As A Teacher

Florida Prepaid College Savings Plan becomes more affordable

college savings

As the cost of college continues to soar, families are struggling to save for their children’s future education expenses.

Before Ashley had even garbled her first word or taken her first step, her mother began saving for her college education.  When Ashley was only six months old, her mother opened a Florida Prepaid college tuition plan.

“For a single mother, this was an affordable means of guaranteeing my children’s education,” said Yvette Rivera, Ashley’s mother. Today Ashley is a sophomore in college and feels lucky to have the safety net.

“I am able to concentrate on school and not worry about taking out loans just to cover the cost of books,” she said. She has reason to feel grateful. The cost of college tuition continues to skyrocket, and the amount of outstanding student loan debt is soaring along with it. So parents are beginning to prepare early, and 529 plans are an excellent saving tool because investments into them grow tax-free and as long as the proceeds are used to pay for education related expenses, the withdrawals are tax-free as well.

And now, beginning with this year’s open enrollment period, the price of a four-year Florida Prepaid college tuition plan is going down to $35,000 from $54,000 after a new law passed the state legislature in March. Now, families will pay $250 per month instead of $350. And some families may even receive refunds. The Florida Prepaid Plan is very popular. Thousands of families buy into the program every year; but, it is not the only option. There are two types of 529 plans: prepaid or savings plans. ·

Prepaid Plans – like the Florida Prepaid plan that Rivera selected — let you pre-pay all or part of the costs of an in-state public college education. They may also be converted for use at private and out-of-state colleges.  ·

Savings Plans work much like a 401K or IRA. They invest your contributions in mutual funds or similar investments. The plan will offer you several investment options and the account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the particular option you select.

Savings plans will earn more money, but also carry more risks.

“I opened Florida Prepaid accounts for both of my children because it was safe and froze the cost of tuition. Financial aid is no longer the safety net it used to be.”

Teacher, given two years to live, fighting cancer eight years later

We all piled into the school gym wearing our new, originally designed t-shirts, made in our school colors, teal and white.  The sound system was on, the bleachers were down and the photographer was set up and snapping away.

Only, this was not an average pep rally.  This one was special.  This one was for Ms. Susi.  Jennie Susi has stage four ovarian cancer.

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women, partially because the symptoms are so common to other illnesses — they include swelling or bloating ,and  pain in the belly— that it often goes undiagnosed far too long.  Something that Jennie knows from firsthand experience.  Four different doctors told her that she was fine.  It was the fifth doctor that finally diagnosed her cancer.  He instructed her to get her affairs in order because she’d have, at most, two years left to live.

That was eight and a half years ago.

Jennie decided that “statistics are just statistics. I’m going to be one of the positive statistics.”  And, in so many ways, she is.  She has fought this disease and undergone several surgeries, chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment.

And cancer is not the only hardship she’s faced.  Her husband has Multiple Sclerosis.  Her parents both passed away, within a year of one another.  Each of these alone is enough to break someone’s spirit; but, not Jennie.  Through it all, she’s never lost her zeal for life.

“People always ask me ‘How do you do it?’” she says.  “And of course, there are days and times when I’m upset, but what good is that going to do? How is that going to help me?”  So, in her weakest moments, she allows herself a “one-hour pity party.”  Then, she chooses to get up and look on the bright side of things again because no matter how bad things are, she says, life is a gift.

Jennie credits her family for her inherent optimism.  Her parents who taught her to be positive, even in the face of adversity, and her brother who taught her how to be happy.

“I have an older brother who has Down Syndrome and he’s just SO happy, and pure in his joy. He was my greatest teacher. I try not to be wasteful of the gift I’ve been given – the gift of life. His purity radiates to me so I can be happy with my life, just the way it is.”

These are the lessons that she brings into the classroom.  She teaches American History, but she goes above and beyond – not only to prepare them for the End of Course Exams (EOCs) – but for life.  She went to school on the days that she was scheduled for chemotherapy and – if she was able to pull herself out of bed – was back at school the next morning.

So when Jennie didn’t come back to school, it was difficult for her students, friends and colleagues.  Doctors found more tumors and she had to have surgery to remove them and resection her colon, forcing her to take a leave of absence.

But even then, she did not forget her students.  She assured them that she was okay and would “stay calm and chemo on.”

“Ms. Susi is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met… even though she wasn’t able to come to school, she made sure that we were in good hands and she always sent us updates on her health and surprise emails to encourage us and tell us that she believed in us; it’s like she was always thinking about us,” said Carl Hughes, who was a student in Susi’s American History course and has kept in touch with her ever since.  Carl’s own mother lost her own battle with cancer, which made Susi’s struggle feel even more personal for him.

