Back to School: The Prepared Environment

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year …”

If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.

Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever.  I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”

Back to School that is.

Ahhh, back to school.  A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike.  Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th.  Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.

We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.

This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares.  These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc.  In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!

Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year.  Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:

Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,

Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,

Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,

Even the air was redolent with exuberance —  full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.

This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:

The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,

The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,

The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,

The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.

That classroom was waiting for you.  Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.

It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:

“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school?  I’m the VP of our union.  Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts.  Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”

“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.

“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.

I have always been a fiercely proud union member.  I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career.  But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.

To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state.  I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with.  I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.

What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.

I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared.  A classroom where materials are still in boxes.  A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.

A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.

Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.

Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this.  Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways.  Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.

There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits.  A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom.[1]  Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom.[2]  This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.

The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.[3]

Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low.  Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space.  Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.[4]

Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier.  The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.

Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.

And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.

Is this fair?  No, of course not.  But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us.  Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom.  Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours.  Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.

As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space:  5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design.  It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.

The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.

As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”

I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space.  Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”[5]

Consider your classroom.  Which corner do you want to start with?

Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went.  Is there an area in your room that felt congested?  Or cluttered?  A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends?  Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.

Begin with one of these spaces.

Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options.  If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.

There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional.  Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.

(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)

A place for everything and everything in its place

If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.

A student supply center. This teacher has two sets of these –each one assigned for use by 4 tables of students.

 

A simple way to provide easy access to colored pencils. A student job can be ensuring correct placement of pencils at the end of each day.

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.

A structure for documenting, problem-solving, and holding students accountable for being tardy to class.

 

Classroom jobs support students in being responsible for care of the environment. Clear routines and procedures are essential for this to function well.

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

Clearly defined morning meeting leadership roles with individual clipboards for ease of use.

 

Nontraditional student work areas

If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.

The creation of beautiful reading nooks emphasizes the joy that can be found in reading for pleasure.

 

Here is a different type of reading corner. In both photos, notice the lighting elements.

 

Many students like the option of working on the floor as it allows them greater movement and more choices of position.

 

A standard table can easily be converted to a floor work space by removing a portion of the legs.

 

Students may discover work spaces that you had never even considered!

 

There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning.  However, to do so takes significant time.  Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.

So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom.  Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year.  Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space.  (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)

But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure.  Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead.  Quite frankly, so are most teachers.  It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

[1] Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Carter, Dwight, Gary Sebach, and Mark White.What’s In Your Space?Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016.

 

Grading to Encourage Effort

The wisest thing I have ever heard a person say about grading came from my friend and sometimes co-worker Barb Scholtz. A long-time teacher of math and English and life, she taught my son in middle school at Clark Montessori.  It was years later, in her role as a teacher educator, that she worked with a team of teachers who were doing an independent PD on differentiation at Gamble. (Read more about that here.) Here she asked the basic question that shook my thinking about failing grades. “If a child is learning, how can they be failing?”

This is more than a question. It is a revelation. We have to move past thinking of a grade in a gradebook as immutable truth, an unswayable bedrock fact which must be reported.

images-1This article assumes you are in a situation where you are required to report a single letter grade, and perhaps a percentage, to sum up 10 weeks’ worth of effort, practice, improvement, success and failure on a multitude of social and academic skills. I’m sorry about your situation. I’m here to help.

There appear to be two philosophies among teachers when discussing grading. One camp asserts that grading is a time-consuming but relatively simple process – you set up your gradebook, assign different point totals for different types of assignments, set up weighting or assign more points to emphasize the more important work, and average it all out at the end of the quarter. The other camp suggests that grading is a laborious and challenging activity, where you try to find ways for students who are improving to demonstrate that growth without becoming discouraged or complacent, and the rules seem arbitrary so you change them relatively often to try and better match the growth you see in your students.

It is a fair bet that those of you who read this blog are not in the “grading is easy” camp.

I am not here to convince you that it is, though my message is simple: The best thing you can accomplish with a grade is to keep a student invested in her education. But how?

Read more

Creating Change: Yes, We Can!

An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.

 My students made that happen, and they did so much more.

As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes.  Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.

But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …

And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.

Read more

7 Gateways: The Hunger for Joy and Delight

originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17

by Krista Taylor

Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.

Read more

Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

Read more

Take A Break!

-by Jack M. Jose, originally published July 4, 2016, revised July 2017

I am bad at vacations. Really bad. Classically bad. I have trouble scheduling them. I dislike planning for them. I pack well enough, but I put it off to the moments before we leave. On occasion I vow, “This vacation will be different.” I claim I will get away from work for real, but it always creeps back in, usually through an open door. A door that I propped open. After sunset we return to the hotel room, and I sneak a glimpse at the computer. Or perhaps I take a quick look at my phone and handle an email discreetly while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I then look up into my wife’s disapproving stare.

July, 2015, I vowed to fix that.

Read more

Why Are You Leaving Me?

– by Jack M. Jose

This week I was preparing a post about difficult conversations. I was reviewing some of the articles and books I have read about challenging conversations, and thinking back on the many times I have had to deliver hard news to a student’s family, or to a friend or an employee, or someone who is both. The topics at Angels and Superheroes are charted out weeks in advance. Our spreadsheet includes some ideas of what should be covered in the post. I had some ideas about what I wanted to say regarding the difficult conversations I often have to schedule and implement.

And then, serendipitously, someone who is both an employee and a friend came to me to have a difficult conversation. Or, more accurately, to deliver some hard news. Sometimes the situation comes to you.

He is a talented and bright young teacher. I interviewed him for the district several years ago, and walked away impressed, wishing I had a spot for him on my roster. I was devastated when, just a couple short weeks later, a spot opened up and I called human resources only to learn that he had been placed at another school. I kept in touch, and ran into him at social justice events, becoming more convinced over time that he would be an asset to the school. I periodically brought him up in conversations as “the one who got away.” Last spring, when we again had an opening, he transferred to our school. He turned out to be everything that I hoped he would be, and in some ways more.

