13 year old and caused much frustration among parent and students, as well as teachers.

How did Standards across the nation Come to Be?  During most of the history of public education state and local agencies set standards of what would be taught when, but these guidelines were often very loose and unregulated.  So it was not uncommon for individual teachers to teach what they wanted, when they wanted.  In 1989 George W. Bush met with many of the nation’s governors at the Charlottesville Education Summit and developed educational goals.  Goals centered around targets to measure educational improvement that asked states to give up some of their autonomy to provide for more educational excellence nation-wide.  “There is a growing recognition that an essential next step for education reform is establishing consensus around a set of national goals for education improvement, stated in terms of the results and outcomes we as a nation need for the education system.”  From this summit sprang “No Child Left Behind” and the required standards and high stakes testing that states began to adopt.  The plan was for each state to determine what a “proficient” student looked like and how to assess it.  Seemed like a good idea to ensure autonomy of the states, while moving closer to accounting for what they taught, but in practice this plan did not work well.  Some states, for instance Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, set their standards so low that a large majority of their students scored proficient on their state tests, while independent tests showed that their students were genuinely nowhere near the proficiency that their scores would indicate.

So the deal was this, every year states would be required to increase the number of students who scored proficient.  Little by little, we would give students the skills they needed to all reach proficiency.  2014 was the year this was supposed to happen.  Every student was supposed to be proficient across the nation.  Yep, every kids 100%.  Do you see a problem with this plan?  Well, there were many.  First, in order to get 100% of any group of people anywhere to be proficient at anything is a bit problematic.  I can’t think of a single skill that everyone on this earth is capable of showing complete proficiency in, not even breathing.  At any one time there is a sizable number of the population that needs a machine to breathe, so even something as essential as breathing, cannot show 100% proficiency.  And, this was 100% of the population enrolled in public school, yep, even students with severe learning problems.  The last major flaw in this plan was the disparity of standards.  Some states did reach or come very close to that 100% level, but their standards were set so low when compared to other measures they were really quite meaningless.  As the number of students required to be at proficient increased, and more and more schools and districts were unable to reach the standard it became increasingly clear that the plan was just not working.

This is the environment in which Common Core Standards were born.  Didn’t it make a lot more sense to measure the whole nation with similar standards instead of widely varied one?  A lot of people thought so, which is what spurred the spread of the new standards.

How is curriculum different from standards?  There seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding on the difference between curriculum and standards.  I often hear and see people refer to books or specific curriculum and insinuate that those items are synonymous with the Common Core Standards.  Even many websites designed for teachers provide activities and worksheets labeled as “Common Core Curriculum.”  In reality, there is no such thing.  Standards are like a list of things that student should learn; curriculum is how it will be taught.  For instance, if I want to teach you touch typing I can use many methods, such as on-line games or programs, or yours mother’s old typing class materials.  Touch typing would be like the standard, what will be learned.  The method is like the curriculum, how it will be taught.

No matter how good or bad standards are, they are not designed to teach students anything.  What teaches are good teachers and good curriculum.  Great standards can be completely unsuccessful with poor teaching and/or curriculum.  And, by the same token, good curriculum and teachers can often mitigate the problems with poor standards.

Can we get rid of Common Core?  When I hear people talk about getting rid of Common Core I often wonder if they know what this really entails.  As an illustration, let’s think about the direction that public education is headed as a long freight train moving down the track.  It takes an awful lot to get it moving forward, and once it does it takes an awful lot to stop it or change its path.  You see, new standards take years and years to create.  Once they are created they need to be adopted and then synthesized into a usable state.  The standards must then be disseminated to districts, schools, administrators and finally to teachers.  Once everyone knows the new standards, how it will be taught must be decided.  People start creating curriculum and publishers begin to develop materials.  Adoption of new materials can take years, and often early curriculum does not do a very good job of teaching the new standards.  We are in the midst of this process of change.  It took a long time, a considerable amount of money and a great deal of effort to get this train moving down the Common Core track.  Some states are a bit further down the track than the State of California which is in the very early stages of adopting curriculum (publishers have developed and distributed transitionary materials only for schools to use until state adopted curriculum are available).  But the standards and especially the curriculum that would supporting teaching of those standards are still in their infancy.  States are unlikely to abandon something that has absorbed so many resources to implement, especially when you consider that it is way too early to determine the value of the standards or the efficacy of the curriculum.  That is also why states that have moved away from Common Core have adopted standards so similar.  The freight train has just picked up speed and it is difficult, and probably ill-advised, to stop or change the direction of that train.  States that have moved away from Common Core have just moved to a parallel track moving in the same direction.

