Category Archives: Parent Involvment

To Appreciate a Teacher…

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookies.

Those intricately decorated, apple-shaped cookies: I do appreciate those.

And the bacon. That pound of pepper-bacon a group of students gave me after I used a few too many example sentences including bacon in our practice with diagramming sentences.

Then there are notes: Brief or lengthy, the notes from parents, students, former students from over a decade ago whose teenaged face immediately appears the moment I see the name on the return address. Those keep me going and make me feel appreciated, for sure, and are among my most cherished items.

I’ve been lucky that those kinds of little surprises haven’t been relegated to just one week in the year when websites offer discounts or coupons and businesses encourage patrons to “thank a teacher.”

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week, what will really make teachers feel appreciated? Maybe a cookie or a pound of bacon, but most definitely a specific kind of little note will do. A phone call, maybe. A visit to an office. More specifically: notes, phone calls, emails, office visits to our legislative policymakers. That’s how teachers will feel appreciated. Call for a budget that fully funds Washington public schools, not to “throw money at the problem,” but to invest in a system that for the last forty years has been perpetually under-invested in. Call for policies that make sense for kids, parents, communities, and schools. The voices of teachers in this battle are too often discounted as shrill, complainy, or as base union thuggery. The voices of parents, students, and community members are what policymakers have a harder time ignoring.

Teachers know that we are appreciated at the immediate, local level, with our kids and parents. We are thankful for that, for sure. We love the cookies, the treats, and the notes: Those put the wind back in our sails without a doubt.

But this year, consider one phone call, one note, or one office visit to your elected officials who are struggling to get their work done. Little by little those small gestures of appreciation will add up and make a huge difference not just to “appreciate teachers,” but to transform the lives of kids.


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The Homework Debate. Again.

Homework-1By Tom White

It seems like every few years we go through this. Parents and teachers who hate homework tell us how bad it is. And teachers that don’t hate it keep assigning it. Students, of course, mostly don’t like it and mostly do it anyway. Mostly.

So which is it? A waste of time that keeps kids from enjoying their childhood and keeps families from doing Fun Activities together? Or an essential extension of the school day, providing practice and reinforcement of the skills and knowledge students learned during their time at school.

It’s probably both. Or either, depending on what the homework actually consists of. Continue reading

Charter Schools are Unconstitutional

AR_Const_1878_p001By Tom White

It’s been quite a week in the world of Washington Education policy. We’ve got teacher strikes going on in Pasco and Whidbey Island, with another one looming in Seattle. Meanwhile, the State Supreme just ruled that Charter Schools are unconstitutional, three years after voters approved them, one year after the first one opened, and two weeks after eight new ones opened across the state.

The timing obviously could have been more convenient, at least for the families who are attending those charter schools. On the other hand, the court may have timed it just right, picking Labor Day weekend to send a subtle message to charter school supporters.

I have never worked in a charter school, nor will I. However, about five years ago I was part of a group that spent a week looking very closely at a handful of charter schools in and around The Bronx. I was the only teacher in the group, and as we toured each school, the others marveled at how “high-performing” everything seemed to be. And they were. Kids were working hard, adults were working really hard and test scores were great.

But there was also a sense that things were fraying around the edges. Teachers were working from 7 AM until 5 or 6 PM, and were on-call for homework assistance until 9 or 10 PM. Sick leave consisted of having your colleagues cover your classes. They worked most Saturdays, in addition to a three-week “Boot Camp” in the summer. I asked one teacher if she was planning to have a family while working in her school and she just laughed; “I don’t even have time to take care of a cat!” Worst of all, there was absolutely no job security. It was entirely up to the principal whether you returned next year.

The time and effort that these teachers put in was simply unsustainable. Consequently, the turnover rate was around fifty percent per year. In other words, these charter schools were a union waiting to happen.

