Archive | Curriculum RSS feed for this section

So You Want To Be A Student At An Online School?

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

I am working on an article about being an online teacher but realized that I also needed to write something about being an online student since these go hand-in-hand. Since far more people will eventually be taking classes online than teaching them, I decided to lead off with this one.  All online teachers end up being online learners, so this is naturally a good place to start understanding what happens in an online school.

Our school is the largest in the state with over 12,000 k-12 students serving all 159 counties in the state. And we serve students in all grades with most disabilities including some with severe and multiple disabilities.

Families search us out for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in prior articles about charter schools. I have personally served students who have been shot, stabbed, beat up, ridiculed, harassed, bullied and otherwise traumatized within the more typical brick and mortar setting. Some students were themselves bullies or were kicked out of their regular schools for being disruptive. Some students are professional actors, athletes or have other interests that simply do not work well with a traditional schedule. Some students have extensive medical needs that can not be met in a traditional setting or it poses an undo hardship. Some parents chose this option because, for whatever reason, they found themselves being called into the school to come and get their child, conference with administrators, or deal with other problems in the school often totally unrelated to a child’s education. Some of these are young teen parents themselves who want to take care of and raise their children without having to drop out of school.

Whatever the reason, families are coming to us from all corners of the state from all backgrounds. Over 50% of our students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in their regular home districts. While these students don’t get the free or reduced lunches in our setting, they are eligible to receive free laptops, printers and equipment from our school including the means to access the internet if they don’t already have it. Our school is a free, public charter school which does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, gender orientation, income or academic ability. In general, we have similar admission criteria as any other public school except we also do not discriminate based on ones zip code as long as they live in the state of Georgia. If you live in my state, you or your child can attend my school.

However, SHOULD you or your child attend my school? And if so, what do you need to know?

The first thing any perspective student and their parent should realize is that online education is not easier, less rigorous or less work than a regular school. It is more flexible. In exchange for eliminating some of the problems of scheduling and social pitfalls, it poses some extra challenges that are not present in more traditional educational settings. The work still has to be done, the standards still have to be met and the standardized tests still have to be taken and passed. These are state mandates for all public schools that do not go away just because the bus is not coming to the door.

Parents and students attending us for the first time are often a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected, having had some misconception that this would somehow be easier and less work. This is probably the biggest misconception of online education and it is the downfall of most students and parents entering our setting for the first time.

The second thing parents need to know is that they are going to be more involved and doing more work themselves. In our school, they are called “learning coaches”. While a learning coach can be any adult, it is most often a parent or guardian. Students of all ages need a certain level of support in our environment, and the parent needs to be willing, or know someone who is willing to fulfill this role. In the younger grades, this means that the parent takes on the role of being the primary teacher. While this lessens with age and grade level, it is still a critical component even in high school. It is a rare student that can manage themselves alone even in high school, especially if is their first year with us.

The benefit of flexibility is also a pitfall that many students and parents fall into, becoming a crater that they find themselves struggling to escape from. Most students who go back to the regular setting are ones who fell into this early on and struggled to get out of simply because they could not adequately manage their time. Procrastination is the biggest enemy of all in this setting and the online environment makes it exasperatingly easy to find other, more interesting things to do.

This is a new system and environment for most students. There is a new language, new technology, new system and an entirely new way of doing things. The learning curse is VERY steep. Even though we might spend an entire month trying to orient new students and parents, there is a still a lot to learn and the volume of new information can be overwhelming. There is an entirely new language to learn in the ways of the OLS, LMS, class connect, blackboard collaborate, Kmail, and navigating the system.

So if you are considering this environment, both parents and students need to have their eyes open.

- Are you willing to devote MORE hours and time upfront to learn the new language and system?

- Are you willing to keep up with the constant and steady flow of new material and information?

- Are you willing and able to structure your time into a daily/weekly routine that will allow room for changes and disruptions?

- Is the student/learning coach relationship robust enough to endure stress, hardship and trials by fire?

- Are you able to persist through many challenges that extend beyond just the academic material, but also the challenges of technology?

Discouraged yet?

Online learning IS the wave of the future, and just the virtue of reading this blog shows that you are plugged in some how and investing a considerable amount of time in learning and researching. So I hope I can reward your efforts with some advice, if you are still considering this route.

1. Don’t get behind. In fact, get ahead if you can. Things come up and Murphy’s law will be there to frustrate you. One of the biggest benefits of this setting is that you CAN shoot out front and build your own buffer. Do it and you won’t regret it.

2. If things come up and you DO get behind, communicate with the teacher. We always have catch-up plans and can help prioritize to get you back on track. One thing about my fellow teachers and I is that we never give up. As long as you are willing to do the work, we’ll hang with you.

3. If you are new, give the system a chance until Thanksgiving break. Persist and hang with us through the tough learning curve. I found most new families DO feel overwhelmed at first, just like I did as a new teacher. But it DOES get better.

If there are additional concerns or questions, I’ll do my best to address them in the comments. But in just a few days, my summer will be over and I’ll be back working again! And I already have a stack of work waiting for me. But it is a subject near and dear to my heart, which I will address in the next article about being an online teacher.

IEP Academic Goals: A Remnant of an Older Age?

7 Jan

At my job, tensions and stress are running high as we try to do everything perfectly for a state organization that has all but declared war on us. Having failed at the ballot box, they are trying to accomplish administratively what they could not get done politically. At least this is how it feels. The level of compliancy required of our special education department surpasses anything done in any other school in the state. And we have 66 days to get all 1000 IEPs perfect.

