Category Archives: Education

Our Gun Fixation will NOT Fix the Problem!


Seventeen killed in a school shooting, it seems as if this last mass school shooting just pushed everyone over the edge.  “Enough!” everyone is saying, “We have to do something!”  Yet, while many agree with this sentiment, the “what” is a very disagreeable topic.  It seems as if the two top “whats” are more gun control or arming personnel to protect students on campus.  And, it seems as if the state of Florida decided to just go for broke and pass laws for both options.  Well, I am probably going to make both sides mad with my opinion, but I think you are both just plain wrong.  I just don’t think the solution as easy as passing more laws.  While I certainly see the appeal for both of these ideas, I don’t think either addresses the cause of the problem.  I will explain, but first an analogy.

I have always been intrigued by magic.  As a kid I collected magic tricks, and spent hours trying to perfect my skills.  I was never very good at it, but there were some tricks that I could successfully perform.  The real secret, I learned, to getting buy in from your audience was the distraction.  All magic tricks involve some kind of bait and switch.  The bait is the distraction, and once the audience is fixated on the bait, you can perform the switch.  I think some issues in our society have become this way.  In our quest for a simple solution we become so bogged down with the idea of that one thing that will fix the problem that we completely miss what the real problem is.  In my opinion, we are so fixated on the bait, the guns, that we have completely missed the switch, the complex issues that led to societal violence.

The issue of increased violence in our society is so much more complex, so much more messy than some of these solutions suggest and can’t be solved by a simple law or initiative.  Not that there are not solutions, but we need to stop spending all of our time and energy, and clogging our newsfeeds, with quick fix, one-size fits all get rid of or add  more guns ideas.  And, we need to start urging our leaders to invest our public funds in ideas that might actually work.  I will share a few, but first, let’s look at why I don’t think the quick fix ideas will work.

Gun control can seem like the obvious first line of defense, after all, if people can’t get the weapons, this won’t happen.  The first problem with this tactic is that those who are getting ready to shoot up a school are generally not worried about following the law.  According to Mother Jones data on school mass shootings (following the FBI criteria) 50% of these shootings were committed with a gun obtained illegally or stolen.  Now, one could argue that at least more stringent laws could prevent 50% of the shootings, but that does not necessarily follow.  Just because someone obtained a firearm legally to perform a crime does not mean they would not have obtained the weapon illegally had the legal path not been available.  So let’s look at actual data of states with restrictive gun laws vs. those without, specifically the top 10 strictest and 10 least restrictive.  According to Gifford’s Law Center 7 of 20 mass school shootings from which they collected data took place in schools from the ten states with the strictest gun laws.  And, from the ten states that had the least restrictive gun laws (by their criteria) zero of those 20 mass shootings took place.  This data would seem to indicate that not only is there no cause and effect of stringent gun laws in relation to school shootings, but there may even be a negative correlation (meaning a greater chance of a mass shooting).

No guns

Of course those on the other side of the aisle have a different plan: arm the teachers.  While on face value this may seem like a good tactic, after all we arm our military and our police offices, in practice I find it to be ill advised and impractical to really stop the problem.  First, teachers already have so much to do with so little time, just when and how would we train and prepare these highly trained pistol-packers?  I don’t think the general public realizes just how much is already on a teacher’s plate.  According to Susan Barrett, an expert on positive school behavior supports, school districts average 14 initiatives that require training and implementation.  The requirement for teachers to add these new initiatives to their repertoire in addition to learning new curriculum and standards, keeping track of new students and their progress every year, staying apprised of each students health and welfare, as well as keeping parents informed and updated of their progress taxes even the most efficient and capable individual.  If districts were asked to add a concealed carry initiative surely something else would have to go.  And that is assuming you could even find enough teachers willing to do this job on a large enough basis to make a difference.  Most teachers got into teaching because they want to spend their time molding young minds, not warming up their six shooters for the shootout at high noon.  Personally, I would find the idea of trying to protect a concealed weapon in a classroom full of children and adolescents exhausting and counterproductive to what my primary goal should be: teach.

Then there are those who suggest we protect kids a different way.  These ideas range anywhere from the placement of armed guards and metal detectors in schools to the installation of door blockers or safe houses within a classroom.  While I applaud the sentiment and range of ideas I just find these ideas to be a large expenditure for very little return.  First, we need to realize how rare school shootings really are.  During the 59 year period from 1959 to 2018 there have been 24 mass killings (according to FBI standards, including 1 explosion and 1 bomb) killing 247 people.  In the United States there are apx. 100,000 k-12 public schools, 33,000 private schools and 7200 colleges and universities.  While any number of killings is shocking and unacceptable, when you look at the actual numbers you realize schools are actually very safe.  Next, we need to realize that none of these methods are fool proof.  The Florida shooting on February 14th had an armed resource officer on campus, but that did not deter, nor did it stop the attack.  They had metal detectors on campus, and yet those were not even in use that day.

So, what will work?  First, I think it is important to realize that there are many societal problems at play here.  I think that family values, violent media, as well as the way society views the value of life all come in play in this issue, but this article is about solutions, not problemsPrimarily I think the solution lies in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young people.  In a country where public education is compulsory we are missing out on a prime opportunity if we do not better prepare our children for adulthood.  Ideally, children would be fully supported by their families, but that just isn’t happening in many cases.  The good news is that lots of positive things are happening.  Lots and lots of research has been done on how to support and improve behavior and mental health.  Lots and lots of schools and districts have supports in place that are working.  And, lots and lots of people are working in the trenches, trying to support our struggling kids and reaching out to those in need.  The bad news is these voices are not the ones we hear.  The voices we hear are all about the guns, all about the distraction.  So let’s take a minute and look at the good news, the solutions that might actually work.  This is where we should put our money, time and focus.  This is where politicians and school districts should be calling for initiatives.  In the programs that actually support the health and welfare of kids.

The most promising public school initiative is school wide positive behavior supports (PBIS-  PBIS techniques support good behavior in the majority of students, while providing supports and teaching new skills to students who struggle.  Schools which have instituted PBIS techniques have been able to decrease suspensions and office referrals, while improving behavior in the majority of their students.  This behavior model, which has been around for some time, has now been expanded to include supports in academics as well as social/emotional well-being.  The goal of this balanced support model is to ground students in the social and emotional health necessary to navigate adult life.  In my mind, it makes a lot of sense to invest in this type of an initiative in schools in this country.  Every student in every school could use support in social emotional health and well-being.  Very few schools will ever encounter a gunman (thankfully).  Should we not use our public money to invest in the sure thing?

pexels-photo-207653.jpeg                   Next, let’s call on our communities to step up and help support the health and well-being of our young community members.  According to the Interconnected Systems Framework, a major researcher in positive behavior supports, community support is vital to the sustainability of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.  There are lots of ways that communities can help support mental health and well-being, but I want to focus on some real-life programs that are really working.  Programs that are giving support to kids, mostly kids at risk. Programs that help kids who might otherwise have turned out to be disenfranchised gang members or school shooters.  This is the real deal, the things that work.