In just his first year in the building he has taken on some leadership roles, and built a strong rapport with students and staff. Behind the scenes he operates with integrity, including helping facilitate difficult “elephant in the room” discussions, and brings insight to math and science instruction in the school. As for our Montessori approach, he just understands it. In the second semester when I stopped in to observe his classroom one day, he asked the class, “Who is our ambassador today?” When it was determined the designated student was absent, another student quickly volunteered and came over to me as he continued his lesson. She quietly welcomed me to the class, gave me a copy of a handout they were working on, told me the main point of the day’s lesson, and suggested places I could sit. She checked on me at each transition. This teacher had built leadership and community into his classroom process.

I identified very closely with him, perhaps because I saw an approach similar to mine. He was open to feedback, and eager to learn. I walked out of observations and discussions with him wondering what I could give to him to help him progress, wondering if perhaps I had anything to offer. Of course principals do not have favorite teachers, just as teachers do not have favorite students. But we know that in each group there are a few who make the day flow more smoothly, and who operate independently. They seem to put more in than they need out of the system.

Then he scheduled this meeting with me.

I was not worried about it at all. We had consulted closely on his intersession planning for several weeks, going back and forth with the CPS legal team and facilities department to ultimately decide that it would be unwise to build a climbing wall outdoors on school property. More recently we had spoken to back off of an outdoor climbing plan, and as he requested to add a second Gamble Moment to our annual Gamble Moments book.

In my office last week, the look on his face was grave. “Mr. Jose, this is not an easy thing to say.”

I knew it right then. He was leaving. My heart sank. I know my feelings escaped onto my face because he reacted. I’m not certain, but as I remember it, the next words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” That was my confirmation of why he needed to talk.

He was leaving me.

Sure, I know, he was leaving the school, he was leaving the students, he was leaving all of us, but I became intensely aware that I was taking the news very personally.  The rest of the conversation was important, perhaps crucial, but the news was all delivered in the set-up, the look on his face, and his apology.

He was leaving me.

Scary place, the future.

Teachers leave buildings all the time. Teachers leave teaching too. In a recent NPR article, Linda Hammond, the President and CEO of the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, cited the national attrition rate – out of teaching – as 8%. The Shanker Institute, a nonprofit educational research group, asserted in this 2015 article that the “mover” and “leaver” rates were about 8% each, nationally, resulting in a combined typical rate of 16% attrition. Krista talks more powerfully about teacher burnout here.

Gamble Montessori had a bad year. As of the publication of this post, seven teachers are leaving the school, which is 18% of our 39 full-time teachers. Last year that number was better – we had five teachers leave, or 12%. (I want to rationalize even further: We have three itinerant academic teachers and an itinerant band director, if calculated in, this would push our rate this year to 16%. However, this is merely rationalization.) Two other teachers met with me during the year to discuss leaving; other possibilities they were pursuing in their personal lives could potentially pull them away. One went so far as to fill out a resignation paper from the district. However, both saw those prospects dim and are currently scheduled to return next year.

But why do teachers leave? Hammond provided two reasons. “[T]he first reason is lack of administrative support. The second one is concerns about the way accountability pressures in the No Child Left Behind era created pressure to teach to the test, burdensome sanctions and the loss of autonomy in the classroom.” Okay, I can deal with that. One of those reasons is in my control.

Jennifer Duffield, co-founder of Dancing Moose Montessori School in West Valley City, UT was pretty direct in her recent talk at the American Montessori Society (AMS) National Conference. In her words to administrators she said, simply, “The bad news is, we’re the problem. The good news is, we can also be the solution.” She stated that 63% of teachers who had negative feedback about administrators left, and 93% with positive feedback stayed.

Her data, like Hammond’s, points to a persistent 7% who leave despite positive feelings about administration.

It doesn’t take data, or an AMS presentation, for me to blame myself when a teacher leaves. Sometimes the reason presented is wholly unrelated to me, such as moving out of town following a marriage, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow a dream job. And to be certain, some of those who move on do so as a mutual parting of ways, perhaps after losing their zest for teaching, or exhibiting the same struggles with relationships or deadlines year after year. Nonetheless, I take each resignation or move personally.

As the leader of the school, I identify personally with each win or loss. This can be literal, like our first ever win with each of our athletics teams, or figurative, like the arrival and departure of staff. Our academic scores flood me with a range of emotions, despite my disparagement of using those scores to evaluate me, the school, the teachers, and our students. Each departure – or even rumor of a possible departure – sets off inside of me a volley of soul-searching and self-questioning. “What did I do wrong? How could I have better supported him/her? Was it something I said or did? Something I did NOT say or do?” And the list of reasons never seems to involve me. It is either a wedding, moving to be nearer to family, retirement, a dream job opportunity or similar reasons. However, I am certain that this is just people being polite to me. I queried him the same way I asked others: is there something I could have done better?

So what can be done about it? Duffield’s approach was straightforward: buy them coffee. Well, it was more complicated than that. She provided a host of solutions for the principal:

  • Focus on teacher growth and well being
  • Take more of the blame, and less of the credit
  • Protect them from district initiatives and unimportant tasks
  • Create an interdependent community where they have the resources to share problem-solving responsibilities
  • Listen to them, and give them what they need (which is, sometimes, coffee)
  • Have hard conversations, where you are nice, but tough [she used the word “nice,” but other authors and presenters, including Krista, and Patricia Jennings, would improve this suggestion by saying we should be “kind” but tough]

These rules describe the support that teachers need from their principals, and are not just rules for conversations. They seem to lay the groundwork for only the positive, growth-focused conversations, or for moments of praise and co-working to solve problems. Yet, because they help set the basis for building community, they actually help with all conversations. This includes hard conversations, like corrective feedback on observations, and addressing when someone falls short of our expectations. These can be uncomfortable. I used to flee from these conversations. Now sometimes I not only don’t avoid them, but I sort of relish them. I see each as a challenge and evidence of my growth, and a chance to use what I learned in reading Conversational Capacity. If I get a report that an adult in the school has spoken inappropriately to a student, or questioned another adult’s decision openly in front of others, I get the familiar rush of blood to my head. It would be easy to nod and promptly forget the report. Instead, now, I still give the nod, and a non-committal sound, then I seek the best way to address the issue directly. Sometimes the right answer is to say to the teacher in front of me, who has just complained about a colleague, “And what did they say when you addressed this with them?” If they did not have the conversation, which is often the case, I offer to help them structure the conversation, and offer my assistance for feedback if the meeting does not go as planned. Or if they have tried conversation and it did not work, instead of avoidance, I stride intentionally into the conversation. It is this recent practice that helped me be ready when my teacher sat down in my office and said, “This is hard.”