#2- •      Ask how you can help, before you complain.  And, when you feel you must complain, know your facts, and be specific about the problem.

There was a time when parents had a lot of power over public education.  They hired the teachers, set the standards and determined a school calendar that fit the needs of their family life.  Although the days are long gone when parents have this much influence over schools, parents do need to understand that they continue to wield a good deal of power.  Many decisions are made based on the views of the public and the desires of parents.  However, parents also need to understand that there is a way to wield that power that is successful and builds collaborative relationships, and there is a way to wield that power that can be very unsuccessful and may build roadblocks to schools and parents working together.  The most important thing that parents can do to influence change in their local schools is to gain credibility in the sights of teachers and administers.  There are several things that parents can do to gain credibility and be able to influence decision making, but the most important thing is to make yourself known in a positive manner.  I cannot say enough about the benefits of parents becoming involved in their public schools by working with parent groups and committees, volunteering in the classroom or making themselves available to assist with school and extra-curricular activities.  Once you make yourself visible and helpful you are no longer just someone’s parent, you are a known, valued member of the school community.

It is quite unlikely that your child will make it through their years of public education without something that you need to complain about.  It is not uncommon for actions, policies and procedures to violate what parents feel are in the best interest of their child.  At those times parents should speak up and they can wield quite a bit of power.  However, public school policies are designed to keep the power in the hands of administrators.  They will not easily allow parents to come in and start directing how things should be run.  But if parents take the time to make themselves credible to school personal, it will increase the likelihood that their voice will be heard.  The first step is to become involved.  This should be done long before a problem arises so that the school sees you as a helpful asset, not as someone who is only helping because of ulterior motives.  The next step is to do your homework.  Whether you are complaining about standards, curriculum, a policy or an altercation your child had with an adult or another student gather as many credible facts as you can.  I cannot tell you how many meetings I have been in with parents that were very upset about something, only for the parents to find out that they completely misunderstood the situation.  Once these steps have been taken, be sure you present your concerns in a calm, coherent, specific manner.  Complaints such as, “We need to get rid of Common Core,” does not build credibility for your case at all.  What about the standards are you concerned about, and what do you think needs to change?  While it is unlikely that states will entirely abandon Common Core or standards that are very similar, there is a lot of room for input on how the standards will be implemented and what the adopted curriculum will look like.

#3- If you don’t get the homework, or your child can’t do the homework, feel free to send the HW back with a note

Changing standards and curriculum is a big deal and a long and difficult process.  One of the primary complaints of parents with the shift in standards is that they don’t understand the homework, and neither does their child.  Be assured, your child’s teacher is pretty frustrated by this too.  Not only is it difficult to learn and teach new materials in a new manner, but as I mentioned before curriculum has not even been fully developed, and many of the transitional materials are not very good.  This makes for a frustrating situation for everyone involved.  It is a bit like learning to drive a new car, when the car is only half built, and pieces are being added on as you drive.

