Wednesday, April 5, 2017

I'm Moving

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for following my posts on this blog. I have recently decided to partner with another teacher on a different blog, and my future posts will be on there. Please take some time and check it out! The new web address is https://www.unpackedu.com/.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Gutting of America's Public Schools


The following article was co-written by Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow Debbie Hickerson. She is a fifth grade teacher at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro, TN.

Keep your eye on what is being proposed at the federal government for our public school system. Have no illusions. The school voucher system will gut public school funding across the country. A voucher does not provide enough money for full tuition. Those who want to use vouchers to put their children in private school will need to supplement the tuition cost out of pocket. This means those in poverty and the working poor will not be able to access private schools. That leaves those in the public school system who cannot afford private school. Public schools will lose a majority of their funding to the vouchers, leaving underfunded public schools with a high proportion of children in poverty. Statistically, high poverty schools don’t do well on standardized tests. Universally low test scores, because of the vouchers, will feed into the false narrative that public schools are failing the students that they serve. This is not equitable education for all. Don't we want ALL of our children in America to have a good education?

To those of you not in the education field, you may not understand that having a school voucher system doesn't just mean you can choose any school you want your kid to go to. It also means the public education program will be dismantled. Let me explain.

House Resolution 610, introduced by Rep. Steve King of Iowa (yes, the same person who tweeted something so racist that people cancelled their vacations to Iowa), will effectively start the school voucher system to be used by children ages 5-17 and starts the defunding process of public schools. It will eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which is the nation's educational law that provides equal opportunity in education. The ESEA established what are known as title programs and, because these are so important to maintaining free and equitable public education, Congress has reauthorized ESEA every five years since 1965. Under President George W. Bush, ESEA became known as No Child Left Behind; under President Barack Obama, it was rebranded the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and passed Congress with rare bipartisan support.

ESSA is a comprehensive law that covers programs for struggling learners, advanced and gifted kids in AP classes, ESL classes, classes for minorities, rural education, education for the homeless, school safety (Gun-Free schools), monitoring and compliance, and federal accountability programs. Yes, there are all of these programs happening in our education system, in addition to academics, and they will disappear if this bill becomes law. Some things ESSA does for children with disabilities include ensuring access to the general education curriculum, and accommodations on assessments. It also requires local education agencies (i.e. the school systems) to provide evidence-based interventions in schools with consistently under-performing subgroups.

House Resolution 610 also abolishes the Nutritional Act of 2012 (No Hungry Kids Act) which provides nutritional standards in school breakfast and lunch. It dangerously has no wording whatsoever protecting kids with special needs, no mention of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) nor the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) act.

Please call your representative and ask him/her to vote NO on House Resolution 610. If you don’t know who your house representative is, go to http://www.house.gov/htbin/findrep and type in your zip code. Please call all local offices and the D.C. office. E-mails are okay, too, but phone calls are much more effective and really will not take much of your time at all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

5 Reasons Why You Should Support Tuition Equality


Being a college basketball fanatic, this is by far my favorite time of year. It’s amazing watching these teams--each one composed of players from around the country, or even from around the world--come together as one unit and work together for a common purpose. The fans of each of the sixteen remaining NCAA tournament teams come from different backgrounds and have a plethora of life outlooks, yet they solidify as one unified group, proudly wearing their respective team’s colors showing their support.

While the United States continues to transform into an increasingly divided nation, Americans are becoming more proud to wear the colors red or blue. Like sports, most things in life transcend identifying with one color or the other. One of these issues that needlessly divides Americans is immigration. It’s easy to forget that we are a nation that is founded by immigrants; sadly, in this country’s relatively short history, there has always been an “evil” immigrant group who was forced to wear the opposing team’s jersey through no fault of their own--whether it was the Native Americans, the Irish Catholics, the Jews, the Japanese, the Hispanics, or the Muslims.

Being a public school teacher, it’s my job to teach the students in front of me, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or immigration status. The bottom line is that I teach people. I teach people with hopes and dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. I teach people who have no earthly idea what they want to be when they grow up.

