Monday, June 29, 2009

Unions and salaries and overtime pay

A commenter at 11D contended that academic K-12 teachers resent/have resented in the past, PE teachers for having less work to do. I disagreed and mentioned that my father had never complained about PE teachers. Well, when I saw him this weekend, I asked him, and he said yes, he and the other teachers resented the PE teachers for doing less work and making the same money.

That led to a discussion that is kind of interesting to me. My dad obsreved that teaching is the only job where you get paid *less* for overtime. As we had just spent the previous evening talking with my NYPD brother-in-law about his desire to work as much overtime as possible so he can get the biggest pension possible when he retires next month (at age 41, may I add), I realized how true that is! Even my overloads as a professor aren't really as much as my full-time salary.

I also just ran across this article in my RSS feed. People always blame teachers for refusing to do extra, for, as Mathews puts it, "It is, [critics of teacher unions] contend, a sign of how unions dumb down public education by focusing on salaries, not learning."

I cannot even imagine expecting a police officer agreeing to work an extra hour a week for no money. And they have people's safety in their hands.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


I've had a rough week, with the dance recital trauma of last weekend, then being on my own with the kids for 2 days while my husband was at a conference, and of course the usual end-of-year stuff. Not to mention that my daughter's birthday is Friday and I'm trying to not be a failure. It's hard for me not to take so much responsibility for this, but I am not working now, and my husband is pretty busy at work. I just work better when I'm bouncing off someone else.

But today was the last day of school. I went in to volunteer for the ice cream party at my daughter's class only to find that they started 15 minutes early and were done by 1:30. So I sauntered through the halls, walked past my son's classroom, and realized pretty much every teacher was showing the kids a movie. Unfortunately, that's the consequence of the miserable weather we've been having. It's been 64 degrees and damp/drizzly for the past week.

The school is now having a kind of moving-up day routine/ritual. All students are told who their teacher will be next year and are brought to the classroom to meet (her) (all the teachers are female here). So my kids found out who their teacher would be and who would be in their class.

We're all kind of disappointed. My daughter is not in a class with either of her two best friends. My son is apparently in a class with none of the boys from his current class. I couldn't get him to identify anyone who is in his new class. He's not the most observant, so this may mean little, but I asked about all the kids I knew from kindergarten to see if they were in his class. He only could name one kid I knew.

This will be great for his social skills development. Not.

When it comes to teacher assignment, I always feel so powerless. I'm powerless in part because I lack information. I simply don't know these teachers! I am totally ignorant about the 5th grade teachers, and though I should have some knowledge of 2nd grade because my daughter's already been through it, I don't. Several second grade teachers retired after she moved up.

But I also feel powerless because the teachers work out all the classes based on what they know of the students. It's a reminder that my kid's needs aren't paramount. It's quite possible that his needs will be at odds with those of the majority of students. I may want my son to be in a class with Z, but maybe it's not the best thing for Z or for other kids.

The only thing I put my foot down about is that I found out that one of the second grade teachers would be on maternity leave for the first month of the school year, and I requested my son not go into that class. Why? Well, it takes E a while to warm up and become comfortable with someone. I didn't want him to have to go through it twice.

He is not feeling anxious about next year yet; his summer vacation has just begun, and he has 2 months of fun ahead of him. But for me, the dread is already creeping in. It's the dread of wondering whether I've done the right thing. Have I advocated for him enough? Should I have known more about how to help him succeed in school?

I don't think I can wait 2 months to find out.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Scourge of Humanity

We must now discuss the true enemy of common sense and rationality and all that is good in the world.

The dance recital.

Why are dance recitals so long? Is there any reason why they should last from 5:30 to almost 9 pm on a Friday night?

And why don't they serve wine, beer and hard liquor at these events?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Elementary and Middle School

I attended a School Committee meeting recently and learned of a few changes.