So I listened. He explained about a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with friends on a way to help impoverished students. It had been a dream of theirs, but a grant meant that his friends could afford to pay him, at least for a year. This was his passion, and he could be paid to follow it.

In response, I told him, honestly, how sad I was to hear this. I explained his value to me personally, and to the team, and how I had figured him into plans moving forward at the school. I stated – bluntly, I thought – that while I would be happy to hear if he changed his mind, I was not trying to change his mind.  I was simply expressing the facts. I reassured him that he was doing the right thing by pursuing his dream and that if he chose to return, I would endeavor to find a place for him at our school, because it was better with him here. No one should ever be given any message different than that.

Personally, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I didn’t see it coming. And I told him so. I just named the feeling. But in expressing that to him, and remaining focused on what he needed – support, reassurance, and the confidence that he could have a place to return if his dream could not be realized – I had the difficult conversation the right way. Most importantly, I did not waiver from my philosophy of supporting the person in front of me. The school is important, but not more important than any of the people in it.

At Gamble, we take time in our staff meetings for acknowledgements. This is the time we structure to build community by thanking others or pointing out good work they have done to help us individually or as a school. At Monday’s staff meeting, when it was time for acknowledgements, my teacher who was leaving spoke up. “I’d like to acknowledge Jack. We had a hard conversation last week, and he was extremely understanding and supportive. I really appreciate that.” This weekend, as I sought his permission to use the story for this blog, he added, “Still feeling that way too. Appreciate your grace.”

There was a time when this was not the conversation I would have. One year, my second as principal, a promising young teacher approached me and asked permission to leave. She had a chance to move to our sister school, where she indicated she had dreamed of teaching. The timing was very late, and she had to ask me because the internal transfer rounds were over, and a transfer would require permission from both principals. I considered the calendar, and the difficulty involved in getting a teacher into the vacancy in time for opening day, let alone one as promising as her. I prevented her move. I held my ground even after Krista came to me and strongly advocated for supporting the individual over the institution. I was doing what was best for the school, I felt, and certainly what was best for me.

I have come to believe that I was wrong.

This decision was, I believe, subconsciously held against me by the teacher for the rest of her tenure at our school. She once even said as much as we were discussing a different issue. I had broken the relationship in order to do what I believed was best for the school, and I had ultimately benefitted nothing. She stayed a few more years, and proved that my belief in her promise was well-placed. She developed a strong teaching presence and structured a highly functional classroom, working closely with other adults to meet the needs of students. When another opportunity came to leave, however, she took it. But really, she had left years before, and I wonder if perhaps she could have been a better teacher somewhere else, or perhaps she would have seen the grass was not greener and returned. Neither of us will ever know. I am certain that she is gone from our school forever.

Maybe this other young teacher, the one I supported instead of blocking, will come back. There is precedent for that at our school. Maybe he won’t. Ultimately, I am proud that I supported him in the ways I could.

I can’t fully change the fact that I feel like he, and the others, are leaving me. ME, personally. I can, however, take steps to help all of my teachers feel more supported, and to take the action I can to support them in their roles and in their careers, even if that means letting them go.

The Big Short: When the Education Bubble Bursts

Jack M. Jose

On September 15, 2008, the giant financial company Lehman Brothers, unable to meet its obligations to borrowers, completely collapsed, closing its doors and halting all transactions as it fell swiftly into unthinkably large debt. 25,000 Lehman employees lost their jobs.[1] The company would never re-open. In the same week, the largest banks in the United States all shared warnings of nearing a similar fate. This event was the primary public face of the start of the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn in modern history. The US government stepped in to bail out the largest banks before they followed suit with Lehman Brothers, eventually spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to shore up our economy. The Lehman crash, and the bank crash in general, was connected with the bursting of the US housing bubble, where suddenly home prices crashed back from extravagant highs, costing homeowners billions in actual and unrealized gains in their personal net worth. In the end, billions of dollars of value of stocks, companies, and people’s homes and jobs were essentially vaporized. Even after 5 years of sustained job and economic growth following the official end of the recession in 2012, by some measures the United States has not yet unburied itself from this financial disaster.

There were many contributing factors to this economic crash, and many books and even movies helped to tell parts of the story. One best-selling book-turned-movie exploring the causes of this crash was The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.

“Wait,” you say. “This is an education blog. Why are you discussing the economy?”

Current conditions in the educational system in the United States, and particularly in specific states, resemble the situation that preceded the crash and Great Recession. A generation of reforms, from the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report to the transformative and bipartisan Bush II No Child Left Behind law to the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act, have eroded safeguards that tied tax dollars and community oversight to the education of our children. This has left our nation open to an educational crash, the sort of which has never happened, for which there is no roadmap or precedent, just as there was no precedent for the real estate and banking collapse in 2008. For many of us, just as for many experts in the banking industry, this collapse was a complete shock. Nothing could have prepared us for the long-lasting effects of the crash, and only in hindsight could we see all the signs of the impending crisis. Only a few people, generally well-read experts in the field who had proven willing to buck prevailing wisdom, were able to see the coming default. No one listened to them.

