Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Green Schools

The September/October issue of "Sierra", the magazine of the Sierra Club has an interesting piece on "green" colleges. This is the third annual ranking of the best "planet-preserving colleges and universities".

Sierra e-mails a lengthy questionnaire to hundreds of colleges and universities surveying eight areas: efficiency, energy, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, and administration.

I will spoil the surprise and give you the rankings:
1. University of Colorado at Boulder
2. University of Washington at Seattle
3. Middlebury College
4. University of Vermont
5. College of the Atlantic
6. Evergreen State College
7. University of California at Santa Cruz
8. University of California at Berkeley
9. University of California at Los Angeles
10. Oberlin College
11. Harvard University
12. University of New Hampshire
13. Arizona State University at Tempe
14. Yale University
15. University of Florida at Gainesville
16. Bates College
17. Willamette University
18. Warren Wilson College
19. Dickinson College
20. New York University

If your looking for a regional school, you should know that an honorable mention goes to University of Pennsylvania for giving 800 gallons of cooking grease annually to biodiesel makers. Also, their cafeterias use only biodegradable cups and packaging.

Sierra spoke to a number of admissions counselors who say that the a school's environmental policies are becoming frequent points of inquiry by prospective students. It goes without saying that means that K-12 educators must be making their students more socially conscious.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dancing Into the Future

By virtue of a wonderful website called TED at, I recently viewed a speech by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson is one of the world's most innovative thinkers around issues such as human development, creativity, education, and the future.

Robinson noted that national public education systems did not exist before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. Public education was originally founded to educate for the factories and thus what was valued most was that which was useful for work. In order of importance we had (have) math, language, humanities, and the arts. The latter two could be scuttled with no hesitation when time or money was an issue.

Robinson told an insightful story about a woman named Gillian Lynne. Gillian was of elementary school age in the 1930s. She had difficulty sitting still and paying attention. This obviously led to trouble for Gillian. Eventually Gillian's mother was persuaded to take the child to a doctor.

After an examination and interview with Gillian and her mother, the doctor asked to speak to the mother alone. Before escorting Gillian's mother outside, he turned on the radio at his desk for Gillian to listen to while the adults were outside.

The doctor took the mother into the hallway and then back to the office door to peek in on Gillian who was at once out of her chair and dancing.

The doctor said to the mother, "Gillian is not sick. She is a dancer."

Gillian Lynne went on to become one of the most successful choreographers in history. She is responsible for the choreography in most of the Andrew Loyd Webber productions including "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera".

Gillian would be more of a problem today than she was in the 1930s. Gillian would be a drag on standardized test scores, and of course dance is not math, it will not make us globally competitive.

The point of Robinson's speech and this rambling post is that we are still educating for the Industrial Revolution. We have thrown science into the mix with math and language to make us feel like we have modernized education, but we have not. In education we still dance to the tune played by powerful economic interests and kids who hear their own drummer are a still a problem. Complicating the entire situation is a drive by decision makers for accountability based on the same industrial notion of counting widgets.

The powerful interests have totally missed the mark. Their obsession is to prepare kids to be globally competitive. For kids like my son who just turned 13, they need to be more concerned about having a livable globe than being globally competitive.

We live on a finite planet with overwhelming challenges of population, climate change, water, food, and a world-wide economic system founded on the idea of infinite growth.

The kind of change we need is beyond a smart invention for a technological fix. The dancer probably has as much chance of leading us to the light as the scientist.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Dose of Democracy

Charter schools could use a good dose of democracy. If one thinks about it, charters have a "get out of democracy free" card. The boards that oversee charters are not elected, but rather chosen by the people who founded/operate the school. Unions are strongly discouraged, so teachers are not empowered. Parental involvement varies from school to school. The Department of Education has no real policing powers over charters. Finally, charters have avoided, at least to date, further legislative oversight.

None of this makes for better education. In the recent past, charters were able to justify such actions as anti-unionism on their unique program that produced significant education outcomes. Research now shows that when students with similar demographics are compared charters do not out perform traditional public schools. So what will be the excuse to continue to operate charters like fiefdoms?

There is a place for charters in education just as there is a place for private schools. However, charters have less justification than private schools for insisting on complete autonomy. Charters take taxpayers' money. That should make them accountable. Public dollars should make them open to public scrutiny. That should make them have elected, not chosen boards. Charter construction funding should face referendum. Finally, public money should mean that charters cannot thwart the efforts of their employees to form unions. Education in general and charters in particular need more democracy, not less.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Caution With Consolidation

We will likely hear a lot of talk next legislative session (coming in January)about school district consolidation. Lawmakers will be on the hunt for money. Given that there was little enthusiasm for raising significant revenue last session, this session legislators will be even less keen on taxation with an election following. That means any idea that might have projected savings will be viable.

The consolidation of school districts must be about money, because there are no obvious education advantages to kids. School districts are wrapped up in communities, and thus identity, values, tradition and culture. It stands to reason that radical changes or the complete eradication of districts causes disruption in all of the above mentioned. That can't be good for kids and probably not for the all important, all holy, standardized test scores.

