xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Don't Forget South Central: March 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Week of Turmoil and Tension

 This past week at L.A. Academy has been marked by the dread of imposed layoffs, uncertainty as to how many would actually go through, and the potential loss of our award-winning librarian.

Coincidentally (or not), students decided at this time to behave in a manner unseen in years, to the faculty who has been around since the opening of the school in 1998.  There were “rolling fights” on campus, where students run in hordes from place to place, to witness fights or other disturbances.  This situation has the potential for lots of physical injury because if you are in the way of an approaching horde, you will get knocked down, run over, and trampled.  Two students were injured, and many others were pushed, shoved, and stepped on.

Is there a connection between these two situations?  Teachers believe so.  Our school is a distinctly different place since 23 of our established faculty were laid-off in the 2009 Reduction in Force.  More than half of those teachers left the school, and the other half are working as substitutes, a tenuous status for anyone who has ever worked in education.  Coupled with our class size reduction, we have over 15 new teachers on staff, most with no middle school teaching experience.  And our students know this; they feel it.  A small group of students has exploited this situation to its advantage all year long.  C Track, especially, has seen this element increase and wreak havoc in the classrooms of some of our new teachers.  Sinks have been set to overflow in science rooms, tagging and vandalism is on the rise both in and out of the classrooms, and disrespect against adults on campus is at an unfathomable level.  Example:  a student threw his trash on the ground and was told to pick it up by a teacher.  The student instead, threw the trash towards the teacher, using profanity against her.  A crowd of students around him laughed at the whole incident and refused to disburse until the dean was called.

Teachers, not about to hand over control of the school to this group of students, showed up en masse to conduct voluntary supervision during lunch and nutrition on Friday.  Whistles were handed out, students felt their presence, and we were able to end the week without any further major disruptions.

It is painful, however, to be dealing with the issue of “control of the school.”  This was an issue dealt with and resolved almost 5 years ago, when our current principal arrived to strengthen student discipline.  It feels like we have traveled back in time.

Nonetheless, Saturday morning arrived with the news that we seem to have dodged a bullet, when UTLA and LAUSD reached an agreement to save most positions via “shared sacrifice”:  teachers agreed to 12 furlough days to help balance the budget and preserve class sizes to their present numbers.  Furlough days are a pay cut of about 5% for teachers.

While this is a good moment, it is not a long-term solution to the chronic under-funding of California schools, that has led us to be 47th in per-pupil funding out of the entire 50 states.  I guess you get what you pay for.

image from http://rtmulcahy.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/oil_turmoil.jpg


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Numbers: Do They Tell the Whole Story?


The internet has given many folks the opportunity to chime in about education reform (including those that author this blog, teachers from Los Angeles Academy MS).  Our school that has been labeled "Program Improvement" -California's label for "failing" schools--- for the last several years.  This is due to one simple measure, created by George Bush in his signature piece of legislation known as No Child Left Behind.   In NCLB, each school has to have 100% of students scoring Proficient or higher to be deemed a successful school.  This includes all English learners, and special education students who are mentally impaired.  Many schools, including ours, did not meet our targets, hence the PI label.

But does one single test label measure the worth of a school?  I believe not.  Having worked at several schools in the Los Angeles Unified District, and having hundreds of colleagues spread out all over the district, state, and nation, I have some thoughts on what hidden factors constitute a good school.

1.  Teacher Transiency:  For students in poverty, having teachers who know them, want to work with them, and don't feel sorry for them is paramount.  They don't thrive when new staff travels through the school for short stints, and takes almost the whole year to learn anything about the population, then poof!  they are gone again.

Teachers who stay also show a commitment to the school and community, become experts in teaching this specific population, and tacitly acknowledge that it is a "good school" simply by staying, and not choosing to flee to a better location.  Teachers staying is good.

2.  Student and Staff Attendance:  If you go to work or school, it means you want to be there.  It means something is happening in the classrooms that is worth your while.  It means teachers are committed to teaching and students to learning,

3.  Truancy:  When you walk the school campus during class periods, how many kids are "ditching?"  Large numbers of truants show the security/management of a school is not working.  Its like the broken window theory:  if you can't keep the kids in the classroom, you can forget about learning.

4.  Student Defiance:  When you tell a student to go to class, do they:
  • do what you tell them?
  • run away?
  • not even acknowledge you spoke?
  • curse you out and keep walking?
None of these responses are acceptable but the first.  A student who runs away knows there isn't a system in place to handle that.  How a student responds to adults on the campus tells a HUGE story about what the expectations are for student conduct at the school.

********  You may wonder why there is a focus on student discipline up to now.  Remember, this is a blog about teaching in an urban school, where students arrive to us with a multitude of social and economic problems such as poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, foster homes, physical abuse, gang influence, etc.  Each school and each community is different.  These are challenges we face here, and this is why there is no one solution that will fit all schools and communities.

