A nonpartisan group dedicated to informing parents of the issues and challenges facing Texas public education. Our mission is to help lawmakers, administrators and teachers make a great public education available to every child in Texas. We aim to do this by a) educating and informing parents on the issues and challenges affecting our schools; b) separating fact from fiction regarding the state's education policies, curriculum, and budget; c) acting as an aggregate for any and all information regarding Texas public education and d) using our numbers to influence policy and thought on Texas public education.
I have been hard at work over the weekend, preparing my new website, which will go live June 1st! In addition, we’ve had a spate of illness at the Korbey household, and it’s the last two weeks of school, so I will not be writing any new content until June 1. I will have plenty to say, however, by reposting the best from the educational web on Facebook and Twitter, so join me there, if you haven’t done so already, to follow along. When June 1 arrives, oh, I have so many exciting new features:
I have postponed the Book Club reading of Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery until June 1, when we can have our discussions on my new, more robust, easy-to-comment website. It will also give you a last chance to order that book from Amazon. Please join us on this fabulous ride to learning how we can motivate our kids to do their best.
I’ll be adding a new category, Camp Korbey, which will detail my own family’s summer activities - we will be taking swimming lessons and attending basketball camp, but we won’t bore you with that here. My oldest son wants to start a blog, while both the older boys have indicated they want to learn Spanish, write poetry, and make a movie. No small feat, right? Especially while hauling a ten-month-old! Join us on this epic summer adventure to keep things exciting and stave off the b-word.
As always, I want to hear what you think! Tell me your opinions, your thoughts, what you’d like to see more of, what you could do without (I lived in New York for a long long time, I can take it!). Thank you for reading, and away we go with all the great education content I can find!
My sons don’t like a lot of contemporary children’s stories - I can tell by their eyerolling they find the milquetoast conflicts and not-so-subtle happy resolutions of suburban animals dressed in American clothes both boring and patronizing (oh, look, two turtles in cardigans learning how to share!). The stories that they love are the big, messy, magical ones - their favorite stories are ones like Shrek! by William Steig (the real, original Shrek, not the watered-down, sugary movie version) and anything from the original, unabridged Grimm’s Fairy Tales. These stories are not for the weak of heart; they involve bodily fluids, parents who don’t like their children, magical high-stakes situations and conflicts, men and women with super powers and super mutations, half-animal-half-humans, even death. That is not to say that the stories are crude, or poorly executed, because they are not - they’re beautiful, full of rich language and imagery that have my sons riveted. They beg me to read them over and over.
But, according to Diane Ravitch’s 2003 book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, none of these stories would make it into contemporary curriculum, nor would excerpts be featured on a standardized test or in a textbook. Why? They contain material that has become objectionable, for one reason or another, so they are replaced by the suburban animals having petty domestic conflicts. Cue eyerolls.
Did you watch the Jane McGonigal video from yesterday’s post? Because ideas in her TED talk - mainly the concepts of an “epic win” and the journey with “epic meaning” found in video games - are central to today’s topic, which concerns why we parents should be concerned with what our children are learning in school. Or, more directly, what they’re not learning.
In the first chapters of The Language Police, the educational historian and former US Assistant Secretary of Education details explicitly how special interest groups from both the left and right seek to restrict and even censor language, ideas, historical events and scientific facts from tests and textbooks. Since she served on committees that created national tests during the ’90s, and retrieved “bias and sensitivity” guidelines from all the major textbook publishers, we can be assured that she is not guessing or assuming; she copies these documents, word for word, directly into the book. In her deft analysis, what began as an honest attempt at trying to remove racist and stereotyping language from tests and textbooks has become a monster, eating up every kind of interesting piece of learning available to our young people. Politicians, along with the multi-billion dollar book publishing industry, have assumed complete control of the texts that our children read, and they are terrified of children reading material that is not already familiar to them, or contains an idea, an image, a location, or a word that might upset them. As Ravitch handily points out, this leaves out nearly every single piece of literature written before 1970.
The topics and language found objectionable by bias and sensitivity panels range from bizarre to hilarious. Excluded are the history of peanuts (because some children are allergic to peanuts), pioneer women and patchwork quilting (this is gender bias, since women should not be seen doing domestic tasks - even though it’s a historical fact), a blind mountain climber (blind people should not be perceived as being different from anyone else); stories about mountains, deserts and beaches are forbidden (because a child may have never been to the mountains, a desert, or a beach), and so are all stories about owls (the reasons for this are too ridiculous to list), stories about class distinction in ancient Egypt (panels don’t want to draw attention to income disparity, even in ancient times), and the list goes on and on.