Getting back to economics, which appears to be the motive for consolidation, it is not clear that huge cost savings would result. First, DSEA will insist on the principle of "topping up". Nothing is more destructive to educator morale than having multiple people doing the same job with the same experience for significantly different salaries. Therefore, when districts are consolidated all salaries should be moved up to the top salary schedule among the group of consolidated districts (topping up). That action reduces much of the cost savings.

Delaware has experience with district consolidation. There was consolidation in the southern part of the state during the 1960s and '70s. In New Castle County, there was consolidation in the late 1970s as a result of court ordered desegregation. I don't know the experiences around those consolidations for good or bad. I would venture to say that most of the decision makers do not know these stories either, but we all should find out before passing legislation.

Also, the General Assembly studied district consolidation more than decade ago. It is unclear if the research resulted in a document. DSEA is attempting to locate and acquire the research if possible.

Caution is the word. With the best of intentions and the best of results, school district consolidation is still very disruptive to a lot of lives, most notably kid's lives. Therefore, let us not rush to judgement or action in the chase for cash.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Child Poverty and Our Lost Decade

This blog, directed at education employees has often dealt with economic justice issues, simply because those issues are so entwined with education and educators. Nothing brings that home like the new statistics on childhood poverty.

First, it should be noted that when we think of the poor, we should know that one in three people in poverty in the US is a child. Next, looking at children as their own group, be aware that one in four children in our country lives in poverty. In just one year, that's next year, 2010 we will have 26.6% of children in poverty.

The researchers at the Economic Policy Institute are calling the decade of 2000 to 2010 a lost decade because the child poverty rate rose an amazing 10.4% in those years.

In the midst of this devastation of our young are the clarion calls for educators to do more, raise the test scores, ground children in the basics at the same time we give them skills for the future, and while your at it make sure you all do something about youth drug use, violence, and promiscuity.

One does not need a doctorate in economics or sociology to understand that the increasing disparity in the distribution of wealth and skyrocketing child poverty rates makes education daunting.

Every child can learn, but the ones with hungry bellies, poor health, homes broken by the stresses of poverty, parents working several jobs, and no permanent residences, may just skew the numbers a bit. Ahhh, therein is the problem, they are numbers; low numbers on a standardized test...leading to numbers not adding up to Adequate Yearly Progress...leading to reduced pay in some foolish merit pay scheme...on and on. Of course kids are not just numbers and neither are the educators who work with them.

We need a war on poverty, not a war on educators and their unions.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Beat Them at Their Own Game

The Boston Teachers Union has been getting hammered by all the usuals, big business, the press, and politicians about the need to increase charter schools to get around union contracts. In this new breed of "reformers" the union is the number one obstacle to reform because obviously what is best is a top down administration with teachers having no power and little voice.

The Boston Teachers Union has decided to beat them at their own game by opening their own charter school, Boston Teachers Union School. The school features some changes from the standard union contract such as a school day that is 30 minutes longer and weekly two hour faculty meetings. However, the teachers are compensated for this extra time. (A novel concept, not alternative compensation, simply adequate compensation.)

The school will function without a principal as CEO, no principal as instructional leader, simply NO PRINCIPAL. Instead, there will be two lead teachers who will also teach themselves.

The charter school will be free to abstain from district programs. The teachers involved in Boston Teachers Union School believe this will allow them more time to actually teach and build real teacher student relationships. According to Richard Stutman, President of the teachers' union, "We want to bring back some of the joy of teaching."

Most likely with the return of the joy of teaching will come the return of the joy of learning for students. How many of our children today head to school with the same grim determination to make it through another day as their parents headed off to their office cubicle to make it through another day? Is this what it has come to, are we training our kids to put up with monotonous drudgery so that they will be better at monotonous drudgery as adults? Folks, that's not the fault of teachers, that's the fault of decision makers with an obsessive pursuit of accountability for a process almost impossible to quantify.

In any case, we must wish the Boston Teachers Union School a lot of luck. Certainly, there will be many others hoping they will fail and that the finger wagging can then begin. Of course if we wagged a finger at all the non-union charter failures, we would all be digitally impaired by now. Unfortunately, success or failure will continue to be judged by another standardized test of dubious merit.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Little Merit in Merit Pay

In the months ahead we should make a distinction between alternative compensation and merit pay tied to student performance.

Broadly defined, alternative compensation is any pay for education employees for something other than length of service. If we were to look at our salary schedules traditional compensation are the "steps" down, and alternative compensation are the "columns" to the side for education.

There can be many types of alternative compensation. Educators cannot be blamed for wanting to experiment with those types that improve both the profession and their bank accounts.

Along with innovation in compensation, there is the resurrection of a quite old idea, merit pay tied to student performance. That's right, in spite of what any "reformers" might tell you merit pay is nothing new or innovative. It has been around a long time. For more than a century merit pay has been tried, failed and then tried again, and again.