But here’s the thing parents, remember the power you wield?   Here’s one place you can really exercise it, homework.  Parents, you are ultimately responsible for your children and for what goes on in the hours between the end of school one day, and the beginning of the next.  While teachers would love it if each and every child would complete the homework that were assigned each day, the fact of the matter is that it often does not happen.  Sometimes it gets forgotten, or there are other family obligations or emergencies and yes, sometimes they just don’t understand what to do.  And you know what, as earthshaking as this may seem, if the homework does not get done some of the time, life goes on.  Of course, it is a problem if your child never does their homework.  But, what would happen if when you and your child don’t understand the homework you just wrote a note explaining the problem and told your child we won’t be doing this tonight?  If you have already taken the time to build that relationship earlier with your school and your child’s teacher they would probably understand and find a better way to communicate with you and/ or your child what should be done.

In conclusion, I would just like to share some Common Core successes.  Teaching in a California school for the first year of full Common Core adoption has been frustrating and an awful lot of work.  But I am starting to see some of the benefits of being able to delve a bit deeper into topics instead of skimming the surface as our last set of standards required.  The old standards moved so quickly that students had no time to really master anything, especially in math.  So the 6th grade math teacher that I work with and I slowed down even a bit more for the class that I support because they struggle in math.  We took a bit more time to really understand some number concepts and how the whole system works, especially when it relates to fractional concepts.  And, you know what?  When we came back around later in the year to using those fractional concepts, for the first time in a long time I did not get blank stares when I asked what .5 meant.  They had actually learned it, and I had students who could tell me that .5 was the same as one half.  That may seem like a small victory, and they certainly don’t all “get it” but I can’t tell you how many times I have dealt with whole groups of students who had no idea that .5 is the same as one half.  I feel that Common Core math, at least at the level I am dealing with, will be much more successful in preparing our students for actually using numbers in real life.

Lastly, I would like to share an example, pulled from the pages of my Facebook Newsfeed.  These comments came from a post of a mom who felt frustrated about how her child was being taught math, and both she and her daughter were struggling.  Interestingly, this mom lives in a state that did not adopt Common Core, however their standards are quite similar.  These posts are from friends from several different states, in various stages of teaching math differently.  Names were omitted.

  • Responder 1 – I’ve been trying to teach myself a lot of these new algorithms that my kids have been learning….and my first reaction is to reject them as hippy dippy nonsense, then after doing it for half an hour, I wish they taught us this stuff when I was a kid.
  • Original Poster- For my daughter math has been a struggle. When they teach so many different ways to do the same thing it confuses her more- doesn’t help.
  • Responder 1-I also struggled with math so much as a kid and it wasn’t until I was teaching “new math” that I really got it and watched soooo many kids really begin to understand how math works instead of just regurgitating facts. I know it can be hard as a parent to watch but honestly, sometimes the brightest students will struggle with these methods at first but they come out so much more fluid and flexible in their mathematical reasoning skills.
  • Original Poster- I hope so!
  • Responder 2- Going through this from 1st to 3rd grade with my daughter was the real struggle. Now that she’s in 4th grade, it makes a lot more sense to me, and looking back, the 1st-3rd grade stuff was doing a good job leading up to what comes after. I think the hardest thing was that the instruction didn’t make sense, and that’s probably due to it being new to everybody, including a lot of the teachers.

So there you go folks, to take us back to our train analogy the ride may be long and bumpy, but eventually I think it will get us to our destination much better than our older standards were doing.  Of course, you are welcome to your own point of view; varying points of view are one of the things that make this country great.  However, I would admonish you to take my advice and realize that Common Core is probably not going anywhere, know when and how to complain and feel free to let teachers know when the homework just doesn’t work.  Parents, you can wield a lot of power, but doing it the right was will be much more successful.