She made sure that he and all of her MLEC family knew that she was alive and recovering, and that she was thinking about them.

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Jenni Susi’s MLEC family sits for a portrait, urging her to ‘Stay Calm, Chemo On’

And all of her school family was thinking about her.  So when her students created a design for her catch-phrase, “keep calm – chemo on,” Helena Castro, the school activities director and Jennie’s friend of 17 years, had an idea.  She had the design printed on t-shirts.  Teal and white, our school colors, are also the colors for ovarian cancer awareness.  She also included #teamjenniesusi, the hashtag trending on Twitter while Jennie was in surgery.

Hundreds of shirts were purchased and all of the proceeds went to the Ovarian Cancer Society.  Then, once Jennie was well enough, her school family surprised her with a pep rally in her honor.  She walked into the gym to find us all wearing our shirts, and we posed for a big MLEC family portrait.

“Too often we honor and immortalize posthumously,” said Castro.  “Jennie lives life fully and demonstrates compassion and resiliency and it is that zest for life that has served as a source of hope and inspiration to so many.”

originally published on July 2, 2013 on wlrn.org

 

Millennials: Super Students, Super Humans

Gabriella Nuňez graduated near the top of her high school class.  Her resume rivals that of many college graduates.  She juggled rigorous courses with part-time work, myriad extracurricular activities and a thousand hours of community service.  She held various leadership positions ranging from class president to design editor of her newspaper and she began her college career this summer with over 24 college credits under her belt.

And, she is not alone.  The 21st century teenager is increasingly dynamic, and they have to be.  Although the Millennial Generation, usually defined as people born between 1981 and 2000, is often criticized for their narcissism and sense of entitlement, new research shows that this generation is actually much more complex than what they’re given credit for.

class of 2013

Millennial face an insecure and increasingly competitive job market; but, they are amazingly optimistic

Yes, today’s young people do seem to “grow up” later, as they put off traditional rites of passage such as marriage, family and home-ownership.  And they also have shorter attention spans.  Both are, at least partially, due to technology and the Great Recession.

Today’s teens and young adults are more confident and connected than ever before.  And they have reason to be.  Whereas teens growing up in the late 60s believed that anything was possible after witnessing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, this generation very much believes that they can know all there is to know.  This is a generation that does not know a world without computers.  Moreover, they don’t remember a time before Google and graphing calculators.  So, are they spoiled?  Perhaps.  Are they a little self-centered?  Probably.  But, in their world, the President of the United States is only a Tweet away.

And the Great Recession taught them to have less faith in the “grown-ups” and traditional measures of adulthood. They watched their parents endure the real estate melt-down and double-digit unemployment. The Federal Reserve reports that between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth of American families plunged 39 percent.

And the news gets worse.  Although this generation is generally more educated than ever before, with more Americans holding college degrees than ever, Millennials are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed.  At the height of Great Recession, the unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year-olds was over 20 percent.

And although those numbers have improved, a 2009 Yale University study indicates that students who graduate during a recession earn 10 percent less, even after a decade of work.

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, inflation-adjusted wages for young high school graduates declined by 11.1 percent between 2000 and 2011, and the real wages of young college graduates declined by 5.4 percent.

But the news does not seem to discourage them.  In fact, it seems to motivate some students to work even harder.

“When I got to high school, taking rigorous classes meant sacrificing a social life and sleep for study time to fulfill my various duties and responsibilities,” said Lisabet Esperon, who graduated this June and will begin school at the University of Florida as a sophomore, pursuing a degree in accounting.

Sacrifice is not usually the first word that people associate with the Millennial Generation; however, they are saving more and spending less.  Millenials are driving less and, increasingly, living within their means, carrying less credit card debt than their parents did.

Despite facing grim employment prospects, mounting tuition costs and rising student loan interest rates, today’s young people remain optimistic.  According to a Pew Research Study, 41 percent of them are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared to only 26 percent of those 30 and older who feel the same.

And they’d have to be optimistic as they graduate high school to find that being top of your class does not guarantee admission to their school of choice at a time when college applications are at an all-time high.  Then they graduate from college to enter an incredibly competitive work force.

So, it’s not that Millennial are lazy.  They are used to the competition, the stress and the hard work.  They just expect to see results for it.  And they don’t necessarily measure success in dollars.

Nuňez was often incredibly stressed in high school.  “There were tears and hair pulling and late nights with piles of homework” she said.  But she doesn’t expect a huge paycheck at the end.  “I want a meaningful career.  I want to give back.  I want to feel fulfilled.  Really, I just want to be happy.”