In my previous writings regarding goals and objectives, my experiences were with those students who were k-8 or those with more severe disabilities. Since changing to a more inclusive environment that makes up the vast majority of those receiving services in high school, my eyes have been opened. There are some glaring problems and inconsistencies in the process that extend far beyond my particular school or the students I serve.

With students who have severe disabilities, or in a self-contained setting the caseloads were relatively modest and I was their main teacher for most of the day. This made collecting data, making observations and writing effective goals relatively easy. Whats more, these students were following an alternate and adapted curriculum, so even if we were basing what we did on grade-level standards, we had a great deal of latitude in what was taught.

In a more typical high school setting, none of these things are true. The caseload sizes are larger, the students switch classrooms several times daily and may even switch their class schedules in mid year. On top of this, the caseload manager may or may not even have this student in one of their classes. All of these things make monitoring progress problematic.

However the standards-based curriculum has rendered traditional academic IEP goals and objectives almost useless and meaningless on the high school level. As a caseload manager I have absolutely no say in the curriculum of a student as it is dictated by the state. The graduation requirements are dictated by the state. The topics on the end of course tests (EOCTs) are dictated by the state. The amount that the test counts toward the final grade is dictated by the state. The type of diploma is dictated by the state. The scope, sequence, and the speed at which material must be covered is dictated by the test, which is dictated by the state.

You see the trend?

So the question is this: what can an IEP committee possibly write in the way of academic goals that are meaningful? We can write anything we wish, although we are admonished to make sure they are based on the state standards. The problem is that the goals that we write are worthless if they do not lead to a student passing a required course that gets them through the required exam that grants them the required credits in order to get the one college prep diploma offered by our state. The true measure of any IEP component is whether or not it gives the student access to the regular education curriculum in the least restrictive environment. At the present time, there are no academic goals that succeed in doing that. The dictated curriculum can not be modified nor can the passing score on the required exam be modified.

The frustration I’m feeling comes from the fact that we are being pushed and driven into writing progress reports over our academic goals. Suzie is a 9th grader who is struggling mightily in her algebra class. She struggles with algebraic concepts like positive and negative integers and multi-step problems. She is lost with anything involving fractions. And she feels absolutely hopeless when confronted by a word problem. Suzie is not alone as most of the students in her co-taught class struggle the same way. You may know some students like Suzie. YOU may be like Suzie! Oh, and this is Suzie’s second time taking algebra after failing it the first time.

In the old days, we had a lot of options in what we could do for Suzie. There were other math classes that were geared to business, career and consumer needs. Suzie would like to be a chef or a work in a restaurant after graduation. But the hopes for graduation start to fade as she is stuck and unable to pass algebra the second time around.

What academic goal could I write for her to help her get her diploma? I COULD write one relating to learning how to use a calculator, as that is a standard test condition. But what objective and goal do I write that will help her pass the class? And once I write that goal, how can I or another teacher support and monitor it?

The academic goals and objectives of every high school student in our state are already written in the standards. There is nothing an IEP committee can do to alter those. The best we could do is to perhaps pick a couple of general goals to monitor. But monitoring is already taking place in the form of benchmark assessments, tests and quizzes and instruction is altered on the basis of those formative assessments in order to pass the summative assessment of the EOCT.

I wrote my goals with fine precision, making sure they were SMART and were in line with both the standards and the needs of the students. Suzie struggles with multi-step problems, which is a pretty consistent thread throughout any of the math classes. So my goal is “Suzie will independently solve an array of multi-step equations, using her calculator, scoring at least 75% on 3 consecutive trials.”

It is a wonderfully concise goal and designed for easy monitoring. I could give Suzie an array of problems at least 3 times and see if she can pass my little quiz. OR, more likely, I am going to look in the grade book to see if she has passed 3 consecutive quizzes. If she can do it 3 consecutive times, I’m pretty confident of mastery. If she can’t I am going to figure out why and see if there are any accommodations I can offer to help her. But what of she can’t do more than 2 in a row? Ever?

Do I lower the bar on the goal? Do I change the goal to something she might be able to master? This is how this game ends up being played, as there is some pressure to show mastery of goals. But even if Suzie has mastered 100% of her IEP objectives, if she does not pass her algebra EOCT, she is in for a third round or how ever many rounds until she either passes it or drops out. So where should I, as a teacher, devote my limited time? Should I monitor her and the other 25 students on my caseload more often and give them more quizzes or should I spend more time trying to teach them and help them pass the quizzes and tests they are already assigned? Do I help them by making MORE work for both them and me in order to get data for the IEP or do I devote myself to getting them through the class so they can get a diploma?

Unfortunately, there are no diplomas for mastered IEP objectives. There are no credits toward graduation that can be earned through mastering IEP goals. EOCTs are not tailored to the current functioning of a student who has a disability. Individual Education Programs can address student supports, but they can not touch the requirements of getting a diploma as those apply to everyone, regardless of need, disability, aspirations or aptitude. Academic goals at the high school level are not worth the time it takes to write one let alone the time spent trying to track them individually. The academic goals at the high school are very explicit and clearly spelled out in the state standards. Everything written in the IEP should be geared to accessing and mastering those standards if that is what our schools have turned in to. We don’t need extra academic goals to track unless the state is going to award some credit for students mastering them.

I don’t mind extra work and effort if it is for something that is worthwhile and produces some results. But the standardization of the curriculum, diploma and tests works against our kids who are by definition nonstandard. We are trying to fit square pegs into round holes here. Our kids are not stupid. They are often creative and brilliant in very nonstandard ways. We do nothing to honor creativity by wringing it out of them by our insistence upon the standardization of our educational system. We are going to have to find creative ways to facilitate and reward their brilliance and creativity while addressing their strengths as well as weaknesses.

