Friday, December 26, 2014

Is Teaching Actually a Blue-Collar Job?

I've never really complained about the money I make teaching - and I certainly don't agree that teachers should be making millions like pop stars and pro athletes. That said, I don't doubt that, like most teachers, I don't make nearly as much money as all the other college educated professions of people I know. Looking at pay scales from across the country, I realize that David Cook of the FreePress may be right - based on simple compensation and earning power, "Teaching is now a blue-collar job."

Teachers are not poorly paid, especially for ten months of work, but they are not necessarily compensated in a manner commensurate with their outlays in terms of education and credentialing. In most places, teachers don't make much more than people who work in skilled labor. As Cook points out, teachers are making roughly the same as electricians and masons. And, that's not necessarily an insult or out of kilter with the economy, but it is off base with what sort of money must be invested in the job training.

And, as readers of this blog will recall, I am a strong supporter of skilled labor and career education. In places like Colorado and South Dakota, laborers in the energy industry can pull down six figures. Additionally, the value of an education is increasingly suspect, so the value offered by a middle school language arts teacher may not be instantly quantifiable in terms comparable to a laborer or a accountant. That said, this sort of information may be useful advice for people considering education. And it may just be reason enough to encourage our best brightest - "Don't become a teacher."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Anya Kamenetz Puts Standardized Testing to "The Test"

One of the strongest voices in the world of education writing - or really many issues facing young people pondering their future - is Anya Kamenetz, who has published several books of non-fiction and has written for NPR, Fast Company, and others. Kamenetz is now turning her attention to the complicated world of education accountability and standardized testing. As an education writer and parent, Kamenetz was looking to investigate the state of public education, but was surprised to discover how every conversation was completely consumed by discussions of testing. Thus, with her curious and insightful mind, she set out to answer "What Are Education Tests for Anyway?" She offers a bit of a primer on what tests are out there, and what they are supposed to mean.

Did that trigger scary memories of the 10th grade? Or are you just curious how you'll measure up?
If the answer is "C: Either of the above," keep reading. Tests have existed throughout the history of education. Today they're being used more than ever before — but not necessarily as designed.
Different types of tests are best for different purposes. Some help students learn better. Some are there to sort individuals. Others help us understand how a whole population is doing.
But these types of tests are easily confused, and more easily misused. As the U.S. engages in another debate over how — and how much — we test kids, it might be helpful to do a little anatomy of assessment, or a taxonomy of tests.

Her initial article for NPR has taken on a life of its own, and now Kamenetz is offer a much more comprehensive look at the testing issue in her soon-to-be released The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have to Be. While I have not read this work, I am looking forward to Kamenetz's observations and analyses, for I have appreciated all that I've read by her before. Let's hope she keeps the keenly critical eye on the issue of how obtrusive, and ultimately inconclusive, all this testing has become.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Keeping Teachers, Getting Rid of Teachers, Fixing Schools, and more ...

"Fixing schools" and improving public education is an inevitably complex topic on which everyone has an opinion and a comment. The value of the entire conversation, of course, is a bit dubious in that it begs the question of whether schools actually need to be fixed. That said, there are plenty of ideas out there. In the past couple years, we have been offered various tomes about improving the education system, and the majority of them center on creating better teachers. Joanne Jacobs recently spotlighted a somewhat questionable review of these works. The review in question from Jonathon Zimmerman for the New York Review of Books asked, rather cynically, "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?"

Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, her impressive new history of teachers in the United States ... makes clear, Americans have simultaneously lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills. But debate over teaching has shifted sharply over the past two decades, when public education became much more narrowly academic in focus and purpose

What is the matter with teacher preparation and how can we make it better? Elizabeth Green takes on both questions in her eloquent new book, Building a Better Teacher, which manages to be depressing and hopeful at the same time. Like Dana Goldstein, Green was a Spencer Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School; if nothing else, the current educational crisis has produced a new group of skilled and knowledgeable reporters on education. Green’s thesis is simple: most teachers are never actually taught how to teach. After encountering a very thin introduction to the theory and practice of teaching at education schools, they’re sent into classrooms to learn on the job.