Hana BuildWhy do we think that everything has to be learned in a classroom?  Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke has turned that idea on its ear.  This program, located in a remote town on Maui, not only teaches kids on the job, it provides community building projects that enhance their entire community.  In addition, it gives young people a skill, education and a purpose.

Camden Sophisticated SistersWe often think of drill teams as fluff, extracurricular, non-essential activities that take the backseat to the main activities of learning and growing.  Camden Sophisticated Sisters (and their affiliates, Distinguished Brothers – DB’z & The Almighty Percussion Sound – TAPS) has turned things around and tied all that is needed to build skills and work habits in young people into activities they love.  Daily practices are interspersed by homework sessions and character and skill development.  Young people in Camden, New Jersey come from some of the poorest homes in America.  CSS is aimed at not only overcoming the results of poverty, but reaching out to their community.

Nascarz, of Vancouver, seeks to give former and would be car thieves the thrill of working on top performing automobiles and the chance to develop top notch mechanic skills.  The cars are the hook, but the real projects are the young people, shaping and teaching them that they can be productive, law-abiding members of society.

City of Angels Ballet– We all hear stories about prodigies, young people with exceptional talents at a very young age.  But what if a musical prodigy never met with a piano?  What if a brilliant mathematical prodigy grew up without any formal education and never knew of his skill?  And what if a prodigy in dance never had the opportunity to learn the basics to catapult her to stardom?  Mario Nugara seeks to solve this problem, at least in his little part of the world.  Trained in Denmark, Nugara provides high caliber ballet courses to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  Not only does this training give children the skills and talents of ballet, it gives them poise and self-efficacy that helps them better navigate their adult lives and become productive members of society whether or not they pursue dance as a career.

                The bottom line is, as disheartening is it is, we can’t really assure that bad things don’t happen to our kids.  We live in a world full of disasters, accidents and yes, just plain evil.  It would be wonderful if we could come up with a solution that would keep all of our kids safe, but unfortunately there is no way to do that.  And, while there are many things we can do, there are only limited resources on what we can spend our time and money on.  Doesn’t it make the most sense to spend our time and energy on things that give us the most for our money?  The things that really help?  The things I have suggested that may not assure that every child is safe (because there is no such thing).  But they are the things that will raise the social and emotional well-being of our children and provide our future with more functioning adultsDon’t be distracted by the guns, they are just a tool.  It is really about people, and teaching them to get their hearts and heads in the right place.  If you really want to help, encourage your lawmakers to support positive behavior support initiatives.  Seek out those who are making a difference and donate your time or money.  Or, just smile a bit more, reach out to those around you, and be aware of those in your community who may just need a friend.

The Best Age to Start Swimming Lessons: Advice from a Veteran Teacher, Mom and Grandma

Swim Blog picI am often asked, “What is the best age for my child to start swim lessons?”  Typically, my answer is, “Not two,” as two year olds can be very uncooperative at times, but in reality the answer is very complex.  There are many factors to consider when determining when to enroll your child in formal lessons, but the most important thing is that your child does learn to swim.  According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) 10 people die of unintentional drowning per day.  The largest risk group is children ages 1 to 4.  Drowning is responsible for more deaths in this age group than any other cause except birth defects.  There are many factors that influence drowning risks, but one of the top factors is lack of swimming ability.  In fact, recent research has shown that formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning not only for older children and adults, but also for this high risk group of children between the ages of 1 and 4.

While it seems to make sense to provide lessons for your child as soon as possible formal swim programs vary on the age at which they provide lessons for young children.  Most programs do not recommend formal lessons for children under 6 months of age, and even at this age skills learned will be limited due to limited developmental ability.  Of course if you are going to invest time and money into a formal swim class you will want to see your child make progress toward becoming an independent swimmer.  There are four main factors that determine how quickly children learn to swim independently; developmental level, natural ability, instruction (formal and informal) and opportunity to practice.  With these facts in mind, let’s look at some common considerations to think of as you consider the best timetable for your child.

What to consider:

  • Exposure to Water Environments-

In some areas water activities are common and plentiful and in others they are not.  In terms of safely, if you live in an area where your child has easy access to water, the younger you start lessons the better.  While there are swim schools that promise to “water proof” your child it is important to remember that no child is truly water safe.  I like the term, “water predictable” better.  When your child is water predictable you know how he or she will typically react in aquatic environments.  While no child, especially a very young child, should be left unattended around water, a child who has learned basic rules and skills and knows how to behave in water environments will typically behave in a more predictable manner.  Not only will the child know and understand what he or she can safely do to save him or herself, but parents, having seen their child in aquatic situations, will know how the child is likely to behave.  This can buy you the seconds or minutes needed to save your child if necessary.

Not only is the availability of water important in safety considerations, it is also important to consider in light of practice time.  One of the most important factors in how quickly children learn to swim is the availability of practice time.  Formal lessons are of little use if the child’s only time in the water is during the lesson.  Swim lessons should happen in conjunction with plenty of supervised water play time when skills can be practiced.

  • Time and Availability of Appropriate Lessons

Swim lessons may be taught by large swim schools, community programs, backyard swim programs as well as schools, day camp programs and preschools.  There are parent and child programs, one on one classes, as well as large group classes.  I will cover the pros and cons of these types of programs below, but the first thing you must determine is what is available in your area.  It is important to consider the goals in the program you are considering to make sure they match your personal goals for your child.  While traditional swim sessions run for about 8 to 10 days with lessons lasting 20 min. to a half hour, more intensive programs can run for many weeks meeting several days a week.  Part of your decision on when and where to enroll your child is if the program meets your schedule.  Children will make the best progress with consistent attendance in the program of your choice.  Choosing a program that fits your schedule well will help alleviate absences.

