Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

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What’s not okay: (1) Mooching off your your family or society while remaining unemployed and unwilling to put in the leg work to pursue employment, (2) Going on and on about how all the facts and figures you learned in high school (example: Algebra) aren’t things you use in the “real world,” and (3) Assuming that “going to college” is inherently the best choice or a guarantee of future happiness, financial security, or prosperity. And, so I’m clear: I am not opposed to encouraging students to set their sights on college. If you’re headed off to a university next year, best of luck and congratulations.

What I am opposed to is the narrative that we’ve spun for students in our public schools about “college” being the only correct preferred path all should choose.

Notice that once we adopted this mantra, the policy and practice priorities shifted toward the accumulation of scores rather than the acquisition of skills. And notice that once we started focusing rabidly on scores, more and more students (and teachers) felt desperate enough to cheat, more and more students (and teachers) spiraled down into the mires of stress and anxiety, and more and more colleges were getting nabbed for preying on the “college only” mindset by gladly taking tuition money and churning out valueless degrees. Notice that as we focused on college admission as the be-all, end-all, vocational programs were squeezed out of secondary schools and the nation began to cry more and more that high schools were churning out students who didn’t know anything (they’d only memorized it for the test) and couldn’t do anything (they hadn’t been encouraged to gain marketable, real skills).

That’s all very negative, but here’s the upside: Continue reading

Fully Funding College Education

In my class we start each day with a vocabulary word that uses a Greek or Latin root. One recent word was expound, meaning “to explain in great detail.” When it came time to share sample sentences, one group offered, “Furiously defending his views on free education, Bernie Sanders expounded on how good it would be for the U.S.”

I asked for clarification—what exactly did the students in the group mean by free education? They said they meant a college education.

A girl in another group objected. “College wouldn’t really be free. People would still have to pay for it. Maybe not you. But other people would pay for it. They would just pay for it with taxes. So taxes would go up.”

We all agreed. Nothing was really free. “Of course,” I said, “we call this”—I gestured around the room—“free public education. You get to go to school for free. But your education isn’t free either. It is paid for out of taxes. Why would people be willing to pay taxes to send children to school?”

A long discussion ensued. Most of the arguments children gave in favor of paying taxes to support schools were based on altruism. “It’s nice for people to pay for school.” “It’s a good thing to do.”

Much as I love to encourage altruism, I had to admit to my class that the altruistic argument doesn’t go very far when asking people to vote for taxes. (Especially not in Washington, which is highly resistant to any taxes!)

Some students suggested arguments based on negative consequences. “If you don’t educate children, they might end up becoming criminals. Maybe they will rob you. It’s better to have them in school, isn’t it?” I agreed and added they should keep in mind that the cost of prisons is higher than the cost of schools!

Then we started talking about positive economic consequences. I told my class that economic consequences—ones that are apt to bring money in the end—are the ones more likely motivate voters to approve taxes.

“As a general rule, who makes more money, a person with a high school education or a college education?” I asked. “So who will pay more income tax—for the rest of their life? Would that extra tax help offset the cost of their college education?”

Income tax isn’t enough obviously. But we talked about the kinds of jobs that people with more education can get and how those jobs increase the economy of the community. In the end, a more educated populace should lead to a greater Gross National Product—a better economy for the whole country. On the other hand, a less educated populace leads to higher rates of poverty and more unemployment.

Which brought us back to the question of free college education. I said there are countries that do offer college education for free: Germany, Finland, Denmark. In Denmark they even pay for living expenses in addition to tuition costs! My students went nuts! They all wanted to go to Germany or Finland or Denmark for school! “But wait a minute,” one skeptic inserted. “Maybe you get what you pay for. Maybe their schools are bad.” I cringed. “I don’t think you’ll find that’s a problem,” I told them.

“Well, then,” my students insisted, “why do those countries pay for THEIR students’ college educations when our country doesn’t pay for OURS?”

I honestly couldn’t answer that question. After all, I went to college in California in the 1970s when California virtually fully funded college for state residents. The fees at San Jose State University back then ran about $200 for a semester. So I know there is a precedent for nearly free college education in the US.

Of course, California doesn’t fund higher education the same way it used to. Too many students came in from other states, lived in California for one year to “establish residency,” and then took advantage of the nearly free college education.

But what was happening in California at the time I was going to college? The rise of Silicon Valley! California paid extra taxes to support college educations, but I’d say they’re still getting the economic payback all these years later!

Meanwhile, nation-wide, our college costs have gone up so much that most young people can’t afford a college education. I talk to my students at fall conferences about their goals. They have lofty aspirations and we talk about the best schools in the country for their chosen fields. Then I look at their parents—solid middle/working class citizens, most of them—and I wonder how they will ever manage.

Not everyone needs or wants to go to college. The trades are good, honest work that support the economy too. But even trade schools cost money.

