Teaching the U.S. Senate, Ted Kennedy Style

Anyone who knows Eduflack knows that, professionally, I was greatly shaped by my experiences as a U.S. Senate staffer. I was fortunate to work for some tremendous leaders and statesmen, the sort of public officials that we seem to be in short supply of these days. Not only did they teach me about the Senate, legislative procedure, and the appropriations process, but they also taught me about service and priorities and doing what was right (and not necessarily what was easy).

It helps that I am the son of a political scientist, my dad is a presidential historian by trade actually. As a young child, I remember my father being part of the development of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Getting to see that library when it opened, I remember writing a very passionate letter to my Senator at the time, Ted Kennedy, telling him how much I enjoyed my time at the JFK Library. And I remember my joy when he wrote back. Not only did I get a lovely typed letter on U.S. Senate letterhead, but It included a handwritten note at the bottom, letting me know he had a son that shared a first name with me. The letter was framed soon after it arrived, and I still have that framed letter with me today.

So it’s clear how my interests in politics and the legislative process were both started and fed over the years. But how do we do the same for other students? Next week, many of our high school students will have the opportunity to vote for the first time. But as recent surveys have show, too many young people don’t see the value in the electoral process and certainly don’t hold any faith in government and the impact it can have on its lives.

Fortunately, there are some that don’t react to such positions with a shrug of the shoulder and a “what are ya gonna do?” response. Next spring, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate will officially open its doors (on March 31, actually). Building on the enormous legacy of Ted Kennedy, the Institute is committed to making the U.S. Senate relevant to learners of all ages, while using technology to better engage incoming generations of voters.

It’ll offer experiences that provide first-hand techniques of being a senator, everything from negotiation to bill drafting to debate to voting. It’ll even offer a tech platform so visitors can simulate being a “senator.”

With 2014 elections looming, and with attention already shifting to 2016 presidential elections, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute is offering a really cool opportunity for educators now. The good folks over at the Institute are offering access to its Senate Immersion Module now, where educators can test the three-hour experience of living the Senate life. They will even get to do it in the Institute’s replica of the U.S. Senate chamber, the cornerstone of the Institute. You can check out the Module here.

Those educators who might have interest in taking the Senate Immersion Module out for a spin or who may want to schedule a field trip can reach out to the Institute at SIMSCHEDULE@EMKINSTITUTE.ORG.

Classroom instruction. Ed tech. Experiential learning. U.S. Senate. Politics. Ted Kennedy. Something new and shiny. And even a chance to drop by the JFK Library after the fact. How can you go wrong?

And if you aren’t able to take advantage of the preview, plan to visit the Institute when it opens. As a huge fan of presidential libraries, as one who played a small part in helping make the Robert C. Byrd Library a reality, and as someone who still cherishes his Ted Kennedy letter, I’ll be there.


Making Tart Cider from an Apple Cover

Last week, I told myself I wasn’t going to write about the most recent Time magazine cover. You know, the one with the gavel smashing the apple. The one designed to draw readers in for a story on the story behind the Vegara decision, a telling of how moneyed interests got involved in an effort to strip away teacher tenure in California.

I wasn’t going to write because I’m not a fan of this “reform by litigation” strategy. I wasn’t going to write because I believe the real story should be about the kids and families who brought the suit, why they brought it, and what they hope to gain now that the court has ruled in their favor. I wasn’t going to write because too many people focus on the “tenure for life” side of the fight, and not enough on the needed due process rights of teachers. And I wasn’t going to write because Vergara becomes a slippery slope to vitriolic attacks on teacher evaluation, Common Core, student assessment, and just about every other issue one throws in there. No good comes of such a heated fight largely void of fact.

I wasn’t going to write after reading multiple emails from the AFT, including a fairly compelling one from Randi Weingarten. And I even wasn’t going to write after seeing some of the responses to the Time cover story, including one from Badass Teachers that again made this all about poverty, corporate takeovers, and declared the real issue was a teacher shortage (which for me seemed to read like BAT was making a case for Teach for America, but another story for another day).