Typical Features of Various lesson types:

Private Swim School:

  • Main goal is to make a profit, however many are also quite passionate about their particular brand of swim instruction
  • Lessons may be available year round
  • Lesson are likely to be offered many times throughout the day
  • Teachers may have more experience, as this may be their main job, and typically need some sort of certification to teach
  • May be quite expensive
  • Methods may be quite different than other programs with a specific focus, such as “water safe” skills or swim team skill development
  • All ages are typically serviced, and some provide lessons for very young children

Community Programs:

  • Main goal is typically safety and as a service to the community
  • Lessons are typically only available during the summer months
  • Lesson times can be very rigid and limited
  • Teachers may be young and inexperienced, however there may be a few veterans; They will be required to have some sort of certification
  • Usually reasonably priced
  • Methods are usually standardized and developed by large organizations (such as the American Red Cross) teaching well researched skills and with practiced methodologies
  • While some may offer parent and child or preschool classes the focus is typically on courses for school aged children

Backyard Programs:

  • These programs vary from organized groups that facilitate small groupings in neighborhood pools, private instructors who come to your home or individuals who offer lessons in their own or others’ pools; Goals vary based on the group type.
  • Lessons typically only during summer months
  • Lesson times can be quite limited, however may be more flexible and adapted to individual needs.
  • Teacher experience varies greatly, be sure to ask what experience and training the teacher has had
  • Fees vary widely, from free and low cost community sponsored programs, to expensive private lessons

Private or Semi-Private Lessons:

  • Goals in these programs vary; Most useful for adults or older children looking to perfect strokes (Typically, young children and children just learning to swim do much better in a group, where they can see other students in their general age group performing the skills they are working on.)
  • Typically, lesson times are tailored to needs of students
  • Teacher experience varies; Be sure to ask about certifications and experience
  • Quite expensive

Preschool or Day Camp Programs:

  • Main goal of these programs is typically to provide lessons for children who may not otherwise have access to swim lessons because they attend all day preschool or day camp programs
  • Lessons typically take place during the regular school or day camp hours
  • Lesson can be offered in large classes, small groups or in private or semi-private groups
  • Teacher experience varies
  • May be part of the preschool or camp fees, or may be an extra fee
  • No standardized methods, however many states require teachers to hold a water safety certificate issued by a authorizing agency, such as the American Red Cross, with standardized procedures

Another factor to consider when looking at swim programs is practice time.  Does the facility offer time for children to practice?  Is there an open swim time?  Can they stay in the water after their lesson, or do they have to get out immediately after?  Remember, a key to how quickly children learn to swim independently is practice time.  If children have an opportunity to practice their skills in the same location as they receive instruction this is a real plus.

  • Child’s Skills and Temperament

While every child can and should learn to swim, some children are naturally more adept at an early age.  Some of the hundreds of children I have taught to swim include my 5 children and 10 of my 11 grandchildren (the youngest being too young for formal lessons).  While all have been quite proficient swimmers by about the age of 4 or 5, some reached that level of proficiency at a much earlier age.  While there have been some variations in the availability of practice time, the main difference has been natural ability and temperament.

Some children take to a body of water as if they are part fish.  Holding their breath, moving arms and legs, jumping into the water and navigating entries and exits are quickly mastered and all that is needed is the development of the ability to lift their head to breathe and instruction in formal strokes.  These children are easy and fun to teach to swim.  When these children take lessons as infants or preschoolers they often master in one day what it takes their less adept peers to learn in an entire session.  While it is important to teach these children safety rules and basic skills, sometimes those can be easily taught outside of formal lessons.  The most important thing with this kind of child is for parents to have clear rules about when the child can and cannot jump in and swim and enforce them.  While some of the skills these children possess can help save them, they may also be very brave and jump in to bodies of water unexpectedly.  Even very young children can and should be taught to ask and get permission before jumping in and “swimming” to others.  If you or your child need formal lessons to master these safety skills then do take advantage of this.

Blake Swims still

Click here for an example of a natural swimmer.  This is Blake, my grandson, who at just 2  could easily and naturally swim across the pool.

For other children, however, every individual skill is difficult and laborious.  They are not fond of water in the face, and instead of holding their breath their natural inclination may be to suck up water.  They can move their arms or legs in the water, but don’t ask for both at the same time.  Jumping in is a scary proposition, and all water entries and exits take a while to learn and adjust to.  These children will take much longer to master basic swim skills, and will probably require several sessions of lessons to feel comfortable in the water.  Generally, these fearful children are a lot less likely to jump into a body of water unexpectedly, however a fearful child is more likely to suck up water if accidentally submerged and drown within seconds vs. the minutes that may be afforded with effective breath-holding.  Often, the parent with the brave child is more apt to pursue early swim lessons, however in some ways the fearful child can benefit more.

Another important factor to consider in this area is how well your child adapts to and learns from others.  For very young children parent and child lessons are often available, however once the parent is not involved in the lessons children react differently to a swim teacher.  Generally, the more friendly the child is with the teacher the quicker he or she will learn.  This is why I generally advise that children not start lessons at the age of 2.  While there are exceptions, most 2 year olds are not friendly with new adults and are often not even cooperative with their own parents.  For this reason, most children do better starting at a younger age or starting when they are a bit older.

  • Parent Goals and Desire for Child

So, what are your goals for your child?  Are you looking for the next big Olympic medalist?  Is safety your big thing, or do you just want your kids to have a good time?  You will want to make sure that your goals match the type of lessons that you choose.  As you look for available resources keep this in mind; look for lessons that match what you believe is important.  Don’t be afraid to share your goals with the school or teacher.  It will help them to tailor what they teach to your child.  And, if the direction the lessons you chose ends up not fitting your needs, feel free to choose another program.  The most important thing is that you do teach your child to swim!

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.

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.

Teachers, you’re killing us with this Common Core stuff!

If you asked a hundred teachers their thoughts and observations about Common Core, you would probably get a hundred different answers.  A recent poll done by The Association of American Educators showed that teachers are completely split on their views of Common Core, with a bit less than a third (30%) reporting they believe Common Core State Standards will improve the quality of education in their community, about 1/3 (34%) believe the new standards will decrease the quality of education, and a bit more than a third (36%) believe the standards will have no effect.  But despite their thoughts and feelings one thing is clear; teachers who teach in states that have adopted Common Core will be teaching the concepts outlined in these standards.  While teachers represent a widely varied group of attitudes and beliefs one thing that most of them have in common is a desire to be effective teachers.  Most teachers, no matter the curriculum, the standard, the materials or the challenges, will find ways to be as effective in instructing their students as possible.  A few weeks back I wrote about why we hate Common Core, and my main point was, we are doing it wrong.  The news and the internet overflow with examples of Common Core gone wrong.  We, as a society, don’t get it, we don’t see the point, it may even be detrimental and designed to circumvent our liberty, and we don’t even really get what the standards are or why we need them.

Fortunately, the research that convinced me we were doing it wrong, also helped me to pinpoint what we could do to adopt these standards more effectively.  My findings, along with some personal experience, leads me to recommend three changes I believe teachers should make in regards to Common Core:

  • Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core
  • Be smart with class time and
  • Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research.

Now, when all of my recommendations are for teachers it all may seem a bit like blame the teacher, but contrary to the way it may sound I don’t think it is mostly the teachers’ fault.  I say mostly because although most classroom teachers have very little control over if and when Common Core happens, they have a lot of control on the how.  While I think there is a lot that schools, districts and states can do to better transition to and implement Common Core effectively I think I have very little power to change or affect that.  What I think I can have an effect on is my little part of the world.  And I think that if every teacher that read this took my advice and had an effect on their little part of the world, then that will affect much more of the world than a top down approach would.  So my focus here will be what can, and should, individual teachers do in their part of the world, with their limitations of time and resources to make this transition smoother and most successful for their students.