The Great Recession was caused by a number of related factors in the economy. One cause of the crash was deregulation. In a major windfall to banks and other lending institutions, Congress loosened restrictions on lending practices, allowing for larger and riskier loans, with fewer safeguards for borrowers. New companies, envisioning windfall profits, sprang up seemingly overnight and began competing for customers.  First time and repeat borrowers, excited for an opportunity to buy their first or their biggest house, flooded into the market, and found they had a wide array of companies competing to sell them a loan as cheaply as possible.

This deregulation combined with an extreme profit motive allowed for a second cause to emerge: predatory lending. With deregulation there came an expansion of banks, some of which became “too big to fail.” This phrase did not mean that they could not fail. It just meant that their failure would cause widespread economic disaster. The US government would, in this case, be forced to prop them up and to guarantee that their loans were covered. These institutions were assumed to be essentially unbreakable. Deregulation also meant such growth in the banking industry that new, non-bank companies got into the business of offering home loans and dealing mortgages. These new lending institutions looked and acted less and less like traditional banks, and they began enticing and even recruiting home buyers in the full knowledge that they would be unable to pay off the loans. This happened even while these institutions paid exorbitant salaries to CEOs, often with sales bonuses for the middle managers, creating incentives to make riskier and riskier loans.

Additionally, the oversight for these new kinds of banks, making these new kinds of loans, was essentially nonexistent. Traditional systems of measuring the effectiveness and liquidity of banks were overmatched by these new rules. The use of innovative and complex accounting, perhaps intentionally, made oversight of any sort more difficult. Specifically, the creation of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations made it nearly impossible to assess the riskiness of investments. It is hard to judge the risk inherent in buying something most people cannot understand or explain.

Finally, signs of an impending crash were ignored by almost everyone. Time and time again lenders and monitors alike allowed themselves to participate in what now is understood to have been “magical thinking”, the belief that these risky pools of unexplainable investments would somehow continue to increase in value forever. In fact, at times the warnings were so loud that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was notoriously reluctant to speak directly to future trends or concerns, made multiple public statements to dismiss these warnings. Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist, catalogued many of those warnings in his first article as a regular columnist at Forbes Magazine.[2]

These factors have parallels in the current movement in education, as described below.

Deregulation – creating the bubble

In order to encourage the growth of the “ownership society” as espoused by President George W. Bush during his successful Presidential campaign[3], his administration and a Republican congress undertook several initiatives aimed at increasing home ownership. These were well-intentioned and broadly popular bipartisan acts aimed at placing more people in their own homes, and prompting them to be better citizens in general, because they would now have a stake in the success of the community. However, these enticements created unforeseen consequences. Homeowner down payment assistance and efforts to simplify home-buying drew in record amounts of new home owners. Some of these home buyers were not, according to traditional measures, a good bet to stay in the house and pay off their loan. Unscrupulous lenders capitalized on these eager new buyers, offering them larger and riskier loans than ever before. Folks with bad credit got loans, folks with good credit got larger loans than they could handle, all with the promise of future gains in the value of these houses.

The expansion of the charter school movement in the US parallels this change in the banking system, and seems poised to create a similar bubble. While a long-established system of education exists, with a history dating back to the first colonies on Plymouth Rock, and overseen by elected school boards in nearly every city and county in our country, recent deregulation in education law has created an expansion of school-like entities called charter schools. These schools often get permission to operate with a different set of rules than public schools, typically privileges to experiment with curriculum, seat time, salary scales, and more, often under the guise of being “laboratory schools”, free to experiment with ideas that might work better for education. These types of schools flourished under the Obama administration, and seem set to practically explode during the current administration. Just last week Florida approved $200M for a major expansion of charter schools in the Sunshine State.[4] In addition to brick and mortar schools, largely to save on costs associated with maintenance and transportation, charter schools have innovated and quickly expanded online learning. Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, lead states in enrolling students in online schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). And the expansion has been accelerated through the use of novel, some might say experimental or even suspect, techniques for delivering education. In the 2014-15 school year, 38,500 students in Ohio alone took all of their classes on computers from home through an online school.  For the 2015-16 school year, Ohio paid online schools $267 million to educate those students — more than a quarter of what it paid all charter schools in the state. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (OVA), with 15,000 and 11,000 students respectively, are the largest online schools in Ohio. More on ECOT later.

In May of 2014, the New York City legislature created laws that they touted made New York “friendlier [to charters] than almost any other city in the nation.” By increasing the per pupil allocation allotted to charters, eliminating salary minimums for teachers and other staff, and by requiring public schools to offer up unused space at a significant discount, many charter schools are given advantages that would seem to tip the scale in their favor. It would be hard to argue that these private or public charters are indeed true laboratories for innovation of best practices, given the tremendous advantages they have over public or even private schools.

The US Senate’s Levin–Coburn Report concluded that the financial crisis was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.”[5] Might a charter school bubble and resulting education crisis happen the same way? Might the leverage of a few powerful textbook and test printing companies create a system that is “too big to fail”? Might a pending educational crash similarly be the result of state and national legislatures failing to rein in the excesses of “Big Ed”, a conglomerate of test makers, book printers, and educational consultants profiting handsomely from the creation and amalgamation of more and more charter schools?

 

“Bundling”: Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and joining forces

One of the effects of deregulation was the creation of new ways to buy and sell groups of mortgages. One of the ways that the lenders protected themselves from economic trouble was by creating complex financial vehicles called credit default swaps (CDS). These CDSs could be created without collateral – that is, without proving that there was anything of value to be sold in case the investment went wrong – and thus they were at higher risk for a default. These junk bonds, accurately named because they were groups of mortgages that were without value (hence “junk”), were often quickly bundled with other similar loans and sold in large amounts to larger companies who were investing on the continued growth of the value of real estate in the United States.[6]

Just like the creation of new banks and lenders looks like the expansion of charter schools, so too does the creation of CDS look like the persistent closing and combining happening among charter schools. Time and again failing charter schools are merged into larger existing entities, in much the way Lehman Brothers sopped up smaller banks in order to bundle their mortgage assets.