So of course, after some Twitter back and forth last evening and this morning, I feel compelled to write. Not to defend Time. Not to defend Vergara. Not even to point out the irony of me being accused of hyperbole and then being told that “the fate of pub ed hangs in the balance” of this discussion on a Time cover story.

No, I write just to insert some facts into this whole discussion.

First, let’s look to Time magazine. It is no secret that the newsweekly industry has been on a bad streak. Many of Time’s competitors have stopped printing hard copies all together. Time’s print circulation is now down to about a million. It claims a total readership of about 3 million. That includes all those who read a six-month old edition in a doctor or dentist’s office or who leaf through a year-old one at their local Jiffy Lube. Fact is, fewer and fewer people read Time. And those that do often read it online, never seeing the cover at all.

So all of the attacks on Time. all of the discussions of #TimeFail, do nothing more than boost interest in Time. It is a win-win for the magazine. What was an irrelevant magazine is now all that one segment of the population is talking about this week. The number of readers visiting the site is increasing. More eyeballs on content means higher ad rates. In the words of Charlie Sheen, Time is winning.

Don’t agree? Time’s parent company also publishes Sports Illustrated. Every February, tons of folks protest SI because of its swimsuit issue. Subscribers opt out of the issue. Letters of protest stream in by the bushel full. Subscriptions are famously cancelled. Yet they keep publishing. Why? People read it. Publicity draws interest. Interest means ad sales.

And speaking of protests, let’s take a look at the petition currently demanding an apology from Time for the “rotten” cover. As of yesterday, organizers were claiming 50,000 signatures. Sounds impressive at first, yes. But there are about 4.5 million current teachers in AFT and NEA. A little more than 1 percent of them have been moved to sign this petition to date. To put it in a different light, last year more than 35,000 people signed a petition asking the White House to build a Star Wars-style Death Star. Similar numbers got behind nationalizing the Twinkie industry, removing Jerry Jones as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and replacing the U.S. justice system with one “Hall of Justice” a la the Justice League cartoons.

When there are a million signatures on this petition, folks will take notice. And it may surprise people to know that Eduflack has signed the AFT petition. Why? While I believe it is an interesting story, I don’t think the cover is a fair depiction of the content.

Of course, I also see the gavel on the cover as being a symbol of the litigation strategy behind Vegara, and not as the “hammer of corporate privatization” as I’m seeing far too often on social media these days.  But what do I know? Sometimes I do think a cigar is just a cigar.

A Contract Negotiation Too Far?

Since the Vergara case, we have heard a great deal in the media (and in social media) about teacher contracts and collective bargaining. This has been particularly true in places like Chicago, still reflecting on the 2012 teachers strike and what that means for upcoming context negotiations.

According to ye old dictionaries, collective bargaining is “a process of negotiations between employers and a group of employees aimed at reaching agreements to regulate working conditions.” That’s the meaning most of us expect.

That means discussion on salaries and benefits. Contributions to Healy insurance and to pensions. The number of days one works. And even how one is evaluated on the job in the years governed by that collective bargaining agreement.

On his This Week in Education blog, Alexander Russo this AM highlights an article from In These Times that looks at what Karen Lewis’ successor at Chicago Teachers Union is focusing on, particularly as the lead in for the latest round of contract negotiations.

The profile of CTU’s Jesse Sharkey focuses on many of the issues we should expect, such as proper staffing levels and financial supports for programs such as special education. But then it takes an interesting turn. It nots a third priority:

a real commitment by city government to help alleviate the strangling poverty facing wide swaths of the city—concentrated in the largely African-American South and West Sides—by instituting more progressive taxation of the wealthy to fund public education, a policy long championed by Karen Lewis.

While one can understand that cities like Chicago need to look at new ways to bring additional dollars to he public schools, how is “progressive taxation” for the city a topic of collective bargaining?

And if it is a negotiating point, does it mean it continues up the chain? Is it then a point for the state union to address with the governor and legislature? Should Randi Weingarten and the AFT be pushing for higher tax rates in DC to see federal income tax gains trickle down to the schools?