Merit pay simply does not improve student learning, even when using the dubious measurement of test scores. Reformers, consultants, and politicians like to throw around data to support the initiative of the day; however, in the merit pay initiative you will see no data, no scientific controlled studies demonstrating student improvement because they do not exist.

If Delaware goes to some type of merit pay it will not be because of the opportunity to improve learning, but because of the opportunity to snare Race To The Top dollars and appease business interests behind some of the education foundations. As Alfie Kohn said in the wonderful Education Week article, "The Folly of Merit Pay" (9/17/2003)"Equally controlling pay-for-performance plans are based more on neoclassical economic dogma than on an understanding of how things look from a teacher's perspective."

Merit pay incentives start from the assumption that teachers are not giving 100% now. For some reason teachers are holding back effort, 10%, 20%, maybe more. If they are either bribed with more money or threatened with the loss of money, then they will give that extra effort and propel American students into a great college and on into middle class nirvana.

The education profession is self selecting as a group of people whose primary motivation is not money. Yet, there is all this effort to motivate them exclusively with money. Again quoting Alfie Kohn, "Pay people well, pay them fairly, and then do everything to help them forget about money."

More on all of this later.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ponderings On Reform

A two day conference of regional National Education Association affiliates was held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania this week to discuss alternative compensation and Race To The Top. The information gathered at this event will be very useful as debate around these issues moves forward.

In this post, I'll share just a few of the interesting comments from the conference:

Alternative compensation proposals that tie teacher pay directly to student performance go against models of compensation for other professionals. For example, a doctor's performance is not judged by outcomes because those outcomes have too many variables. The competency of a doctor is judged by his/her education and training, as well as his/her ability to follow established protocol and process.

The academic performance of students is being totally accredited to teachers while ignoring socio-economic realities. With only a little consideration we can see how this plays out. Children come to school without adequate health care, including dental care. There are some estimates that as many as one in five children are going to school with dental pain. Nutritional health is dubious for poor youth. In poor families, parental involvement with the academic life of the child may be minimal, not because of apathy but because of working multiple jobs to provide sustenance. Frequent moving is often a by-product of poverty, as are unsafe homes and neighborhoods. Whereas middle class families often engage in enriching hobbies or vacations with their children, this is not available for the poor. Our educators who have students with challenging backgrounds could probably greatly expand this list.

The use of alternative compensation and charter schools are dominant themes in the latest education reform push, but neither have supporting data that shows improved student academic performance.

In spite of acknowledgment by education experts that achievement tests are inadequate measures of learning, the tests continue to be the measure of our students, schools, and educators.

These are just a few of the ideas that surfaced at this conference. Much more will follow in future posts.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day

The Delaware State Education Association made their annual appearance in the Labor Day parade today. This event is always a positive experience and an opportunity for DSEA members to see themselves as part of a larger movement. The two themes of this year's parade were "health care for all" and "employee free choice". This blog has posted many times on the former, the latter needs a little explanation.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a proposal under consideration by Congress to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions. Under current law, workers must first sign Authorization Cards to be filed with a Petition for Election. Once the Petition for Election is filed, many employers engage in stalling techniques that can delay the election for unionization by months. In the meantime, professional anti-union campaigns are run against the employees with a good deal of intimidation and misinformation. This action often results in petitions being pulled or lost elections.

This is not the process followed by the rest of the developed world. The Employee Free Choice Act would move the US more toward the norm with an abbreviated process.

In other news, most of our members are aware that President Obama will address the students of the nation tomorrow with an inspirational message about applying themselves and staying in school. Not all of the US students will be given the opportunity to hear this message because some districts have bowed to pressure and are not allowing the speech to be shown.

This is an interesting development considering the fact that both Ronald Reagan and George Bush (the first) had similar addresses to school children. In fact Reagan's speech was in parts blatantly political. Of course, the people raising the objections have no sense of history, even when that history is contemporary history from only twenty years ago.

We are living in the age where some folks believe the President is a Kenyan Socialist. Speaking of contemporary history, the last time we had such foolishness being spread around the country, a misguided young man named Timothy McVey blew up the Oklahoma Federal Building killing many innocents that he had learned to hate through a haze of paranoia. God help us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Greetings blog followers. The blogs have been a little light lately. I'm catching my breath. Things are sure to heat up after Labor Day, and so will the blog so stay tuned. Also, I am in the process of doing more analysis on the Race To The Top issues and will be posting on that in the next few days.

Please don't forget the Labor Day Parade. The last few years, DSEA has been showing solidarity with our sister unions in the AFL-CIO by walking in the parade. Last year we had about 75 members join us for a nice holiday walk. We hope to top 100 this year. It really is a lot of fun...really. Please meet up at 15th and King Streets in downtown Wilmington between 9:00AM and 9:30Am for the line up. The parade starts on time at 10:00AM.