Millenials then, are a paradox.  They want more: more free time, more travel, more experiences; they want more out of life than a house with white picket fence and a two-car garage.  And, at least for now, they are willing to trade immediate financial success, getting by with less money, to achieve more happiness. How idealistic.

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Originally published on WLRN in July 2013

Hashtag in the Classroom: Can Social Media Improve Education?

kids and social media

Seventy-eight percent of teens have a cell phone. Let’s meet kids where they are and use technology to create learning opportunities.

Thirty years ago parents had to tell their kids to turn of the television and go to sleep.  Today, it’s their cellphone.  Teenagers are more socially activethan ever before, at least virtually.

A Pew Institute Research Study on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy indicates that 95% of teenagers use the internet and eight in ten of them use some kind of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.

It isn’t just teenagers who are avid users.  Social media is shaping society.  More and more sites like Facebook and Twitter are influencing not only how we talk, but what we talk about.  Television programming, legislative bills, fashion, protests and parties are planned, discussed and critiqued online.

So, what is next?  Education, of course.

This is a scary thought for teachers, administrators and educators, and with good reason.  For decades experts have argued the effectiveness of technology on student learning.  And the results were not always positive.

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there may even be a correlation between the rise in ADHD and the increasing prevalence of mobile devices since 78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of them own smartphones.

A May study from The National Bureau of Economic Research found that providing a computer to sixth through tenth grade students who did not have one at home had “no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions” at the end of a school year.  While a similar project conducted by the Texas Center for Educational Research found, after a technology immersion program that “there was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with their schoolwork.”

And just ask any high school English teacher how internet acronyms—OMG, LOL, smh, ty – have seeped not only into teen vernacular, but also into their writing.  Clearly, incorporating social media in the classroom may seem fruitless and counterproductive to many veteran educators.

However, when used carefully, cellphones, tablets and social media can be a very powerful tool.  Kids have more access to information than ever before.  They no longer have to get up and pick up a dictionary to search for a word’s definition; they don’t need to buy the most recent edition of an atlas to find China’s gross domestic product.  All of that information is available to them on their most prized possession, their smart phone.

The challenge is to help them see the power that they have at their fingertips.  Teachers and parents have to help them see that smartphones are not just for texting and updating Facebook profiles and that Twitter is useful for more than posting jokes and song lyrics.

Anyone who doubts the potential world-changing power of social media just has to turn on the evening news.  Remember the Arab Spring?  Most accounts of the political upheaval in Egypt leaked through Twitter and YouTube.  The winner of our most recent presidential debates were partially measured by Twitter activity.  Diane Sawyer recently used the term “selfie” on ABC World News and social media had a huge influence on the recent Zimmerman trial.

Ninety-five percent of teens use the Internet. 8 in 10 regularly use social media. Can educators harness that energy?

Ninety-five percent of teens use the Internet. 8 in 10 regularly use social media. Can educators harness that energy?

In a discussion about how networks are increasingly using social media not only to promote shows, but to drive content, Anne Sweeney, the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group said that “whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, those technologies, those platforms have given them even more say. Because they have come into the conversation in a much more powerful way, it’s even more important we pay attention to it.”

The same applies to education.  The Florida legislature has required that schools deliver half of classroom instruction digitally by the fall of 2015. Already the state requires high school students to take one online course in order to graduate, and many are taking several as schools struggle to offer electives such as foreign language that students need to get accepted to college. And students already take computerized versions the FCAT and end of course exams, not pencil and paper tests.

So technology is definitely here to stay.  And teachers have the opportunity to develop how it is used.  Facebook has over 500 million users, Twitter over 200 million.  Both communities get larger every minute. And students are engrossed in them.

A small study of students at Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania tested whether Twitter could be used effectively in learning.  At the end of the semester, students enrolled in classes where they were assigned to continue class discussions and complete assignments using Twitter were more engaged in their classwork than students who did not and earned a higher grade point average.

Technology alone cannot improve learning and social media can be distracting and even dangerous.  But, today’s teenagers are more tech-savvy than any other generation.  One of the challenges facing educators is learning how we can harness the power of social media in the classroom to keep students engaged and excited about learning so that they begin to see the awesome power of having so much knowledge at their fingertips.

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Originally published in July, 2013 on WLRN: http://bit.ly/1zDXQHk

 

 

Will Tying Teacher Raises To Test Results Improve Education in Florida?

merit pay

Teachers’ salaries will now be based, in part, on their students’ performance on state tests.

When my husband was studying for the CPA exams, he prepared for months.  He memorized laws and rules and exceptions to those rules.  He used flashcards, watched lectures and took simulated exams.  He answered thousands of sample test questions.