I know we can’t even get K-12 fully funded in our state. And the proposed tax on the top 2% in the state of Washington failed. But what if our top 2% made a public commitment to the students in our state? “If you graduate from high school in Washington with a 3.0 GPA or better, we will fully fund your continuing education at the college or trade school of your choice, anywhere in the United States.” There are amazing examples of outrageous philanthropy now—what a great time to tap into a trend!

My own district has a goal of fewer drop-outs. I believe the prospect of free college or trade school would keep significantly more high school students engaged in school through graduation.

Having more students complete not just high school but college or trade school would be such a boost for the state economy! Just think—less unemployment. Less drain on the state social services budget. More money to pay for things like our crumbling infrastructure—and more fresh new engineers and contractors to help fix the problems. Everybody wins!

Including my students who really want to go to college.

Teaching More than Academics—Much More

From the time I started specializing in gifted students in the mid-1980s, I also began studying their special needs. I realized that if I was going to teach them well, I must do more than meet their intellectual and academic needs. I had to address their myriad social and emotional needs as well.

I can tell you, there are times when I feel as if fully half my job involves meeting my students’ social and emotional issues needs.

Years ago I taught in a pull-out program. There was a fourth grade girl I’ll call Kristy who became infamous in the school after she threw a desk at the principal. She entered my program in the fifth grade and spent the first several months hiding under desks and tables whenever she came to my room. The first time Kristy presented a project in my class—in front of students and parents—she spoke for a few minutes then stopped and said, “That’s all I have. I didn’t do any more. It’s my own fault. I’m sorry.” And she sat down. Once everyone left the room her mom and I danced around the room together because she had accepted responsibility for her own actions.

In order to teach Kristy any academics, I first had to understand what was causing her to misbehave so badly. I had to understand the social and emotional issues that went hand in hand with her incredibly advanced intellect. I had to address those social and emotional needs before I could address her academic needs.

And, at the time I was teaching her, I had to do it with almost no training in the social and emotional needs of gifted.

Over the last couple of years, it sounds like other teachers in my school are starting to feel the same way about their jobs, as if half their jobs have to do with meeting social and emotional needs instead of academic needs. Our school’s professional development this year hasn’t been about math and reading strategies. It’s been about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS).

What does the phrase “adverse childhood experiences” mean? It refers to all the bad things that can happen to children, all the traumas that can have lasting negative effects, all the ordeals that can impact a child’s long-term health and long-term well-being. In the United States the most common ACEs would include parents getting a divorce, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, or having a parent incarcerated.

It seems that the divorce rate in the US has actually started to decline from its high during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Childhelp.org and the American Humane Organization have a wealth of statistics on child abuse and neglect. Data indicates an increase in abuse and neglect. The number of Americans in jail or in prison has exploded since 1990. Prisons are a growth industry in the US!

According to our ACEs trainers, children who grow up in highly stressful and traumatic situations can get stuck in almost a permanent “fight or flight” response. So when they come to school, they aren’t ready to sit quietly, to work in groups, to learn how to read or do math. If a teacher insists that they perform those tasks, they are likely to react with frustration, anger, or violence. Unfortunately, a discipline system that has always worked in the past might not work anymore.

Instead of asking, “What is wrong with this child?” sometimes we need to ask, “What happened to this child?”

Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) is a school-wide tiered behavior-management system based on the Response to Intervention (RTI) model for academics. Tier I behaviors are handled in the classroom by the teachers, Tier II behaviors might need a buddy classroom or other intervention, and Tier III go to the office. There is a lot of positive reinforcement built into the system along with common language and common expectations.

You might remember Greg from my post in October. Not surprisingly, it turns out he’s an ACEs kid. He’s gone through more traumas in his eight years than I have in in my 63! He’s still difficult to handle in the classroom. But every time I see him now, I get a hug. And if I hear him starting to spin out of control in his classroom—especially if I know there is a guest teacher in there—I poke my head in and say, “Hey, Greg, want to come visit me for a bit?” He’ll come lounge on my couch for a while until he’s calmed down. It works for everyone.

We are classroom teachers. None of us trained to be counselors or social workers. A lot of things we are doing in the classroom now used to be the purview of other professionals. We are stretching our job description to do far more than teach the Common Core, and it’s daunting.

We need pre-service training and/or professional development to prepare us for the ways our job requirements are being extended. This year our school offered about three hours training on ACEs and a couple of days on PBIS. As a point of comparison, I’ve spent years taking courses on meeting the social and emotional needs of gifted students, and I’ll continue to take those courses until I retire.

We need high-quality parent support groups and community outreach. For ACEs, that support needs to start with pre-natal care and neo-natal care and then parenting classes—all of which should be offered for free for high-risk parents. (Just to reassure taxpayers, the public health costs alone of kids growing up with ACEs are much higher than the costs of the care or classes would ever be.) Again, as a comparison, I know I can direct parents to Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted at sengifted.org.