#1- Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core

I hate to say it teachers, but I think we really blew it here.  Much of what the general public knows about Common Core was fed to them by the media, and often not even the mainstream media.  The spread of social media at about the same time as the implementation of Common Core standards provided the ideal environment to spread rumors and accusations on how and why the standards came to be, how they will be taught, and even what they are.  Even though the public does not have a lot of confidence in the public school system in general, most people have confidence in teachers in their local area and rate them as being above average.  With that fact in mind it is time that we teachers speak up and share with the public what we really think.

Now, as I said earlier, what we think about Common Core is widely varied, so I am not necessarily talking about sharing your preference of Common Core.  What I am talking about is sharing what you know about the standards, how you are working toward implementation, the positives about the standards and yes, the challenges.  I don’t think the general public quite understands the plight of the public school teacher when it comes to shifting expectations.  I don’t think they understand how often we are called upon from those above to completely change the way we do things.  I don’ t think they understand the hoops we need to jump through, or how much our workload has increased with all that we are now called upon to do.  When we share with our friends, our neighbors and community members and parents of our students about our experiences they have authentic information, instead of information spun through groups with an agenda.  When we share that, “Yes, there may be some issues with new standards (or new anything) but there may be some strengths.  And, we are using whatever changes come along to our benefit to educate our children,” then the public starts to see things through our eyes, instead of those who would tear down educators.

Speaking out and telling the public what we think may not come easily for many of us.  We teachers have no problem speaking up in our classroom and with our students, but for some reason we are not all that good about speaking up in our communities. Teachers have gotten pretty used to letting groups that represent them do the talking, like administrators and teachers’ unions.  But I am not talking about administrators explaining to parents, I am not talking about teachers’ unions or union reps communicating with our communities, I am talking about regular, everyday teachers opening their mouths and sharing their thoughts and experiences.  Not complaining, not whining, not blaming it on someone else, but sharing what our work is, how we do it, what is rewarding and what is frustrating.   With the spread of social media there has never been a better time.  Don’t let those who know little about public education be the ones who dictate what the public hears and believes.  And, don’t let school districts or teachers’ unions paint us with a broad brushstroke that makes us look like we don’t have minds of our own.  When we speak up in a respectful and professional manner we become known for the varied, highly educated, highly trained group that we really are.

#2- Be smart with class time

Most teachers probably already know this, but contrary to many of the rumors circulating about Common Core, the shifts in the standards are based on research on how children learn best.   For my teacher friends who may have forgotten, or the general public who may also be reading this, they include basic shifts in not only what is taught, but, ideally, the way it is taught.  The shifts include:

    • Greater focus on fewer topics
    • Coherence: Linking topics and thinking across grades
    • Rigor: Pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity

In math, and in ELA:

    • Regular practice with complex texts and academic language
    • Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
    • Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

In recent years, to explore the seeming disparity in proficiency scores between countries around the globe, educators have studied how students are educated in different countries.  In their book, “The Teaching Gap, “ James Stigler and James Hiebert observed math lessons in Japan, the US and Germany.  The team observed many differences in the way concepts were taught, but one of the main findings was in the German and US classrooms much of the class time was spent in listening to a teacher, whereas the majority of time spent by Japanese students was spent in problem solving.

Some of the shifts associated with the move to Common Core are based on the evidence that the Japanese model, focusing on problem solving rather than teacher lecture on “how to,” improves achievement.  But, are teachers really shifting the how they teach, and not just what they teach?

As I have already mentioned teachers are a very diverse group.  So, some teachers have probably made many changes, while others are determined to pour a new standard into the same old mold.  As I reported in my previous post part of my job is to assist other teachers.  The research that I did to assist our middle school math teachers better incorporate the new standards is what prompted this entire line of thinking on my part.  From my understanding of what had been learned from Japanese instruction, the shifts in Common Core and what I observed in the typical middle school math class it seemed that most teachers were just not doing enough to shift their classroom teaching.  Teachers reported a great frustration to fit the new standards into their class time, so I determined that I would look for ways to assist them.  To assist me I did a very small, very unrepresentative study of how much time our math teachers spent on typical classroom tasks.  What I found backed up what I had observed, and gave me thoughts on what needs to happen to better address the new standards in the classroom.  My examples will all be from the point of view of a math class, however I believe the concepts are very similar in other subject areas.  Keep in mind, however, that in some ways math is very different than other subjects.  Math requires much more practicing of skills than many content areas, so not everything I found here may apply.

Part of what makes the Japanese model so different than the US model is the amount of time students spend engaged in performing math.  Not taking notes, not listening to the teacher, not watching the teacher solve problems, but actually doing math.  Part of the philosophy behind which a typical US classroom operates is that the teacher has advanced knowledge about a subject and the teacher’s job is to impart the learning to the students.  In turn, the students performs some sort of task, an assignment, a test, etc., to demonstrate that they absorbed and understood the knowledge.  The philosophy behind which the Japanese method, and to some extent the principles of Common Core, operates have less to do with the teacher imparting knowledge to the student, and more to do with the student gaining knowledge through their own enquiry, exploration, activities and  experiences.  This is a bold and risky change for teachers because instead of just telling kids what they need to know, we need to develop activities for students that will lead them to the knowledge that we believe is important for them to learn, and trust that they will indeed discover the important elements.

If this type of a model were implemented you would expect to see students spending the majority of their class time doing math.  So here is where my very unscientific study comes in.  I polled our math teachers and asked them to group their class time into 4 categories: 1-Homework- correcting and going over the previous night’s assignment, 2-             Direct Instruction- teacher talk, notes, examples, etc., 3-     Guided Practice- teacher guides students through the steps of the process and 4-                Independent Practice- students are solving math problems.  What I found with our teachers, and I believe this is typical, is that they were spending their largest proportion of their time, an average of 34 minutes in an 84 minute block period, in direct instruction and only an average of 19.2 minutes in independent practice, or actually doing math.  Now some may argue that much more of the period is really doing math.  After all, they are watching problems being solved, writing down notes filled with math problems, and being walked through the correct process to solve problems.  But I submit to you, that none of this is doing math.

The brain operates quite differently when we watch someone doing something, versus when we do it.  When you learned to drive, did you take notes on where the brake was, how to shift and when to look in your mirrors?  Probably not.  You may have had instruction on driving laws and rules, but the procedures you learned by doing.  In my work with children who struggle quite often I have a child come to me needing help.  They listened to the lecture, they wrote the notes, they completed the guided practice but they have no ability to duplicate the process.  This is because they were not doing math at all; they were copying what the teacher was doing.  Teachers do need to teach students about the rules that govern mathematical concepts, but it seems that our students are stuck in math training, and spend very little time “behind the wheel” and solving problems on their own.

So what should the ideal classroom look like?  In my opinion, and based on my experience working with all types of students and many teachers, here is what will help teachers better move toward the Common Core shifts.