But that’s the whole point of charter schools.  They’re supposed to be public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of school districts. Which really means outside the constraints of teacher unions, since most school districts would be more than happy to have their teachers putting in the same time and energy as charter school teachers.

The State Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t “common schools.” They take public funds, yet aren’t run by elected officials. The Court obviously realizes that if they were run by elected officials (the local school board) they would become district schools and subject to the collective bargaining agreement between the district and its corresponding education association.

In other words, charter schools, which essentially operate by exploiting the talent and effort of their teachers, are not constitutional.

I’m not sure what happens next. But if I had a kid in one of those schools, I’d be studying my options.

Focusing on “Can’t” at the expense of “Can.”

Secretly studying animal physiology after bedtime.

Secretly studying animal physiology after bedtime.

On the drive home from school a few weeks ago, my middle son, at the time a first grader, said that from then on he wanted to be homeschooled.

My mind raced: Is he being bullied? Is he struggling to learn? What is happening that might make this otherwise happy kid want to be homeschooled?

As it turned out, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to his public school any more. He wanted to learn things that weren’t being taught in school: specifically, he was deeply curious about science. We came to the agreement that he’d keep going to regular school, but that we’d do some science experiments and learn some science at home.

This is the same boy who when I think about his education, it keeps me up at night. Not because I don’t trust his teachers or his school, but because I am concerned about what the coming years in school will look like for him.

This past year in my other job (teaching high school English to 12th graders) I had the opportunity to work with a young man who had spent his entire academic life with a label. Served by an IEP with all the best of intentions, this now-adult sat in his IEP meetings this year and articulated something that made my heart sink. He talked about how being part of the “IEP program” as he called it led him to assume that he was incapable of being successful. He described how he felt conditioned (his word, not mine) to wait for help because the message that he was not able to do it on his own and that he “needed help” was repeated loud and clear and often. Now possessing greater maturity, he was able to agree that everyone had the best intentions at heart, yet the collateral effect on him was that the “program” seemed to communicate to him that he was incapable. That became part of his identity. Rolled in with the other struggles he faced, a downward spiral ensued, and whether he would graduate from high school was in question almost to the very last minute. He did make it, though, and his reflections on his experience are shaping the way I think about my own son and what school can do for and to him.

Continue reading

Congratulations Are In Order

IMG_2408My son graduated from high school yesterday. I’m very proud of him, of course; he’s a smart, talented kid with enormous potential and a music scholarship to the University of North Texas. He will go far.

But as I sat there in the bleachers, through two distinct weather patterns and 45-minute speeches by everyone associated with the school and its governance, a line spoken by one of the science teachers resonated with me. He said something to the effect that “many of your parents moved here so that you could go to this school.”

That was true. My son’s parents did move so that he could go to that school.

Seventeen years ago, when he was a baby, we were living elsewhere. It was a place with a lot of low-rent apartments, a lot of dead cars in front yards and a lot of loud, late-night domestic arguments. It was, however, very affordable, which is why we were there. There was an elementary school one block away, a middle school two blocks away and a high school right across the street. Most of the student population got free or reduced lunch, and almost half didn’t speak English.

With a young family, we were faced with a choice. Stay in a house we could easily afford and send our kids to those schools, or move to a house we could barely afford and send our kids to other schools.

We moved.

We moved because we were playing the odds.  The area to which we moved is more affluent, which we figured meant a better chance of more two-parent families and more highly educated adults. Generally speaking, that translates to schools with more kids who come from homes where life is organized and stable and where education is emphasized.

We moved to a place where we hoped our kids would be surrounded by – and influenced by – more people with the capacity, resources and willingness to make education a priority. By moving to a “better neighborhood” we were hoping to bring our kids to a “better school.” It was as selfish and as simple as that.

But sometimes when you play the odds you lose. And in fact, when I compared the performance data from the schools my kids would have attended with that of the schools they did attend, the schools with 75% free and reduced lunch came out significantly better than the schools in my far more affluent neighborhood. How’s that for irony?