And wouldn’t it be nice to have administrative and legislative support that acknowledges how much more complex and difficult our jobs are becoming?

21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

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My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.

How Teacher Evaluation Could (Should?) Evolve

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When the new teacher evaluation model, aka “TPEP,” rolled on down from Olympia, I was as skeptical as anyone. When will we have time for this? Why should I spend my time having to prove that I’m doing my job…I don’t even have enough time to do my job!

I’m a convert, though. I like the model of teacher evaluation that has been put into law. I believe that if implemented with the right mindset and agreements from all sides, it can, and does, focus on fostering conversations about improving practice to impact student learning. I’ve seen it in my own practice and heard of it from teachers and principals throughout my district.

We’re now completing the first “live” year of legal implementation, and I have a few ideas about how I’d like to see our system continue to improve. No one has enough time to accomplish everything that is expected of us. Teachers don’t, principals don’t, even students don’t. We do have choices, though, and I think that accomplishing the aims of our evaluation system can be addressed at the policy level as well as the practice level.

Continue reading

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

Student Behavior, Teacher Behavior, and Getting Cussed Out

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For some reason, my heart has always been with “those kids.” The ones who sneer at you the first time you meet them. The ones who push buttons and boundaries. The frequent fliers in the “tank” (In School Suspension) and who know the campus security guards far too well.

I was talking to the principal at the smaller of the two high schools in our district recently, and without consulting my brain, my mouth spoke my truth: What a privilege it is for me to be the adult for that kid at whom they can scream “F— you, Mr. Gardner!” And then tomorrow, we can talk it through and figure out where that came from; I can teach about repairing relationships, and we can strategize how to handle it better next time…and the time after that…in a safe place where they won’t be risking their paycheck or their marriage or their freedom; in a safe place where they can start to learn some important lessons that don’t show up in the Common Core.

Read no sarcasm here, I mean it: What a privilege that I get to be that person.

While I think I’m a pretty good teacher of the academic stuff, I think what has made me successful is the way I handle moments like that. I don’t always do it perfectly; none of us do. The idea of student discipline is one that I often think over, and in particular in my role this year as a new-teacher mentor. Classroom management and discipline, creating those safe, productive educational spaces, are central lessons for the beginning of a teaching career. Recently, at a conference related to the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program here in Washington, this topic of how teachers handle student behavior was at the core.

It was at this conference that I was handed some data that did what data is supposed to do: It made me think.

Continue reading

21st Century School Segregation

baltimore-integrationThis post is the beginning of a series of posts I will write about 21st century school segregation. I want to start by acknowledging a few factors that influence my perspective and shape my writing.

  1. This topic is complicated and multifaceted
  2. Nuance is hard to write in a blog
  3. I’m a white lady without children
  4. My instructional choices and community activism is shaped by my evolving understanding of my role as a white, female educator
  5. I love metaphors and analogies

Recently, I met with two outstanding women—one I consider the “Godmother” of my teaching practice and the other a teacher, community activist, and all-around inspiration. Over a cup of coffee, we grappled with elements of a conversation that started on Facebook then moved to email and finally to Bluebeard Coffee Roasters. As white women, what do we do about increasingly segregated schools? What do we do about the segregated schools in our city? 

Grappling with these questions is like swimming the English channel–it can be done but it’s cold, choppy, and overwhelming. These questions are particularly relevant because I am part of that “interchangeable white lady” teaching force working in a school with a majority of students of color.

As a nation, we were founded on simple truth. “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” See that tension there: liberty and equality. At their core those two ideas seem to be at odds with each other. Which has more value? Personal liberty? Equality? Overall, good for the majority of the communities?

As Americans we value choice–what we eat, where we shop, and where we send our kids to school. The policy obsession school choice is undergirded by America’s obsession with exceptionalism. In my freedom, I deserve to have choice because I’m exceptional. We want to be special. We want our kids to be special. And we want to choose an exceptional, special school for our child.

The unacknowledged issue with school choice is that it really isn’t a choice for everyone. School choice is limited by a parent’s employment situation, their transportation costs and access, and the services their child needs. As noted in “Not Everyone Has a Choice”, parents lack access to all the information necessary to even make the best choice for their child. School choice is actually a privilege that is only readily available for middle and upper class Americans. It is these parents that have consistent access the innovative programs across town and can get their students there.

If we’re serious about doing something to stop our segregated school system we have to be honest about the beliefs that undergird the choices we make about where we send our children and why we send them there. We have to decide if we want liberty or if we want equality. As the system now stands, we can’t seem to have both. Due to a myriad of factors–among them underfunding, legislative incompetence, voter apathy, and a skewed sense of social responsibility–current policy conditions we don’t have the resources to make all schools exceptional. You can’t create exceptional schools without the commensurate support from the community.