Once again, it seems Chicago may be the testing ground for his theory. If successful, it could open the door to everything but the kitchen sink being negotiated. In 2012, there was strong public support for CTU during the strike. But does negotiating a topic like his lose that good will, and be seen as little more than a power grab or a point of leverage.

Time will tell. Time will tell.

The State of Indian Schools

Back when my mother made the decision to enter the teaching profession, she did her student teaching at an Indian school in New Mexico. At St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe County, my mother gained the clinical experience that helped her develop into the exemplary high school English teacher so many of her students know her for.

Why the trip down memory lane? Over the weekend, the Associated Press’ Kimberly Hefling wrote an interesting piece on the current state of the modern-day Indian school.

In the piece, she describes one school in Arizona as such: “The school, which serves 81 students, consists of a cluster of rundown classroom buildings containing asbestos, radon, mice, mold and flimsy outside door locks. The newest building, a large, white monolithic dome that is nearly 20 years old, houses the gym.”

When we talk public education and school needs here in the United States, we often focus on inner-city schools and the challenges they face. It is rare that Indian schools (or rural schools in general) are a central part of the discussion. If you haven’t read Hefling’s article, please do. It is worth the read and paints a too real picture of the work ahead of us.

Do We Need a “New Approach to Accountability?”

In public education, the term “accountability” often brings out the best and the worst in folks. Some see it as a necessary measure to understanding if teachers are teaching, students are learning, and districts are doing what districts need to do. Others see it as a “mandate” that measures the wrong things and places one-time student performance over the learning process as a whole.

Yesterday, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools issued their statement on testing, offering another voice opposed to “high-stakes testing” and calling for assessments that are meaningful and less stress inducing. President Barack Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan quickly backed the CCSSO/CGCS opinion (though I still maintain it is the path that Duncan has been largely advocating for nearly six years now).

Today, we have some new thinking that gets factored into the equation. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) released Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger, the manifesto outlines for changes that need to be addressed in the accountability debate, while offering some fresh thinking on accountability 2.0 (or is it 8.0?).

What changes are needed? Put simply:

  • More sophisticated assessments that get at a deeper understanding of content, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and the like;
  • More equitable and adequate resources with regard to teaching, materials, and technology;
  • Greater capacity among schools and educators to reach more challenging content; and
  • A more effective model for change and improvement that moves schools from the current industrial model to “innovative learning systems for the future.”

To get us there, the authors point to a new accountability model that focuses on four key components: 1) meaningful learning; 2) professional accountability; 3) resource accountability; and 4) continuous improvement.

And what of those dreaded assessments that seem to block any meaningful discussion on true accountability? The good folks at SCOPE call for a model that looks to both standardized tests and performance-based assessments and portfolios. Standardized tests would inform the performance-based assessments, and results from the latter would be used to improve and enrich the former (while also informing teaching as a whole).

It’s hard to argue with what Darling-Hammond et al put forward, for it is really common sense. We need better assessments, tests that inform instruction and focus on student learning. We need to do a better job of delivering resources to all classrooms, particularly those that would be labeled historically disadvantaged. We need to push the envelope with regard to teaching more challenging content (which I would argue is why CCSS is an important floor to start with).

And we definitely need to move beyond the misguided notion that a single test, taken on a single day defines the success of a school, a teacher, or a kid.

But how does such a frame fit with the anti-testing zealots (or advocates, depending on your view) out there? Can we accept there is a meaningful role for standardized tests in the learning process? Can we use such tests, along with performance-based assessments, without cries of drilling, killing, and death by bubble sheet?

Even more importantly, can we all agree there are significant achievement, learning, and opportunity gaps in our public education tapestry and that we need a strong accountability model to bridge those gaps? Can we agree all is not roses, lollipops, and rainbows in our schools, and we have a need to improve and thus need to chart the best course to get there?

The ideas moved forward by SCOPE help us see where we need to go. The notion of moving from our current industrial model to a more innovative, future-focused one is particularly valuable. But the devil is always in the details. Can we use these sorts of ideas to move the discussion forward? Or are we destined for another round of “testing bad, accountability badder?” I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

Local Districts, Standardized Testing

Last evening, the White House released a statement from President Obama on efforts from CCSSO and CGCS to cut back on unnecessary testing and the dreaded test-prep focus so many fear is taking over our classrooms.