5.  Office Staff:  Are they courteous and efficient?  Do they treat parents and visitors with respect?  Again, this little detail will likely not be noted in the ESEA reauthorization, but it tells lots about a school campus.  It says that all workers at the school are expected to be knowledgeable about their duties.  It means no one is working at the school due to nepotism or cronyism.  It means that office staff are the first people we encounter when visiting schools, and first impressions are pretty accurate.

6.  Instruction in the Classroom/Test Scores:  This is where I believe that the merit-pay, NCLB fanatics have it wrong.  I do not believe test scores tell the whole story about what is happening in the classroom.  Quite simply, if teacher quality is based on test scores, or if pay is impacted by tests, then  teachers will teach to the test. 

I have seen this happen with teachers who put forth minimum effort.  If administration says "turn your grades in on time," those teachers are the first to do so.  If they say "put the standards on the wall," they have the nicest posters and put them up immediately.  Whatever the panacea of the day, slacker teachers will quickly understand that this is on what they will be evaluated, and they comply.  They do little more than that, and are always in compliance.

If we make jobs and pay contingent upon test scores, I have no doubt anything not being tested will be eliminated from the curriculum (science, social studies, arts, depth, complexity, novelty) and students will be drilled and killed, and do well on tests.  The teachers will keep their jobs, and some may even earn merit pay.  But learning has not improved.  Two true stories:  in one school, a teacher promised his students that if they studied hard and did well on the test in May, he would give them all of June to watch movies in class.  They did well, and watched movies all of June.  Great teaching?  No.  Another teacher paid each student $5 for scoring Advanced on the state test.  Did her scores improve?  Yes.  Great teaching? No.

Perhaps a better way would involve something we do in the GATE program here at LAAMS.  Once a year teachers conduct GATE observations of their peers.  No administrators are involved.  The GATE Coordinator and a teacher visit each and every classroom and look for the elements of differentiated instruction.  We look for:
  • Relevance:  Is the lesson a part of the standards?  Does the teacher make a connection to real world applications of the lesson?  Is it relevant to a gifted learner?
  • Instructional strategies:  is the lesson taught using strategies tailored to gifted learners, such as curriculum compacting, tiering, novelty, multiple groupings, etc?
  • Bloom's Taxonomy:  ultimately, at what level of Bloom's did this lesson reach?
  • Student Product:  did the student have choice?  Is the assignment/task rigorous and complex?
  • Teacher:  Is the teacher using any of the instructional strategies learned at workshops/conferences?
After the observation, there is a debrief where the observed teacher is asked to reflect on the lesson. Many times, there is a surprise because they felt a lesson was on a higher level of Bloom's, but the debrief shows them it was not.  Teachers tend to listen to other teachers, because they can't be hoodwinked like administrators.  We know exactly what standards should be covered and how they should be taught.  We can't be fooled.  All teachers are invited on these observations and earn professional development credit (they must fulfill a 16 hour PD requirement yearly to qualify to teach GATE classes) for every class observed.  You learn as much, maybe even more, being the observer, not the observed, many teachers say.

Students in the GATE program also evaluate their teachers and their instruction anonymously.  Teachers get a copy of the evaluations at the semester break, and adjust their teaching accordingly.  While administration never sees the evaluations, the GATE coordinator does, and teachers are encouraged by her to make adjustments to meet the students' needs.

What is the incentive?  Teaching GATE classes.  If teachers are not participating in the program in the manner which it was designed, they will not be assigned to teach GATE classes.  The teachers in the program trust the authentic evaluation that comes from their peers, and are willing to do what is asked of them. 

In an environment where myths are being propagated about teachers and accountability systems, it is clear to me that when you empower teachers to improve themselves, they rise to the occasion.  If you throw stupid programs and stupid benchmarks for them to reach, they will act/react accordingly.  And nothing will be improved.  The fallacy of higher test scores can make some schools seem stellar.  But are our students learning to be critical, independent thinkers?  Or are they learning to memorize and regurgitate isolated pieces of information, never making connections to how they are relevant to today's world?  I think we all know the answer to that.

photo from dcist.com

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Kick 'Em While They're Down

Starting at dinner time on Friday the 12th, the texts and phone calls started coming in.  "I'm fired,"  "guess I'll be looking for a new job" or  "I get it, LAUSD, you don't want me."  Apprehensive teachers had made their way home to find their pink slips waiting for them.

Unlike last year, the teachers were realistic about their chances of getting another one this year.  Nothing can really prepare you for getting the letter that tells you you have less than four months left of being a teacher and working with your students.  LAAMS lost 23 teachers last year, and with that fact in mind, and no clear UTLA plan of action, our new crop of RIF'ed teachers are grim about their future, and the future of our school community.

At least 10 new RIF's have been confirmed, but LAUSD saw it fit to send duplicate RIF's to last year's laid-off teachers who are currently working as substitutes.  In a time of contract negotiations between the district and the union, we are told to have faith in the budget numbers LAUSD is sharing with the union.  Yet LAUSD is RIF'ing nilly-willy, with no seemingly logical reason to double-RIF substitute teachers!  We are supposed to trust their accounting?

