Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The First Day of School: A Teachers' Perspective

"I was studying this man-almost all of us were-for the critical signs. We wanted to know what we had on our hands. What manner of man was this? What given the ongoing war of us-against-them, would we be able to get away with?"

Mark Edmundson; 2002, Teacher, "The First Day"

More stressful than a job interview, every teacher can vividly recall the first day they walked into their very own classroom.We become teachers with the intention of shaping the future, yet on that fist day of school when we meet the future, the future looks back at us with the most critical of eyes. They examine our figures, our clothing, our voices, searching for flaws, any sign of weakness to exploit for the benefit of their own entertainment.

I can recall my own student past, as a seventh-grader, listening to the smirking laughter of my classmates, when one morning it was announced our math teacher would not be returning to the classroom. Our obnoxious behavior had effectively driven him out of teaching. Rumor had it, he'd suffered a nervous breakdown, and needed to be hospitalized.

The law of the pack makes victims of whomever is the weakest. In the classroom, the victim is typically the student who is perceived as different, or weird. Occasionally, however, it is the teacher who is the weak link.So we prepare ourselves, toughen up our sensitive skins to repel the arrows of insult that will inevitably be fired in our direction. Those of us who have survived have learned a few techniques; self-depreciating humor, intellectualizing adolescent behavior, and learning to not take things personally. We have also learned that students will back off when they begin to respect you. They never respect teachers who disrespect them.

One early September morning in 1979 I walked into a classroom for the very first time as a brand new student teacher, and began my career on the shakiest ground any educator could imagine. (read the archived post here) In about two more weeks I will stand in front of a fresh group of teenagers, and while I will look over my new students, trying to size them up, they will be studying me, just as thousands of kids have done before.

What a marvelous opportunity we have as teachers, each year we have a new chance to make a first impression. I hope I have eventually become a little better at it.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The NEA's 12 Step Drop Out Action Plan. What Were They Thinking?

Approximately 25% of the nations' students drop out of high school. In Cleveland, 45% of our students don't graduate.

Having an educated workforce is a key element in the economic development of any region. So as educators focus on developing curriculum that will prepare our kids for 21st century jobs, we also need to concentrate on how to retain those students who just can't seem to keep up with their peers. In Cleveland 45% of our young people can't keep up. Is it any wonder we top the poverty scale in the nation?

Last October the National Education Association announced a 12 Step Action Plan to battle the drop out issue. One of my readers sent me a copy of the plan, and asked my opinion of it. Although I'd heard about it in a press release last fall, I hadn't taken the time to read it through. This week I finally took a look at it, and my reaction was , quite frankly, "What the *$&# !"

I have reprinted it here in it's entirety. Scroll to the bottom for my comments.

NEA's 12 Dropout Action Steps:

    1. Mandate high school graduation or equivalency as compulsory for
      everyone below the age of 21. Just as we established compulsory attendance to the age of 16 or 17 in the beginning of the 20th century, it is appropriate and critical to eradicate the idea of "dropping out" before achieving a diploma. To compete in the 21st century, all of our citizens, at minimum, need a high school education.
    2. Establish high school graduation centers for students 19-21 years old to provide specialized instruction and counseling to all students in this older age group who would be more effectively addressed in classes apart from younger students.
    3. Make sure students receive individual attention in safe schools, in smaller learning communities within large schools, in small classes (18 or fewer
      students), and in programs during the summer, weekends, and before and after school that provide tutoring and build on what students learn during the school day.
    4. Expand students' graduation options through creative partnerships with community colleges in career and technical fields and with alternative schools so that students have another way to earn a high school diploma. For students who are incarcerated, tie their release to high school graduation at the end of their sentences.
    5. Increase career education and workforce readiness programs in schools so that students see the connection between school and careers after graduation. To ensure that students have the skills they need for these careers, integrate 21st century skills into the curriculum and provide all students with access to 21st century technology.
    6. Act early so students do not drop out with high-quality, universal preschool and full-day kindergarten; strong elementary programs that ensure students are doing grade-level work when they enter middle school; and middle school programs that address causes of dropping out that appear in these grades and ensure that students have access to algebra, science, and other courses that serve as the foundation for success in high school and beyond.
    7. Involve families in students' learning at school and at home in new and
      creative ways so that all families-single-parent families, families in poverty, and families in minority communities-can support their children's academic achievement, help their children engage in healthy behaviors, and stay actively involved in their children's education from preschool through high school graduation.
    8. Monitor students' academic progress in school through a variety of measures during the school year that provide a full picture of students' learning and help teachers make sure students do not fall behind academically.
    9. Monitor, accurately report, and work to reduce dropout rates by gathering accurate data for key student groups (such as racial, ethnic, and economic), establishing benchmarks in each state for eliminating dropouts, and adopting the standardized reporting method developed by the National Governors Association.
    10. Involve the entire community in dropout prevention through family-friendly policies that provide release time for employees to attend parent-teacher conferences; work schedules for high school students that enable them to attend classes on time and be ready to learn; "adopt a school" programs that encourage volunteerism and community-led projects in school; and community-based, real-world learning experiences for students.
    11. Make sure educators have the training and resources they need to prevent students from dropping out including professional development focused on the needs of diverse students and students who are at risk of dropping out; up-to-date textbooks and materials, computers, and information technology; and safe modern schools.
    12. Make high school graduation a federal priority by calling on Congress and the president to invest $10 billion over the next 10 years to support
      dropout prevention programs and states who make high schoolgraduation compulsory.