Preparing for exams is as much about tactic as it is about knowledge.  To conquer an exam, people learn to beat the test.  They learn strategies.  They take courses designed specifically to prepare them for these exams or they study on their own, for the tests.

For my husband, the hours of studying paid off.  He passed all four parts on his first attempt.  But, were these tests measuring what he learned in school?  Did it measure the knowledge that he gained during his undergraduate and graduate college career?  Are any of these professional exams (The Florida Bar Exam, Professional Engineering Exams, MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc.) used to measure the effectiveness of a university or a professor?

testing

Data-based analysis of teacher performance is here to stay. Florida won a $700 million federal Race To The Top grant to design a statewide evaluation system that includes student test results in teachers’ evaluations.

No.  However, we do use tests to determine the quality of our schools and, as of July 1st, also our teachers’ performance.  Senate Bill 1664 requires that at least 50 percent of a classroom teacher’s performance evaluation, and pay, be based on the growth or achievement of the students.

And I understand why.  It is important to gage what students know.  We need to measure what they have learned throughout the school year.  And teachers also need an objective way to measure whether a particular method or lesson is effective.  It is equally important for schools and school districts to have a quantitative way to measure their teachers’ performance.

There are plenty of concerns about the fairness of teacher merit pay and whether test scores alone truly reflect a teacher’s effectiveness.  However, it is also fair to say that the only way to measure if a student has learned something, is to test him.  This is why there has always been a test.  And, more often than not, our test results determine a large portion of our future.  Passing a midterm and final in college was essential to passing a course.  Earning the right SAT score was crucial to get into college.  Passing those professional exams is the only way for doctors, lawyers, engineers and CPAs to obtain licensure.

However, since the introduction of No Child Left Behind we have entered an era of constant testing.  We’ve evolved from the High School Competency Test (HSCT) to the FCAT to the FCAT 2.0 to the End of Course Exams, the PERT and soon the PARCC, and so many other letters and abbreviations that I’ve left off of this list.

There are baseline exams, Fall Exams, Winter Exams, Interim Assessments, and on and on and on.  If your child attends a public high school in Miami-Dade County, he or she was probably testing from April through the end of the school year, especially if they were also enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.

Kids today are testing all the time.  And teachers are forced to adapt to that environment.  As much as teachers resist “teaching to the test,” I wonder how long they can continue to.  If a school’s success and a teacher’s efficacy is measured and determined by how her students perform on those tests, how long before the emphasis becomes beating that test?

The argument is not far-fetched.  For all of the school reforms that public education has undergone over the last ten years, for all the data and statistical analysis, high school students are not any better today than they were forty years ago.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics review, 17-year-olds’ average math and reading scores have not improved.  The tests have not changed at all in 40 years.  But, unlike the tests used to determine school grades and teacher effectiveness, “Nobody teaches to the NAEP exam,” said Kati Haycock president of the Education Trust, “which is why it’s such a useful measure to what our kids can actually do.”

And while our students are, according to the FCAT, constantly improving, the average SAT score for the high school class of 2012 dropped, again.  The reading and writing scores were the lowest since the company began releasing the data in 1972, which is part of what fuels the movement towards the common core and college readiness.  But those movements also include more tests.

Students deserve the best possible opportunities.  They need to be prepared to face the world, to enter college and/or the work force.  They deserve good schools and effective teachers to help them get there.  That requires local school districts and legislatures to figure out ways to ensure that tax dollars are doing just that.  That all requires tests.

I just hope that as we develop these tests and exams and figure out a way to use statistical analysis to interpret all of that data, I hope that we do not lose sight of the importance of a well-rounded education.  I hope that we don’t sacrifice creativity and class discussion and critical thinking.

When I was in high school, there was one test: the HSCT.  There were hundreds of electives.  I took ceramics and creative writing and photography.  I learned about Sigmund Freud and how he influenced Salvador Dali’s art as well as Ernest Hemingway’s writing style.  I learned about existentialism and Kant’s moral imperatives and how those ideas manifested themselves in literature, government and architecture. The high school that I attended no longer offers those courses.  And although I do my best to incorporate art and news and history and philosophy in my daily lessons, I’m not sure how many other teachers do.  And I don’t know how many other teachers will.  Those things are not on the test.

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Originally posted on WLRN in July, 2013: http://bit.ly/1novSWT

 

 

Why School Grades In Florida Are Full Of Controversy

An A was always the gold standard.  Every student knows that the better the grade, the greater the reward. Whether the reward is a gold star, a trophy or a scholarship, the way to earn that was always to get that A. A plus

It’s no different for schools.  Since 1999, schools have worked to measure student learning gains and to objectively measure teacher and school performance.  An A school brings recognition, prestige and financial gain.

