Tag Archives: students

The Teacher Shuffle: One Great Big Lie

All the calls for “education reform,” mainly revolving around the phrases “teacher accountability”  and “test scores,” sound so reasonable when uttered, but are really just a cover for a great big fat lie.

I just saw on the news that the Kansas City, Mo., school district is firing 100 teachers at the end of this school year, replacing them with 150 Teach for America candidates for next year. According to the news report, district officials said they are only letting go of teachers who have received negative evaluations and whose students have scored poorly on state assessment tests. This is another great big fat lie.

Come on teachers. Come on people. When are we going to wake up and see what is really happening? When are we going to start sticking up for ourselves and stop letting them tell these lies?

 This is not at all about improving the state of education. This is not at all about the “students.” Everyone spouts off about the “children.” The powers that be say things like, “We are doing this for the children. You know, it is the children who should come first.” Guess what that is — another great big fat lie.

The powers that be do not care about the children. They do not care if every child truly gets the best education.

They are not putting in 12 hours in the classroom and then another four at home so their students can have an engaging lesson. They are not patiently sitting there next to a reluctant student and continually offering encouragement until finally one sentence is written, and sadly, they do not realize what a victory that truly is sometimes.

No test can ever show that. No test can ever account for small breakthroughs like that. That student probably will still score poorly on the test, but that little moment may have just changed his life. The test cannot reveal the future. The test cannot tell you if a child has grown. The test cannot tell you if a child has “learned.” The test can only tell you if a child can remember.

Yet, the powers that be spout on about the test. They will never tell you this, but the test is their ultimate secret weapon. It is not about the children. The fact that they do not even compare the results of a group of students to the same group the next year tells you that. That would be a true measure of growth. That would be a true indicator of progress.

This is not about growth, or learning, or progress. The only thing that matters is money. That is all this is about — the almighty dollar. The test is just one more way to get rid of teachers who cost too much. Why pay a teacher with 20 years of experience $60,000, when you can get two Teach for America kids for less than that? Inevitably, the experienced teacher will have a year with a more challenging group of students who do not test well. That will be just what those in power were waiting for, the ammunition they need to get rid of that expensive teacher.

I have worked with teachers who entered education through non-traditional routes such as Teach for America. While some of them did quite well, overall, they are not as effective as teachers who attained certification through an accredited school of education.

In general, they do not manage classrooms as well. They do not create lessons that are as challenging, preferring to rely on textbooks and worksheets. To top it off, a higher percentage of them wash out within the first one to three years. Do you think any of that matters to the powers that be? Why would it?

This is a guaranteed way to put a warm body in the classroom for the least amount of money, and then to top it off, they can do it again in just a couple of years. Throwing the new “teachers” in the grinder and pushing them out will save school districts millions of dollars over the next decade.

That’s right folks. These Teach for America kids might as well just be volunteers, they are paid so little. Remember, they are “giving back to their country.” What they are really doing is giving school districts a way to show their experienced teachers the door and saving a ton of money in the process.

This is also why graduates of education schools are being ignored. There are plenty of them out there, ready to get to work. Districts do not want them because they will stick around longer. Eventually, that means they will cost more. If they stick to hiring the Teach for America volunteers, the odds are greater that they can just keep hiring 23-year-olds who will be gone before they hit 26.

Will the Kansas City district get rid of some truly poor teachers when they fire these 100 educators at the end of this year? Yes, they will. In the group, there will be some who should never have been teachers in the first place. But, this will be a much smaller number than everyone will be led to believe. Test scores can be misinterpreted or misapplied. Evaluations can be based on personal beliefs and feelings more than actual effectiveness. 

There is no profession that does not have some low-performing individuals. Odds are if I dismiss 100 people from any job, five or six will have been truly bad. Just wait until all these Teach for America kids get in there. The percentage who are low performing out of the 150 will be much higher than it is among the 100 educators who were fired.

This is all a scam. It is being sold as “education reform” and as a way to “cure the ills” of our education system, but that is the greatest, biggest, fattest lie of all. This is not going to cure our system. This is going to kill it.

Ready for Rachel’s Challenge

She was the first to die that day. She will never be the first to be forgotten.

Rachel Scott was just another high school student the day her life was taken by two of her fellow classmates in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Using her words from diaries, letters and poems she wrote, her message of love and compassion lives on through an educational school and community program that tours the country.

The assembly we had at school today was so incredible. It was so deeply moving to me, especially because I remember that tragic day so well. A special assembly will be presented to the community in the gymnasium at Raymore-Peculiar High School at 7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 2). If you live in the area and can make it, it will be worth your time.

Called “Rachel’s Challenge,” the assembly asks us to do five things:  Treat others the way you wish to be treated; dream big; seek good influences in life; spread “positive gossip,” good words about others; and, lastly, start a chain reaction. 

I love this message. It is very similar to what I have been saying to my students for the past eight years and to readers of my newspaper opinion columns for the five years prior to that.