I suppose that is why I am bothered and overwhelmed by the task at hand. It requires me to pigeon hole my kids into categories and then justify why they are not fitting into a system that was not built for them. While our school does its best to offer individualized and engaging ways to meet the needs of our students, we are hamstrung by a system that punishes nonstandard ways of doing things. The state wants to rig the game so they can point at us and say “SEE?!? You can not possibly meet the needs of these students in your setting!” Never mind that it isn’t working in the other settings any better. We’re a nontraditional setting, teaching nontraditional students in a nontraditional way. The measures and systems designed to measure us were designed for and by those married to the old system. We exist because there are those looking for ways to escape and flee the old way of doing things. They are refugees from places where they previously did not fit and did not thrive. And now those old forces are marshaling their influence and position in order to make sure no one thrives here, either.

Sir Ken Robinson is carrying the message. Am I the only one for whom this resonates?

The Truth About Charter Schools: The Students

14 Sep

I knew not everyone would agree with my take in my last article on Charter schools and the charter school amendment.  I will admit that the issue is a bit complex, muddied by some emotional rhetoric on both sides.  And I freely admit that I can be as shameless of a purveyor of rhetoric as anyone.  Writing without hyperbole is just kinda boring.

Lost in all of the debate, accusations and political gamesmanship is the main focus and subject: students.  They are the ones who will ultimately gain or suffer by what we do or don’t do in November.

The anti-choice folks state very passionately that the students in traditional schools will ultimately suffer due to the funding that will be taken away from their schools, causing more overcrowding and more deplorable conditions.  And I can sympathize as I have witnessed first-hand what has happened to the education system in my beloved district.  Paras were the first to be let go, and then the furloughs and then loss of benefits and finally the overcrowding of almost every class in every school.  Teacher morale was at an all-time low when I left that setting.  Conditions have not improved by any degree or measure in the 2 years since then.  So in some sense, it appears that by taking money away, I advocate making things even worse!

I do not advocate taking money away as much as I advocate taking children away.  And many parents are doing just that, at great cost and sacrifice.  The giant brick and mortar factory schools are crumbling.

So who are the students in my school?  I am now teaching in the largest charter school in the state, and one of the largest in the nation.  We don’t have buses, we don’t have lunchrooms and we don’t have sports teams.  What we do have are students.  Over 12,000 of them in Georgia, with a long waiting list of more who want to get in.

Over 50% of our kids qualified for free and reduced lunches when they went to a brick and mortar school.  Over 1000 receive special education services at every level.They come from towns that I have never heard of, all over the state, from every ethnic background.  Some are urban and some are rural.  But one thing they all have in common is hope.  A hope for a better future, a new start and some way of attaining their goals.  Intimately linked to these students are their parents who aspire for better and greater things for their children.  Most have chosen to stay home to be their children’s learning coach and to invest personally in their child’s education.  They make the sacrifice of career in order to offer something better for their children, giving up much economically, which is especially poignant in today’s economy.  A few of them were already homeschooling while for many this is their first foray into taking charge of their children’s education, becoming true partners with the educational system, interfacing with the teachers, the curriculum and the classes.  Every single day, there are parents who attend classes with their children, sitting right beside them, helping and guiding them.

K12 has a Facebook page which often asks parents this question: Why did you choose K12?

There are scores of replies that can generally be categorized as follows:

“My child was bullied”, “My child was too distracted,” “My child was repeatedly bullied and there was nothing the school could do”, “The classes were too overcrowded for my child to learn” “My child was bullied and did not want to go to school anymore” “My child was not making progress” “My child was bullied and harassed daily and the school would not do anything” “My child needed a more stable learning environment and I did not have enough knowledge to home school” “My child was attacked and stabbed” “I was fed up with what was going on in my home school” “There were too many fights at my child’s neighborhood schools” “My child needed to learn at her own pace” “My child was afraid to go to school because of the bullying and fights””My child became afraid to go to go to school after she was attacked” “My child has a medical condition and she was missing too many assignments” “The only social skills my child was exposed to was fighting, bullying, cursing and swearing””We could not afford a private school and our neighborhood school in south Fulton was too violent and my child was not learning anything” “My child had a disability and his needs were not being met” “My child has aspergers and was teased relentlessly” “My child needs 1:1 support to be successful” “My child became so depressed and withdrawn, they did want to leave the house after starting middle school.  I later found out she was being teased and bullied daily”

You get the picture?  Your school may not have any of these problems and you may have the best and most dedicated teachers in the world.  But these children are refugees from the world of traditional schooling.  Their entire school experience, for many of them, was dictated by their zip code.  If you live in a nice, suburban wealthy neighborhood, you might not have many problems in your school of overcrowding, gangs, bullying, distractions or other things that make daily life for many students a living hell.  All of the families might be well-adjusted and involved in the local PTA.  Every classroom might be staffed by a highly qualified, enthusiastic teacher who incorporates technology and engagement into every lesson.

But for too many of the children I and my fellow teachers serve, this was not their experience.  Their experiences were so bad, that many single parents sacrificed many opportunities in order to provide the safe, nurturing and distraction-free environment that only a parent can provide in their own home so that their children can attend school without the fear and anxiety that comes with being a victim of harassment, bullying and abuse.  They were looking for a new start where they could again become confident learners without being persecuted for being “different.”

I hope to eventually blog my own transformational experience since joining this incredible team.  But suffice it to say that I adore my students as well as their parents who have sacrificed so much to offer their children what they perceive to be their best chance at success.  I owe it to them to do the best that I can for them, and I am a tenacious advocate for their cause.  They inspire me to be a better teacher.