But, measuring school accountability is more difficult than anyone thought it would be.  And, as recent legislative decisions show, may carry huge political consequences.

The Florida Board of Education voted to reinstate a “safety net” which will pad student test results and prevent any individual school’s grade from dropping more than one full letter. That move reduced the number of failing schools from 262 to 107.

In 2012, 53 schools received F grades.

The formula used to calculate school grades is complicated.  It measures students’ scores on standardized tests and their year-to-year learning gains.  Board members voted 4-3 in an emergency conference call with Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to reinstate the safety net.

It was a narrow victory.  Board member Kathleen Shanahan, former chief of staff to Jeb Bush who ushered in the school grading system, said that the system has become overcomplicated and is not “a statistically valid model anymore.”

“I don’t understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable,” said Sally Bradshaw, another former Bush chief of staff.

The frequent changes in school grading formulas confuse parents and community members and undermine the system’s credibility.

school grades - flCredibility which is in even greater danger as emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that Bennett may have adjusted the school grade formula that he helped establish in Indiana while he was in charge of schools there to benefit one school.

The emails show that he moved quickly to make changes to the school grading system to ensure that Christel House, a charter school run by Christel DeHaan – a major Republican donor, who also donated to Bennett’s campaign – would receive an A, instead of the C that it would have earned under the state’s original formula.

Bennett was quick to defend himself, saying that the adjustment “had nothing to do with politics.”

And it is also true that superintendents across the state of Florida asked Bennett and the Board of Education to reinstate the safety net for school grades, which still plummeted with a record number of F-rated schools, without taking into account high school grades, which won’t be released until later this year, because high schools grades are even more difficult to calculate because they include other variables, such as graduation rates and enrollment as well as success in Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses.

School grades have gone down, despite the fact that students’ test scores have held steady and, in some instances, even improved, which only add to the confusion.  If student academic achievement is improving, many parents wonder why school grades are going down.

The answer is that Florida continues to raise the bar as it strives to better prepare students for college.  And, to complicate matters even more, the actual accountability formulas also continue becoming more and more complex. In the last 36 months alone, there have been over 36 changes.

And there are more changes on the horizon as Florida moves towards the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, born out of President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiatives.  Florida is one of the states that signed up to work and develop the new standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the standardized test set to replace the FCAT.

However, in recent weeks, more and more states have decided not to sign on to the PARCC.  And, Florida is on the fence.  Just last week Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sent Bennett a letter urging the state to abandon the PARCC, as Indiana and several other states have.

They cite concerns including the amount of time students will test and the cost of administering and grading the exams, which replace paper-pencil bubble in the answer tests with much more stringent exams where students, as young as third grade, are asked to write essays analyzing and synthesizing information.  These tests cannot be graded by computer, also increasing their cost.

Although there are plenty of democrats as well as parent and teacher groups who oppose implementing new common core standards, most of the states who have decided to opt out of the PARCC are republican states with republican governors.

Whether Florida does decide to join the PARCC or work to develop another test, it is unlikely that the formulas used to calculate success – and the teacher merit pay and school funding that depend on that success – will become any more straightforward or any less political.

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Posted on WLRN, July 2013: http://bit.ly/1oXyBcL

 

Is there a ‘Humanities Crisis’?

“Why do we have to learn this?” Every teacher has heard a student ask this question.  It is often followed with, “When will I ever use this?”

Perhaps anyone who was ever a student – i.e. all of us – has either uttered or thought the very same thing.  And they are indeed valid questions.  After all, when will the average person need to calculate the square root of an imaginary number?  Or determine how many moles of oxide are in a substance? Or explain the difference between Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedies?

In all honesty, the answer is probably never.

literature

Fewer college students are majoring in humanities. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better prepared for the workforce.

This is why when the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a new study indicating that the number of college students majoring in humanities was plummeting, reactions were mixed.

Some fear that the humanities might disappear from college campuses. And that it will lead to less creativity. That without the exploration of the humanities, students won’t learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, or to contemplate big abstract questions of love, knowledge, democracy.

“There is an atmosphere of crisis in the humanities,” said John Paul Russo, Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Miami.

But not everyone is concerned. As Lee Siegal wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

And, as Russo points out, some of the concern “is warranted, and some not.  Yes, there has been a decline in majors over the past 25 years, and that goes back even further in time.”

But parents always worried when their children majored in the humanities.  What will you do with a philosophy major? Philosophize?  And English, what are you going to do with that?  So, it is not new that undergraduates are gravitating to, what they think, are more practical college majors.  And given the skyrocketing costs of higher education, it is understandable.

