“Take Me or Leave Me”

It looks like we won’t “Light My Candle” in Trumbull, Connecticut.  Last week, the principal at Trumbull High School canceled the school’s Thespian Society’s plans to perform the musical Rent.  Principal Marc Guarino has the final say in such decisions, so spiked the students’ decision to put on the award-winning musical.

The reason was content.  Guess some see the topics of AIDS and drug use as being controversial.  And it is, if this were the 1990s.  Let’s not forget that the students were performing the “school edition” of the musical, one that has been done at high schools across the country.
Trumbull High’s students put together a peaceful resistance to the decision.  They organized.  They collected a petition with more than 1,500 signatures on it.  They took it to the board of education.  Ultimately, the board backed the principal’s decision, saying it was on him.
It made its way to Trumbull’s “first selectman,” the Connecticut equivalent of a mayor.  The selectmen punted as well.  But they offered that this kids could look to do it as part of a youth community theater effort in the summer.  Since the schools had no control over such productions, it seemed like a “safe” option in the face of growing community concern for the censorship.  Unfortunately, no one checked with the youth group, who now says it won’t quite work for them either (and would have excluded a number of the intended castmates).
Why is all this important?  First, we should all see the importance of the arts in high school, particularly if it engenders the interest and support that this intended production has generated.  Second, we should applaud these kids for looking to take on such a challenging musical, and for recognizing the significance of such a performance.  Third, we should be proud that these kids refused to roll over and fought for what they believed in and what was important to them.  And finally, we should again be disappointed in the reaction of the adults in the process.
As someone who did high school theater many moons ago, I can say it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my K-12 career.  I thoroughly enjoyed being on stage, being part of a cast that was really a family, and putting all the hard work into the process.
As a school board member, one of my proudest moments was seeing our high school put on a performance of Les Miserables.  It was a terrific show, a favorite of mine, and the quality rivaled a professional production.
We should be doing more to encourage students to pursue their interests and get involved.  Again, this was the school version of Rent.  And this was Connecticut, hardly an area that lacks some progressive thinking.
Kudos to the kids for sticking to their objectives and having their voices heard.  But sorry that we have to face this sort of censorship and objections at the end of 2013.

Are You There God, It’s Me Eduflack?

The latest volley has been launched in the ongoing battle against the evils of testing.  Today, the folks over at No Test, sorry, meant Fair Test, released a letter they coordinated from more than 100 children’s book authors to EdSec Arne Duncan, attacking increased testing, computer adaptive testing, teacher evaluation measures, and “the narrowing of curriculum” for eliminating students’ love of reading and literature.

The full letter can be found here.   Hat tip to Stephanie Simon over at Politico PRO Education for spotlighting the letter this morning.
Lots of signatories on the list.  Some names folks know, many that they don’t.  Eduflack’s personal fave is Judy Blume.  I’ll admit, as a kid, she was one of my favorite authors.  I read everything she wrote.  I even triggered the town librarian call my mom one afternoon because she thought it was inappropriate for a young boy to be reading “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?” My mother, the high school English teacher, ignored the advice of the librarian, and I read the book many times over.
Eduflack can appreciate the concerns these authors and illustrators have.  And I might even be willing to concede that a child’s love for reading and literature has declined in recent years.  But is it because of testing, or is it because of multimedia?  Do we blame the bubble sheet, or do we blame the multitude of options now competing for a young learner’s attention?
Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of testing being blamed for all that is perceived wrong in our country.  Too many people far too often are throwing everything and anything they can in their Quixotic approach to rid our world of testing.  We ignore that testing has been a part of our public schools for as long as we’ve had public schools.  We overlook that testing data can play a meaningful role in improving both teaching and learning.  We avoid the true debate, a discussion about ensuring the value of testing and the use and application of high-quality assessments.
Instead, we rail against the system, throwing the red meat on “high-stakes testing,” “testing and reading schemes,” and “testing overuse and abuse.”  We talk in media releases, instead of engaging in dialogues.  And we turn to scare tactics and the negative, instead of exploring common ground and the positive.
We need to stop our Blubber, clear our Tiger Eyes, and Forever commit to a better way to talk about schools, school improvement, and testing.  Otherwise, there will be no more Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing because more than a third of our fourth graders still won’t be reading at grade level.  If we really want Sally J. Freedman to star as herself, can’t we shift from this vitriol to a more meaningful community engagement?
Or perhaps I should just let a few Superfudges fly, and accept this is just as it is.  Then Again, Maybe I Won’t …

The Most Useless College Majors

We used to joke about those who took classes like “children’s games,” “rocks for jocks,” or even “underwater basket weaving” while in college.  That was then, when college degrees guaranteed gainful employment.  This is now, when a liberal arts degree guarantees very little.