Rep. Mark White of Memphis and Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga have co-sponsored a bill that absolutely needs to pass. HB0863/SB1014, which is up for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, March 22nd, exempts an individual from paying out-of-state tuition if that individual: attended school in this state for two years prior to graduation from high school, graduated from high school or a home school program or obtained a GED, and is registered at a state institution of higher education. Here are my top five reasons why everyone needs to support this bill.
  1. It’s the right thing to do. This bill will allow my immigrant students to follow their dreams and pursue a college degree. The Bible is very clear about helping immigrants. One of my favorite scriptures regarding immigrants is from Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
  2. This is a bi-partisan bill. Staunchly conservative Texas was the first state to pass a tuition equality bill. In total, 27 states have passed a bill similar to the one that is proposed in Tennessee. Both blue states and red states support it. Why? That leads me to number 3.
  3. It’s good for our economy. Workers with a college degree make $1.3 million more in their lifetimes. More productivity means the state can collect more in taxes. Demand for educated workers is rising while supply is lagging behind.
  4. It’s great for our universities. An increase in admissions will provide income to universities that isn’t already there. Allowing undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition will most certainly increase university graduation rates.
  5. Governor Haslam supports it and will sign it if it passes the legislature. In 2013, the governor launched Drive to 55, a campaign to increase the number of college graduates to 55% by 2025. Tuition Opportunity supports the governor's goal of reducing barriers to higher education and creating a more educated workforce.
Update: This bill passed the Senate Education Committee and has moved on to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee. In the House, this bill is up for a vote on Tuesday, March 28th in the Education Administration & Planning Committee.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Room for the Human Element


This piece was originally posted on tnteachertalk.com and is from a colleague of mine from the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows, which is a teacher fellowship organization dedicated to amplifying teacher voice. Kim Pringle is a recipient of the ETS Recognition of Excellence award for Principles of Learning and Teaching and has recently been appointed as an assistant principal at Snow Hill Elementary School in Chattanooga. Before becoming an assistant principal, she worked as a music teacher, a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), and a RTI Coordinator.

The great struggle of educational change is not lack of initiative, or innovation, or standards, or motivation. It is a diversity of resources and cultures. What works in one environment is doomed to fail in another. There is no one-size–fits-all anything when it comes to the very human act of educating the children of a community.

There are many different types of schools. Some are productive and innovative and some crush the spirit of innovation before it can grow and flourish. Some are tech-centered and engineering-minded, while others are pitifully technology poor. Some embrace best practices and collaboration, while others are seemingly stuck in the past with doors and minds closed to one another.

If I could communicate one thing to educational policy-makers, it would be to find room for the human element. So often it seems that educational policy only focuses on data and test scores. I believe this human element is the thing which teachers see so intimately and bemoan as the un-testable variables. It comes in the form of heartbreaking stories: Mom and dad were fighting last night...again...The electricity was turned off three days ago. I hate cold showers...My baby sister screamed all night. Will she ever stop?...We've been living out of a tent, but we lost our campsite today...I wanted to come to school, but mom didn't wake up...My dad died last week, but no one will talk about it...My shoes don't fit, but I don't want to tell my mom, because we don't have any money...And the day-to-day speedbumps in the road of the educator: We're a sub short today, so we had to divide Mr. Allen's class...You're getting 5 extra kids...Fire drill today at 9:30 am!...Cookie-dough sale kick-off celebration in the gym at 2:30 pm...Pep-rally on Friday!...We're experiencing problems with the WiFi again.

We want the best for our kids. We move mountains for them—of fundraiser cookie dough and wrapping paper and coupon books. And we do all of this to get the funds we need to have the right technology in their hands or to have books for them to read. But it isn't equal. Not all communities have the same luxury of time and disposable income to make those sorts of things happen. Title I funds are supposed to reduce the inequity but still fall short. In addition, many schools who do not qualify for Title I funds struggle to provide for their students when the population does not quite reach the poverty threshold for Title I, yet cannot afford to self-fund.

Critics of public education often depict educators as inadequate for the job or unmotivated to teach students properly. I would argue that we are very motivated for our students. Motivation isn't the issue. It likely comes down to resources and culture. Have we enabled the resources needed for change? Have we dealt with the human needs and cultural needs creating barriers to academic gains?

So, though I appreciate the information that assessment data provides, I plead—look beyond the statistics and into the numbers and see the children they represent. Look beyond the school and see the community it serves. Educating our children is a beautiful, human act. Let's keep the humanity in the process.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Oath


While pondering what to write about this week, I Googled the phrase “first do no harm” because I had a vague sense that it pertained to an oath of some sort, but I couldn’t remember what it was called. When Google reminded me that it is from the Hippocratic Oath, my curiosity took over and I looked up the history of the term.