And while it is fair to say that it is not necessary to know Shakespeare to cure cancer, it is important to point out that we are not losing humanities majors to biochemistry and computer engineering.  The most popular undergraduate major in the United States – by far – are business related.  So, although quoting Cicero won’t prepare you to run a Fortune 500 company, neither will a semester spent perfecting Excel prepare a student to build relationships with clients, or to reason and think critically.

This change towards seemingly more practical college majors like business administration or business management, were not born on college campuses.

The truth is that the move away from the humanities coincides with the rise of high-stakes testing.  And, they will continue to suffer.

Under the Common Core State Standards, 70 percent of what seniors read in high school will be non-fiction and informational texts while only 30 percent will be dedicated to fiction.  Although that this is not intended to be the case in a student’s English class, but rather across all curricula, in the face of declining reading scores, the most likely outcome – what is actually happening in many high schools right now — is that teachers will have to sacrifice some of the time that they spend teaching classic literature.

They will spend less time asking literary and thematic questions, like what Shakespeare meant when he wrote that “life was but a walking shadow,” in order to make time to go over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recommended Levels of Insulation and the California Invasive Plant Council’s Invasive Plant Inventory (both Common Core exemplar texts).

Undoubtedly, this trend contributes to the declining interest in undergraduate literature courses and humanities majors as a whole.  As reading become more of a chore, and reading courses – classes designed for students who need intensive remediation – are viewed as punishment, it is not a surprise that teenagers lose interest.

(See related WLRN article: more testing does not necessarily lead to smarter kids.)

It all comes down to how we, as a society, view education.  And what the role of college and universities should be.  Do we see colleges as institutions of higher learning where students explore different interests and learn math, science and – yes — humanities?  Or, are colleges and universities career training centers?  In the president’s discussion of Race to the Top, the Common Core’s concentration on College Readiness and the push to graduate more and more students in the field of Science and Technology, we have to be honest with our expectations.

And those expectations are not only affecting college campuses, but they undoubtedly affect the approach that schools and school districts take in educating high school, middle and even elementary school children.

Ironically, this approach has not led to better readers.  In fact, results from the National Center for Education Statistics’ analysis of fourth- and eighth-grade vocabulary scores from 2009 and 2011 reading comprehension exams found that even the highest-scoring students on average couldn’t perform above 67 percent.

Although kids are reading more – as evidenced by the explosion in young adult fiction – the complexity of what they read is dropping. Walk into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find shelves and shelves of hugely popular novels and book series aimed at teenagers.

But research shows that as young readers get older, they do not read more classics or more complex books and teachers aren’t assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.

A recent study by Renaissance Learning, Inc. revealed that American high school students are reading books far below their reading level. A compilation of the top 40 books read by students in grades 9 through 12 showed that the average text’s reading level was 5.3 — barely above the fifth grade.  The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Interestingly, in 1989, before high-stakes testing, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.

Dana Gioia, the former chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts, commented that “both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates”; even the more educated individuals, whom one would expect to have resisted the trend, registered the steepest fall, and hence their “reading comprehension skills” have eroded.

To place the blame solely on testing is a mistake.  Surely there have been great strides in students’ academic gains; however, there is a trend and correlation that should not be ignored.

As Dr. Russo pointed out, “it is important to remember that the humanities help prepare the person not just for a specific field but for life itself; ideally, the humanities help expand our humanity, putting us in touch with people of different ages and backgrounds.”

So when a student asks, “Why do I need to know this?” I hope that we, as a society, respond that learning for the sake of learning is important.

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Originally published on wlrn.org in July 2013

Cursive is on Life Support

Every October, high school students across the country take the PSAT, or Practice SAT, a standardized test developed by College Board that provides high school students a chance to enter scholarship programs and gain access to college and career planning tools.

But, it wasn’t the algebraic equations that terrified the kids, it was the cursive.

Seriously.

cursive

Fancy curly cues beware: cursive writing is almost extinct; but, it’s not handwriting that we should worry about.

As the kids filled in their identifying information, they came to a section that asked them to copy a pledge promising not to cheat – in cursive – and then to sign their names.

“Miss, what do they mean by ‘sign your name’?” one student asked.

“You know, the way that you write your name on important documents, like contracts or checks.”

Questioning stare.  “Like, in cursive?”

“Yes.”

I have never seen so many stunned teenagers, paralyzed, gripping their pencils, gulping. It took one child a full five minutes to copy the roughly twenty-five words and sign his name.

“I just wrote it normally and then went back to connect the letters,” he later said.

This is not new.  A 2010 Miami-Dade County Public Schools report found that found that cursive instruction has been slowly declining nationwide since the 1970s.