Of course, our best teachers can and do make a difference in the lives of our least privileged children; you can see Keizer doing that, in small ways, in Getting Schooled, his fine book. Yet every piece of credible social science confirms that, notwithstanding such efforts, schools cannot overcome the crippling effects of poverty. Telling teachers that they can represents yet another insult to their intelligence, all in the guise of bucking them up. Ditto for the perennial promotions of digital technologies, which promise to “revolutionize” teaching very soon. Similar claims greeted film projectors, radio, and television in their own times; in 1922, for example, Thomas Edison predicted that motion pictures would replace textbooks within a few short years.

In looking at the title of his review, it may appear that Zimmerman has bought into the myths of "failing public schools." He certainly offers some reasonably commentary and criticism, and he obviously thinks these recent bits of reporting on some successful schools may offer the key to "fixing public schools." Overall, Zimmerman's reporting on these recent education books offers some valuable food for thought, if not an actual solution. That said, the discussion of public education must go on, and scrutiny of teaching, sadly, will be the primary, and often only, focus. That said, there are still voices out there offering caveats to the "teacher question." As freelance education writer Nick Morrison posits in Forbes, "The Problem Isn't Getting Rid of Teachers, It's Keeping Them."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Best-selling YA Author Jay Asher Brings Anti-Bullying Tour to Colorado

Bullying may always be with us - but that doesn't mean we can't try to do something to lessen it. And, that's the approach being taken by best-selling YA author Jay Asher, whose novel Thirteen Reasons Why has engaged millions of teens nationwide with discussions of bullying, harassment, depression, and suicide. In response to the huge outpouring of support for and interest in his novel, Asher has been on a "50 States Against Bullying Tour," sponsored by his publisher, which includes visits to fifty different high schools across the country.  Recently, Asher visited Cherry Creek High School in Colorado and delivered his message of hope and positive behavior to more than a thousand students. Here's my coverage of the event.

The presentation at Cherry Creek was an entertaining event, as Jay Asher is an engaging speaker who can connect with large groups of teens in person as well as with the written word. His speech, which is obviously about a serious and potentially somber matter, is surprisingly light and uplifting as he constantly reinforces to the audience a message of hope. As a speaker, he has an easy-going manner, punctuated with some self-deprecating humor that enables him to deal with a difficult topic in a positive and engaging way. Asher deftly balanced his serious commentary with amusing anecdotes that were both thoughtful and amusing. 

The book and tour have not been without controversy, which isn’t surprising considering the subject. Sadly, Asher noted, “Some communities live in silence” about issues like bullying and depression and suicide because they make people uncomfortable. And that, Asher believes, is a huge mistake. Not talking about serious issues is not the answer for how to deal with them, and his tour is a response to that instinct. In that regard, Asher spoke positively about the opportunity to come speak at Cherry Creek, after noting his book had been banned and challenged in numerous places. In fact, he has even been un-invited from some schools after their communities learned more about the book’s plot. “It’s a testament to your school that I’m speaking to you now,” he told the students. “Your school is telling you that they care about you.” 

Jay believes that ultimately Hannah’s lesson, or message, would be that “I want you to think about how to treat people from now on.” That’s the message he’s sharing with students, and he believes he’s making a difference with young people like the reader who told him after reading the book, “It just makes me want to be wonderful to everyone.” That would be a pretty meaningful legacy.

Ultimately, this event is another important step in educating our youth.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fat Doesn't Make You Fat - And Weight Isn't about Counting Calories

We all know people who can eat what they want and not gain weight. And we know some people seem to put on weight by just looking at dessert. The amount of misinformation about health and weight is as staggering as the number of calories in a Carl's Jr. burger. And until we get some legitimate honesty about weight and the role played by sugar and carbohydrates, we will never begin to get a handle on Americans' expanding waistlines.