I know that those who oppose the charter school amendment, in their own way, are advocating for children too.  They fear that the traditional schools demise will be hastened by the advent and rise of charter schools like these.  But the genie is out of the bottle.  While you might be able to slow the process, the changes are coming.  I’m not sure what you expect to happen within the next 10 years with traditional schools, but I can tell you what we saw in the last 10 years does not bode well.  Schools, schooling and learning are going to be transformed.  They MUST be transformed.  Putting these kids back into traditional schools after what they suffered through and after having tasted the sweetness of success, would be devastating.  Why would you do this?  Why would you send a child who has found success and confidence in this new environment back into the old environment where fear and failure ruled their lives?

Many detractors point out that charter schools do not do any better than the traditional schools when it comes to test scores, the current rubric of measured success in American education today.  And this is true in my school, where the gains are often modest at best.  But read the comment excerpts above.  The case could be made that many of these students suffer from PTSD, and many of them came to us 1, 2 and even 3 years behind.  These are not kids who were achieving well in their old schools, and often sought escape, refuge and asylum after a long string of failure.  I know of no parent who makes the decision to withdraw their child from their neighborhood school lightly as the decision carries with it some serious economic, social and lifestyle consequences.  Change is never easy, and this sort of change for young people is pretty drastic.  But given the comments above, I have to ask you: What would YOU do?  Should your zip code be the sole arbiter of your child’s educational success?  Should the quality of your child’s education and life be dictated solely by the economy of your neighborhood?

Jane and I are in the midst of the very same discussion as so many parents today.  We look at the declining state of our neighborhood schools and we are fearful of what will happen in the future.  My oldest son’s middle school does try very hard and they have done their best to address the instances of bullying that have occurred.  They really have put a lot of effort into trying to provide a safe environment that enables him to succeed as best they can.  But the high school up the street is a nightmare engaged in a seeming race to the bottom.  We are looking at our options, and they are few.  But there ARE options, thank goodness.

And this is one thing that I think detractors of charter schools overlook.  Simply having viable options in place that are close by can actually help your neighborhood school.  When those options are not in place, the more dramatic sacrifice is to pull up the stakes and move.  When your option is dictated solely by your zip code and there are no other options many, many families choose to change zip codes.  At least a neighborhood charter school keeps involved families in play to be won back if the schools can turn things around.  But once families leave their neighborhoods, you begin to see businesses close their doors and board up their windows.

Is K12 or any other charter school perfect?  Absolutely not, and I do intend to blog an open letter to the good folks in Herndon, VA at some point.  But in the meantime, it provides a place for at least 12,000 of Georgia’s children who, for whatever reason, did not fit in at their traditional brick and mortar schools.  Our beloved State School Superintendent has voiced his willingness to send those 12,000 students and their families back to the schools they fled from, and bar the door to keep them there.  Georgia’s families will be once again tied to their schools based on their zip codes and their income.

In a world where knowledge and information are ubiquitous, it is time to put an end to the educational apartheid that exists in the state of Georgia and around the country.  The quality of a child’s education should not be dictated by their township anymore than it was in South Africa in 1980.  It was wrong then and there, and it is wrong here and now.  Today I can shop in a neighboring town’s store (or online) for better goods, go to a neighboring town for better health care or attend a church anywhere that I care to drive.  But my child can not attend a school outside of the district or zoning lines.

We owe it to our children to offer opportunity and choice.  We need to decide the type of world we are going to live in.  The amendment, like it or not, IS a referendum on choice and opportunity for Georgia’s families.  Are we going to follow the same path that we have been on for the last 10-12 years?  Or are we going to risk something different?

The traditional public schools have a problem that has become a ubiquitous epidemic.  It is persistent and rampant.  It is also a problem that completely disappears once students enter our school.

John Barge, the teacher’s unions, the school boards and so many others who hate our charter school are not addressing or talking about it.  Their failure to effectively deal with it has created a demand that would simply not otherwise exist.   Now these same people are are trying to take my kids; the ones I teach; the ones who have escaped to a safe and secure place where they can actually learn and return them to the same conditions they fled from.  Where is the outrage?  Where is the shame?

 

Myths About Charter Schools

11 Sep

The Georgia Charter School Amendment is gearing up to be one of the hottest items on the fall ballot for the state of Georgia, outside of the presidential race.  I have wanted to write on this for some time, as I am now intimately connected to the charter school movement.  I am currently working for the largest charter school in Georgia, so it might be fair to say that I might be a little biased.  At the same time, both my children still attend their local non-charter public schools.  And I do have experience teaching in public schools for over 20 years.

I am writing mostly in response to the article by Matt Jones, 8 Myths About the Proposed Charter Amendment which was published in the AthenPatch site.  I was originally going to write about myths, but Mr. Jones beat me to it!  So, I guess I’ll have to play the role of Mythbuster for a minute.  I do admit that my experience is confined to the Georgia Cyber Academy, but I did not see where he had taught at any charter schools.

When I first heard about this amendment, I was worried about the implications of a state agency leaping over a locally controlled one, and thereby robbing the local community of tax dollars without representation or oversight.  But a few things have taken place since then which have changed my views.  One of which was working for the GCA.  Another of which was the horrific meltdown of our local school board and administration into a hopeless morass of infighting, nepotism, sniping, circling the wagons and otherwise failing to exercise leadership.

It is useful to read a bit of background about what happened in Cherokee County.  This is what was being mirrored around the state in many counties.  In fact several counties joined in the Cherokee County lawsuit.