“But that is not all,” Ravitch writes in chapter two, “The New Meaning of Bias.” “Religious and political issues must be avoided. Reading passages must not contain even an “incidental reference” to anyone’s religion. There must not be any mention of birthdays or religious holidays (including Thanksgiving), because some children do not have birthday parties and do not share the same religion.” She continues. “There must be no reference in any test passage to evolution or the origins of the universe. Writers must avoid any mention of fossils or dinosaurs. Their very existence suggests the forbidden topic of evolution. However, it is acceptable to refer to ‘animals of long ago’ if there is no mention of how old they are and no suggestion that the existence of these animals implies evolution.”
I find this ridiculous and alarming for many reasons. (In future posts we will talk about the Texas SBOE, and how they ignored the advice of prominent historians and scientists and rewrote our textbooks to include topics that are important to their religious and political convictions - we will cover how destructive this kind of political censorship is to our students and to democracy in general.) But, for now, let’s just talk about it from our students’ point of view. Could it be somehow connected that American children are doing poorly in school because they find nothing worth learning? If we take away dinosaurs, fairy tales, ancient Egypt, inspiring stories of people with disabilities doing impossible things, stories on mountains, deserts or beaches, stories with conflict and resolution, stories with magic and holidays and mean people, what do we have left?
Turtles in sweater vests arguing over a toy.
Here is where Jane McGonigal’s “epic meaning” comes in. In video games, gamers are not asked to take out the trash or learn to share; they are asked no less than to save the world. It’s risky, and full of danger and excitement, but to a gamer, it’s worth it. This may be the exact same reason my sons love Grimm’s Fairy Tales - Hansel and Gretel are small children, but they are fighting for their lives. By not allowing children to use their imaginations in any way, and by stripping bare anything controversial or interesting from stories, are our well-intentioned curriculum writers and book publishers annihilating everything that’s interesting about life? Could this be a contributing factor to why each day 7,000 American kids decide to drop out of school?
Go into your child’s classroom and take a look at how many real books are there. You will see textbooks and “stories” - tracts or pamphlets written by the textbook company - but what about real books, untampered by committies?
The Language Police and the void of “epic meaning” for students, part I
I am now reading Diane Ravitch’s book from 2003, The Language Police, about how interest groups from both left and right seek to censor what our kids are reading in the most insidious ways. (Language Police will be an upcoming Book Club pick, in case you’re interested.) These groups seek to tease out pieces of great works of science, literature and history for different reasons, many of them purely political and baldly ideological - and we know plenty about this here in Texas, where the ideological argument over what goes into our science and history textbooks has made the national stage. Curriculum understanding and reform is a top priority here at PFET; Texas is highly influential when it comes to what’s included in national textbooks due to our burgeoning student population.
But, before we get into why it’s deplorable to allow appointed politicians to edit and, in some cases, create student curriculum, I want you to watch Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk (above) on how video gaming can make a better world. Pay special attention to why she believes young people are so hooked on gaming. Although I am unsure whether or not I agree completely that video games could solve problems like hunger and climate change, she makes an excellent point about why kids faze out on modern education -how boring it is, how lacking in meaning for students.
If you have time, watch the entire video, then we’ll discuss how The Language Police and the concept of a curriculum lacking in epic meaning correlate in tomorrow’s post, part II.
Our new Book Club featuring Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery begins in only two weeks! The first online discussion and reading assignment starts on Monday, May 25 and I want you all to be there, but first you need to go get the book on Amazon - there are both hardback and Kindle versions available.
Why do I think parents need to read this book? Because Cushman’s insights into the minds of children are directly applicable to both their education and home life. When we think of how to motivate our children and get them to do their best, we rarely think of asking them how to do it - but Cushman has done just that, performing what author Mike Rose calls “a lovely act of conceptual Jujutsu and instead asks ‘What can the kids tell us about motivation?’” We parents can learn a great deal from Ms. Cushman’s central question: What does it take to get really good at something?
She discusses how much students want to understand why they are learning what they are learning:
“In Chapter Seven, ‘Bringing Practice into the Classroom,’ the students do not suggest making direct links between their interests and school subjects. Instead, they remind teachers of the meaning and value they have found in outside-school commitments, and ask them to look for that in school subjects, too. As Micah, in San Antonio, explained:
“‘You want to delve into the reason why you are doing something, instead of just blindly following what the teachers tells you to do. If you are getting the answer without really realizing why it’s important, it’s empty. You are not really learning. You are going to drop that later, because it has no importance to you in your life.’ - MICAH”
In another example, Cushman highlights how important it is for kids to learn from experts:
“Watching accomplished people do something well often made these teenagers want to practice even more. Talking to experts in person was even better. As Mike said, ‘If I meet a musician I look up to, everything he says is like it was bolded out.’
