Sunday, 14 March 2010


In keeping with my new theme of writing about what I know best, which is not US education policy, but about my direct experience, I am writing about an IEP meeting this past week.

For those fortunate enough to have never attended an IEP meeting, it's a meeting to discuss the eligibility and/or progress of a student with a disability. Most of my students have "Specific Learning Disabilities." This usually manifests as difficultly reading and, oddly enough, as difficulty maintaining relationships.

My IEP this week was horrible. We had to tell the kid he was "Mentally Retarded." He cried. His IQ is high enough to allow him self-knowledge of this situation. Actually, he seems just as intelligent as my students with Learning Disabilities.

I thought the label "retarded" was scientific, definitive. But, it turns out to be very subjective. I think he was tested a long time ago, scored quite low, and has kept the label. Psychologists are unwilling to retest students mostly because it is difficult work, and the only thing that changes is the label, not the underlying problem. But, I think it's worth it, because the label is so damaging.

Note: IQ tests for African American students (like this one), have been found to be, at the very least, "controversial." In Los Angeles schools, psychologists must use more than one test to prove MR eligibility.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


One of my students died last night. He had a bad heart. Several transplants didn't seem to help. He seemed fine all year, a little weak, but I didn't think much of it. He had been out of school for several weeks. I heard the absence was due to a ruptured appendix, so I was shocked to get the email the morning.

That family has it rough. I heard they are about to lose their house, and they have another teenage son who suffers from traumatic brain injury after a recent car accident.

The funeral is on Monday, if they raise enough money.

Monday, 18 January 2010


In a last ditch effort to blog this month (on the very last day), I'm posting a recent profile of Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education . Although he was never a teacher, or even a principle, he manages to intuitively know what is best for America's public schools. As a charter school teacher, It's good to hear that he supports charters and even "merit pay". I am also happy to hear that, while states are going broke, federal funding is available for schools as part of the Race to the Top fund.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Teacher suspended over article

Dan Delong is back to teaching English at a high school in Illinois. Last week, he was briefly removed from his position after he assigned an (optional) article from Seed magazine to his students. This article detailed the evidence for homosexuality among animals like sheep and dolphins. The article is a bit explicit, but not inappropriate for his class of (honors) sophomores. This is a great article to strengthen the students' deductive reasoning skills. At this age, they need to form valid and independent judgments. In the end, the students did get a great lesson-they stood up for their teacher at the school board meeting.

But at what cost? Has the damage already been done? How many teachers will think twice before they assign high interest or controversial reading assignments to strengthen students' logic skills? If this teacher erred by assigning a scientific article from a reputable magazine, what's next?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Merit Pay

Last week Green Dot Charter Schools held an evening information session to share proposed changes with their teachers. These changes will be implemented when they receive a portion of $60 million from the Gates Foundation. (The money is not secured, but Green Dot is in the final stages of the proposal. The actual announcement will come mid November.) The Gates money is contingent on Green Dot (and the other charter schools in the proposal) implementing certain polices, including merit pay for teachers.

Merit pay ties teacher pay to student performance (how they do on standardized tests). Basically, students are tested at the beginning of the year and again at the end of the year. Teacher salary is determined by these test scores. This "alternative compensation" can add 3 to 22 thousand dollars to a teacher's base pay. The extra pay comes with a controversial mandatory extra month of service each year and added responsibilities like coaching and mentoring other teachers. Furthermore, these teachers will be placed in the "highest need classrooms." No teacher will be able to rest on his or her laurels. Teachers that do not consistently raise test scores will be "counseled to leave" (fired).

When the program begins, all teachers will spend two years in the residency and entry level (no merit pay) stages. After two years, standardized test scores are analyzed and the teachers with the most desirable test scores will quickly move through the ranks-and the pay scale.

The crowd of (mostly young) teachers seemed apprehensive. A heated question and answer time left us with more questions than answers. Many questions stumped the speaker including: what about art, PE, or Chicano/African American studies teachers (there are no standardized tests for these subjects)? What about Special Education teachers? (Can a Special Education students be expected to improve as much as other students?) What about those teachers who are content where they are-the ones who don't want to become master teachers or coaches?

The merit pay system is flawed, but the current system (based on years of teaching and degrees) is far worse. I have met teachers making $100,000 based on their ability to stay at one school district for a decade and getting extra degrees from online universities. Neither of these things guarantee a better teacher. These teachers know how to jump through hoops to move up the pay scale, but they have no incentive to increase their effectiveness in the classroom.

Merit pay may be controversial, but it has powerful allies-President Obama and Arne Duncan. But, are they more powerful than teacher unions (the biggest opposition to merit pay)?

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Hire Ed: Is college worth it?

I plan to show President Obama's speech to my (first) first period class on Tuesday. What could be controversial about encouraging students to work hard and stay in school? Nothing particularly, but I expect Obama to say something along the lines of: "all students should go to college."

I agree that students should continue learning, but I don't think this learning must necessarily take place a a four year, or even a two year, college. What about vocational education? What about internships? Should we really encourage students to go into massive amounts of debt when they have little hope of getting a job that helps them pay off their student loans? With the national unemployment rate at nearly 10%, college may not be the best idea.

This week, NPR spoke with some experts about debt and higher education. One student on the panel is racking up $50,000 in debt to get a Masters in Journalism (at Columbia). Of course journalism is a field where higher education isn't necessary, but that's the point-many of the best journalists have learned on the job. (One report even suggests that all Journalism schools should be closed since there are almost no jobs that will be able to pay back this money.)

Education is an investment, but each student needs to ask, "will there be a return on this investment?" If there isn't a clear link between career and college, I would advocate for community college and on the job training.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Rubber Rooms

I've heard of rubber rooms (places where teachers wait to see if they will be allowed back into the classroom) before. Although they aren't called "rubber rooms" in Los Angeles, there are teachers (I know at least one) who are sent to school district office buildings (every school day from 8 to 3) while they are being investigated.

I see the purpose of these rooms, accusations of abuse need to be taken seriously and the teacher must be away from students while the investigation takes place. But, what is unacceptable is the fact that teachers spend years in the so called rubber rooms. Furthermore, if (tenured) teachers who commit crimes are entitled to these benefits, what about teachers who are merely incompetent?

This week's New Yorker had a great article on Rubber Rooms. Author Steve Brill's main points are:

1. Cases involving teachers in the rubber room accused of "incompetence" take "forty to forty five days-eight times as long as the average criminal trial in the United States."
2. Clearly, bad teachers need to be removed. A study from the Brookings Institute found that "having a top-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the Black-white test score gap."
3. Teacher tenure is a huge problem because the majority of teachers get it. It is almost impossible to be labeled "unsatisfactory." Almost all teachers are rated "good or great," only about one percent of tenured teachers were labeled "unsatisfactory." One education reformer argued that this is "ridiculous...if you look at the upper quartile and the lower quartile, you know those people are not interchangeable."
4. To solve this problem President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan propose to financially reward schools and teachers for raising test scores. If the districts and the union don't want to hold teachers accountable (they don't-they've pushed laws against using test scores to evaluate teachers), they will miss out on millions of dollars.