Where I’m scratching my head is trying to see what the “news” is. The full statement is below. The so-called directive to EdSec Arne Duncan seems to be an effort that the EdSec has focused on for years now. That parents have more info on student learning. That classroom time is used well. That assessments play a part, but not the whole part, of teacher eval.

Perhaps Eduflack is missing something. Maybe this action is worthy of presidential proclamation. But from the cheap seats, this reads far more like “stay the course” than “let’s break new ground.”

Here’s the full statement. You tell me ….

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them. In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning. I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever. We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before. I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

No Homework!

I’ll admit it. My children attend a high-performing school district. We chose our neighborhood because of the strength of its local elementary school and the overall performance of the school district as a whole.

The experience, to date, has been quite interesting. At a recent parent/teacher night at the school, parents were jockeying for the right to talk to the special education teachers, believing there might be another educator or another source of learning for their children. It was of no concern to them that their children would never be classified as “special ed.” It appeared to be a resource available to the school, and they were going to take full advantage of it. These aren’t just involved parents, they are involved parents on steroids with the helicopters waiting in the parking lot.

So it was refreshing to get a note home from the superintendent declaring, “No Homework Nights.” For my kiddos, it is a evening almost as worthy as celebration as Christmas. It means more time playing outside. Some screen time on the iPad on a school night. A night the homework folder stays closed. And for the edu-wife, it is a day absent of the typical fights and struggles to get all the homework done, and done at the level of effort expected from the district.

The note itself, though, is worth sharing. So I do so below:

This year, XXX will be initiating four No Homework Nights.  While there is tremendous value in engaging in meaningful homework assignments that reinforce concepts and skills taught during the school day, there are times when we need to collectively have a break from the responsibilities of homework and enjoy time with family and friends.
The first No Homework Night will be held on October 22, 2014 . For planning purposes, this means that students would not have homework on this night, and no assignments, homework, reports, or tests scheduled for Friday, October 24, 2014. [October 23, 2014, is a professional development day for teachers and staff; there is no school for students.]
We believe No Homework Nights will have positive benefits for all of us. No Homework Nights give students a night off from preparing homework and projects and studying for tests. It also gives students an opportunity to spend time relaxing with family, enjoying outside activities, and attending XXX sporting events.
Moving ahead, here are the other dates for No Homework Nights in XXX: December 16, 2014; February 10, 2015; and May 8, 2015. Please mark your calendar for these dates!

While I’m thrilled that the school district recognizes the value of free time for our kids, should I be a little disturbed that we have only four No Homework Nights all school year? Particularly when there is weekend homework already assigned? Time will tell. All I know is that next Wednesday, it will be party time in the Eduflack house.

Why Do Teachers Leave the Classroom?

When it comes to teacher attrition, we all have our ideas as to why teachers are leaving the classroom. For decades, we guessed it was because salaries were just too low. In recent years, we’ve opined that teachers are leaving education in droves because of high-stakes testing, high-stakes accountability, and most recently, because of the Common Core.

Over at Education Week, Jordan Moeny relays data points from a recent Albert Shanker Institute/American Federation of Teachers panel discussion. The topic of the panel was the lack of qualified staff in high-need schools. The panelists included UPENN researcher Richard Engersoll and Duke researcher Helen Ladd.

What did they relay with regard to why teachers, at least those in high-need schools, are deciding to no longer be teachers?

The top source of teacher dissatisfaction is too little prep time. It is closely followed by “teaching load is too heavy” and “class size is too large.” Poor salary and benefits comes in fourth.

The rest of the list of concerns for teachers at high-need schools include: student behavioral problems, lack of faculty influence, too little parent support, no opportunities for parent advancement, and too little collaboration time.

Imagine that … the top nine things that frustrate teachers in high-need schools the most, and not a mention of the dreaded Common Core. Not a whisper high-stakes testing. Not a glance at the post-NCLB corporate education industrial complex.