So let me look at this issue through the lense of Mr. Jones, and clarify a few things.  His article is worth the read, simply because it provides a handy repository of half-truths and its own share of myths.  Many of the myths around charter schools could be avoided if people would simply do a little diligence and read the DOE’s website on the topic.

Myth: The State Does Not Have the Power to Approve Charter Schools That Were Denied by Local School Boards

Fact:The Georgia Department of Education currently has the authority to review and approve state charter applications.

According to State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge, “with the state charter schools review process already in place, why does Georgia need another state agency that can do the same thing?”

It is true that the State DOE does have the power to approve state charter schools: those that are considered special schools.  From the DOE FAQ:

Who are charter school authorizers in Georgia?

In Georgia, local boards of education and the State Board of Education are charter school authorizers. In order to be granted a charter, schools must be approved by both their local board of education and the State Board of Education with the exception of state-chartered special schools which are authorized by the State Board of Education only.

We’ll talk a bit about funding in a bit, but basically the approval and funding of charter schools are intimately tied together.  Gov. Deal approved HB 797, but that law hinges heavily on whether or not the state has the power to approve charter schools over local board objections.  And that power can only come from a constitutional amendment, at least according to Georgia’s Supreme Court which argued that the state did not have the constitutional authority to over ride local school boards on this issue.  So while it IS true, it is only sort of true.  If this amendment fails, the same schools who presented the first case are poised to launch into a second round against charters already established.  And Dr. Barge and the DOE have already expressed opposition in word and deed to the state charter schools.

Moving on:

Myth: Charter Schools Are More Innovative and Flexible

Fact: Charters are allowed to “kick out” students for behavior or academic reasons.

And Mr. Jones hasn’t heard of “suspension” “expulsion” or “alternative school?”  Our regular public schools find innovative ways of getting rid of students with behavior problems all the time.  Not a lot innovative there, true enough.  An odd, and little known fact is that in my home county we have exactly one locally approved charter school.  That school has never made AYP and yet it is allowed to exist.  Why?  Because it is a nice handy place to send students with behavior and academic problems.  This street runs both ways.

Fact: Charters are able to hire uncertified teachers/staff and ignore class size caps.

Class size caps?  Mr. Jones again ignores facts and the sad state of education in Georgia.  There are NO class size caps in the state of Georgia!  Our beloved legislature lifted all that over a year ago.  So whining about Charters doing it seems very ill-sighted indeed.  As far as uncertified teachers, this is another blatant falsehood and I have no idea where it came from.  We have this thing call No Child Left Behind, with the flagship provision of being HIGHLY QUALIFIED!  Charter schools are still public schools and can not opt out of Federal laws and regulations, as per our friendly and helpful GA DOE site:

Charter schools and systems are subject to all provisions outlined in O.C.G.A. 20-2-2065(b). In particular, charter schools may not waive state laws or State Board of Education rules pertaining to health and safety, funding formulas, or accountability provisions. In addition, charter schools may not waive any aspect of federal law. This includes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and all applicable civil rights legislation.

Due diligence, Mr. Jones.

Myth: State Charter Schools Will Not Take Funds Away from Traditional Public Schools

Fact:If the proposed charter amendment passes, charter schools authorized by the Commission will be 100% funded by the state.

Actually there is some truth in your fact because charter schools, will in fact, take money away from the traditional public schools.  I’m not going to deny it at all.  This is because some of the money is bound to follow the student, as parents vote with their feet.  When students leave the traditional school, much of that money departs with them, which is a good incentive for traditional schools to try to hold on to their students and keep as few other options open as possible.  But the cut is much deeper than the money, albeit it is a very painful cut to systems already strapped.  The worst part is that the parents who take the initiative to start a charter or move their children into a charter are the ones most school really like.  The involved parents who care about their children’s education and the ones willing to make certain sacrifices in order to make that happen such as providing transportation and packing a lunch.

Fact: The state has a constitutional obligation to fully fund and provide for an adequate public education for every student in Georgia.4

Currently, the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility. Most Georgians understand that budget cuts were necessary due to the economic downturn, but the passage of the charter amendment would bind the state to additional funding obligations.  

This assumes that Georgia was meeting its responsibility before the economic downturn, and that responsibility is limited to providing funds.  By almost any metric. calling Georgia’s education system as “adequate” is generous at best.  Charters exist and have the support that they do because parents crave an option.  Americans like choices, especially if the only one that exists isn’t that good.

Myth: Charter Schools Are Public Schools

Fact: There are many elements of charter schools that make them appear more private than public.

Again, Mr. Jones might wish to do some research into “Theme Schools” and “Magnet Schools.”  In my county, we have a “Parent involvment” theme school which my youngest attends.  They have criteria for admission that would prevent my oldest son who has high functioning autism from being admitted.  They also make parents sign a contract, pledging to do so  many hours of service.  They don’t provide transportation but DO provide the yummy lunches proscribed by our beloved USDA.  This school has the approval and support of the local board of education, but it has more elements that make it look private than and charter school would be allowed to do.  Why is it allowed here?  The same reason it allowed the charter school mentioned above, only on the other end of the spectrum.  At least this way, they keep the kids and their funding.  Local boards do this in response to parent demands and that is a GOOD thing!

Fact:The charter movement has close ties with the pro-school choice movement. 

Heaven forbid parents might actually CHOOSE.  I hear people complain about the lack of parental responsibility with their kids and yet many of these are the same people who want to block the school house doors and keep kids trapped.  Choosing a school or how to educate their children is the most responsible and involved thing a parent can do, and yet systems do all they can to block that avenue of responsibility.  The Anti-School choice movement has close ties with socialism and Communism, but I’m not going to make that an issue in this debate.