7 Suggestions to be part of the Solution

Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?  That was the question I asked in my previous blog post, along with a call for those who wanted to be a part of the solution to step forward.  After my open letter to the Westminster School District a few of my friends did indeed step forward to tell me they did want to be part of the solution.  I also received a call from the district superintendent, Dr. Marian Kim Phelps.  Dr. Phelps wanted me, and also everyone else who read my message, to know that she was on board.  She wants to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and hopes the steps she has been taking are the right ones to do that.  She also explained that she did not want to be a part of that revolving door that has become our district administration in recent years.  Her hope is to lead the district for many years, and to retire from this district.  I found her candor and desire to be a long-term fixture to be refreshing and promising.  Unfortunately, it will take a lot more to turn things around than the efforts of a few of my friends and possibly even more than Dr. Phelps’ concerted effort.  It took many years and many people to drive us into the state where we now find ourselves, and it will take time and many people to improve things.

So, what is the secret?  How can we turn things around?  In my opinion there is one important key, communication.  It may sound trite and simplistic, but in my experience many problems can be solved, and potential problems can be alleviated through full, open, continuing 2-way communication.  Here are 7 ways that we can all be a part of the solution, instead of the problem, through communication.

#1- Administrators, please explain Yourself– Public education has had a theory for many years.  It goes something like this, “We are the experts; we have had years of training and education and we use research to back up our methods so we know how to do this; we know what we are doing, and we know best how to educate the masses; you don’t know anything about how to best educate children, so we won’t bother you with the details; and, if you try to get in our way we will put up all kinds of roadblocks to keep you out of our business.”

I come to public education from a little bit different avenue than the average teacher.  Before I was a teacher in the public system, I was a parent.  And, I was a parent who was involved in different sorts of ways.  I worked as a volunteer.  I was involved with PTA.  And, I had children with special needs who did not fit the mold of what a student in a public school “should look like.”  The journey to help those children, as well as my other parental experiences, gave me many opportunities to interface with administrators, and often see the way they communicate with parents and the community.  Through all of these involvements, as well as subsequent involvements as a teacher and a grandparent, I came across this attitude in multiple ways, at multiple times, at all levels of education and in multiple school districts.

Administrators, if you think you can just go about your business of doing your job and not communicate how and why you are doing it you are sorely mistaken.  The day is far past when the public will just trust that you know what you are doing.  The day is gone when parents put their full trust in your expertise.  The day is gone when teachers just follow along and believe that all of the latest (method, curriculum, program, etc.), is always the greatest.  We have seen the pendulum swing too many times, and too far to believe that this will be the time when the true way to fully educate children comes out.  We need good and strong administrators, but we also need administrators who will let us know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it.

Here is a piece of information about human nature that many people forget.  If you do not communicate with others, they will use their imagination to fill in the gaps.  And guess what, people have great imaginations, so when they fill in the gaps they usually do it in an overly dramatic manner.  And, people will often tell their exaggerated or contrived form of the truth to others, and eventually it becomes the accepted “truth.”  The best way to stop a rumor is to communicate the real truth before rumors have a chance to start in an honest, open and transparent manner.  Most news, usually even bad news, is best conveyed straight from the source.

Let me give you an example: Common Core Standards.  They are all over the news today, and being touted as too hard, too easy, a way for the government to get information on us, etc.  Do you remember when the last standards come into being in the state of California?  Me neither.  I mean, I remember hearing about them, standardizing what we teach kids and all.  But, it was not all over the news, it just happened.  No one voted on them, no one questioned them.  Well, educational administrators made an error this time.  They thought it was business as usual, and that they could just bring in new standards and the public would say, “Oh we have new standards.”  Not so.  Public schools have been under more and more scrutiny of late, so people from all walks of life and with all types of agendas started their own educational campaigns about the new standards.  Instead of educators telling the public, and in some cases teachers, what the standards were, what they contained, and why they were important, people were educated by the media.  Who knows how differently this may have gone if educators themselves would have shared their views first rather than letting the media dictate what Common Core Standards are and are not?

And one more piece of advice to administrators.  Remember, I said real communication is two way so you need to listen also.   While it really helps us to know what is going through your mind, and why you do what you do, if you don’t really listen to our input, you may miss some of the important things you need to know.  Because, while all of those degrees you hold give you a lot of book learning, there is a whole lot of learning going on out there that is not taught in a university.  As the old adage goes, we were all given 2 ears and only 1 mouth, so we should try listening twice as much as we speak.