As of today, L.A. Academy Middle School has lost 33 teaching positions in 9 months.  This is 30% of our staff.

How do you watch your school being dismantled step by step, day by day by cuts, layoffs, transfers, media attacks and even a blatant lack of support by the President himself?  How do you compartmentalize this huge attack on your school (intentional or unintentional, no matter) and go in the classroom and smile at the children, reassuring them that its going to be okay?  CST testing begins this week, for C track students.  Yeah, the state exam by which our school will be labeled a "success" or a "failure".  None of this will affect test scores, I'm sure, right?

How do you look at your new teachers and support them as they see their dreams of being educators dying in slow motion?

Please, someone give me an answer because we don't have it here, and this school community is desperate for one.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rolling protests throughout the state of California emphasized the despair, anger, and will of the people.


March 4, 2010 was the Day of Action that brought together all those who have been affected by the $17 billion dollars in education funding cuts over the last two years.  College students, K-12 students, teachers, unions, and parents rallied from San Francisco to San Diego to tell the world it is wrong to cut education and spend billions on wars and prisons.

For L.A. teachers, it was a chance to express our angst at the lack of foresight of laying off teachers, when in the next few years, millions of baby boomer teachers will be retiring.  Poor planning has led to many districts being in a dismal financial situation, while others who planned well and had rainy day funds have been navigating the Great Recession, even if only barely.

Superintendent Cortines recently presented the 2010-2011 budget that included more cuts for LAUSD teachers, to the tune of 5,200 teaching positions.  Possible factors to mitigate these cuts include pay cuts for teachers, and furlough days that would result in the shortening of the school year.

Multiple subject teachers are once again, especially vulnerable to layoffs due to the proposed increase in elementary class sizes that will result in over-staffing in this category of teachers.  For L.A. Academy M.S., it will mean wiping out 50% of our 6th grade teachers, 16 teachers.  This is in addition to the 23 teachers we lost last year in the Reduction of Force.

Many assign blame to the union for maintaining the seniority system.  But seniority, while approved by the union, is actually determined by the state education code.  A change in the ed code would require Sacramento legislators to put forth a bill and have voters approve it.

In other words, if the union decided today to change the way teachers are laid-off, it would be years before the change would be implemented.  Too late to save our teachers now.
With eight days left before pink slips are issued, there is an atmosphere of tension and stress as or staff wonders who will be next to go.  Our students know that in addition to the layoffs, the CST exams are coming up and the threat of reconsitution or school takeover is a possibility should they not meet their target, leading to a possible 100% loss of the teachers they know and care for.

It is clear that people WITHOUT a background in education concluded that fear is a good way to motivate teachers and students into scoring higher on tests.  We will see if they are right when our scores are released in August 2010. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why Firing Central Falls Faculty Was Wrong


Teachers and students from Central Falls HS

Firing the Central Falls faculty was wrong, for reasons we see every day here in South Central Los Angeles.

1.  The premise is that the 74 high school teachers, and no one else, was responsible for the students' academic struggles.  Not socio-economics, not gangs, not the parents, not the students themselves.  What a mistaken assumption.  If this were the magic bullet, wouldn't it have been used more often?  It hasn't because results have been mixed, at best.

2.  If these teachers are fired, it will scare the bejeezuz out of other teachers who will shape up in order to not lose their jobs.  Wrong.  Most teachers, especially the good ones, are not motivated by money or threats.

3.  When you start with a brand new staff, it will establish a new climate and higher expectations for the students and better test scores.  Where has this been proven to happen?  Not by a paltry few percentage points, but by significant and honest progress?  Not Fenger High in Chicago, not Markham Middle in Los Angeles (teachers there weren't fired there, but 50% of staff lost jobs in July 09's reduction in force, and 8 months later they are not fully staffed.)  Further, who will replace these teachers?  Arne, there is no magical line of teachers waiting to teach in the 'hood.

4.  Firing these teachers was wrong, even cruel, because you are removing what may be the only steady, consistent figures in the students' difficult lives.  Here at DFSC, we have seen this first hand.  We have seen the cruelty of having our next generation of teachers culled from our ranks, teachers who wanted to teach at LAAMS, who did it well, but in the end, were just numbers in an equation that couldn't be balanced.

But the public, fueled by the worst kind of "journalism" seen in recent times, and also suffering from the effects of this recession, want to see consequences.  So the firing is accepted.  The President applauds it.  And the students?  The students will be taught by teachers assigned to that school, some against their will, and who have no knowledge of the community and history of the school.

Hell hath no fury like students scorned.  New staff members at LAAMS, live with this every day, and its not pretty.

One last thought; at Bethune MS, also in South Central, the teachers would often be threatened with removal from the school if test scores didn't rise.  The joke in the faculty lounge was, "what are they (the District) going to do?  Send me to Bethune?"  For the Central Falls teachers, most will probably land in more affluent schools that have less challenging environments.  Supeintendent Gallo, you really showed them!
photo from www.uri.edu