The biggest myth in the "obesity crisis" is the idea that "fat" makes people fat. That's been a myth perpetuated on the American public for more than fifty years now. And, interestingly, that fifty years coincides with the greatest increase in American's weight and health problems. The reality seems to be that the low-fat and no-fat craze - initially fueled by the the government and the American Heart Association - is probably the most significant cause of increasing weight problems. That's why "Everything you think you know about fatty foods might be wrong."

The low-fat and zero-calorie hype is directly correlated with weight gain. For, as producers removed fat from foods, they actually increased the sugar. The rise in processed foods with a lot of sugar and empty carbohydrates is the link to weight gain.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Charli XCX Revitalizing Music Industry by Making Music Her Way

The future of the music industry seems to be in the hands of numerous gifted young women who are making music on their terms and setting their own standards for success. Everyone knows the names Taylor Swift and Lourde, but we can add Iggy and Charli to the mix. Notably, British musician, singer, songwriter, Charli XCX is making a name for herself by writing great hit songs, collaborating with others like Iggy Azaela, and occasionally just giving her hit songs away. This week Time Magazine profiles Charlie as the "Riot Girl Hitmaker" who is raging against the pop music machine and improving the music industry in the process. It's just an exciting time to listen to music, especially with a young women who claims to be "very judgmental of the music industry." Charli is innovative and progressive, producing catchy rock anthems like "I Love It" as will as hip-hop tunes like "Fancy" and the pop radio friendly "Boom, Clap." On her most recent album, Sucker, she went for a feisty punk sound, which Time calls "a middle finger covered in Sour Patch dust." That sounds pretty good to me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Education Reform Holding High Achievers Back?

In the push to close the achievement gap and ensure equal access and opportunity to all students, the community that supports advanced learning has legitimate fears that the needs of America's highest achieving students are being ignored. The basic belief around "Gifted & Talented," or advanced learners, is that "they will be all right." However, scholar and educator Charles Finn is not so sure. In fact, he is deeply concerned that the country's highest achieving students are being harmed by the recent attention the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has put on "access to advanced classes."

Five points deserve attention.

First, in going after practices that separate kids on the basis of achievement, OCR will confound and cripple every educator’s favorite reform du jour, “differentiated instruction.” Because in the real world of middle schools with 200 sixth-graders, differentiation doesn’t mean true individualization. It means various forms of ability grouping.

Second, the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention. (Disparate impact at the expense of high achievers and smart kids is apparently just fine with OCR.)

Third, some forms of “tracking” are good for poor kids, minority kids, and low achievers seeking a path to upward mobility. If anything, we need more of it in high-poverty schools. As Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has shown, those are the schools least likely to give their high achievers (who are also poor and minority kids) chances to accelerate and to learn with other high achievers.
At the high school level, “voc ed” has a bad name, and old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends. But what about high-quality career and technical education for young people who want a good job but don’t necessarily want to go to a conventional college—or who haven’t been educated well enough in the early and middle grades to thrive in an AP classroom? Aren’t they going to get further if they have access to classes designed for them? At the very least, the choice of such classes?

Indeed, if OCR (and the Education Department more broadly) were as interested in giving people school choices as in deciding what’s good for them, I’d be a lot less apprehensive. But they’re not. They’ve been throwing monkey wrenches into all sorts of choice programs and policies because they think they know better where people belong.

Fourth, of course we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Fifth, consider the likelihood that OCR’s threats may have the unintended effect of encouraging white and Asian families to decamp (more than they’ve already done) for predominantly white and Asian schools. Then, of course, there won’t be racial gaps in access to educational resources—because kids of other races won’t even be present.

To be sure, schools and communities must take measures to guarantee access and opportunity. However, the push must not come at the cost of slowing schools, classes, and instruction down in order to allow all students to catch up.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jovan Mays - A Conversation on Race

Sometimes it takes the poets, speaking in verse and imagary, to help us truly understand the world around us. To that end, we have some powerful words from Jovan Mays, the Poet Laureate of the city of Aurora, Colorado.

"On these days, we are all Black boys ..."

It's time to stop ... and think.