First, the elementary school is going to start using standards-based grading. This will not be ABCDF or 100-pt grading. Instead, a 1-4 scale will be used, with the numbers referring to whether the child has met the standards. The goal would be to have all students with 3 or 4 by the end of the year, and parents should not be surprised if their kids have 1 or 2 early in the year. It means we will have to rethink how we respond to grades.

The good news is that the standards will be pretty clearly spelled out, so we will know what to work on with our kids at home. "Can count to 100"--well, I can help with that. "Can add fractions." Yep, I can help with that, too.

Second, the middle school is eliminating tracking. I'm ambivalent about this. On one hand, I was tracked myself and I seem to have benefited. That's the system of education I knew, I was familiar with. On the other hand, Stamford public schools have eliminated tracking in middle schools and seen benefits for the lower-performing students, and they've resisted un-tracking the longest. The article says:

These mixed-ability classes have reported fewer behavior problems and better grades for struggling students, but have also drawn complaints of boredom from some high-performing students who say they are not learning as much.

I'd be concerned except that I remember being bored even in my classes, which were "advanced."

Back in the 90s I used to post about these kinds of issues on, taking on many conservative critics of public education, teacher unions, and "outcomes-based education." Back then the bogeyman was "whole language" reading curricula, which was denounced in favor of phonics. Parents were also Deeply Concerned that eliminating tracking would make it harder for their gifted children to learn.

And now I have my own kids. One thrives in school and does very well. The other does very well, and damned if I can tell if he's thriving. His grades are good. He's got "quirks," mainly in the social skills area, though I feel like he's a little bit quirky in terms of attention, sensory processing, and receptive communication skills as well. I wish they were teaching him more social skills and less academics, to be honest, because I can co-teach academics, but I apparently lack social skills and/or the ability to teach them.

My kids may be gifted. But day after day, what I keep coming back to is not worrying about whether they should be learning algebra tomorrow, but about their social skills, their emotional intelligence. My daughter is progressing pretty well, though we're about to start one of the most difficult phases for a girl, the 5th to 9th grade years. My son can recite the capitals of little-known countries and can recognize and draw the flag of Nepal. But he can't seem to make a friend at recess (I guess the other boys and girls have little interest in knowing where Burundi is).

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Nation's Capital

We just got back from a trip to Washington, DC, where I attended the Teaching Professor conference and saw the sights with my family.

I like the Teaching Professor conference because it's an extremely pragmatic conference, filled with great tidbits of info and new ideas to try. I'll post about some of my thoughts on it later, but for now I'd like to talk about Washington, DC.

As a city, DC gets a lot of criticism. However, I do believe they do an excellent job of creating and maintaining a public space. The Mall is an amazing creation, if you think about it. We saw the monuments via a Bike the Sites tour, which is a fabulous way to see many of the monuments in 3 hours). It was expensive, costing us $140 as a family, but well worth the money.

I was last in DC when Sophie was 18 months old, and before that I had made a few short visits for rallies in support of reproductive freedom. Since I last visited, a few new memorials have popped up: the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the FDR Memorial.

I find the World War II Memorial to be incredibly ostentatious and even somewhat tacky. It seems kind of palatial and reminds me of Versailles a bit. I just Googled a bit to find out if others felt the same way, and the short answe ris yes. From Daniel Honan, posting on HNN:

"Unfortunately, the World War II Memorial has less in common with the classical "temples of democracy" built in Washington during the 1930s than it does with Albert Speer's 'stripped classicism' that was fashionable in Nazi Germany. Stripped classicism involves classical designs reduced to their structural elements and rendered on an immense scale intended to overwhelm the spectator with the experience of raw power."

I also find the FDR Memorial to be a bit much. It consists of 4 large "rooms," each one representing one term of his presidency. We had to walk our bikes through it, and it seemed kind of endless. It's beautiful, and I do like the way it evokes the period of the Great Depression and honors Eleanor Roosevelt. But it's HUGE.