The national White Hat Management group’s Cleveland experiment is an example of how deregulation and recombination make it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of individual schools. White Hat management ran into legal difficulties, accused of being beholden to particular publishers and vendors, rather than operating independently. Instead of amending their practices, they chose to sell major operations to a Pansophic education (founded by the same people who helped found the charter school system K12) which overnight became one of the largest charter school sponsors in the state of Ohio[7].

Other national vendors of charter schools, such as K12 and KIPP, have expanded through a combination of opening new branches and purchasing or absorbing existing charter schools. This makes it impossible to truly gage the effectiveness of the schools. In 2014, the law in Ohio called for charter schools to release their state report cards in their third year of existence. The average length of operation of a charter school in Ohio was 2.5 years. On average, schools chose to fold or divest rather than reveal their results. This has the effect of skewing charter school data to look better than it actually is. How? If, in any data set, you allow the option for the low-performers to opt out before being counted, the resulting data is inaccurate. This makes the data, which shows that charter schools tend to slightly underperform public schools on average, even more frightening.

Also in Ohio, the I Can charter school chain – started by former leaders of the well-regarded Breakthrough charter schools – has faced poor results and negative feedback from the public in Cleveland. The chain has additional schools in Akron and Canton and one in Indiana. In response to the poor results, the chain was turned over to Accel Charter School network. In their public statement on the transition, school officials explained that “running quality schools at the state’s $6,000 funding per student is too great a challenge and that they want to be with a larger network to save money.”[8]

“The teachers, the students and the parents will not notice a difference,” said I Can lawyer Jamie Callender, a former state representative for western Lake County.

It is hard to find these words reassuring, given that the transfer happened because of poor results.

 

Profit motive and predatory lending

Another contributing factor to the market crash and resulting recession was the large profit motive leading to predatory lending. Here is how it worked in the banking and mortgage business: mortgage lenders could bundle these mortgages (and the associated risks) and pass them on to banks and bank-replacements. They could – and did – adopt loose underwriting criteria (encouraged by regulators), and some developed aggressive lending practices.[9]

What might this look like in the education world? Much the same as it did in the mortgage world, it might look like charter schools targeting residents of urban areas and promising a new world of opportunities. It might look like glossy postcards and slick advertising campaigns, and promises of access to the internet at home for people who cannot afford it for themselves. It might look like promises of safety and order. It might look like colleges enticing students to borrow beyond their means in the hope of enhanced future earnings. 

It might look like dozens, maybe more than a hundred, for-profit colleges identified as having an unacceptable debt to earnings ratio. This ratio is “how much money typical program graduates are required to spend on student loan payments every year, and how much they earn in the job market two years after graduation.”[10] The administration of President Barack Obama labeled schools with unacceptably high ratios of debt as “profit mills”  – schools designed to create profit for themselves with little concern for their actual benefit to the students. A list of such programs was available at this Department of Education site at the time of publication of this article.

And there is big money to be made. One example of a well-paid executive in the charter school business is Ronald J. Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc. According to SourceWatch, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, Packard received compensation of over $19.48 million from 2009 to 20013, almost $4M a year. In 2013, he owned over 2 percent of K12, which had a market cap of around $1.25 billion in September 2013.

Education publication companies are already massive. Pearson, a textbook and testing company, has a market value over $4.5B. McGraw-Hill, according to Reuters, anticipated a valuation of nearly $5B when they offered an initial offering of stock in 2014. A third major educational publishing company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, currently is worth about $1.5B. The Chief Executive Officers of these companies are making major deals that will determine how our students and our schools are taught and tested, and their ability to work a deal that is good for the company will be a primary determinant of their value to the company, and the source of their compensation. They are even working in many states, as well as at the federal level, to create mandatory testing. Thus the law will guarantee that their product is purchased. They could be moving from free market salespeople to the sole deliverers of a multi-billion-dollar government mandate.

There is significant economic pressure to deliver a contract, especially a federal contract with billions of dollars.

Well-compensated CEOs, and multi-billion dollar publishing companies are sources of concern. But the mere ability to earn a major profit is not evidence of wrongdoing.

Profit-mill colleges are a bigger concern, but these do not, necessarily, rise to the level of wrongdoing or fraud. They are merely concerns.

However, actual wrongdoing was recently uncovered at Ohio’s ECOT school. This for-profit online k-12 school was cited this September by the Ohio Department of Education for charging the state for higher attendance than the school actually could verify. Online schools are very different from traditional schools, as students do not have to physically show up at school in order to be counted as present. They merely have to log in from home. The problem at ECOT was that they claimed compensation for 9,000 more students than they could prove they had.[11] With about 6,500 students verifiably enrolled, ECOT received an estimated $60M in funding that they did not merit for the school year. This fraudulent claim on taxpayer dollars should be a major concern for taxpayers.

Fortunately, this fraud was caught through oversight, and public records claims would help reveal the same information. Efforts to undermine the transparency of the system could create a system where such schools could hide their efforts to defraud states and taxpayers. In fact, reducing oversight seems to invite poor behavior.

Lack of Oversight

A final important cause of the 2008 economic collapse was that deregulation had led to a serious lack of oversight, which meant that important signs of impending collapse were ignored, or were never seen at all. “In 2007-2010 the lack of transparency in the large market became a concern to regulators as it could pose a systemic risk.”[12]  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that the financial crisis was avoidable and was caused by “widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision.”

In a revealing scene in the movie version of The Big Short, an investor approaches a woman he knows well and who works at the Securities Exchange Commission, which is tasked with overseeing the banking market. He learns she is still providing oversight to these companies, even while she is actually seeking a higher-paying job from them – whichever one will hire her. He asks if there are laws preventing her from moving from a regulatory agency directly into a position with a large bank she was supposed to be investigating. She shrugs. “Since we got our budget cut, we don’t investigate much.”