First, limit time spent going over previous homework.  In most middle school classrooms I have observed the first part of class is spent going over homework from the night before.  Our teachers reported that they spent between 10 and 30 minutes on this.  While it is important that students get feedback and help if they struggle, I submit that spending a lot of time on this does not give you the best bang for your buck.  More about this below, but I submit if you restructure your time as I am recommending you won’t even need that much time for this activity.

Second, some notes and examples are good, but the sooner kids actually engage their brains in math activities, not just notes or copying, the more time they have to understand the concept.  Find a way to streamline this, and understand that not every lesson has to start with directions.  For some concepts an exploratory activity that gets kids immediately into doing math may be better.  Then follow with notes, and the “rules of the road” later.

Third, build in procedures to check for understanding as soon as possible.  Work a problem, check with your neighbor; work problems on a whiteboard; using hand signals to show understanding are all ways that students can all be working, and show they understand.  Try to stay away from, or limit, teaching methods that require only one student to answer at a time.  I have observed plenty of students who will quite happily just sit there and not participate at all unless required to.  Make sure you have procedures that require all to actually engage their brains, not just their eyes and ears.

Last, leave plenty of time for independent practice, in class.  This is the most key part and will do two things for you.  First, it will increase the likelihood that students will actually complete and understand their homework.  Students should not be sent out your door with homework that they do not know how to complete.  Unless you know who understands what, it is impossible to assure that this happens.  Also, if you have students who just are not getting it, this gives you an opportunity to modify their work, or suggest when and how they can get extra assistance so they can complete their homework.  In the past teachers relied an awful lot on parents as the “at home” teacher to get homework complete.  With Common Core, concepts may be taught so differently that teachers cannot really expect that parents can help.  Students should go home with practice they understand, not homework that parents need to re-teach.  The second benefit to leaving plenty of time for independent practice is that this is where you save time in the beginning of class.  If you are sure that most of your students understand the homework, then the checking and review portion is greatly lessoned and shortened.  This allows you to display the answers for self or peer checking, and then spend time answering questions on the most tricky, difficult or misunderstood items, instead of the concept you went over the day before.

Teaching is a very complex skill.  When a new way of doing things comes along it is not really advisable, or even possible, to just throw out the old and put in the new.  Change will and should be gradual, but that change should be guided by evidence on how children learn best combined with an understanding of what we are really changing.  I believe that if teachers will gradually shift the way their class time is spent that not only will they better be able to teach Common Core Standards, but they will also increase their practice and effectiveness.

#3- Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research

Homework is probably the area that will most affect, and confuse, parents in the shift to Common Core.  This is where we get topics of blog and Facebook posts of, what was this teacher thinking? Or, just what are they teaching my child?  Not to mention the ever popular, what does this even mean?

It is easy for teachers to get defensive and defend their homework choices, but I think a better strategy would be to just admit a few things.  First, we might not get it all either.  New terms, new ways of doing things and new procedures can have us all a bit confused.  Second, some of the transition materials are just not very good.  The hope is that as we begin to adopt new materials they will better reach the new concepts, but some of the things we are currently using are just not very effective, and sometimes they are just plain confusing.  And third, we need to be picky and careful about what and how we assign homework.  I think if nothing else, all of the bad publicity should have taught us we can’t just grab some worksheet and assign it as homework.  When the terms and procedures are so vastly different from what students have been taught in the past it does not work very well.

This is where we go back to the article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul which I quoted in my previous post.  Remember, her focus was on brain research and how it relates to homework?  Paul has five main suggestions on how to make homework worthwhile, the quality of the homework space reputation, retrieval practices, cognitive disgluency and interleaving.  We will discuss each of these areas and how teachers can use these skills to better implement Common Core, especially in the area of math.

Quality is more important than quantity.  One thing that Paul reported that parents complain of is that much of their child’s homework appears to be busy work.  The trick is not to make homework shorter or longer, but smarter.  Homework should be worthwhile and provide value.

  1. Spaced repetition– When I was an undergraduate psychology student I studied learning and how the brain operates to best learn and retrieve material. One concept of memory is that learning is enhanced when the method of retrieval matches the method of learning.  In other words, if you learn to drive in a car, you will better remember how to drive when you are in a car than in another location.  If you want to remember how to do something in the early morning, you are best learning that process in the early morning.  And if you want to remember something over a long period of time, you are better off learning that information over a long period of time.  That does not often match the way we teach.  Often we teach, assess, then move on to a new concept.  Students will remember concepts better if we expose them to material in brief periods over long periods of time.  This would indicate that a good use of homework is a brief review of concepts already learned that needs to be remembered on an ongoing basis.
  2. Retrieval practices– Teachers understand the important of assessment to determine what learning has taken place, but Paul asserts that assessment can also be used to enhance learning. There is evidence that frequent assessment enhances learning because it strengthens neural pathways.  If I ask your name you can immediately pull up that information, and answer the question.  Little thought, no searching for the correct answer, your brain knows just where to retrieve that information quickly and effectively.  Your brain is like that, it can best retrieve information that is frequently accessed.  So, frequent assessment ensures frequent use of the stored information, and enhances learning.  I find it also enhances homework completion rates.  If students are aware that they will be assessed often, they are more likely to keep up on homework assignments, and the practice has meaning, not just mindless practice.
  3. Cognitive disfluency– One thing I enjoy is singing, and I have sung in choirs for much of my life.  After years of singing many of the same songs I made an interesting discovery.  Sometimes, our choir will sing a song that we performed many years ago, and yet I have trouble remembering my part.  Other times, the part is so familiar that I could almost perform after not seeing it for many years.  One thing I began to notice is that often the parts I remembered the best were the most difficult to learn.  This illustrates the concept of cognitive disfluency.  I used to think that I remembered those parts better because I had to practice them more to learn them.  But, according to Paul, that does not quite explain the phenomenon.   Paul says that when we learn material that is a bit difficult to learn it signals the brain that this information is important and needs to be remembered.  As important as it is for homework to be something that students can complete, the concept of cognitive disfluency illustrates that it is equally important that homework be meaningful and rigorous.  Homework, and classwork for that matter, should not be busy work or meaningless.
  4. Interleaving– This concept has to do with mixed practice. When homework or practice of any kind is all of the same type, for instance and entire page of similar addition problems, learning is compromised.  Studies show that when students practice skills of mixed types that learning is enhanced.  This makes sense when you think about the way the brain works.  An entire page of similar problems only requires the brain to make one trip down the neural pathway to that information.  When the task contains mixed practice, however, the brain must visit the locations of several memory locations, thus strengthening those neural pathways.