#2- Teachers, don’t keep it to Yourself– Just as administrators need to communicate what they are doing and why, we teachers also need to explain what we are doing and why.  Part of my job as a Resource Specialist requires me to meet with many parents, and often these parents are unhappy because their children are struggling educationally or behaviorally.  It is not uncommon for me to go into a meeting with a parent who is very unhappy, even angry, and to come out with a parent who is satisfied.  This does not always occur because sometimes people’s views are so far apart that they cannot be reconciled or, just face it, some people are just difficult to please.  However, I have found that, more often than not, when I fully communicate, and I mean listen, not just speak, we can come to a consensus.  You see, some of us have forgotten the goal.  The goal of public education is to educate children.  And, when I communicate that this is my desire to parents, and when I listen to their concerns, I can share my expertise in a way to help us come up with strategies to bring us all closer to the goal.  In turn the parents, as the expert on their own child, often can give me insights I could not have gained without the parents’ input.

However, teachers are in a sticky situation.  Not only must they communicate with parents, they are also the middle men and must communicate with administration.  Teachers need to let administrators know what is going on in the trenches.  They need to pass on their difficulties, as well as their successes.  Of course all of this is easier when districts have administrators who have instilled a policy of open communication.  However, teachers need to continue to share upwards, even if it seems futile, difficult or even scary.  Sometimes it can feel as if sharing things can put your job at risk or make it more difficult.  However, when we only share and complain with our colleagues and friends, we become part of the problem and not part of the solution.

#3- The School Board should be the Ultimate Listener- I would like to speak for a moment to our school board members, our elected officials who represent our community.  Yes, that is what we elected you for, to represent us.  The school board member should be the voice of the community.  As much as the community would love to be involved in what makes our school system tick, face it, we just don’t have time.  Life is busy, and we have a lot going on.  What the community really wants is to elect people they trust to be a watchdog over the district, and then trust that you do a good job.  Are you doing that?  Are you really doing things based on the best interest of the community’s children?  If you think you are, how do you know this?

I submit that if you don’t really listen then you don’t know.  The temptation for school board members is to gravitate toward communication with administrators in the district.  It is good for school boards and administrators to have good working relationships with each other, but I submit that if you spend the majority of your time interfacing with administration you don’t really know what is going on.  If you don’t talk to teachers, parents and community members you have a very narrow view.  If you don’t really listen, and make sure you fully understand, you are just a rubber stamp.

In addition, I think it is important to let the public know what you really believe, what your goals are and what you stand for.  In preparation for the upcoming elections I did some research to find out what the candidates for the school board stood for, believed and wanted to work for.  Information was greatly lacking, and some candidates had no information at all listed.  How can the voters make an informed decision without information out there?

#4- Parents, know your Audience– Parents, here is some advice.  Your local public school really does employ teachers and administrators who are highly trained and often very experienced.  Before you throw out your opinion you may want to listen first.  I know your kid is the best and brightest in your world, but schools have hundreds of students who look a lot like your kid and while it is true no two are exactly alike, there are some typical developmental stages that they all go through.  There is not a lot that educators have not heard before, and they may even be able to share some insights with you.  That being said, everyone needs to realize that all of that expertise can only go so far.  It is not that uncommon for educators to be a bit off the mark, and many times they are just plain wrong.  But, here is the thing, if you treat those educators with respect and really listen to their point of view they are not normally unreasonable.  There are exceptions, and I have seen examples of that myself, but if you go in with an idea of facilitating open communication, more times than not the outcome can be positive.