For now, it is unclear whether the level of oversight is up to the task of managing the level of attempted fraud and poor performance. In addition to the ECOT investigation in Ohio, the Charter School Commission also proved willing to take charters away from low-performing schools.[13] These are positive signs.

Despite these isolated reports of identified fraud, the national move has been to reduce the amount of oversight, rather than increase it. In fact, one legislator, Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, introduced a bill to end the Department of Education on December 31, 2018. And while this is likely just a symbolic gesture, the symbolism is not empty in a government with Congress and the White House under the control of one party. The House of Representatives recently scaled back implementation of oversight proposed under the new ESSA law.[14]  The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made millions of dollars buying and selling charter school companies, and seems predisposed to favor charter schools over public schools. Just last week Bloomberg reported efforts by Betsy DeVos’ education department to take away protections for students taking out large loans to attend college, including the profit mills described above.

 

So these 5 risk factors, which set the stage for the economic meltdown of 2008, seem to exist in education today: deregulation, “bundling”, profit motive and predatory lending, and the potential for a lack of oversight. But what does that presage?

Just what does a crash in the educational system look like, exactly? It has never happened, as far as we know. And an education, unlike a dollar, is incredibly complex to track and measure. But we can speculate.

It could look like individual communities bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with state and federal dollars siphoned into the hands of a few corporations, who expand charter schools into additional markets, perhaps with the help of new federal laws. These communities whose public schools will be pitted against charter schools, already perpetually struggling to make ends meet, could find themselves over the next three years hit by a double-whammy of the loss of federal government support for individual programs and a federal hiring freeze, and the specter of funding a charter school system to run in direct competition with their own public system. Bankruptcy and receivership can mean the permanent fiscal end to a community, as inhabitants pack up and move away, or it can mean incorporation into a neighboring municipality.

The losses here, however, are perhaps as significant as they hard to measure.

On an individual scale the losses might be even worse than mere dollars and cents. Losing two or three years of a child’s education, as well-intentioned parents direct their children into profit-mill schools, can actually have a measurably devastating effect on a student. These schools often hire untrained and uncertificated teachers, or teachers who have been unable to find or keep work in other schools. We know that being assigned to an ineffective teacher for three consecutive years results in a 50% lower performance at the end of the three years than similar peers taught by the best teachers.[15]   We know that the lack of ties to a community that comes from answering to a private board rather than a public one can create a loss of identity for students and the community. What is the effect of schools that continually close, reorganize, and open again? How can they build continuity of relationships, standards and expectations, professional growth among teachers and administrators? What happens to students treated like widgets, or worse? What happens to the communities as these students grow up feeling a little less connected, a little less educated, a little less prepared for the future?

The housing bubble, and the resulting market crash, had devastating effects on people’s homes and lives. Billions of dollars were lost. The economy lost millions of jobs. People had to move from their homes. It was devastating. Money, however, can be earned back over time. The cost of thousands of lost educations, as corporations populate laboratory charter schools with our next generation, and those schools churn and change hands every couple of years, is incalculable.

 

[1] Sorkin, Andrew Ross. “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill Is Sold.” Editorial. NY Times 25 Sept. 2008: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

[2] https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/31/housing-bubble-crash-oped-cx_bb_0102bartlett.html

[3] https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/08/20040809-9.html

[4] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article144515349.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932008

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap

[7] http://www.ohio.com/news/break-news/white-hat-management-reportedly-selling-ohio-charter-school-operations-to-out-of-state-company-1.599723

[8] http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2017/03/i_can_charter_schools_turned_o.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932008

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/upshot/harvard-too-obamas-final-push-to-catch-predatory-colleges-is-revealing.html?_r=0

[11]http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/09/ecot_attendance_inflated_by_9000_students_audit_finds_60_million_in_state_funding_in_jeopardy.html

 [12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap

[13]http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/10/state_will_take_charter_schools_away_from_21_sponsors_slapped_with_poor_ratings.html

[14] http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/09/514148945/about-that-bill-abolishing-the-department-of-education

[15] http://thehiddencostsoftenure.com/stories/?prcss=display&id=266542

Summer Homework: The Debate is Over

-by Jack M. Jose

Every spring, conversations erupt in PTO meetings and team conferences about summer homework, and conflict blooms like forsythia bushes. It is a predictable pattern. Overworked parents, stressed students, concerned teachers join educational activists like Alfie Kohn[1] to make a strong and rational case: let children be children, especially in the summer.

The Heart Says …

How true this feels! There is no debate that summer holds a romantic place in the memories of our childhood, spending leisurely days catching crayfish in the creek, playing whiffle ball outside until the streetlights came on, and the evening giving way to long nights spent chasing fireflies. 90 days free from concerns about school, free from responsibilities, unencumbered by deadlines and chores. The description is so fanciful that it seems almost mythical, and our love for our children is so great that we can’t imagine a childhood bereft  of these idyllic landscapes.

Children use summer, and any length of available time, to create and to explore. With vast amounts of time and resources, they can build and learn in new ways. They can explore their bookshelves to find lost treasures of favorite books from the past, or stay up late in the evening building a new model or sorting cards acquired during the day.

The Data Says …

This is a lovely argument. One would surely be evil to suggest tampering with this particular Degas painting of summer! And for some students, perhaps as many as 30% of them residing in the top brackets of socio-economic status (SES) in the US, this might be their reality.

However, when it comes to the skill that is the building block of all learning – reading – summer homework is a necessary way to help our students achieve their greatest potential. It turns out that during that long summer away from the structure and routine of school instruction and work, students lose some of the skills they gained during the year. There is no dispute about summer slide – the fact that summer away from school results in a loss in reading skill, on average a month’s loss. In fact, through the average summer, this can create a “3-month gap in reading scores between middle- and low-income children.”[2] And the gap between low-income and high-income students is even more pronounced. This happens as middle-income children maintain the reading level they had in May, while low-income students slide and high-income students continue to grow.