“So I sent students out to interview people from their communities whom they considered masters in their fields - plumbers, farmers, physicians, church organists, psychologists, engineers, and so on. And as the kids transcribed those interviews, they saw many similarities to their own learning journeys.
“Every expert’s story started with a spark of interest that somebody noticed or framed. All had the opportunity to explore that interest further, with someone nearby to encourage, critique, and suggest next steps. Small successes along the way rewarded hours of practice - and with a challenge met, the experts wanted to go further.”
How does this conversation - how students get really good at something - relate to our passion for reforming Texas public schools? The correlations are strong.
From the book jacket: “Fires in the Mind uses the latest research on cognition to help students and teachers together address motivation, practice, and the need for high standards.”
Parents need to shoulder the very important role in their child’s education - yes, we rely on teachers and government to provide the structure, but without our support, it’s easy for children to become lost in the system.
Until we realize what is important to learn - until government, administrators, teachers and parents come up with a common understanding of what comprises a quality education, reform efforts will continue to flounder.
I hope you get the book; if you take a peek I bet you’ll soon be as excited as I am about reading and doing the exercises together. As Ms. Cushman says at the end of chapter one:
“‘Train every day, then you will see,’ advised the samurai Musashi four hundred years ago. Ten thousand hours - that roughly corresponds to the time students spend in school during four years of high school and four years of college. What are we asking our youth to practice in the precious time? What fires are we lighting in their minds?”
According to the lastest report from The Texas Tribune, “What if Texas Doesn’t Pass a School Finance Bill?”,both House and Senate school finance bills are stalled or next to dead with only two weeks left in the session. (Get more info on Senate’s bill, sponsored by Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, here, and the more severe House bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston here). This latest development leaves room for a third option for funding our schools: do nothing at all.
What does do nothing look like? According to the Tribune, the state would be forced to continue to pay the districts under existing law. Then, “That would mean borrowing from the second year of the biennium to fully fund the first year. When the money dwindles in the second year, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott would have to ask the Legislative Budget Board to tell the Legislature to vote on using the Rainy Day Fund to fill in the gap.”
A second idea allows districts to raise property tax revenue to allow districts to make up the difference, an idea that the Commissioner of Ed - a Perry appointee - is likely to dismiss.
While most parents agree that neither the Senate or the House plan adequately provide for the cost of running our districts, I worry that no plan is actually worse. What happens if the money runs out and Scott refuses to ask for the Rainy Day Fund? What if they ask the districts to make up the slack in the second year? What if we’re left holding the bag before 2013, when the next legislative session meets?
According to this morning’s Texas Tribune, we have a second opportunity to kill HB 400, which seeks to “eliminate minimum salary requirements, lift the 22:1 class size ratio, authorize unpaid furloughs and remove termination notification requirements.” Last night was the second time that those who oppose the bill (both Democrats and Republicans) pulled a parliamentary move and snagged a vote on the bill due to a technicality.
If this bill passes, who do you think will be teaching your students? The cheapest teachers, that’s who - ones who have the lowest level of training and require the least amount of money to be hired. (Please go to the National Council of Teacher Quality and download the first entry, a study performed on “alternative certification.”) And who will these new teachers be teaching? The highest number of students that will fit in a room, in order to save money.
Governor Perry has cried over and over that he does not want to use the Rainy Day Fund for public schools, leaving it instead for “real emergencies.” The Texas House of Representatives has made perfectly clear that a complete dismantling of public education, especially among the poorest and neediest students, doesn’t bother them one bit. Governor Perry is no friend to public education, and neither is the House. Who will speak up for us?
If the proposals as they stand in HB400 don’t make you very angry, they should. Our property taxes were lowered by Gov. Perry four years ago (according to Perry, saving Texas taxpayers $16.4 billion in paying public school taxes, see the governor’s website under “achievements”), and we are now faced with a startling budget shortfall that leaves all of our schools - in the short future, we could be educating nearly a tenth of the nation’s population - in crisis. Here in DFW, 1,000 teachers, aides, librarians and nurses have already been let go, and we don’t know what more extreme cuts may lie in waiting.