Myth: Charters Serve All Students

Fact: Many charter schools use lotteries to avoid qualifying for AYP testing, making it difficult to compare their success to public schools. 

The lotteries are simply a tool used to insure the distribution of students matches the district demographics within the smaller size of the charter school.  This is like saying “Many Georgians use cars in order to avoid buying new shoes.”  Small sample sizes do make comparisons difficult, but its erroneous to accuse them of deliberately keeping their sizes small just for AYP, especially when you’re going to accuse these same players of ties to big business designed to maximize their numbers.

Fact:Overall, data suggests that students who are the most challenging to teach and require the most resources are not being served by charters in the state.

I’m one of a large number of special educators currently serving students with disabilities in the largest charter school in the state.  And I happen to be certified and highly qualified.  Whatever data you have can suggest what it wishes, but the facts are much different.

Myth: Charters Seek to Put the Interests of Families and Students First

Fact: Proponents of the proposed charter amendment wave the banner of families and children, while advocating the interests of business interests over students’ interests.

You mean like those teachers on strike in Chicago?  Schools of any size are businesses with stakeholders that include families and students and all the other business entities that serve them.  The people making the textbooks in your school are businesses and they have lobbyists and marketers targeting people in your district.  They are also political.  However, unlike the traditional schools, charters DO have to be able to attract students/parents and retain them over time.  Parent satisfaction is critical to their existence!  Or at least higher satisfaction than the neighborhood school.

Fact: For these groups and individuals, support of the proposed charter amendment equates to making a business investment, instead of investing in all of our schools and all of our children.

The reason there is money to be made is the high dissatisfaction among families with their neighborhood schools.  But it’s hard to know a person’s real motives.  What I do know is that traditional schools have struggled with the disruption caused by technology and the social changes of the last decade.  They are trying to give their children every advantage they can.

Myth: Charter Schools Increase Student Achievement

Fact:Multiple Studies and Reports Call Into Question the Effectiveness of Charter School

This fact is actually not too much of a myth, at least for our school. We do track and strive to achieve success but our results are not always at the state level.  But test scores only provide part of the equation.  I’ll have to give a narrative composite sketch of our students next time.  You’ll be surprised at how it looks.

Fact:Charter school proponents regularly cherry pick data and make broad comparisons.

Sorta like Mr. Jones’ critique of the pro-school choice movement??  Actually, making a few broad comparisons is better than just making stuff up.

 

Myth: Charters Will Expand Choice and Create Competition 

Fact: Passage of the charter amendment does not guarantee that charters would be added to areas that have chronically underperforming schools. 

But the failure of the amendment will almost certainly prevent them from moving in.  It is probable that many that already exist will die off from lack of funding or be sued out of existence from the opponents.

Fact:True competition can only exist if the same system of rules and regulations are in place for all participating parties.

Again, this street runs both ways.  Fact is, my charter school is undergoing a lot more scrutiny on compliance issues compared to the traditional schools because the state DOE does NOT like us and would rather we did not exist.  Dr. Barge has already stated his position which is that no charter school should exist while other schools don’t have enough money.  And since NO regular school district EVER has enough money then we should not exist.

Charter schools employ many of your former colleagues who were otherwise unemployed or laid off.  Charter schools also educate students that traditional schools have been either unwilling or unable to serve.  And they do so at a much smaller cost to the tax payer much of the time.

Having choices is a very American thing.  Having choices in education is a humane and just thing, especially if we can offer free and public choices.  People will vote with their feet.  Since most charters have waiting lists and most traditional public schools have declining enrollments, it might be wise to look around and recognize that times are changing.  The present structure has existed for at least the last 40 years and Georgia has never been in the top 10 in education but consistently been in the bottom 10.  Mr. Jones makes an appeal to fix the system in place, but that system has consistently refused to allow itself to be fixed and it is way past adolescence.  We need real change as it is too important to put off any longer.

Accelerated Reader: Undermining literacy while plundering library budgets

12 Apr

A recent report about the lowering of reading scores is making news in educational circles. 

Sandra Stotsky, holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, says American high school students do not read challenging books, whether they are assigned by their teachers or chosen for leisure reading.

The report is put out by the same company that sells the Accelerated Reader, more commonly known as AR in a school near you.  Basically, AR is built for data.  Books are rated and organized according to reading level and length and then quizzes are given to students after they read the books and awarded points based on how well they perform on the quizzes.  The quizzes are all computerized thus facilitating the data driven instruction favored by the leaders in educational reform today.

Here is a great article by Gary Stager on the shortcomings of AR and how it drains schools of scarce resources while creating and exacerbating a problem that it is claiming to address.  What I want to add to the conversation is first-hand experience with how AR, and its implementation has had a detrimental effect on reading in our household.

In my youngest son’s 4th grade classroom, he is assigned a sort of individualized reading goal of a certain number of points per month.  Making this goal is a substantial part of his grade.  The goal is fairly well-written, in that it is precise and can be efficiently measured, since AR is a like a dream for people who are data driven. Plus it can be individualized based on ability.  You would think a behaviorist like me would love it.

 

My 4th grader has the dubious honor of being able to read on about the 6-7th grade level.  So the grade level he is restricted to is at the 5-7th grade range.  If he reads anything at too low a level, he doesn’t get enough points.  If he reads to far above, he can’t comprehend enough to pass the AR test.  So AR should be aiming at his sweet spot of about the 6th grade level.  The problem is, is that my quest student has a goal that makes him read a book about every week.  In 4th grade.  On top of the rest of the homework he is being assigned.  So right away, we are digging into his non-homework time at home, as the school day is extended 2-4 hours every afternoon and night. 