So where does that leave us? Rationing. People with means use their means to provide themselves with choices and options. People with means in our society are more likely to be white, leading to school segregation.

As a childless, white woman I’m left pondering the way forward from here: Open enrollment? Options for parents in poverty are limited by ineffective and underfunded public transit. Charters? I am skeptical. Vouchers? Results are mixed at best and exacerbate existing underfunding of K-12. I really don’t have an answer, but I am hoping to stumble my way to one in this series.

Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools

Cambridgeside-GalleriaBy Tom White

There’s a large shopping mall near my school that functions the way many schools do. Although the stores all share the same parking lot, utility service, and roof, they all operate independently. They employ workers on their own, set their own prices and treat their customers as they see fit.

Likewise, many schools have classrooms that share the same general space, serve the same community and teach to the same standards, but have little else in common. The students have different routines, use different books, and do different projects and assignments.

I also teach near a department store. It operates somewhat like the larger mall, with separate departments that focus on specific products with separate workers who understand those products, yet the entire department store is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

Department store schools have separate classrooms that focus on specific grade levels or subjects, with teachers trained to teach in those specific classrooms, yet the entire school is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

My school is definitely a shopping-mall school. Continue reading

The Neglected PD

Thursday, in one of my last spring conferences, one of my moms was pretty tense. That was unusual. After all, she and I had known each other for three years now, after two children in my 4/5 class, and we got along well. Eventually she came out with the cause. A few days earlier I had sent her an email that upset her. She proceeded to tell me that I had handled things completely wrong and how I should have done it.

My first instinct was to explain the circumstances from my point of view and tell her in some detail why I had done what I did. Then I bit my tongue. I said simply, “You are right. I am so sorry. I should have done that better. I apologize.”

She continued to talk about why she was upset, explaining what had happened to her in the past—incidents at another school with another staff member—to make her so emotional in her response. I told her I understood. After a few minutes we got back to her child’s conference.

At the end of the conference, as she stood up to leave, I asked, “Do you forgive me?”

She said, “Of course!”

We hugged, and she left smiling.

Let’s be clear here. I botched the communication I sent to her. (Emails have the advantage of providing brief and rapid communication. The disadvantage? They can more easily cause miscommunication!) I am completely comfortable with acknowledging the fact that I made a mistake and apologizing.

Friday I was at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair with the students from my class who entered the fair this year and their moms. While the students were in the auditorium with the judges, the moms and I sat around a table and talked.

One mom asked if there was a time the two of us could get together so I could give her advice for how to handle an issue with a colleague in my district. I told her, “After I retire.” She said that wouldn’t be very timely.

Then a parent who’s a doctor asked if I’d ever done teacher training. Yes. I’ve done in-service training on subjects from classroom management to science to social studies to all areas of language arts. I’m a regional trainer for Highly Capable. I’ve done a lot of teacher training.

That wasn’t what she was interested in. She wanted to know if I’d ever taught a class to teachers on how to interact with parents.

I said no. I must have looked surprised.

“Don’t you take classes like that?” she asked. “Isn’t that part of your regular teacher training courses?”

“Not that I know of,” I said—it certainly wasn’t a part of mine. At most I’ve seen a few handouts over the years about how to talk to parents put in my box around conference time.

Apparently learning how to interact with adult clients was part of her training to be a doctor. She roleplayed meeting with patients while a psych observed. The interaction was videotaped. She and the psych watched the tape later and discussed what they saw. She says she learned a lot from what she did well and even more from what she didn’t do well.

As a teacher leader, I’ve taken classes on how to train adults and how to communicate with peers. The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession has helpful material on their leadership framework. However, all the materials I’ve seen and all the classes I’ve taken are geared towards making teacher leaders effective at providing professional development to their peers.  While the materials and classes have crossover applications, I haven’t seen any classes specifically designed to help new teachers learn how to interact well with parents. And how helpful would that kind of training be?

There have been times in my career when I knew I was headed into a difficult conference, and I asked the school counselor to join me. Having the counselor there helped, but I believe now that at least one particular difficult conference would have gone so much better if she and I had role-played the conference ahead of time, practicing for the real thing. I never considered doing that with her, and she never suggested it to me.

There were other times, like this week, when I had no idea there was a problem coming at me in the conference. I wouldn’t have known to role-play in advance. But what if practicing before conferences was part of my routine? What if our team used one PLC time before each set of conferences to get ready by role-playing some possible scenarios?

All teachers have to learn how to teach our subjects areas. We have to learn how to teach our students with all their social and emotional needs. We take classes to learn how to do those things.

Teachers need to know how to interact with parents as well. Maybe we need some classes—pre-service, in-service, or just practice training sessions—to learn how to do that too.