While the budget crisis is the focus of the problem right this minute, I don’t believe it’s the cause. The citizens of Texas voted these lawmakers into office, so it’s difficult to be angry at them now - they are only doing to us exactly what they promised they would do. The budget crisis is merely a symptom of a much larger malaise, a stand-in for a philosophy that promotes individual freedoms at the cost of any and all common good that gets in its way. That is not to say that the budget should not be balanced, or that Texas does not have problems in the public education system, because it does; yet take one look at the facts and it’s perfectly clear why we rank near or at the bottom of every national assessment in education.
1. Texas has the highest repeat teen pregnancy rate in the nation (undoubtedly due in some part to our rabid focus on abstinence education at the detriment to real and substantial sex education and easy access of contraceptives).
3. Texas is a “right to work” state that, along with non-union states South Carolina and North Carolina, ranks at the bottom of national assessments - yet states with strong teachers unions rank near the top.
On top of fighting for the budget - and fighting for the money to educate our children properly is of the highest priority - we need a statewide (and perhaps a nationwide) change in attitude. We need to come together and decide that education is a top priority, not with our dollars, but with everything we’ve got. Our children are losing ground both nationally and in the world; until we decide that the common good is good for Texas, public education will continue to deteriorate.
I want to say thank you to each and every one of you for reading my blog for the past three months. Thank you. Without you, I would have no reason to get up in the morning and write about making our public education system better, and I wouldn’t have nearly as many ideas and inspirations to write about (keep these coming, please!). It is in this spirit that I begin the week with two exciting announcements: I’m getting a new website and I’ve chosen a new book club book.
First, the website. When I started this project a few months back, I just wanted a site to dump all my thoughts and ideas, all my rants, and really didn’t give much thought to how the site was set up or really what I wanted it to accomplish - after all, if you read this first post, you will see that I was slightly overcaffeinated and very angry about Texas’ low standings in national education rankings, so I wasn’t thinking completely clearly. Now that I’ve been writing for a few months, I’d like the site to be a bit more organized, and make it easier for you to leave comments. I also want a robust search function and categories, so you can easily find the topics that interest you most. On June first I will be launching the new and improved ParentsforTexas.com. I hope you will join me on the same important adventure in a new location as we continue to improve - and by improve I mean change - our public schools.
Next, after the inspiring and life-changing read that was The Death and Life of the Great American School System, much like Oprah I have chosen the next book we’ll be reading right into summer. Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery, by Kathleen Cushman, explores how kids get good at something by speaking directly to them. When I heard Ms. Cushman speak at last month’s Habla Forum, I knew instantly that Fires in the Mind would be a top choice for our book club.
More than just an inspirational book asking kids to “find their passion,” Cushman delves deep into how kids know they like something and when they believe they are successful at it. She asks adolescents all over the country, What does it take to get really good at something? and the answers and explanations will delight, surprise and enlighten you. She also provides excellent tips and suggestions, based on her findings, on how to get kids to practice, stay focused, and learn from their mistakes.
A must-read for all parents, Fires in the Mind will be a source of great discussion over a four-week period, and we’ll begin the first chapters Monday, May 25. I would love for you to buy the book and join us in the discussion!
KERA radio reported this morning that over 200 DISD employees received pink slips on Friday, while close to 700 teachers, nurses, and teachers’ aids will be let go this week in Tarrant County. I can’t help but ask myself, what are we doing? It’s difficult to remember the citizens of Texas elected those to the statehouse who seek to slash our education budgets and rip the rug right out from underneath our most precious assets. They promised to do this to us, and we elected them anyway. Now we will pay the price.
It’s time to turn the tide away from those who want to hoard the emergency fund (for a “real emergency”), enlarge classroom sizes, pour millions into new standardized tests - ones that promise to actually be difficult enough to assess student achievement - and fire hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers across the state. How will we react to what the politicians are feeding us?
We must continue to fight. We must continue to hound our state and national representatives, sign petitions, organize at our schools, and inform ourselves of the alternatives. But most of all, until we recognize as a people how valuable education is to everything - the civic, economic and cultural fabric of Texas itself - we will continue to fall nearly last in the nation.
Wake up, Texas.
Here is an op-ed from yesterday’s New York Times by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegeri printed in full. Read it and think. This is no time to give up on our public education system.
The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries
By DAVE EGGERS and NÍNIVE CLEMENTS CALEGARI
WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.
And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.
Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.
We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.
At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.
So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?
We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.
Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.
But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?
People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.
Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.
The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.
Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.
And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.
McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a maximum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money.
For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.
Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari are founders of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 1, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated one finding from a McKinsey poll of 900 top-tier American college students. The poll found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a maximum — not a minimum — of $150,000.