But instead of disappointment, I feel hope. Perhaps this small data point is a sign that we’re starting to figure out and defeat the Achievement Gap. Perhaps we’re starting to learn how to serve a high-needs population and give them the tools they need to chase – and catch – the American Dream.

So congratulations, Jack, and all the other kids who finished high school this month. You worked very hard over the last thirteen years.

But congratulations are also in order for the staff, parents and students at Discovery Elementary, Voyager Middle School and Mariner High School.

They probably worked even harder.

Why I’m Not Opting Out

Katie Taylor is a recently renewed NBCT (AYA/ELA) and serves as the Deputy Director for the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. The views represented in the blog post are her own and not representative of the organization for which she works.

 

Why I’m Not Opting Out

My third grade daughter came home from school on Tuesday, “too pooped to practice.” This is unusual for her, because rain or shine she cannot wait for Tuesdays and Thursdays because those are “soccer practice days.” She wasn’t ill, the weather was perfect for practice, so what gives?

Tuesday was SBAC testing, the third one so far in the last two weeks. When I sought the source of her exhaustion, I calculated that excluding stretch and snack breaks, recess and lunch, 4.5 hours of her 6.5-hour school day was spent testing.

4.5 hours in front of a screen, taking a test. Looking at her face, my mother bear instinct kicked in and I thought,  “I’m not having her go through this again” despite the fact that she still has at least two more days of testing to go.

And yet, after thinking it over, I decided not to opt her out of the rest of her tests.

I’ve been an educator for 18 years, a National Board Certified Teacher for 10, and a parent for 11 years. As an educator with children in public school, it is sometimes difficult to find the line between when I am engaging as an educator and when I am engaging as a parent. This year of testing has been particularly hard from both stances.

As a parent I am tempted to excuse her from testing, the educator in me knows the undue burden it would do to the other children, teachers and administrators at her school. Her discomfort was for a day, and no more than 5-7 partial days in one month. The pain inflicted on teachers and schools for low participation and low-test scores lasts entire school years.

I believe the solution lies in removing the punitive nature of what the test scores mean for schools in terms of resources and performance evaluations. I do not believe that my pulling my daughter out of school during the state tests accomplishes that. Being part of public education is being a part of a collective community, and I fully recognize that there are parts of her community that do not have the luxury of opting their children out for a myriad of reasons. For many of these families, the high-stakes tests are even more high-stakes since it’s many of these children’s scores on which resource allocation decisions are made.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like how much my children are tested, but I also don’t have any interest in returning to a time when it was okay to ignore the opportunity gap. Her teacher doesn’t want to spend his time testing, nor does her principal and I won’t affect a change in that outcome by having my daughter miss testing days.

As an educator and as a parent, I can make a change by being active in policy conversations and using my voice to change current and future testing practices.

As a parent, I can do what I did this week – listen to my daughter’s concern, tell her I’m proud of her perseverance and that all I want is for her to do her best, and then take her out for ice cream and tuck her in bed early with a good book.

Some Thoughts on Opting out

fwy110405 019By Tom

Today was the day when “The Cart” came rolling in. That’s when testing becomes real in my school. The cart full of Chromebooks gets wheeled into your room; the day before your student start with the SBAC training test, and a week before they take the real thing. And as far as I know, every one of my fourth graders will be taking the test. No one’s opting out.

And I’m glad. Continue reading

The Girl Who Wasn’t Here

Note: I wrote this post six or seven years ago (can’t remember now) and it was the first post for which I was called to the principal’s office. It was one of those ominous Friday evening Outlook “meeting requests” to meet with admin on Monday morning before school. The only note in the request: “blog post.” I called the principal at home to see if I needed to bring a union rep.