Worse yet, at the high school level, we are often trying to offset differences and deficits that were years in the making. An oft-cited Johns Hopkins meta study on summer slide reveals that “prior to high school, the achievement gap by family SES traces substantially to unequal learning opportunities in children’s home and community environments,”[3] and shows that this gap can become the equivalent of several years’ gains in reading.

So “summers off” is a plan, but only if we are content to accept that a child’s parent’s income should determine that, at the end of the educational process, some children should be several grade levels ahead of others in reading skill. We believe that a strong education serves to limit our differences, and to provide each graduate with an equal opportunity for success. From there, a person’s effort, grit, and creativity should be the primary determinants of their success. Education, especially public education, should not content itself with perpetuating advantages provided by socio-economic status. Nor should we be in the business of reinforcing disadvantages among these groups.

Putting the Studies in Perspective

We understand that these studies are discussing averages, and trends over time, not describing individual families. The habits in a particular household are not determined by the parent’s income level. A studious low-income parent can help their child resist this trend, while a wealthy parent who provides no summer enrichment for their child can set them up for the type of slide that the studies suggest they will not experience. These are not absolute truths, but rather large-scale trends that we would ignore at our own peril.

The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier suggests that school might well be the answer to address this inequality. “[W]ith learning gains across social lines more nearly equal during the school year, the experience of schooling tends to offset the unequalizing press of children’s out-of-school learning environments.” So socio-economic differences at home can create large gaps in student achievement, and school can offset that gap by improving growth and academic performance for all students.

This position creates challenging conversations, especially in a diverse school like Gamble Montessori. Some of our students, 15% or so, have parents who are college educated professionals. More of our students’ parents are working-class, who despite their hard work and full employment qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch – our best measure of students living at or near the poverty line. Finally, a large percentage of our students live in poverty. Each spring, one or more of our college-educated, active, and involved parents who have time and inclination to join our PTO or Instructional Leadership Team, make the case against summer homework. They make it passionately, in much the same terms as it is made in the opening paragraphs of this essay. It is a compelling argument for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is likely be true for their child. They are right to make this argument and to raise these important questions, and I welcome their involvement in the discussion.

It was in one of these meetings two years ago where I realized the nature of the argument against summer homework, but I could not find a gentle way to word it. Finally, I decided on asking simply this: “Are we suggesting that we should only give summer homework to the poor kids?” The answer is, of course, no.

So if we know that summer homework helps our poorest readers, and we know that it does no harm to our best readers, except for infringing upon the idyllic summer that we recall, how can we do summer homework well, so it meets the needs of all of our children and families? Here is our best answer.

Doing Summer Homework Right – For Everyone

With the help of the parents, our Instructional Leadership Team set out to right-size summer homework so that it would encourage and foster the growth of skills among all of our students, without eliminating the magic of summer for any of them. In doing so, we set some parameters, asking ourselves, how do we measure the work to determine whether it was just the right amount? The parameters we discuss divide the rest of the conversation below: the amount of time it took to complete, the number of subjects we covered, its value in the class for which it was assigned, whether it was new or review work, and its role in helping a child develop skills that relate to success beyond school such as managing their time and meeting deadlines.

imgresTime

To make the rest of the conversation possible, we had to first set limits on the amount of time a child should have to spend completing homework. More than one conscientious parent had shared with us the story of their child, who struggled with homework in general, spending many summer nights figuratively chained to their kitchen tables, crying at the weight of the work. This was no one’s idea of a summer well spent.

After some debate, we concluded, without basis in any scientific research, that 40 or so hours was right for an entire summer’s worth of school work. With June, July, and about half of August comprising summer, this meant about 50 minutes a day. This seemed a reasonable amount of time over the summer. Not intrusive, just a regular checking in to keep the skills sharp. Once this number was proposed, there was little further official discussion, though away from the table the question is still alive. We generally agreed that this felt right.

Subjects

The summer slide research cited above focuses on reading skills. A RAND corporation study cites the research of Cooper and Nye (1996) that determined “summer learning loss was greater, on average, in math than in reading,” and that this was more consistent across socio-economic lines than was the reading slide. It was reasonable to expect that reading was the skill that students were MOST likely to use in the summer. Therefore, a thoughtful summer homework program would involve all core subjects.

Again, we applied the cap of 40 hours total, which left 10 or 8 hours, depending on the grade of the student and whether foreign language work was included.

Connection to class / function

A common complaint among students, and a very valid one, was that their summer homework assignments languished on the teacher’s desk and had no connection to what they were covering in class. I knew, from discussions with teachers, that this was indeed the case. Papers would sit on their desks, or in briefcases or files, for weeks and weeks, checked in but not graded.

Apparently, both students and teachers saw summer homework as meaningless busywork!

Some teachers were magnifying the impression by not grading and returning the work promptly, other than to indicate whether it was complete. Worse yet, no connections were being made between the work they did over the summer and the work that was to be completed in class the first few weeks. Small wonder that year after year we struggled to get students to complete this work!

So at Gamble we added a stipulation that summer homework had to relate directly to instruction the first two weeks of the school year. This served the purpose of emphasizing its importance, while helping to explain why there was a deadline at all.

New vs Review Content

The term “summer slide” indicates the loss of existing knowledge. If this is what we were attempting to avoid through the administration of summer homework, then we had to assign work that was not new. The first year we reviewed our summer homework through this lens, the work seemed nearly impossible, especially in math. In addition to a short review of the previous year’s skills, much of the work in our existing summer homework covered topics (albeit in introductory form) that our students had not been exposed to in the classroom. Especially in math, this seemed counter-intuitive, and the math teachers at the table immediately agreed to change it. How can we justify grading students for doing quality work on problem types that they have never seen before?

We set the expectation moving forward that work was meant to be a review, and not for new content. Of course, students could read new books, and apply their grade-level reading skills to new texts, but in science and math, summer was not the time to try to add new skills without the aid of a teacher or guide.