After asking my students if they believed they had the ability to save a life, I told them a story,  a story about a young girl. Sad and alone, she walked through crowds of people in a busy city. She came to the river. She continued walking, right into the river. Swept away by the current, her body was finally located several miles downstream.

On shore, a simple note was found, snagged on some brush near where she walked into the river. The note said, “No one said hello.”

Ever since I first heard that story, I was moved by its power. Those four amazingly simple, yet so profound, words….”No one said hello.” If someone would have just done something as simple as greet her and smile, she would not have taken her own life.

I know there are days I feel down. There are times when someone just says “hello” to me and I know I will then be able to make it through the day. Maybe that person was you —  if not for me, maybe for someone else. You might have saved a life already and not even known it. We have more power than we realize.

You may not believe this, but I do know how it feels to be alone in a crowd. I sometimes feel I have spent my entire life that way. I can make people laugh; I know I have that ability. One thing I sometimes struggle with, surprisingly, is making myself happy.

Somehow in conversations over the years, I mention that comedians are actually among the most depressed people of all. I do not know if anyone ever caught on, but I was including myself in that.

If people are laughing, they are too busy to ask you about your life, they are too distracted by the humor to see the truth, they are too misled by your comedic wit to ever think you could be withering. I suffer from serious bouts of depression, it is true. It is not something I normally discuss. It is something with which I simply deal (and most of the time just refuse to acknowledge).

I just deal with it. And all you have to do is say “hello.”

I just want to strive to be as good as Rachel Scott knew we could all be everyday of my life. I know I will not always be able to do it, but I vow to try. I accept Rachel’s Challenge! If you want to know more, check out www.rachelschallenge.org.

Normally, I would not publish my poetry on here, but this is a poem I wrote shortly after another tragic school shooting, this one at a school in California called Santana High School,  and while thinking of the tragedy of Columbine. Here is that poem:

 

Safe Haven

 By John VanPelt

In Memory of the Students of Santana and Columbine high schools

 

I crawl to natural science

To study the evolution of man

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

This wasn’t in Darwin’s plan.

 

I stroll to history

To explore ancient times

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The blood-stained hands of crime.

 

I saunter to Spanish

To master a foreign tongue

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The last dying gasp of the young.

 

I skim to English

To read great authors of the past

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

How long will this pain last?

 

I scurry to biology

To examine the innards of mice

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

To violence we are desensitized.

 

I sprint to algebra

To solve complex formulas of math

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

We move backwards on the wrong path.

 

I tear home

To escape the safe haven of school

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

 The lesson of death has become the rule.

 

We live in such strange times, with such mind-boggling tragedy. Let’s get through it together. Let’s get together.

 

Everyone, just smile and say “hello.” We will save lives.

 

***Photo courtesy of Rachel’s Challenge

The Omnipresent President: T.V. Star or President?

It seems I cannot turn my television on nowadays without the President interrupting my delightful escapist programming with his mind-boggling version of reality and what is best for the country. I cannot even escape him when I go to school.

This guy is everywhere, talking about every thing and yet nothing is getting done. He came on like the second coming itself (and does actually believe he is our “savior,” albeit not a “Christian” one, God forbid), yet he has nothing to show for it.

Maybe, if he would get off my television for a bit, he could get some things accomplished. On second thought, maybe television is right where he should be to keep us all safe from his plans. I can change the channel much easier than I can find $900 billion.

Tonight he was on television again telling us what a great health-care reform plan he has. His plan will not only drive our country further down the path to bankruptcy, but it will allow employers an easy out of paying for their workers’ insurance.

All the stress from our country being in debt, higher taxes, trying to figure out how to participate in the “public” option because our employer dropped our nice, “private” one, is going to kill us all. It will not matter if we have health insurance or not.

We will be dead just from thinking about it. Dead or broke. We will be starving to death, but finally we will all have health insurance, dang it! Ridiculous. This is a crazy joke.

If I am an employer, and suddenly this “public” option is available, why would I continue to pay for my workers’ insurance? I would not. In his effort to insure those who are not currently insured, Obama is going to take away the insurance millions of people have now. The old switcheroo…hope you are paying attention.

Earlier this week, I had to watch him yet again, but this time it was right in the middle of my school day. He did not say any thing new. He did not say any thing controversial. He actually just said what we, as teachers, already say every day. Yet, he somehow believes he just thought of it.

I have to give him credit, though. I have to say he is one shrewd politician. What better way to ensure your reelection in four years?

His main strength was among younger voters. Who better to appeal to then current 14- to 18-year-olds, the very demographic that will be voting for the first time in the next election? This is a brilliant strategy to ensure the young will vote for him. He is indoctrinating them into the cult of Obama.

Good job, Obama. Way to continue to sell yourself; way to continue jamming up the air waves with your omnipresent smirk; way to continue making me find the darn remote. But, I have to say I am sorry, because a long time ago I swore I would not join a cult.

Whole New Meaning to ‘Mile High’ Nickname

For many years and for obvious reasons, Denver has been known as “Mile High City.” Recent news emanating from there about enforcement of marijuana possession laws is giving a whole new meaning to that nickname.