When you read it, you’ll likely see that it isn’t particularly controversial, which was what at first confused me about my reprimand. Still relatively early in my career, and very new to blogging, I made the rounds apologizing to administrators and ultimately pulled the post down from Stories from School even though it had already garnered several comments and reposts…and even though I had modified enough details of the kids’ stories to protect the innocent while still emphasizing the impact of the policy. Their concern was that a parent could read the post, read through the modifications, and still see themselves and their student, then be upset.

A recent conversation with a teacher at Denver’s TTLSummit reminded me of this post, as this teacher was struggling with building-level policies that she wanted to see changed for the benefit of students.


A few weeks ago, she and her family moved into my district. It was perfect timing to join my class, as we were just starting to read the next novel and she could step right in with us.

Two days after she arrived, she was absent.

No big deal, I thought.  Then, she proceeded to miss two more days.

Continue reading

Playgrounds and Education Policy

File52eec04d490efBy Mark

This story was circulating on social media recently, and despite my initial reactions, it appears to be true.

A primary school in New Zealand has changed rules around recess as a result of research conducted at local universities. The essential finding: fewer rules on the playground resulted in "a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing" (from the article linked above).

At my own son's elementary school, students are apparently not permitted to run during recess. That's right, no running during outdoor recess. Only brisk walking. And forget about tag, let alone touch football. I am not an elementary school teacher or staff member, so sure I can sit over here and judge, but the findings from this (albeit small) research project where children were allowed to be children during recess seems to me yet another indicator of how our drive to protect children from harm actually harms them more than the bumps, bruises and grass-stained knees we want to spare.

Sadly, this article above also makes this statement:

[M]any American school administrators do not feel they have the freedom to eliminate playtime rules the way Swanson [the primary school in New Zealand] did. And they certainly don’t see it as a zero-cost game. Parents drive our nation’s tendency toward more restrictive playground rules because parents are the ones who sue schools when their children get hurt.

It is all very interesting to me both as a parent and as an educator.

I wonder: what if a whole education system had no externally ascribed rules? Would the flaws we are trying to eliminate with laws, rules, and policies diminish (and achievement increase) as analogous to the positive changes witnessed on that playground in New Zealand? 

Thirty Million Words

LogoBy Tom

There’s a kid in my class who I’ll call Arthur. Although he’s in fourth grade, he started the year reading at about the first grade level and his math skills were even lower. He wrote nothing. When we discussed his situation during a September Child Study meeting we decided to “pull out all the stops.” And so we did. Arthur gets pulled out for one-on-one phonics lessons every day from 9:30 to 10:00. He goes directly from there to his small-group reading lesson with our special ed teacher. From 11:30 to noon he receives in-class support for writing and organization skills. At 2:15 he gets an hour of math support.

That’s pretty much “all the stops.” Fortunately, he has started to making progress; if you were to draw a line representing his academic growth since September, it would have an upwards trajectory. But if that line were a ski slope, you would not tremble at the top. And as far behind as he was four months ago, he is even farther behind now; his classmates, after all, have also made progress, but at a faster rate.

It didn’t have to come to this. A famous study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley resulted in the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Simply put, they found that parent-child communication has an enormous impact on a child’s development and academic success. The name of the initiative reflects the optimal number of words a child should hear from his parents before entering school.

I have never met Arthur’s dad, and apparently neither has he. I have met his mother, though, on several occasions. She is very quiet, somewhat sullen, with the air of a person who looked at the low hand she was dealt and folded pretty early in the game. Which was about when Arthur was born.

Arthur is exactly the kind of student that TMW wants to prevent. Had his mother known how important it was to simply talk to her child, perhaps he wouldn’t be in his current circumstances. Perhaps I’d feel a little more certain that he’ll be in fifth grade next year. Perhaps his ski slope would be a little scarier.

We’ll never know. But I do know this: The most important thing non-teaching education stakeholders can do to support education in this country is to help parents help their children. And Thirty Million Words is an example of how simple that support can be. Talk, after all, is cheap. But apparently it’s pretty important, especially early in a child’s life.

Because sadly, fourth grade is a little bit too late.