But there is another problem with this AR system besides the bone-numbing reduction of reading into data points.  It is also expensive and it creates additional and needless drain on resources while at the same time  it decreases accessibility and options.  The true limitations of AR didn’t really hit us until we decided to buy a Kindle Touch with our own scarce financial resources.

The idea was that eyes strain from staring at a computer screen for long periods for just reading might be alleviated by the more natural experience offered by the Kindle.  And that we could have more access to more books, free books, using the Kindle.  And indeed there are free classic books to be had.  Most of them freely available through the Gutenberg Project.  And they are classic literature, time tested and things that many of us might have read when we were kids and our kids might discover and are completely appropriate for school. 

The first book I downloaded on our brand new kindle was a book called Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with the Circus.  It has some pretty heavy themes but there is no bad language and there is a less on to be learned.  The book is slightly on the low side for my 10 year-old at about a 4-5th grade level.  But I thought he might enjoy it.  But he will probably never read it because if you search the AR book finder, it is not there.  And neither are several free and classic works of children’s literature.  Basically, we are totally limited to those books that have tests because he has only a limited amount of time and he has high expectations for himself and will push himself to reach certain goals including getting straight A’s.  So AR books, and his grade, have a much higher priority than reading for enjoyment. It is NOT enjoyable to read for him, it is a CHORE.

His less conscientious classmates choose books from the AR list, but compare that list to the Netflix/movie list in order to “finish” a Harry Potter book in about 2 hours.  They basically game the system as much as possible.

Let’s talk a a bit about the less motivated brother who just turned 13.  He likes to read, but his interests are so restricted that they hardly even appear on any AR list at any reading level.  Titanic, trains, and….that is about it at the moment although we are gradually working on expanding the list.  For awhile he was interested in entrepreneurship and read books about the founding of Coca cola and McDonald’s which I think I enjoyed reading more than he did.  But those were each only worth one point despite being on a 7th grade reading level just because they were relatively short.  Getting him through a novel is a LOT of work.  We had to work overtime to get him through the book Where the Red Fern Grows which included having him watch the movie more than once.  And he has developed a fixation toward getting coon dogs now.  This is a fine story, but it was SO hard getting him to read the book.  But we also didn’t want to add the expense of an audio book on top of the book and the movie we bought. 

One thing about the free classic works of literature, is that they are available in audio as well as free electronic book form though Librivox.  So now a person can listen with their Kindle Touch while they read along.  Every book can be made into a read-along-book.  And it is free.  And these are challenging books.  these would be a much better choice for both of my kids because they are presented in multiple formats and widely accessible.  Being in the public domain also opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating these stories and putting on plays, doing illustrations and basically having fun without the worry of copyright and cost restrictions.  This would be leveraging technology properly, although it does not lend itself especially well to the data driven approach favored by the education czars of both Bush and Obama administrations.  And I see nothing that convinces me a new president will make any positive changes. 

AR is an expensive program that limits and saddles a school with only certain books that happen to have quizzes in them.  The entire idea of reading as an enjoyable endeavor is abandoned in favor of turning both my kids into data points.  It is not cost effective to limit its use to only those students who might benefit from the point system, so everyone has to use it.

I happened to witness another casualty of the AR system.  It encourages cheating, which turns the poor librarian into a sort of guard who has to make sure that kids are not looking over another’s shoulder and getting answers.  I saw this while substituting in a 4th grade classroom.  The lone librarian (she had no aid as those positions had been long cut) was exasperated with trying to monitor my class, the AR test takers plus check out books and organize the huge stacks behind her.  I’m sure when she entered the field she many idea of how she might promote literacy and a love of reading to children everywhere.  I have yet to meet one that had anything good to say about AR.

 

 

Achievements: Getting the Lame to Walk

19 Mar

I know I have sometimes gotten down and negative here, as I often use this as my own personal forum to vent various frustrations.  But this is also a good place to tell about stuff I’ve accomplished to any would-be future employers out there who are looking for a special education teacher.  Remember, I AM HQ!

I had a student who came to me in a wheelchair.  This is not unusual, since most of my students nowadays seem to be in wheelchairs.  However this little guy was different because he could, in fact, walk.  He had an irregular gait due to his particular syndrome, but he could walk and get around pretty well.  And that was kind of the problem.  He was getting around TOO well.  And he would get into everything and destroy whatever he got his hands on.  He was all hands and all active.  And he knew how to drive his chair probably better than he could walk.  So containing him and keeping him out of trouble involved finding some elaborate way of blocking the wheelchair up so he couldn’t move it.  This was easier said than done as he was also fairly clever and persistent.  The wheelchair was basically used by everyone as a restraint device.  Keep in mind, he was seen as unmanageable all the way through middle school.

And within 2 years, I got the boy to a place where he could be put just about anywhere and he would basically stay put.  He would still occasionally want to wander off, but he was easily redirected.  He went from being my most unmanageable challenge to being one of my best behaved students.  And he no longer needs or uses the wheelchair.  Not at school, not on the bus and not at home.