Will problem areas pop up? You betcha!

I immediately have a problem with Step Number 1
"Mandate high school graduation (or equivalent) for everyone by the age of 21"

The purpose of public education is to prepare our citizenry to become productive members of society. Do we really need to legislate compliance for those people who are legally competent to make their own choices?
If a mandate from the government carries the force of law, what would the consequences be for those persons who failed to comply with the mandate?
Will high school drop-outs be fined? Face community sanctions? Imprisoned? High school drop outs have a tough enough time trying to keep up with the folks who have received their diplomas without criminalizing their choice to quit school. Ask anyone with a criminal record how hard it is to get a job, no matter how educated they are.

Think about the reasons high school kids drop out: Family problems, frustration, and pregnancy, to name a few. If a girl or boy drops out of high school to care for a child, or a sick parent, or to work to help support a family, would they be punished by the state?

Number 4 is also very poorly thought through. No, let me restate that...it's stupid.

"For students who are incarcerated, tie their release to high school graduation at the end of their sentences."

Does this mean a student would get early release if they complete graduation requirements while incarcerated? Probably not, since a prisoner's work towards attainment of a GED is already requisite in their being approved for "good time " status, allowing a reduction of between 10 and 15% of their sentence.

No, I believe it means they will not be released until they complete graduation requirements. In that case, an inmate with a 4 week sentence could wind up being incarcerated for years. Do these people have a clue as to how the justice system works? Why are they intent on criminalizing a lack of education? Aren't our prisons full enough? Do they know how much it costs the taxpayer per day keep a person incarcerated?

I'm afraid the NEA's 12 Step Action Plan might be more beneficial to the corrections industry than the educational community.

One more reason students give for dropping out of high school is "irrelevancy". I have heard students say time and time again they see no relevance to their future in the classes they take. There is no mention at all in this 12 step action plan of improving curriculum, or making any changes in the teaching and learning process, to help students want to stay in school. This plan is heavy on the punitive measures, and sorely lacking in any proactive steps toward improvement. It is as if they are saying, "Public education is just fine the way it is. All we have to do is just keep the malcontents in the classroom, and everything will be peachy."

The rest of the Action Steps are way too vague to really produce any specific action. For example, "integrate 21st century skills into the curriculum" What does that mean exactly? What skills would those be, specifically? What are "high-quality, universal preschools and full-day kindergartens", or "strong elementary programs", or "creative partnerships"? All of these terms are ambiguous. In fact most districts will claim "We already have those things." The same goes for the proposal, "Monitor students' academic progress in school through a variety of measures during the school year." Gee, I thought those were called progress reports.

As teachers we are supposed to know how to write plans with measurable goals and objectives. This 12 Step Action Plan is a mess, and I am ashamed that it came from the National Association of Teachers. Teachers Union dues paid for this? What a joke. The more I think about it the more disgusted I become.