Interesting fact: the phrase “first do no harm” is no longer officially part of the modern Hippocratic Oath, though the intent of that phrase is ever-present. Another fun fact: people love things that come in sets of ten. For example, there’s the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, the modern Hippocratic Oath, and the teachers’ Bill of Rights that has been proposed in the Tennessee Legislature (SB0014/HB1074) and needs to become law as hastily as possible. As education professionals, we should take a similar oath when we receive our apprentice licenses, which enables us to become full-time teachers. As far as I can tell, such an oath does not exist; therefore, I have created my own, written in the same style as the modernized Hippocratic Oath.
  1. I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this oath.
  2. I will honor the gains of those educators in whose steps I walk and will gladly share my knowledge with those who are to follow. 
  3. I will always work for the intellectual betterment of my students, avoiding, as much as possible, the twin traps of over testing and teaching to the test. 
  4. I will remember that education is both an art and a science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the bubble sheet and the homework assignment. 
  5. I will not be ashamed to consult my colleagues when the skills of another are needed to help a student. 
  6. I will respect the privacy of my students. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death, and I will do everything lawfully within my power to protect a student’s life. 
  7. I will remember that I do not teach a data point on which I will later be judged, but a human being, whose desire to learn and become a productive member of society are of utmost importance in the classroom. 
  8. I will encourage my students to think critically whenever I can, and I will always look to incorporate ways for students to act creatively. 
  9. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to the foundations of future societies. 
  10. If I maintain this oath, may I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of educating those who seek my help.
I believe in my heart that educators are well-intentioned. Sometimes lawmakers and other bureaucrats get in the way of us doing what is best for our students. For example, a person only needs to follow the money trail for a brief moment to discover the foundation of the accountability movement that is so pervasive in every public school in the country. One company or another profits from every standardized test that students take. It’s a billion dollar a year industry that is quite adept at generating a need for its products.

Sometimes, however, teachers get stuck, or groomed, in the mantra of “this is always how we’ve done things” and end up creating work that is detrimental to students’ success. For example, it is common practice for elementary school teachers to assign homework--despite the overwhelming evidence that it is not beneficial to enhancing students’ performance. Earlier this school year an elementary school in Vermont banned all homework and they have already declared the experiment a success--after only one semester! Especially with recess constantly being put in time-out during the school day, it’s more crucial than ever that these young learners have time after school to play, and be curious, and investigate things. After all, the entire concept for this article began when I did that very thing myself. Perhaps if educators took an oath, like the one that I wrote above, it would have a positive impact on how we operate our classrooms. In any case, it couldn’t do any harm.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Why ACT Should Replace TNReady


The testing landscape for Tennessee’s students will hopefully change for the better in the near future. There are five bills pending in our state legislature concerning standardized testing: HB 262, HB 263/SB 204, HB 1018/SB 632, HB 1043/SB 2, and HB 1251. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the frustrated voices of teachers, students, and parents are being heard. It’s a problem when my students will spend more time this year taking a standardized test in English 3 than I did taking the GRE exam to get into graduate school (225 minutes) or than Betsy DeVos did in her confirmation hearings to become the U.S. Secretary of Education (169 minutes).

Four of these bills intend to replace TNReady with the ACT or SAT exam, either by force or by choice, depending on the wording of the particular bill. The fifth bill, introduced by Rep. Butt and Sen. Bowling, does not specify a testing platform but instead limits the amount of hours that a student is allowed to spend taking a standardized test depending on that student’s grade level. While the number of hours per grade level are completely arbitrary, it is well-intentioned.

Despite the Tennessee Department of Education significantly reducing the length of TNReady, it’s not anywhere close to good enough. My English 3 students will spend 230 minutes taking all four subparts of TNReady--and that’s a reduction of 120 minutes from the testing time on last year’s test. I support the idea of allowing--not forcing--school districts to replace TNReady with ACT.

The entire ACT exam takes 175 minutes, which includes four subjects. The English and Reading subsections are a combined 80 minutes. These testing times are much more reasonable. Replacing TNReady with ACT will lead to a significant decrease in testing time at the end of the school year, which means I get to spend more class time providing authentic learning opportunities for my students.

