Monday, January 24, 2005

The Class Size "Misdirection"

I think we can all agree that class size is an important issue to us as educators. But for a moment, I'd like to challenge the notion that reducing our class load is absolutely essential to changing test scores or student learning. In light of the reality that reducing class size requires a significant allotment of money, due to the need for more teachers, shouldn't we as educators be responsible for finding alternative solutions that don't require more teachers.
Universities and colleges, in general, do not have small class sizes. Yet the higher education pathway is the one we push and prod our students into. What makes that system work for a university like the local state school and not for our local high schools that are the preparing fields? Does it not work for us because we, as educators, are not as skilled or knowledgeable as a university professor?
I'll be the first to admit a few things. One is that I am not as educated in my specific field as a university professor. I don't have a Master's degree. Two is that I've definitely complained about grading all those papers I assign as an English teacher. But why can't I make a class session work well unless there are less than 35 students in my room? I'll be honest about not minding the idea of being paid much more than I am if meant two things: the first is having a Master's in my field, and two, having to teach classes with more students.
I just have a hard time believing that reducing the size of a class will make an ineffective teacher better. Isn't the truth that before we worry about reducing class size, we worry about making sure all of our teachers are the best. That teaching is what they are good at, and their level of content mastery is significant. When private companies want better performance, they don't hire more people; they spend their money wisely on training the employees they have. The private sector rarely forces its employees to dish out thousands of dollars to improve. The company invests the money beforehand to ensure a committed and proficient employee.

In the public world of education, we are forcing our young and promising teachers to commit to a level of mastery while making them pay for it. In addition, in an effort to reduce class size, we hire more and more teachers, the result being money spread over the masses, thereby stifiling the earnings of new teachers.
So maybe class size reduction isn't as important as we think. Perhaps we can improve the education of our students without all the so called reforms on the table. Maybe we need to be more creative in our approach to reform.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Unions exist for the sole purpose of protecting the people that pay to be included. In the world of education, our unions do a pretty bang up job of making sure you and I make good money, don't get our sacrificial personalities taken for granted, and generally help us keep our job--even if we have done something that would get us fired anywhere else.

But I think we have been deceived into believing that the unions care about Education. While I see our unions fighting to get us better money, and I think we do mostly deserve that, I don't see them ensuring that we hold up our end of the contract. For instance, our contracts include the regular 185 day work year and the tri contract for the following:

Before the year prep and after the year wrapping up.
Supporting school/student activities (I take this as attending games, concerts, etc.)
Conferencing with parents and students.
Evalutating student work.
Preparation of material.
Planning with our departments.
District meetings.

Are we willing to say that collectively, we adhere to all of these aspects of the contract? And aren't these items intended to better our schools and benefit our students?

If our unions really cared about education, as they claim to, then they would be absolutely certain to not protect us when we fail. They would understand that simply because we are in the business of eduction, does not always mean we are successful at it. They would promote better pay only for those that deserve it, and allow for radical changes in the way education is done. Why do our unions fight the idea of charter schools? Those charter schools will fail, they might answer. It won't be any worse than the number of schools failing right now.

It is difficult to look at the union with a questioning eye. No doubt I have benefited from some of the work done by the union. But I think that our profession has also suffered harm as a result. My greatest fear as a young teacher, is that I will become protected by my union even if I am not holding up my end of the deal. And the reality is that many in our profession don't hold up their end; the result is a public that tires of hearing us whine about money. What we need as a profession is an extreme make-over. We have operated much the same way for the past century while other public employees have not enjoyed the same protection as we have.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Tough Minded Accountability

"Mr. McNamar, you're sooo mean." I've heard it before and am positive I will hear it many more times in the course of my career. And at first, it was difficult to swallow. I took it personally because they directed their frustration directly at me. The reality was that they didn't receive the grade they wanted because their essay lacked direction or used grammar worse than a fifth grader, and it is my fault.
If we as teachers do not have a high standard for all of our students, if we give in to the whining and parental reproaches, aren't we doing the student and our profession a disservice? Every time a teacher bends a policy, or changes a grade, don't we lose face? At some point doesn't all of that niceness catch up to us?
They come from a disadvantaged home, so we lower our standards. Isn't that a form of discrimination? They have ADD, so we aren't as tough in discipline. Haven't we lowered the bar?
I believe that students notice these things. That when they sit in the lunch room and rate us, as we know they do, they are aware of whether or not we will give into them. The question is, are we willing to sacrifice our status as the "cool" teacher to hold every student accountable? Rich Kid and Poor Kid? AP Kid and SPED Kid?
Maybe I'm just a "stupid lil' dreamer," but I think that we can be liked by our students and respected by them at the same time. But if I had to choose, I'd take respected every time so long as they are learning.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Sight" Based

It is interesting, I think, how the world of education mirrors the world around us. Since the foundation of our country, we the people have been locked in debate about the role of the central government. Inside the world of education, I think much the same debate has been taking place. What exactly should the role of the central office be in the everday business of conducting school as we know it?
I believe our schools run best when the central office is small in its power, and the school site has more authority over its everyday business. A central office that is too entwined with the running of specific schools, especially when those central offices manage multiple high schools, often does not have the sight necessary to properly direct the individual school.

Thoreau says about the government, "This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity." In much the same way, though a much more entrenched tradition, district offices operate without a vision open to change. As a result, central offices that hold dearly to tradition, lose sight of what is best for its sites.
Before those that might read and fume with anger at my youthful pretentiousness, I again look to Thoureau for better words than I might write: "I ask for, not at one no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. " In my reality, I think that the voice of the teacher has been lost to the central offices--who are without question burdened by the heavy handed state and national regulators. But in making policy, or choosing curriculum, how do people make those choices, which greatly affect both student and teacher, without much discussion with the individual that will implement.?
With that said, I must remind myself that it is my responsibility as a teacher to be open minded to change, something that many teachers have failed to remember.
I believe that our staff knows what is best for our site. I also believe that we are different from the three other high schools in our district. I believe that to be that we need to return to sight based decisions concerning the success of our school.

Friday, January 14, 2005


I know in advance that what I am going to say will be disagreed with by many within the profession. It is currently, and really never has been, a popular opinion inside the union dominated world of Education.
Why don't we have more competition for students between schools. In the past, school districst were set-up around the communities they were born in. Towns were smaller, bringing with that a sense of community and care for those schools. Now, in districts like Northshore and even Everett, multiple towns and cities feed a district. This concerns me; because with a larger district, and distinct towns feeding it, often times the central office becomes much more bueracratic, losing perspective on the individual needs of a school. Here at Cascade, despite being in the same city as Everett High, and the same district as Jackson High, our needs are much different. Why then are we given the same edicts and not allowed to compete with those other schools for students.
If we were in direct competetion with our surrounding schools for the students, and subsequently the money that should follow them, wouldn't we be more apt to improve every area of our school community? With the threat of our students, and our money leaving to the competetion, I wonder if that would make us take a serious look the way we operate our schools in a changing educational world. Whether we agree with NCLB or despise it, we must accept its reality. Maybe it is high time that the world of Education challenges the archaic way we operate.