I’m not going to get into all the behavioral techniques used to getting him to that place.  I will just say that perseverance and determination were major factors toward getting him where he is today.  I’m not to proud to say that when he first came to me, I didn’t want him in my room.  I thought we were already overcrowded and understaffed.  Haha!  Little did I know what was to come!  But I had no choice but to bite the bullet and dig in and teach this student how to conduct himself in a classroom without wrecking the place.  He will still wreck things if he gets his hands on them, but I have little toys and things he can use to keep his hands busy.  He’s still very active, but he can be active in his own space.  While there are still a whole lot of things he can not do, he can now be maintained without his wheelchair.  This is a relief for his family who previously had to cart the thing around everywhere they took him.  It is less bother for the bus, as they no longer have to mess with the lift.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that this accomplishment in no way affected the school’s test scores, graduation rate or AYP.   At no time did teaching him how to control himself address a state academic standard.   And there is no part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test that measures whether or not a student requires a wheelchair. None of this will appear on the Georgia Alternate Assessment.  I took time out from academic instruction in order to address this students needs, which pretty much violates whatever tenets are set by NCLB.  There is no way to align the goal of not needing a wheelchair to any state standard.  And it also was not explicitly stated as a goal in his IEP.  Our beloved governor has not offered any merit pay to teachers who can get a child to not need a wheelchair anymore.  There are no incentives offered by the state of Georgia to recruit or retain people that can do this.  There is nothing on any evaluation instrument for teachers that says this is even a worthwhile activity.

Despite several who told me this endeavor was a waste of time, I did it anyway.  And while I have no test scores, enhanced pay, accolades, awards, or anything from other people that says this is at all important, I do have an empty wheelchair in the corner that has not been used in a very, very long time, except to hold a coat or a bag.  And I have the audacity to feel pretty good about that!

Lots of my fellow teachers do stuff like this all the time and we don’t talk about, because it doesn’t address a state standard.  It isn’t recognized or rewarded because it doesn’t result in a college scholarship.  And this student can’t give me a recommendation to an employer because he can not read, write or talk.  But he can walk, which is how he gets around now because he does not need a chair to restrain him.  He has learned to control himself to some degree.

The story of this student is not over, as he continues to progress.  He has a long way to go, and I hope he continues to progress.  But it will have to be with someone else.  Perhaps there are other students in other schools that need to learn self control.  It would save some poor high school teacher’s hair if more kids could learn that skill in middle school.  And that is sort of where I’m aiming at the moment.  I would like to get into a smaller community and with a younger set in order to see if I can apply some of this experience earlier on.

Pay for Performance

16 Jan

And other disasters inaugurated by our beloved governor. The Atlanta Journal’s blog asked a question: did Governor Perdue leave education better off than he found it? In order to be fair we have to remember what it was like when he came into office. Governor Roy Barnes was often called “King Roy” because decisions were made without any input from educators. He came up with what he termed the “A+ Initiative” which did limit class sizes but was also a call for accountability. It was an early precursor to No Child Left Behind, and Barnes would go on to lead the Aspen Institute which called for a continuation and strengthening of NCLB. And anyone reading me for any length of time knows how I feel about NCLB. When Barnes left, Georgia was a state that was a bottom feeder in state rankings by almost any measure in education. So it is safe to say that the state of education in Georgia was pretty bad at the time Perdue took office. Personally, I did lose my job at the state hospital because of cuts made during the Barnes tenure, so no love was lost when he lost.

So now we have our current beloved governor. How has education fared under him? First off, Georgia is still a bottom feeder using any objective measure of educational level or achievement. He pushed for and got the legislature to stop funding pay supplements for teacher who were National Board certified. His response was to replace it with a master teacher program which tied the credential to student achievement i.e. test scores. He also succeeded in getting a measure passed that would help recruit science and math teachers by allowing them to start at a higher salary step. And now he has his pay for performance scheme. These final three initiatives; Master teacher certification, recruitment of shortage teachers and pay for performance all have one thing in common. They each and all explicitly exclude me and those who teach students with severe disabilities.

This is great for job security as there are so few incentives for coming into a field with such a massive shortage that opportunities should abound. Not so good if you are a parent of a child with a disability. The students and their parents are the biggest losers from the Perdue legacy. Teachers do fare worse than they may have otherwise. Choosing between our current governor and the one he replaced would be most difficult, but right now democrats have a golden opportunity.

Pay for performance is a total loser as far as what I currently teach. It is why the master teacher certificate is not accessible in my field. Daniel Willingham has an excellent video that explains why merit pay is such a difficult and tricky issue.

Teachers simply do not have enough control over all the contingencies that are involved in student outcomes. In my case, students progress so slowly as to defy any quick, cheap or reliable measure. Also they are all different. The idea is to reward the best teachers, but there is no standard of comparison between students in my classroom and any other students. Right now I have 9 students which is more than twice the size of any other comparable program in the district. How could there be a fair comparison? Secondly, my students are with me for the duration of the day for the duration of their school career. There is no standard of comparison there, either.

One provision the governor included was for classroom observation to be a part of the determining factor as far as whether a teacher would get performance-based pay. I have no problems being observed by an administrator, and showing them what I do any time. One problem is that not many administrators have any idea of what I do or even what I should be doing. They walk in once or twice a year for about 5-10 minutes and then leave. That’s if I’m lucky. For the past several years, observing me consisted of watching me feed one of the students during lunch! Again, I have no problems doing this and demonstrating it as it is an important part of what I do and crucial to the student. But it isn’t part of the Georgia Standards and is not going to apply toward ANY of the school’s stated improvement goals.  What I do is important, but it is not given value by any accountability scheme envisioned by any politician.

One more note about the pay for performance scheme outlined by the governor is that he references a survey taken by some 20,000 educators, 80% of which supposedly said they wanted to be evaluated and paid on the basis of student performance and observation.  I never saw any such survey, unless it was this one.  in Georgia.

Performance-based pay is a mine field. But if they people advocating this succeeded in designing something that was fair to me and the students I teach, I guarantee it would be fair for all. The reverse is decidedly not true as demonstrated by the Master Teacher debacle that leaves me behind.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 187 other followers