The folks over at The Daily Beast have identified The 13 Most Useless Majors.  The list derives from Anthony Carnevale et al’s recent study, Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings.  The list was comprised looking at factors such as recent graduate employment, experienced graduate employment, recent graduate earnings, experienced graduate earnings, and projected growth in total number of jobs from 2010 to 2020.
So what undergraduate degrees made the dubious baker’s dozen?
1. Fine arts
2. Drama and theatre arts
3. Film, video, and photographic arts
4. Commercial art and graphic design
5. Architecture
6. Philosophy and religious studies
7. English literature and language
8. Journalism
9. Anthropology and archeology
10. Hospitality management
11. Music
12. History
13. Political science and government
Clearly, the arts don’t seem to be doing well in this economy, with art-related majors holding five or six of the spots, depending on how you look at them.  And it seems that the path to being the next Mike Brady, Indiana Jones, or Woodward and Bernstein don’t look too bright these days.
Our second president, John Adams, once said, “I must study politics and war, that my sons have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history, and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Based on Carnevale’s work and the current economy, I don’t think there are many now hoping their kids will be studying poetry and porcelain.  

It Takes an Educational Village …

In years past, we used to talk about how it took a village to truly improve public education.  It wasn’t just up to teachers to do what they do behind the schoolhouse doors between the hours of 8 and 3.  Parents needed to take a more active role.  Local policymakers needed a greater understanding.  Community leaders — from youth groups to churches — needed greater connection.  And even the business community needed greater focus on skills and outcomes.