In the high-tech world of high-stakes tests, educators are working to prepare students for the FCAT, End of Course Exams, AP and AICE exams, college admissions and a successful future in which computer and typing skills are essential; in a classroom where school grades and teacher pay depend on student test scores, and educators are asked to do more and more on leaner and leaner budgets, making the time to teach fancy curlicue letters just does not seem imperative.

And that trend will only continue as the Common Core standards, which do not require cursive instruction, continue to roll out.  “The Common Core State Standards allow communities and teachers to make decisions at the local level. . . so they can teach cursive if they think it’s what their students need,” said Kate Dando, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which promotes the Common Core.

But, not all of the kids were lost.  There was one who copied the statement in seconds, and then sat up straight, patiently waiting for his classmates to finish.  After the test I asked him if he learned to write in cursive in elementary school.

“No,” he said.  “My mom taught me because she thought it was important.”

And that is the true issue.  The dilemma is not truly whether the “art of cursive” writing is important.  The dilemma is the growing chasm between kids whose parents have the money, education, and time to enrich their children’s learning, and those that don’t.

Cursive isn’t the only victim of standardized testing.  Students no longer learn grammar.  The reigning educational philosophy of the last thirty years stressed the writing process, not the final product.  Researchers questioned the necessity of recognizing hanging participles or conjunctions.  In the career world, they argued, people would never have to identify those.  Furthermore, they contend, grammar is implicit in reading.  As kids read, they will pick up all of the grammar that they need.

Besides, why do teachers need to correct errors in obnoxious red ink when all word processing software contains grammar and spell-check programs?

That is, of course, when kids read — outside of school. When they have books in the home. When their parents read to them.  When there are computers in the home.  In other words, children who live in more affluent homes are more likely to learn outside of school, widening the achievement gap.

A Stanford University study finds that the achievement gaps begin as early as 18 months. By kindergarten, it can be a two-year gap. Poor kids — not to mention immigrants and children whose parents do not speak English — start so far behind when school begins that they never catch up.

It is true. College students are more likely to type out their notes on laptops and tablets than to write them with pen and paper.  Fewer people write checks every day, opting instead for credit cards and e-banking.

Elementary school students use calculators.  After all, in today’s technological world, when will they ever be far from a smartphone that can add, subtract, multiply and divide?

The difference is that some kids will learn.  Some of their parents and grandparents will teach them those intricacies and formalities that the school curriculum leaves out.  Some of them will fill in the gaps.  Some of them won’t.

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Note: Since this was originally published, Florida standards were amended to include cursive writing in elementary school.

Posted on StateImpact.org in February, 2014: http://stateimpact.npr.org/florida/2014/02/19/why-the-debate-over-cursive-is-about-more-than-penmanship/

America falling behind in Education, Lagging skills affecting the workforce

The American education system seems to be in perpetual crisis. Despite nearly 15 years of education reform – and the introduction of an array of tests, curriculum, and new measures of student learning – students are not any better prepared to succeed in college or the workforce.

And the bad news just keeps coming. 

The annual SAT scores released to the public demonstrate a continued decline in math and writing scores.  In the data, released by the College Board, 57 percent of graduating seniors are not ready for college.

Technically, the 2013 results are nearly identical to those released in 2012 which were — until now — the lowest average SAT score since College Board began keeping records in 1972, which is part of the reason why the SAT will be revamped in 2015, to become more relevant to what students are learning – and what they need to learn to succeed in college.  College_Board

But, it’s not just the kids that are unprepared; grown-ups are in trouble too.

A new study shows that Americans are lagging behind other democratic countries in literacy, math and technology.  The new tests, developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), surveyed 166,000 teens and adults ranging in age from 16 to 65 years old in 24 countries. The survey measured literacy, math and computer skills.

The results don’t look good.  Americans are “decidedly weaker in numeracy and problem-solving skills than in literacy, and average U.S. scores for all three are below the international average and far behind the scores of top performers like Japan or Finland,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the data collection arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

The United States ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in skill with numbers and technology. In number skills, just 9 percent of Americans scored in the top two of five proficiency levels, compared with a 23-country average of 12 percent, and 19 percent in Finland, Japan and Sweden.  US_COMPETENCY

“These findings should concern us all,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement. “They show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.”

Puzzling is that older Americans, those aged 55-65, scored better than their younger counterparts. This may be the first generation which does not surpass their parents’ generation in education or skill level.

“In the U.S., the older generation was one of the most highly skilled, but the younger generation does worse than average,” said Mr. Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills at the OECD.

This education deficit will translate to an economic issue.

“Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them,” Duncan said. “We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills.”