This week a teacher friend of mine posted a picture of an assignment that his kindergarten son brought home as homework.  I have included it as the image for this article.  He was not quite sure what the directions meant, or if his son had completed the assignment correctly.  Several other middle school teachers, including math teachers, commented on the post and no one could understand what was being asked or if what was done was correct.  There were a few theories, but no definitive conclusion.  I think the child’s teacher probably assigned this activity in good faith that the student could complete it, but it appears there is a problem.  If a handful of highly educated teachers cannot figure out what needs to be done, what of the typical parent?  Teachers, help us all out here, look at my advice and help make the move to Common Core a little bit smoother.  We can do this, but it needs some work before we can say we are doing it right.

Next, advice for parents.

Why we Hate Common Core

My plan was to write a post about parents’ struggles, and teachers’ struggles and why so many people are hating on Common Core Standards. I was going to talk about how change is hard, and how the Internet has blown small complaints into large issues that are not really issues. I was going to explain that were it not for the internet, Common Core standards would probably have come into being with the public hearing very little about them, just like the last set of standards. I was going to talk about standards vs. curriculum, and No Child Left Behind, the federal government and how they try to influence education with money and how so much of what is wrong with education has to do with the unintended consequences of those things, that are not new, and not necessarily connected to Common Core standards. But I wanted to be sure that what I thought I knew about people’s complaints and why they had them was true and valid, so I waited to write and I listened and I read.
What I found started me thinking in another direction, and so this article became about something else. Instead of telling you about everyone’s point of view and details about standards, I decided to tell you that we are doing it all wrong. I still think Common Core math will really help our kids, and I still think the new standards are much better than the old, but we have been going about it all wrong. Stay with me for a bit, and see if you agree.
As I listened to what people were saying frustrated them about the new standards, their struggles seemed to align with my thoughts. I was looking for a list of things, or something really insightful. It turned out the real ahha moment came when I started to do some research. You see, part of my job as a resource specialist is to assist teachers. My main goal in this capacity is to give teachers resources and assistance so that students who struggle, and especially those with disabilities, can better access the curriculum at their grade level. During my research to better do this I also come across overall tips to help teachers in their classes, and will often have an opportunity to share my findings.
All teachers are struggling to learn and implement the new standards, but the change seems particularly difficult for math teachers. Some of the classes at the middle school where I teach have a cluster of students with disabilities, and then the classes are support by a resource specialist. The teachers of these supported classes seem to be having a really hard time with the move to common core, so I was researching ways to assist them. I began my search looking for how to structure class time, which led me to articles about independent practice (in class practice) vs. homework, and eventually I found an article on brain research and homework. This was my big ahha moment. This is when I realized that we were doing it wrong.
The article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul on Mind/Shift talked about brain research and how it relates to homework. She reports that research shows that the amount of time students spend on homework has steadily risen, but that the quality of that homework has not necessarily improved. A 2008 student reported that parents believe that the quality of the children’s homework assignments are fair or poor, and 4 in 10 believe that some or a great deal of homework is busy work.
One study that Paul referenced in her article, “Are we wasting our children’s time in giving them more homework?” (Erin & Henderson) was of particular interest to me because it involved middle school students. The findings were interesting, but the implications of the findings were even more telling for me.
In this study they looked at homework in various subjects, and it was found that the number of hours of homework had little or no effect on tests scores, except in the area of math. Not really surprising, because math homework usually requires practice, whereas homework in other content areas seldom included primarily practice. The interesting thing was that when they looked at parental education, homework was most beneficial for students who had educated parents.
So, what does this have to do with Common Core and how we are doing it wrong? I will get to that, but first I want to give you a snapshot into the typical middle school math lesson. It goes something like this:
• Correct and go over Homework and questions
• Direct Instruction by teacher of new concept and notes
• Modeled practice- Teacher models the task, may include more notes
• Guided practice- Students practice with teacher assistance
• Independent practice- may begin in class, but usually finished as homework.
If you look at the typical math class structure it becomes clear why students with educated parents have more success. A student who understood the lesson and/or can take good notes and understand them would do well under any circumstances. But what about the little guy who did not understand the instruction? What about the kid who struggles with note taking, or listening or paying attention and only got bits and pieces of both the instruction and the notes? When she takes her notes and Independent practice home and has no idea what to do, then what. Well, if Mom or Dad knows some math, she in in luck, until Common Core entered that is. For many years there were some variations, but for the most part math was taught basically the same way and so educated parents were able to help their kids. Even if they didn’t know the exact way the teacher taught it, parents knew some way to solve it, so they helped their kids. The parent became the “other teacher.” And in some ways this was very beneficial to kids. You see with this method they were able to practice the skills with new eyes, and possibly even a different way to solve it. They had practice in more than one environment, with more than one expert and often more than one method.
This has been a great tried and true system that teachers have been using for years, and it worked great, for kids who came from educated families who spoke English. Using the parents as the “other teacher” helped to fill in whatever gaps are bound to happen when a group of students learn a new skill.
Enter Common Core, and math doesn’t look the same any more. Parents can’t be the “at home teacher,” even educated ones, because they weren’t taught this way. They don’t understand the purpose or how to do it. Here is the interesting thing to me: Common Core did not create a new problem with homework, it simply amplified an old one. You see, there we always kids who did not benefit from help with their homework at home, now there are just more. There were always kids and parents who “didn’t get it,” now there are just more. What Common Core did is put the average, educated parent in the same shoes as the uneducated ones have been in all along. We, the educated parents who usually do get it, don’t like it when we don’t get it. So what do we do, we scream.
“This Common Core makes no sense;” “This is not the way I learned, so it must not be beneficial;” “This is too hard, my kid will never get it,” are among the complaints heard about Common Core. Here is the news flash, just because you don’t get it does not mean your kid won’t, so just stop it. Stop yelling at your school and your kid’s teacher, stop posting uninformed articles on your social media, stop petitioning your local educators, just stop it, and listen.
And, I don’t mean just parents. We educators need to stop too, and really look at what these standards are asking us to do, and decide if we are really doing it. If we take a completely different way of thinking, and just put it in the same framework of how we have already been doing things, it just won’t work. Look back at the “typical math class” above. Is that the way your class operates? If so, I say stop it. It just won’t work.
Look for part 2 and 3, what we should do.

We have Successfully Taught Them Not to Think!

Any idea what is happening here?  Me either.  A lack of critical thinking skills and an ability to judge the reasonableness of answer is a real problem with today's students.
Any idea what is happening here? Me either. A lack of critical thinking skills and an ability to judge the reasonableness of answer is a real problem with today’s students.

Today I was working with a group of 6th graders who struggle a bit in math.  We were working on some fraction concepts so we made some manipulatives; fractions bars.  We labeled, cut and colored the bars, then we looked for fractions equivalent to ½.  A few of the kids caught on and gave some suggestions, so we worked together on several of them, and then worked on notating them.  One other teacher and I walked around to be sure that everyone had the example, then it was their turn.

“Okay,” I said, “Go ahead and see how many equivalent fractions you can make.”  The few students who had initially understood how to form equivalent fractions got started, but the rest just sat there.  No moving of the fractions bars, no writing anything, they just sat there, and waited.  What were they waiting for?