Oh, how the times have changed.  In our post-NCLB environment, we are now hearing more and more vitriol about those “outside forces” trying to influence what is happening in our public schools.  We have rallies and blogs and media coverage on how school improvement should be left exclusively to the trained, certified educators in the system.  All others should watch from the sidelines, being told, in the words of Kevin Bacon in Animal House, “Stay calm!  All is well!!”
But we know all is not well.  From third-grade reading proficiency levels to high school graduation rates and all measures in between, all is not well in our public schools.  Yet another generation of students has fallen through the cracks, leaving school either less than proficient or without a high school diploma all together.
The point of this is not to place blame.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Our struggles are team struggles.  Parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders, elected officials, business community, and students themselves all bear significant responsibility for where we stand today, and play an important role in where we need to head tomorrow.  (And as a parent, a taxpayer, a former school board chairman, and an advocate, Eduflack is right in the middle of those who bear responsibility.)
Which is why it was so disconcerting to read the December 23 Wall Street Journal.  In the print edition (sorry folks, somehow it got edited out of the online version), the WSJ reported on the hire of Chicago/Philly/Recovery District Supe Paul Vallas as the new head of Bridgeport (CT) Public Schools.  The article noted that the hire was made possible, in part, because of philanthropic contributions to help the academically and financially struggling district bring in a talent like Vallas.  
In the piece, the reporter spoke to a leader at the Bridgeport Education Association, who referred to those local Connecticut philanthropists as “robber barons,” and questioned the legitimacy of their contributions.
We will forget, for a moment, the philanthropic support that Bridgeport Education Association and its parent National Education Association receive.  While those dollars may come from a different “clan” of philanthropic and corporate support, there is not question that NEA and BEA are beneficiaries of similar outside support, and that such support is serving a real public good when it comes to teacher effectiveness and improved instruction.
But it was yet another example of the venom with which some speak when discussing the role of public/private partnerships and the growing philanthropic interest in improving our public schools.  Local community members, who want to see their local schools improve and have the financial means to help jumpstart a reform process, are now “robber barons?”  Really?
A century ago, our public schools (both K-12 and higher ed) were hardly the models to write home about.  We lacked the educational resources offered by libraries, museums, and the performing arts.  We saw our medical schools take a significant step forward because of folks like Carnegie.  Libraries benefited from people like Ford.  General education and research supported by the likes of Rockefeller.
There is now an entire literature dedicated to the role of corporate philanthropy and the societal benefits that derived from such giving.  Today, we see large foundations the result of those original “robber barons,” foundations that are committed to improving children’s health, education, and society as a whole.  They do so without a profit motive, just hoping to make a difference with the resources the have available.
Ultimately, we are doing our kids, our schools, and our community a disservice when we try to run off well-meaning philanthropists with name calling, insinuation of ulterior motives, or promoting a general sense of “ickiness” because the private sector wants to get involved in our public schools.  Instead, we should be embracing such involvement.  No, I’m not saying all those involved in ed reform are Carnegies and Rockefellers, nor am I saying that some do not come to the table with a specific agenda.  But for all of those who argue that additional resources are needed in our public schools, yet must acknowledge that beloved tax base doesn’t allow for it, there are alternative paths.  Through private support, we can invest in technology or STEM or improved teacher support or the arts or a plethora of other areas that individuals, foundations, and companies want to get behind.
So where do we go from here?  To start, we need to turn down the rhetoric a little and realize there is a role for many at the school improvement table.  For educators, we need to realize it ultimately becomes an all or nothing bargain; we can’t say this outside funding is OK, but this isn’t.  Either we believe in public/private partnerships, or we don’t.  We depend on philanthropic support, or we don’t.
And what about those business types and educational philanthropists?  First off, be transparent in your giving and proud of your support.  Be vocal about your giving — who you are giving to, why you are giving, and what your expected outcomes are.  And don’t let others define your motives.
Ultimately, it really does take an educational village to improve our public schools.  Teachers, parents, community leaders, policymakers, taxpayers, the business community, and students all have a vested interest in seeing our schools improve and our kids succeed.  And all have a potential role they can play in the improvement process.  Now is not the time to say I can do this myself, and try to walk the road alone.  We need all the help we can get.

Are Our High Schools Becoming Glee-ful?

I’ll admit it, I’m a Gleek.  I love the Fox show, Glee.  I’ve taken the Facebook quiz (and learned I am most like Rachel).  I posted last fall’s Single Ladies/football scene to my FB page, I loved this week’s Les Miz nod, and I’m even looking forward to next week’s Lady Gaga homage.  I even have a running list of those songs and/or performers I want to see covered by the Glee kids.  

And it doesn’t appear that I am alone.  The number of Gleeks out there seems to be increasing exponentially, and many of them are surprises (I’m guessing a few will be surprised that Eduflack is such a fan).  After a year, we are reminded of the enormous value of a high school glee club, the role music can play in student development, self-esteem, and other qualitative measures we expect to see from our schools.  So it begs the question, is Glee having any impact on school budgets and priorities?

Even since the introduction of the NCLB era nearly a decade ago, we’ve heard the urban legends that art and music programs across the nation were being gutted in favor or reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  Just last year, NAEP released its long-anticipated assessment of student arts performance, which looked at the core competencies U.S. students have in both the visual arts and music (with many now demanding that the assessment be offered more than once nearly every decade).

After a year of watching Glee, are high school students demanding music options in their schools?  Are school boards and administrators seeing growing interest in arts electives?  Are we seeing an increase in the number of upstart glee clubs beginning in high schools across the heartland?  Is Glee impacting instruction and curricular options in our public schools?

More than two decades ago, we talked about how the popularity of L.A. Law dramatically increased the number of applicants for law school in the mid-1980s.  In the early 1990s, we saw spikes in the number of medical school applications because of television programs like ER.  Will Glee have the same impact, particularly as we see a growing demand for educating the “whole child” and focusing on more than just the ELA and math required by state assessments?

Only time will tell.  But if the Glee buzz continues to rise, we may very well have a renaissance in music education in K-12.  And we may even see more social acceptance of track suits in the workplace.