The Korean War Memorial is my favorite. For some reason, it touches me in a way the Vietnam Memorial doesn't (though I admire the Vietnam Memorial greatly). The figures seems to rise up out of the earth, a group of men alert to danger, trudging through the swamps. For a moment, you wonder if you are the enemy they are watching for. I find it discomfiting, though in a good way.

I'm also interesting in why all these monuments popped up during the last 2 decades. I can imagine that the WW2 vets were pretty pissed off that the Vietnam vets got a memorial before they did, and this probably led to a kind of competition. Then of course the Korean vets had to get their due. But it feels so silly, in a way. And it does make me wonder how we will eventually remember the veterans of the Iraq wars, two of the most wrong-headed wars of American history.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Generalists vs. Specialists

OK, how to square this (and Libby's response) with this?

Choice and Schools

Will Richardson just tweeted that he thinks the impediment to real change in schools is the lack of choice. I disagree.

Coincidentally, Will also tweeted today about Michael Moore's post, Goodbye GM, which I wrote about in the previous post. I think the example of GM provides an excellent reason why change cannot always be driven by "choice." We have plenty of choices for cars. Within GM, I could at one time choose between Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Saturn. And then there were the Fords, the Chryslers, the Dodges, and all the Japanese, Swedish, German, and Korean models out there.

And yet the auto companies would simply refuse to get with the times and create better cars that relied less on oil and more on alternative energy sources. These changes may finally come with the intervention of the Obama administration, or so Moore and I hope.

Schools do need to change, but there are very powerful forces out there working against it. Primary among these is the simple fact that people resist change. We know what works, and we hate to take risks on something that *might* work better. I'm not sure "choice" can make us willing to take risks.

I work in a great department with great people. I'm probably the only person in my department who knows or cares what Twitter is. About once a week I get a powerful urge to run into my boss's office, push her away from the computer, and set up some sort of useful Web 2.0 application to make her life easier. But I resist the urge, because I know she doesn't want it. No one in my department does.

Choice can be overwhelming. If we feel we lack information about our choices, we become paralyzed. We don't want to invest a lot of money in something when we don't know if it will work. Cars are expensive; few want to buy a hybrid or electric car without knowing for sure that it is well-tested. The same goes for education. It's expensive to educate our children.

The most powerful force working against change is fear. We fear taking risks when we don't have safety nets. And all our safety nets have been taken away over the past 20-30 years. That's why we seem stuck here in this period of history, sensing what can be but afraid to take the leap. Failure has too high of a cost.


I've spent some time this morning reading about GM and reminding myself of the documentary Roger and Me (which was the first movie my husband and I saw together; I remember knowing nothing about it except that Ken wanted to see it, and I was young and in love and went along with him. Good choice :).

Anyway, many have criticized Obama for going after the auto companies but letting the banks off easy. But I think he has been harder on the auto companies because they need to undergo substantive changes that they are reluctant to try, and the government needs to step in and make it happen. Specifically, what the auto companies need to do is provide alternatives to carbon-fuel-based automobiles. GM killed the electric car--why? Chris Paine suggested many factors, but among them was the influence of the oil companies, who didn't want to see a challenge to their monopoly. Obama's campaign ran on the promise of challenging our dependence on oil. I can't help but see that GM's bankruptcy is part of an overall plan to force the auto companies to change and to adopt new technologies.

Michael Moore just posted a letter titled Goodbye GM calling for just this kind of change. Among his suggestions:

Don't put another $30 billion into the coffers of GM to build cars. Instead, use that money to keep the current workforce -- and most of those who have been laid off -- employed so that they can build the new modes of 21st century transportation. Let them start the conversion work now.

If Obama keeps people employed and provides education so that they can keep working in the factories in their hometowns, he will be a hero.

Moore's letter is full of excellent suggestions to use the GM factories as the foundation of a new transportation policy and a revitalized transportation industry. GM wasn't about to make that leap on their own; I'm glad we have a president who is willing to make it happen. Our country will be better for it.