Last week, a committee voted to send a letter to the Denver County Court urging the fine for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to be one dollar. The total penalty for marijuana possession would be $111 once state fines and other fees are levied. (1)

While these other fines do increase the severity of the punishment, Denver will still be sending out a strong message about its lenient view regarding marijuana possession if the court accepts this recommendation. The Mile High city truly will be a place to get high.

As a former high-school teacher (I teach middle school now), I heard students talk about the safety, pleasure and healthful nature of smoking “weed.” Despite all their praise of the habit, I continued to advise them against such behavior and pointed out all the reasons they should stop, including the fact that I do not agree that marijuana is safe or healthy (as far as pleasure goes, I cannot attest to that since I have never myself indulged).

I am no expert, far from it, but I saw what marijuana did to my students. I could tell which ones were “potheads.” They were the ones with the glazed eyes, staring off into space during my class. They were the ones who never got their work in on time, if at all. They were the ones who did not have even an inkling of concern or plans for their future.

That was the effect I found most devastating about the drug — its power at creating apathy. The students who abused marijuana were the most apathetic young people I have ever met. Nothing mattered to them — not their education, not their futures, not their lives.

The only thing they cared about was getting home that afternoon so they could take some “hits.” They would joke about it, but I knew that most likely that is what they were going to do after school. While “jonesing” for another hit, they would stand there and argue how marijuana is non-addictive. I could never make them see the irony of that.

And now a committee — who knew a city had such a thing as a “marijuana policy review panel” — is recommending that Denver make a mockery of its drug laws by lowering the fine for marijuana possession to $1. This is a shame.

People actually do believe marijuana is “safe.” It is this misguided belief that makes marijuana one of the most frightening drugs of all. When something appears “safe,” we are more free to partake in it. It is like the wolf in sheep’s clothing — once we realize the danger, it is far too late. And, here is Denver potentially providing the wolf with the innocuous costume.

Not only do I not agree with the contents of this letter, I also do not understand how this committee was appointed or how its members were chosen. How does an activist who heads an organization dedicated to the legalization of marijuana — Mason Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER, more irony) — end up on an official marijuana policy committee in the first place? He does not seem like the most impartial choice to me for such a group.

No wonder this committee agreed to send such a ludicrous letter to the presiding county judge. With members such as Tvert, this group is busy blowing smoke, obscuring the facts as they take one more step in their quest for legal marijuana.

(1) http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_13212872

Death of American Education Greatly Exaggerated

welcomeback sign

It was so wonderful to see all of my new and returning students today. Like many other schools throughout the country, the one where I teach started back this week. Despite all the dismal talk about the state of American education, it is going to be another splendid year.

I hear so much negativity in the media about the educational system in our country. The media feeds off the politicians, who spout inanities based on statistics they just made up to pass a new piece of useless legislation. Everyone makes up a bunch of junk to seem relevant and keep their jobs. What they forget, or simply choose to ignore, is what matters — the children.

The children are what it is all about. They are the ones that matter. They are not just cogs in the machine; they are not just a bunch of statistics in a ledger. They are real, tangible, creative human beings with much to contribute — most of which can never be measured by a test.

This is my eighth year of teaching. I absolutely love it. I see these students and I know the future of America is bright, no matter the bleak prognostications of the doomsayers.  I know that if we just can forget all this nonsense dubbed “reform” and get back to what we do well, we will be all right.

There are many aspects to American education with which no other country can compete. We are losing sight of that and, ultimately, that will lead us into trouble. Last I checked there were quite a few countries in Asia. I don’t know why we want to be just like those countries.

I do not want our educational system to be like those of Asia or Europe. I want more than that. I want our educational system to be the best. I believe it is.

American education teaches students to use their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to come up with new approaches and solutions. We teach students to be creative, which leads to innovation and progress. Our students might not perform as well on standardized tests as students from other countries, but if I am trapped in a well and need a special machine rapidly designed to get me out, I will count on my students to do it, and they will do so in the most creative and effective way.

As Fareed Zakaria, the author and international editor for Newsweek who attended elementary and secondary school in India, states in his book, The Post-American World:

“I recall memorizing vast quantities of material, regurgitating it for exams, and then promptly forgetting it. When I went to college in the United States, I encountered a different world. While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization — whether in math or poetry — it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life.”

This is what I have been saying for a long time, even back in my days as a reporter prior to becoming a teacher. The American system of education is not tragically flawed; it is not diseased and dying. It is different than the systems of other countries, but in those differences resides our strength.

We might not manufacture the latest gizmos and gadgets, but we are the ones who invent them. We might not churn out factory workers who can ace bubble tests, but we inspire students to create the inventions those factory workers assemble.

This is what makes America great. This is what makes us strong. If we continue to listen to those who say otherwise, we will head down the wrong path.

In his book, Zakaria says, “Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.” I could not agree more, and that is why the American system is the one in which I am so proud to play a part.