The other important thing that parents must remember is that really, they wield all of the power.  It is not uncommon in our society today for public schools and teachers to be depicted as the ones totally responsible for educating children.  But really, this is not true at all.  Parents are children’s first teachers.  In addition, much goes on in the home and family that has so much effect on student learning.  In addition, while school attendance is compulsory in our society for children, it is up to parents to choose the local public school or an alternate place to educate their child.  Ultimately, parents not only have the most power in their child’s education, they also have the most responsibility.  Be careful how you wield that power, and how you take on that responsibility.

#5- Share, and listen, Open Mindedly– Many of us love to share.  We share our thoughts with our friends, we share out status with our Facebook friends, and we share our opinions with whoever will listen.  One thing many of us are not as good at is listening.  According to Stephan Covey, most of us spend most of conversational time preparing our answer, not really listening to our counterpart.  What a different world this would be if we all learned, and actually practiced, communication as a 2 way process: listening with real intent, and sharing your views only after you fully understand.  Covey calls this process, Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  If educators at all levels, parents and the public really took the time to do this I think all would be better edified and many typical problems could be alleviated.

In recent years I tried an experiment and started to really listen to others point of view.  Of course today’s social media makes that a little easier, as so many want to tell everyone exactly what they think.  Often we want to gravitate to those who share our opinions, but I made an effort to really read and try to understand the opinion of those who did not agree with me.  While I still enjoy hearing the opinions of those who agree with me, I have found the process of really studying the views of those who disagreed to be highly informative and interesting.  I have come to feel more respect for the opinions of those with whom I disagree, and having a better understanding of where those points of view come from.  At the same time, I have strengthened my own opinions and developed good arguments as to why I believe the way I do on many issues.

I submit that this process of really listening, studying and trying to understand could lead all of us to better understanding and more collaborative efforts at all levels.

#6- Understand Bias- When I talk about bias I don’t mean prejudice against certain groups of people, and I am not talking about the fact that you think your kid is the best kid in the world.  I am talking about the bias that we all have due to certain life experiences we have had.

Let me give you an example.  Because I have 2 children of my own with special needs and because I work with many students who struggle academically I have a real bias for the underdog, the underperforming and the under achieving.  Put me in a group of kids and I tend to be unimpressed by the best and the brightest, I look for the poor little guy hanging out in the corner.  I gravitate toward the awkward, the misunderstood and the struggling.

So what does this have to do with communication in a public school setting?  We all have biases.  We all have our own little piece of the world where we believe more is needed.  We all have our own friends, family members and co-workers who we are more willing to give attention to.  The problem is not bias, as much as not paying attention to bias.  First, we need to know and understand our own bias.  What motivates me to do the things I do?  I am only willing to help those I am drawn to, or do I take steps to give equal attention to all?  Second, we need to be aware of, and pay attention to other’s biases.  People involved in public education at all levels should be watching for unchecked biases.  Unchecked biases, I believe, are one of the biggest downfalls to all sorts of organizations, and especially to public education.  We all need to be vigilant to keep the focus on educating all students, not personal biases based on a personal agenda, furthering someone’s career or someone’s pet project.

And here is one interesting thing about bias and communication; it colors not only our actions but our perception.  When we listen, we listen with our biases fully intact and operating.  That means when someone speaks, what they say is filtered through our understanding, our experiences, our own ideas on how the world is and should be.  Do you take the time to really understand what others are saying?  Sometimes that means extra questioning, and takes way longer than most conversations.  However, if we don’t take the time to do this, especially when people don’t agree, when stakes are high, or when tempers are really charged, miscommunication will ensue.

#7- Be a good Citizen– Elections are coming up.  Will you be voting?  I know will be.  But just voting isn’t enough.  Do your homework.  Read all you can about the candidates.  Here is a website that lists information about the candidates running for the Westminster School Board.  http://ballotpedia.org/Westminster_Elementary_School_District_elections_(2014)

While it can be hard to get valid and detailed information about candidates, especially local ones, voting based just on what you glean from ads and hearsay does not constitute really being a part of the solution.  Do your homework, talk to people who know and have worked with the candidates, look for those with promising backgrounds and good values.  Then, use your best judgment to make your best choice.