Eventually, my co-worker and I were able to get the students moving with some encouragement and prodding, and a lot of assistance.  But, the experience got me thinking, why were these students so reluctant to jump in and get to work?  Why didn’t they get to work on figuring it out?  I remember being a kid that age, and I just couldn’t wait for the teacher to stop talking so I could work on something myself.  I don’t think I was all that uncommon, so why were this group of students so different?

As I spoke to some of my teacher friends about this experience and thought about it I realized it had finally happened.  We have successfully taught students not to think.  This is not to say that there are not some particularly bright and stubborn students who continue to think for themselves.  But somehow this group of students had learned to just sit, and wait, and do nothing until directed.  I tried to imagine what would teach this behavior and I came up with two things; learning to listen and a focus on grade level standards.  Seems like a strange combination, but bear with me while I explain.

This was a group of students who typically have struggled, and often needed more time to complete tasks.  I think many of these students have learned that if they listen and wait long enough others (other students or the teacher) will just give them the answer.  Why work hard and engage your brain on something that is hard if someone will eventually give you the answer?  But why would the teacher give out the answer when the goal is for the students to learn?  Well, face it, time is limited.  Sometimes it seems to make most sense just to give out the answer to the struggling students so you can move on.  And sometimes other students are asked to help struggling students so they can move along.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for students working together.  But most young students do not really know how to “help” other students.  It is the rare student who can really tutor others without some training in this area.  And so, often instead of helping, they just give the other students the answer.  The unintended consequence is that many struggling students don’t even bother to try and engage their brains, but have become quite adept at engaging their ears.  They have learned to listen, and wait, and when the clue comes, to write down what clues they gather.

The second cause I believe of this behavior is the focus on grade level standards.  I think there are some real plusses to standards.  Before grade level standards were enacted who knows what many teachers taught?  And, many students who struggled were stuck learning the same material year after year, often with no progress or success.  But, once again, unintended consequences rear their ugly head.  I remember the first time I heard a colleague explain it.  The students would take district benchmark tests to see how well they had learned the material.  After the tests, we would move on to the next set of standards, no going back no re-teaching, no review, just move on.  Huh?  In my experience one of the main reasons for assessments was to determine what to teach, reinforce or re-teach.  But these assessments, it seemed, were only to determine how well students would perform on state assessments, not to inform instruction.  It made no sense to me, but my colleague was more experienced than me, and she seemed pretty confident that this was a good plan, so why argue?

So what is the unintended consequence of a decade or more of this practice on struggling students?  Let’s say someone is trying to teach you a skill, and it is real hard for you.  It is so hard, that you really have no desire to learn it.  But, you find out that there is a limited amount of time to learn the skill.  Once the time period is over you will be assessed, but if you don’t understand, there is no accountability, and no one will go back and make sure you learned it.  You may get a bad test score or grade, but you never get good grades anyway.  So, you learn to lay low.  You learn to just wait it out and that skill will go away.  Maybe the next one will be easier.

2014 was the year.  No Child Left Behind called for all students to show grade level proficiency in each state by 2014.  Okay, really?  When can any group of people meet 100% proficiency in anything, and does it even have any meaning when each state makes up its own mind about what proficiency means?  And what made anyone think that tests given to children could have 100% reliability?  But this was not just pie in the sky wishing on the part of our federal government to get everyone there, this law came along with all types of “accountability” measures that put in place what amounted to punitive measures for schools and districts.  The stakes were high, so it is not surprising that administrators did all they could to raise scores as high as possible.  Teach to the test.  Focus on the kids who are most likely to reach proficient.  Hit all of the most tested items, and don’t go back and re-teach.  All good advice to bring up scores.  All poor advice to teach students critical thinking skills, to stick with it until they learn something and to solidly build foundational skills.

And so I sit with my little group of 6th graders as they look at me, and wait.  Wait for someone to give them the answer.  Wait for me to decide they just don’t get it and move on to something else.  Wait for me to give up on teaching them to think for themselves.  Once they know me better they know that won’t work.  They will find out that I don’t give them the answers, I make them work for them.  They will find out that I don’t give up on teaching them a skill and move on to something else, I stick with it until they get it.

So, have we hopelessly turned our schools into institutions of non-thinking, or is there hope of change?  In my opinion there is room for optimism, and the optimism springs from Common Core Standards.  I know, it sounds strange, after all much of the media publicity claims that the new standards teach students not to think.  However, critical thinking skills, showing evidence of an answer, being able to solve a problem in more than one way, and finding new ways of doing things are all hallmarks of the new standards.  Weird huh?  Here the media claims that the Common Core Standards will strips kids of the ability to think, but I think that ship left the dock over a decade ago.  Of course, the direction the new tests will take or the future of No Child Left Behind is a bit unclear, but I do think there is hope for our kids.

What Common Core Math and Your Auto Mechanic Have in Common

What if I were to tell you that we have a new way of training auto mechanics.  It seems that it takes an awful lot of time to train auto mechanics about all those parts of an engine, and how they all work and there are so many kinds of engines.  You see, there are lots of parts on a car, but only a few of them break often.  And, some cars are much more common than others.  So, the plan is we will streamline the training.  We will teach mechanics to do just the most common repairs, how to get in, get out, no need to know how the thing works.

So, how effective would this teaching technique be?  Well, I suspect, for the most part it would be very effective.  These new mechanics would be able to do the large majority of repairs on most cars.  Some of the mechanics would even pick up some knowledge of how the engine worked, just through this process of knowing how to do a few common repairs.

But, what if you have a problem with your car that wasn’t covered in this expedited training course?  What if you had a car that didn’t fit the mold?  What if you had a problem that was hard to locate?  Would your mechanic be able to find it?  Maybe, but then again, maybe not.  If you had a really sharp mechanic he may be able to figure it out.  He may have come up with strategies to solve the unexpected problem.  But with no training on how it all works, you have no guarantee.

Well, that is how we have been training our children in math for a lot of years.  How were most of us taught to do math?  Algorithms.  How do you subtract 38 from 52?  Well you probably line up the digits, subtract the ones place first, borrowing from the 10’s place because you can’t take away 8 from 2, then subtract the 10’s place.  That process you go through is not really subtraction, it is an easy way to figure it out.  For most of us, we understand what is really happening here.  We get a picture in our head of 52 items and removing 38.  The algorithm is a shortcut, a way to figure it out quickly.

But here is the thing, we educators have been moving at such break-neck speed to teach the standards, that we have run out of time to teach kids what is really happening.  The last few years of crazy standards, standardized testing and moving at an astronomical pace to keep up with who knows who (specifically in the state of California), has left no time to teach what it really means.  It is like the mechanic who can only perform one action.  Most kids can do the algorithm, but they may have no idea what it means, how it works, or how it fits all together.