Another similarity between the grown-ups and our kids? There were significant differences in test scores between whites and minorities, between Americans in high income households and low. 

“In both reading and math, for example, those with college-educated parents did better than those whose parents did not complete high school,” reported the Associated Press.  Which also added, “the findings reinforced just how large the gap is between the nation’s high- and low-skilled workers and how hard it is to move ahead when your parents haven’t.”

The same is true for American school children.  Gaps persist by racial and ethnic groups, with Asian and white students far outperforming African-American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students, which are far more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods.

And, in our very own communities, a Miami Herald study showed that over the last 14 years, schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods never get Fs, while the county’s D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods.

Similarly, the incomes of Americans who scored the highest on the OECD’s literacy tests are on average 60% higher than the incomes of Americans with the lowest literacy scores, who were also twice as likely to be unemployed.

Do the OECD scores mean that the U.S. is doomed?

  1. It does, however, highlight a problem with our education system.  It is not that the United States is getting dumber; it is that other countries around the world are making great improvements in education and their labor force is increasingly better prepared for the global workforce.  We, on the other hand, have stood still.

While we are testing students more than ever before, they are not any smarter for the wear.

The test scores also illustrate another problem that permeates our public education system.  There is a growing chasm between the poor and the well-off.  And, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.  Not only is there a huge difference in test scores – on the SAT, ACT and even the OECD – but in college acceptance and retention, as well as employment. 

And, as robots and machines take the place of people, and both high and low-skilled manufacturing work moves overseas, it may become increasingly difficult for people to find work, which will definitely translate to a huge economic problem.

Closing the achievement gap then, is not just a moral imperative, but a financial one as well.

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posted on WLRN October, 2013: http://bit.ly/1qZFezV

 

 

 

Teachers May Sometimes Feel Like Sisyphus, But Pushing That Boulder Has Its Benefits

What have I learned this school year?

I’ve learned that teaching is hard. Not only because of the curriculum, not only because of the new tests, new rules, new measures. Not only because there are tests, tests, and more tests. But because it so often feels like an insurmountable, thankless, stressful endeavor.

The rules are always changing. The tests are always changing. And the blame for anything and everything that goes wrong usually falls squarely on our shoulders. sisyphus sketch

But teaching is also so rewarding.

I’ve arrived at that point in my career – and maybe that point in my life – where I am starting to wonder what is next for me. Can I do this forever? Can I handle the paperwork? The constant changes in curriculum? The politics? The brunt of the blame? The massive budget cuts? The lack of raises?

I don’t know.

But I do know that — on most days — I love my job. I love teaching literature – examining Sisyphus’ absurd struggle, Pip’s Great Expectations and Gatsby’s green light. I love discussing the first amendment, Edward R. Murrow, Cronkite, the Zenger trial, Nelly Bly and the importance of a free press.

But even more than that, I love to watch the kids grow up. I love witnessing the transformation from scared, awkward little ninth grader to high school graduate, both proud and petrified to begin the next chapter of their lives. I love to help them on that journey.

And, I discovered, I love to see where that journey leads them.

I just returned from Washington D.C., where I watched one of my former students graduate from Howard University. I beamed with pride as she delivered a speech to her graduating class. I cheered and snapped photos as she walked across the stage, graduating cum laude and headed to Georgetown for her graduate work.

When I returned, armed with photos, one of my colleagues commented that it was so great of me to travel all that way. “Who does that?” he said. “No one does that. You really are special.”

That struck me. When I received the graduation announcement, it never occurred to me not to go, just as it never occurred to me that I’d done anything special by attending; in fact, I actually felt special, privileged, to be invited.

Teaching is hard. And so often, many of us feel like Sisyphus, constantly pushing a boulder up a hill, or like Gatsby – always reaching for that elusive green light. So often, we miss our great expectations.

Teachers teach. But that’s not all we do. We are part-time parents, financial advisors, friends, disciplinarians, life coaches. Kids spend more time at school – with us – than anywhere else. What an awesome responsibility. What an awesome privilege.

As I prepare for another closing of schools, the end of another school year, and get a little sentimental preparing to say goodbye to a fantastic group of kids, now young adults, I wonder if there is anything else that I could do. I wonder if I could ever give this up, the pride, this sense of fulfillment, the joy I feel watching my school kids grow up.

So maybe what I’ve learned — not just this school year, but over the last eight — is that teachers wear many hats, that there are so many great teachers who care so much that they sacrifice time, money and personal well-being to teach, inspire and care for the children in our classrooms. So, in essence, teachers are either masochists or saints. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not far from true.

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 Posted on WLRN, in May 2013: http://bit.ly/U4hwnQ