What I am recommending is not easy.  It takes a lot of work to fully communicate with others, to really listen, to monitor the biases of yourself and others and to do your research and vote responsibly.  However, those who sit by and do nothing are part of the problem.  As the old adage goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Step up and be part of the solution.

Race to the Top of what?

President Obama’s new program for school reform has been announced and it is being called, “Race to the Top.” It provides billions of dollars to prospective schools that are willing to jump through the hoops that the federal government is establishing.  It is touted as a way to reform schools that “can transform our schools for decades to come.”

This started me thinking, what are we racing to the top of? Is the top that is sought really something that will benefit our nation’s children?  And, if so, why are we in such a hurry to get there?

As a teacher with a background in early childhood development I have had many years of studying how kids learn best.  No matter what expert you listen to, or the age of the child you are studying it boils down to one thing, kids learn best by doing.  And, kids are most likely to learn the most, and retain the most, when they are taught things appropriate for their developmental stage.  No one in their right mind would try to teach a 3 month old to walk, a 9 month old to write their name or a 2 year old calculus.  But, in some ways that is exactly what some of our school systems are trying to do.

Recently my daughter with a degree in early childhood education had a job interview for a position teaching preschool in a public school.  To the typical question, “How do preschoolers learn best,” she answered with the classic answer, “They learn through play.”  Play is the work of a preschool aged child.  They learn about their world through experimenting and manipulating materials, songs, games, stories and imaginative play.  “Well,” replied my daughter’s interviewer, “I used to think that.  Now we teach them to read and write.”  Huh?  Are preschoolers different now than when the interviewer began her career?  Does a preschooler really need to learn to read and write?  Am I a bad parent if I don’t teach my 18 month old to read?  Will my child be terribly behind if he cannot add at age 4?  Well for all you anxious parents out there, and for this misguided preschool professional, I would like to tell you that if your child is a normally developing child it makes no difference if they learn to read at 18 months, 4 or 7.

Traditionally in this country we have taught children to read at about 6 years of age.  When I was teacing kindergarten there was a big push for kindergarten aged children to learn to read.  It seemed that kindergartens, and in turn preschools, had become more academic in response to a push for children to have traditional academics at an early age.  I was intrigued with this trend, and went to a seminar that reported the results on a new study that had been done to find the best age for children to learn to read.  I was stunned by the results.  The study found that although a child could often be taught to read at a very early age, it really made no difference when this teaching began as long as it happened in early childhood for typically developing children, generally by age 7.  In addition, it was found that in third grade (when most children are 8 years) it was impossible to tell which children learned to read at 18 months, 4 or 6 years.  By third grade the child who did not learn to read or write until age 6 or 7 caught up with the others.  So when was this landmark study done?  This study was done in the late seventies and early eighties.  Yes, you are correct, this information was discovered over 30 years ago.  And many more studies have backed up this research in the ensuing years.

This misguided push is not only seen in the early grades, it is also seen in later years.  In the State of California there is a push for every 8th grader in the state to take algebra.  Algebra is an important subject that helps establish higher order thinking skills, however a push for every 13 year old to learn this skill is misguided and ridiculous.  Research has shown that the section of the brain that is responsible for abstract thinking is not fully developed until early in the 20’s.  Performance of algebraic skills requires high development of abstract thinking skills.  Some teens develop advanced skills at an early age and are able to understand the concepts necessary for algebra at an early age, however most have great difficulty with this.  When students are required to master concepts that are beyond their developmental  level  it leads to frustration and feelings of failure.  This is especially true for young teens who often suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