Enter Common Core math.  You’ve seen the examples of what seems to be long, crazy, drawn out ways to compute something.  Testimonials from parents, professionals, smart people saying, I don’t do math like this, why should my kid?

Well, I will tell you why your kid should learn with Common Core math: your kid should learn Common Core math for the same reason your mechanic should learn everything about an engine instead of just how to do a few repairs.  Your kid should learn Common Core math because it teaches kids how math works, not just how to solve algorithms.

I remember learning math as a kid.  The plan was to teach us how it works, but here was the process.  Teach a skill, show exactly how to do it, give an example, have the kids practice, then they practice alone.  Classic teaching, I do, we do, you do.  So, as a kid, I would take my example, my few I practiced in class, and my book home and do my homework.  Everything worked fine, as long as the problems looked exactly like the example.  When it started to diverge, I started to get lost.  And then, here is the part where the plan was for kids to figure out how it worked, we would get an extension problem.  Take what you have learned, apply it to something completely different, and figure it out.  I would look at those, look at my example and have no idea.  No one taught me how to do that, how are we supposed to do it?

Well, I am no one’s dummy, as a matter of fact I was very good at math, and it eventually became my favorite subject.  But, I wasn’t taught, encouraged, or really even given permission to think on my own (except perhaps in those extension activities I was supposed to do at home).  I had the process, the directions the way to do it.  As long as I followed the directions, I could do it.  Any variation, anything that looked different, and I was stuck.  I had no idea where to start or how to solve it.

Move ahead about 40 years, and now instead of learning math, I am teaching math, as well as a few other subjects.  Guess what, up until Common Core, not a lot had changed.  It was still I do, we do, you do.  And, kids still do not understand those extension activities.  Here is what did change between then and now: someone decided that kids should learn more math faster.  Never mind developmental levels, never mind the time in a school day, never mind that kids can only learn so fast, they should learn more, faster.

Did it work?  Did kids learn more math faster?  Well, if you look at the scores they did go up, but only on the specific tests that teachers were teaching to.  Kids did not really understand math, but many were able to perform a lot of algorithms, as long as it didn’t look different than the example.  Yes, just like the mechanics in my original example, for most students it worked fine.  They were able to perform prescribed operations as taught.

But here are the unintended consequences: kids can solve math problems, the math problems that were specifically taught, but how often will they see those exact problems in real life?  Using this method many students, I may even venture to say most, really don’t know math.  Most of us would recognize ¾ as their pieces of a whole cut into 4, or three out of 4 wholes.  I have worked with all sorts of students who may be able to perform some operations on fractions, but ask them to draw a model, and many just can’t do it.  Ask them to take away half of 8 and tell you the answer, and they may say 7 and a half.  They have memorized the rules (if they have a good memory), but they don’t understand the process.  And, the kids who don’t have good procedural memory are really lost.

So what does this have to do with the crazy Common Core examples?  It is teaching kids how it works, how it looks, what it really means.  Does this mean we don’t use algorithms anymore?  Absolutely not.  They go hand in hand.  The algorithms are short cuts, quicker ways to do things.   They should learn both, what it really means, and the quicker way to solve it.

This is not to say that Common Core math is the perfect solution, or the only way to teach math, but from where I sit it is the best alternative I have seen to what we have been doing for a lot of years that does not work all that well.

Want to know more? Stay tuned for my view on why parents are frustrated and why teachers are unhappy.  Or, check out this link from another point of view.

Things have gotten out of hand!

An Open Letter to the Westminster School District

Dear Westminster School District Board members, employees, parents, community members and other interested parties,

I am writing this letter because I think it is time to take back our district.  You see, things have gotten out of hand.  It seems we have lost our focus.  Our entire purpose, the reason we exist at all, is to educate our community’s children.  We exist as a means to teach and help guide the youngsters of our local area so that they can have the skills necessary to be moral, functioning members of our society.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you a bit about myself so you know where I am coming from.

I first moved to this community in 1988 with 3 small children and a love of learning, teaching and a belief in the power of our public school system.  As my children grew, and I became more enlightened about this community and school district, the more impressed I became.  You see, this was a place where socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups readily mixed.  This was a community that placed high value on educating all children while upholding traditional values.  This was a place where my children could grow up getting to know all types of people from all walks of life while being taught the skills they needed for life.  And grow up they did.  My husband and I eventually added 2 additional children to our family and as our children grew through their early years and  into adulthood I became more involved with the Westminster School District first as a parent volunteer, then as a classified employee, and finally as a teacher.

As my association with the district increased so did my pleasure and pride at what I discovered.  I discovered a feeling of community and family within the district.  I discovered a pride of traditional values, even when it was unpopular.  I discovered a place where people lived, worked and raised their children within the community.  I discovered a place where it was not uncommon for a former district student to eventually become a district parent, a classified employee, teacher or administrator.  I discovered a place where it seemed reasonable to have a superintendent who not only knew everyone’s name, but when and by whom they had been hired.  I discovered a place where respect for one another was expected and given freely, at all levels.  This is not to say things were perfect.  No one, no place and certainly no institution has ever been perfect.  But, that was part of the appeal.  Everyone seemed to realize this fact, and they understand that errors would be made.  However, when the errors were made the problems would be handled in a professional and respectful manner.  And, when serious errors were made, they were handled swiftly and appropriately.

Maybe my view of the district at that time was narrow and naïve and things were not quite as ideal as they seemed, however without a doubt things have changed.  Schools and offices that once were well populated with those with a long history in this district now seem to have been replaced with a revolving door of new administrators and assistants.   Important policy decisions in the past seemed to be based on what is best for the education of our children and upholding the highest moral values.  More recent decisions appear to have been made more on a basis of current financial situations, personal agendas, who cries the loudest, political correctness, opinions of lawyers or a fear of “dirty laundry” being exposed to the public.  Where once it seemed that most teachers felt like proud and invested members of this district, I now hear many who wish it were easier to transfer their years of service to other districts.  Yes, things have changed, and not for the best.

So, this takes us back to where we began.  It is time to take our district back.  But, who are “we”, and what do we do?  I would suggest that for all of us, parents, classified employees, teachers, administrators and school board member to ask ourselves, are we part of the solution?  If not, we are part of the problem.  If we stand by while decisions are made that are not in the best interest of our children, shame on us.  True, there are times that financial concerns have to pre-empt what may otherwise be a good decision.  There are times when the one who yells the loudest or has a personal agenda may have a valid concern or point of view that was previously ignored.  There are times when political correctness aligns well with high moral values.  There are times that lawyers must be consulted to protect our interests, and there are times that airing dirty laundry may be a risk.  However, if these concerns take precedence over what is in the best interests of our children or what is morally correct it is problematic.

So, I would like to ask anyone who is reading this letter, “Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?”  I would like to call for all of those who want to be a part of the solution to step forward and say, “Enough!”