Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Why Didn't Civics Education Prevent a President Trump?

Watching the election returns roll in November 8th, I was in shock along with most other Americans. How could Americans have chosen such a buffoon, a man who knows nothing about governance, lies 71% of the time, and insists only he can fix things? Over and over, he displayed his ignorance of how our government works. He insisted that Hillary Clinton could have single-handedly prevented him from avoiding taxes by fixing the laws. He insisted that he would jail his opponent. He was going to build a border wall and make another sovereign nation pay. He praised the most brutal dictators and promised to undermine our international agreements.

Part of the fault lies with educators, I am sorry to say. As a former social studies teacher, I realized that the quality of our instruction was not what it needed to be. Social studies classes often lacked the richness and vitality of other disciplines, focusing on memorization, trivia and battles to the exclusion of key concepts. Honestly, some of my colleagues could not have articulated the key concepts their students needed to learn.

And as an administrator, I know the fault lies with us.

Social studies teachers are a dime a dozen. The American Association for Employment in Education keeps data on surpluses and shortages of teachers in each field. There is a greater surplus of social studies teachers than any others -- including elementary teachers. Some of you are wondering if that means principals have such a pool to choose from that they would be hiring the best of the best. I'm about to disappoint you.

Because teachers in this area are so prolific, principals (especially at smaller high schools) needing to fill so many extra-curricular positions every year feel safe tying these openings to coaching responsibilities. It's not at all unusual to see social studies posted with a basketball or football coaching requirement. Thirty years ago, that topic was the focus of my masters thesis. And it hasn't changed. So with a hundred applicants, ten of them might be exceptionally well qualified. But perhaps none of those can fill the coaching need, so none are even interviewed.

This might be a good place to mention how I was chosen. My husband and I were interviewed jointly for two social studies positions. He was an accomplished track and field coach and hired to teach and coach three seasons of sports. I could also teach Spanish. At our interview, there was an in-depth discussion of coaching and team talents. I was there but not asked a single question until near the end, when the Athletic Director turned to me and asked, "What do you think about hats?"

I like to think I was a pretty good teacher. But that certainly wasn't a factor in how I got my first social studies teaching job.

In all of my years in public schools -- both as an administrator and a teacher, but also as a student and parent -- I was aware of just two social studies teachers who were hired without coaching expectations. One of those was me, but I only got the position because I could also teach Spanish and therefore "fit the niche". The other was an outstanding teacher I hired in spite of the need to fill coaching spots.

That leaves every other social studies teacher -- those I had in high school, that my kids had, and that I worked with -- hired to coach, not especially to teach.

The consequences of teachers moonlighting as coaches I've discussed elsewhere in this blog: Sports: The Taboo Topic in High School Reform and Should Teachers Coach Too? One is the very public nature of coaching versus the private nature of teaching. With two demanding jobs, something has to give and it's usually the teaching. Cutting corners and reducing workload are typical coping strategies for coaching teachers. So instruction suffers. And we get a President Trump.

But there's another feature of coaches that skews social studies instruction. Coaches tend to be more politically conservative than other teachers, something I found in my thesis research over and over again. And I certainly saw this directly. I was often the only liberal in the social studies department, even asked to speak in another teacher's government class as the token liberal viewpoint.

We need a revitalized civics education. There are outstanding resources and national social studies teaching organizations that know just how to accomplish this. But it begins with hiring. We need to divorce social studies positions from coaching and give them the importance they merit.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Things I Actually Said

For anyone considering going into school administration, I have here a glimpse of what that might look like. Yes, these are things I actually said as a high school principal -- some of them thankfully only once and others over and over and over.

  • Let go of that woman!
  • Everyone to the gym.  We have a chemical spill.
  • Have you already talked with the teacher?
  • Sure, I came to the Xmas Bazaar just so I could help you find the paper towels and the megaphone.
  • Go to the office and sit down and wait for me.
  • The ticking sound is coming from this locker.
  • Put that away before the bell rings.
  • Let's move!  The tardy bell rang yesterday, it rang the day before that and I'm pretty sure it's going to ring today too.  Hurry!
  • Why are there 600 people in that dark building and only 10 outside on a gorgeous day like this?
  • Could I get you to pull your pants up please?
  • How did you get a zip tie on your thumb?  Oh my god, it's turning black.  Just relax!
  • Root beer flavored milk?  Is this for real?
  • A good day is one when we're not standing across the street staring at the school.
  • Do you have your college logo today?
  • If you film his backside in that open gown, I swear I'll break your camera.
  • We'll start the meeting with a pop quiz.
  • Are you available Saturday to wear the duck costume?
  • Every one of us has a worst-thing-we've-ever-done. No, I won't tell you mine.
  • How else might you have handled that?
  • No, you may not wear the coconut bra to class.
  • During a financial aid workshop:  None of you can divide 5000 by 10?
  • I appreciate that you're the family's attorney but I run the meeting.
  • Don't escort him out in handcuffs until students are back in class.
  • Please zip your sweatshirt up over your exposed breasts.
  • As a teacher:  What are your hands doing in your lap?
  • Every one of you should plan to go to college.  And every one of you can.
  • Whose class are you out of?  Where's your pass?
  • Language!
  • Before you open your mouth, remember that some time in the future you may really need me to believe you.  Now's a good time to start building that trust.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Time to Dump the Accountability Regimen

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I've written about the problems with the school accountability movement before. Now that we have the latest national testing results (NAEP*), there is even more reason to dump much of what we have done in education since the implementation of the federal NCLB** in 2002. And the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an insufficient reform.

The goal in 2002 was to ensure that every American student achieved at a minimum level in math and reading. Testing was the yardstick but also became the tool, as more and more classrooms converted from dynamic project-based explorations or inquiry formats to drill and practice for the tests. Both the shame, as the test scores for schools became public and led to school ratings, and the negative consequences for schools that fell short, amped up the emphasis on teaching to the tests, creating huge divides between poor schools (that worried about their scores) and rich schools (that didn't have to).

If this accountability revolution was an effective thing, at the very least you would expect leaps in test scores -- regardless of whether that meant more learning or not -- in the 13 years since.

But let's look at the results.

1. Test scores have made no significant changes since 2003.
4th Grade Math scores climbed 22 points from 1990 to 2003 but only 5 points from 2003 to 2015
4th Grade Reading scores -- the one place with positive results, increasing just 1 point from 1990 to 2003 but 5 points from 2003 to 2015
8th Grade Math scores climbed 15 points from 1990 to 2003 but only 4 points from 2003 to 2015
8th Grade Reading scores climbed 3 points from 1990 to 2003 and only 2 points from 2003 to 2015
12th Grade Math scores (began testing in 2005) increased only 2 points from 2005-2015
12th Grade Reading scores actually fell from 1992 to 2015 by 5 points

A line graph shows that the national average reading score in 2015 for grade 12 students was lower compared to the score in 1992, the initial reading assessment year, but was not significantly different compared to 2013.
12th Grade Reading

2. Neighborhood schools in poor neighborhoods -- per the punishments written into NCLB -- have closed at an alarming rate. The negative consequences are discussed in this Teaching Tolerance article.

3. The comprehensive high school has disappeared in many high poverty communities, with the arts, business and vocational education programs displaced by more and more math and reading remediation.

So what should we do when our well-intentioned accountability efforts are not accomplishing their goals after more than a decade and are hurting other positive educational efforts? I'm not sure there's any argument really.

*National Assessment of Educational Progress
**No Child Left Behind