So, why then, are we once again pushing to teach very young children to read and write?  I think there are three major reasonsFirst, there is research that backs up early learning for children with disabilities.  I think that some overzealous educators and parents have decided that if this approach is successful for children with disabilities, it must also be successful for the average developing child.  Which brings us to the second reason for this early push; what parent does not want their child to be the best and the brightest?  If my baby can be the next Einstein by teaching him early, why not try?  Don’t I want my kid to be the first to master algebra?  Parents often push their children because they feel it will lead to their child being the best.  The third reason that I see for this push in early learning is due to politics.  Who hasn’t heard the news that the US is far behind other countries educationally?  Or that larger percentages of students do not graduate from high school?  But, did the news point out that our educational system is so vastly different than that in other countries that there really is no comparison?  Did it point out that in most other countries not every child is guaranteed an education?  And that often the students that our students are compared to are the best and brightest in the country who have passed tests to be allowed to continue on with their education, not every child in the country?  Or did the news tell you that the statistics used to determine what percentage of students graduate from high school is vastly flawed?  Did they report that the numbers they use to determine how many graduated only count those that graduate on the exact date of most students in that class?  And that the statistics do not take into account students who move, graduate even one day late or even those who graduate early?  Of course not.

So, this brings us back to Race to the Top. Politicians often use catchy names and cash awards to prove that they take education seriously.  But catchy names mean nothing, and the cash awards are often so small when distributed over a large number of schools that it is meaningless.  And have we really determined that what is at the top is really worth racing toward?

What I call for does not have a wonderfully catchy name, and it won’t get me elected to anything.  I call for a return to developmentally appropriate standards for children.  What children need is an educationally rich environment and plenty of time to develop at their own pace.  I have very intelligent children, but their intelligences are extremely varied.  I had one that taught himself to read at 4, and one that would not read a book to himself until he got to high school.  I had children who naturally understood high mathematics at a very young age, and I had children who did not really grasp algebraic concepts until college age.  I had children who had no difficulty earning high grades in school, and children who severely struggled to earn passing grades.  I had children who took 4 years of full time enrollment in a junior college to get through, and I had children who commented that college was really easy.  But guess what, none of that really mattered.  My children grew up in a home with a significant amount of daily stimulation to develop their talents, and an emphasis on continuing education.  There was no race to top, just a gradual climb to their personal best.  Now, my three oldest children hold degrees or are well established in careers of their choice and my younger ones are on the path toward their goals.  None of them was ever the top in their class, the first in their age group to master a concept or received a scholarship to a prestigious university.  But they are happy, well adjusted young adults working toward building their own family units.  Shouldn’t that be the goal, instead a race to an indeterminate top?  Slow down people, and give our children an environment in which they can develop naturally, and at the appropriate pace.

Teaching Behaviors without Values Leads to Failure

I had an interesting experience at the middle school where I teach that got me thinking about teaching kids to stay away from risky behaviors.  A teacher shared a letter with me written between two 8th grade female students.  The letter had some pretty explicit language about sexual experiences that these girls had been involved in.  Both girls commented that they didn’t think their parents cared if they had sex, just when and how they had it.  When I finished my conversation with this teacher I walked to another room where an 8th grade boy was having a conversation with a member of the school staff.  He explained to the staff member about a code of health that he followed based on his religious beliefs.  The staff member seemed shocked at the seemingly strict  code, but the boy seemed happy, almost excited, to follow the code.

These two contrasting incidents highlighted for me the importance of value based teaching.  Most parents want their children to abstain from sexual activity and dangerous substances.  Most parents teach their children to stay away from these things, at least while they are young.  Why then, do so many children become involved in risky behaviors at a young age?  The key is teaching values, not just behaviors. When children are taught that they should stay away from risky behaviors, but there is no underlying value to support their abstinence the pull to stay away is short lived.  The longest lasting lessons are those that are tied to stable belief systems and accountability checks.  Stable belief systems can be found in many religions and in some value-based organizations.  Those that require members to take an oath or promise, along with some system of accountability, are more likely to be successful.

So, if you want to teach your children to abstain, you will be more likely to find success if you tie those teachings to a stable belief system.