Additionally, high school students have the option to take the ACT test several times a year. High school students currently get to take the test twice for free. Unlike TNReady, students have the opportunity to retake the test and get better.

Also unlike TNReady, the ACT has existed for almost 60 years and is both valid and reliable. We will not know for many years if TNReady truly measures what it says is measures, and if it can do so on a consistent basis. Teachers and school districts are being evaluated based on how well students perform on a newly created state test. It’s a completely unfair and illegitimate practice.

Unlike TNReady, a plethora of ACT test questions is readily available. No additional professional development will be required because teachers already know what is on the test. That, in turn, will increase student proficiency on the ACT, which will lead to more students getting college scholarship money and will make myself, my school, and my district all look like we are doing an amazing job of preparing our students for college. Finally, many other states are already using the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for their statewide assessment. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all use multiple ACT assessments in their states. It’s time for Tennessee do the right thing for our students and follow suit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Teachers' Bill of Rights


Please excuse me for a brief moment while I jump up and down in moderated excitement. There is a bill pending in the state legislature so lathered with common sense that it became easily recognizable from many of the other bills that will be discussed this session (i.e. voucher bill, bathroom bill, marriage bill, run over protesters with your car bill, etc.).

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville and Representative Jay D. Reedy of Erin have co-introduced a bill that is appropriately nicknamed “The Teachers’ Bill of Rights.” If SB0014/HB1074 passes, it will send a clear message to all educators that the legislature has our collective backs. The much-needed byproduct of this bill is that it should help increase enrollment in teacher prep programs at our state universities. Tennessee is at the beginnings of what will become a severe teacher shortage unless drastic measures are taken immediately. Governor Haslam’s proposal to increase education funding will certainly help as will this Teachers’ Bill of Rights.

Here is the full text of the bill: “This bill creates a list of rights and protections for educators. Under this bill, every ‘educator,’ meaning any teacher, principal, supervisor or other individual required by law to hold a valid license of qualification for employment in the public schools of this state, has the right to: (1) Act upon the educator's own conscience, so long as the educator does not attempt to proselytize students, disrupt the educational process, or act as a potential threat to student safety; (2) Report any errant, offensive, or abusive content or behavior of students to school officials or appropriate agencies; (3) Provide a safe classroom and school; (4) Defend themselves and their students from physical violence or harm; (5) Share information regarding a student's education experience, health, or safety with the student's parent or legal guardian, unless prohibited by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); and (6) Review all materials brought into the educator's classroom or utilized with their students. This bill specifies that an educator must not be expected to waive this particular right.

This bill further provides that an educator is not: (1) Required to spend the educator's personal money to appropriately equip a classroom; (2) Evaluated by professionals, under the teacher evaluation advisory committee, without the same subject matter expertise as the educator; (3) Evaluated based on the performance of students whom the educator has never taught; or (4) Relocated to a different school based solely on test scores from state mandated assessments.”

In my view, the most impactful elements of the Teachers’ Bill of Rights are the last four items. Teachers have been saying for decades that we shouldn’t be expected to purchase our own school supplies. No other profession does that. Additionally, it makes much-needed changes to the evaluation system. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the notion that we should be evaluated by other educators with the same expertise. While good teaching is good teaching, there are content-specific strategies that only experts in that subject would truly be able to appreciate fully. Both the Coffee County Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association support this bill.

As this bill moves forward and hopefully becomes law, I briefly want to address a few concerns I have with it as it is currently written. The language in the bill is vague in parts, and needs clarity. For example, what, exactly, does it mean to provide “a safe classroom and school”? This can be misconstrued in many unintended ways. Will this open the door for teachers to carry weapons into their classrooms? If so, then it will create a dangerous and deadly precedent. Also, who will pick up the slack when teachers need classroom supplies and will no longer be expected to buy the supplies themselves? If this responsibility falls on local governments, it could result in unintended tax increases. The state has a surplus of money, and it should be forthcoming in funding classroom supplies. Further, I wonder what enforcement mechanisms will be in place when--not if--these laws are broken. These issues need to be worked out before this bill becomes law. In the meantime, I commend Sen. Green and Rep. Reedy for standing up for teachers and introducing common sense legislation that will actually improve the teaching profession. Please take the time to call them or tweet them your support for this bill!