Timing / Executive Function

Of course, we found that two types of students completely undermined our plans: the procrastinators, and the planners. One year, my last in the classroom, we handed the summer homework out a week prior to dismissal. One the last day, Lisa approached me, “Here, Mr. Jose.” She handed me a folder, inside were several stapled packets. “What’s this, Lisa?” I asked.

“My summer homework,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Math and science on the left, English and social studies on the right.”

“Umm,” I tried to buy time. “I, uh, don’t really have a place to put this right now, it’s due in, what, August? So,” I handed the folder back. “I’m going to have to ask you to hold on to this.” Lisa was a planner, and she was not about to let the few last days of packing up rooms and free time in some classes go by unused. She had completed her summer homework, she told me, mostly in the classrooms of other teachers, some of whom were showing movies or not providing work at the conclusion of final exams.

Our procrastinators are a different kind of problem. These are the students who plan on having the opportunity in the first weeks of school to complete all of their summer homework. I’ve worked in schools where those students were held in the auditorium or some classroom until they completed the work, or even suspended, not allowed to join their classmates for the opening days of instruction. While this may have provided a strong message that summer homework was required, it really undermined our message that what happens in the classrooms in the opening days is essential to a successful year, and sets those students up for failure. These same procrastinators could rightly argue in some cases, as explained above, that since the work was not graded anyway, they should not rightfully receive a deduction for completing it near the end of the first quarter. (This was part of the reason we instituted the expectation that teachers would utilize the work in a meaningful way in the first weeks of class. In this way, students were rewarded for doing the work, the significance of the class time was upheld, and students’ grades would be appropriately harmed not by an arbitrary grade given by a teacher, but by their own lack of having completed the requisite work.)

These students, both the planners and the procrastinators, lost the primary executive function practice that can be gained from summer homework. Done consistently, these periods of student work can not only erase summer slide, but can reinforce schedule-making and time-management skills among students. This is the hidden goal of summer homework, and the advantage to all students: practicing your ability to manage your time helps promote self-efficacy and leads to greater success far beyond the classroom.

One thing that every student gains from summer homework, if done well, are the skills that collectively are called executive functioning, some of which are: planning and organizing, managing time, strategizing, remembering details, making corrections, and knowing when – and who – to ask for help. The best summer homework structure that I have seen for this is one that we have not implemented at Gamble, but was required of students at Clark Montessori. The work was to be mailed in at certain intervals in the summer. The beauty of their plan was that it helped structure the summer, and developed executive function. It worked to the strengths of the planner, and to eliminate the weaknesses of the procrastinator.

While this obviously served to help the teacher manage the grading load, the effect on the students was even more pronounced. To make this work, students had to plan their summer a little more meticulously, figuring out when and how they were going to complete this work. Instead of cramming it in to one or two weeks just before school started, this plan required students to do the very thing that prevented summer slide: to do their work periodically and summon those same skills repeatedly over time. Students were required to not only complete the homework, but to manage a range of skills that would serve them in many other places in life.

In Conclusion / In Perspective

Summer homework is not a villain, stealing away summer from our children. Nor is it a panacea, for while it does save our students from regression and the achievement gap, it comes at a cost. Done correctly, summer homework is a meaningful review of work that bridges the gap between last year and next, while helping a student develop the management skills needed to not just pass a class, but to structure the more complex projects that lie ahead of them.

In his instructive work The Conditions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that periods of intense engagement heighten the sense of value of the time around the event itself. Put another way, moments of structured time in the summer could, in fact, help make the rest of the time seem more precious in context. The flipside of the perfect summer, with the whole time idled away, is the moment of terror the day before school begins again, and the inability to remember what happened as the days melted into a blur of hours lost doing whatever came to mind. The summer best spent is with a mix of structured and unstructured time; time to do the things that need to be done, and time to discover what wants to be done. In fact, the summer well spent might look like a good spring break.

[1] http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/summer/

[2] http://www.cslpreads.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CSLP-Summer-Reading-White-Paper-2015.pdf

[3] http://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/summer_learning_gap-2.pdf

The Militarized Classroom

In early October I received a postcard-sized advertisement in my mail at school. This is common. Each week I receive a dozen or more postcard advertisements, full size color brochures, and even catalogs for anything you can imagine that can be marketed to schools. This one stood out. It was for a whiteboard on wheels, for classrooms.

It was bulletproof.

A bulletproof whiteboard on wheels. For classrooms.

The ad implied that with the right purchase, I could save lives. It implied that one of my responsibilities as a school leader was to prepare for the unthinkable, and that any resource not spent in that endeavor was wasted.

The other advertisements got tossed, unopened, into the recycling bin. This one got propped up against my desk clock. I would look at it and seethe. The rush of adrenaline was palpable each time it caught my eye. It took me weeks before I could figure out why that postcard made me so angry.

It said: you aren’t doing enough.

It said: you aren’t doing enough to protect children.

It said: violence at school is not an aberration. It is something for which you must prepare.

Worse yet, it pointed to misdirected priorities, and an abdication of our primary role as educators. We know that school shootings are most often perpetrated by students who attend the school. The message was that rather than find a way to connect each child to the community, we must instead accept that one or more of them are inevitably going to want to hurt us.

It said: we must plan to protect ourselves from our children.

I know the statistics[1]. How many children are shot in schools each year. How often the principal is among the targeted people. How the number of school shootings has increased in recent years, in coincidental tandem with an increase in gun sales, and in similar tandem with the use of standardized test scores to rate schools.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you. When it happens to you.

That there can be violence at school is not news to me. I know that there are real threats to our students and schools every day. I know my role, as a school leader, in making sure our students are safe. Most often this means being aware of individual conflicts and working to make sure that they do not boil over into physical conflict. Sometimes it means helping to break up a fight. And I know that sometimes the potential exists for a more dangerous incident.

Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted a new protocol to respond to potential shooting incidents.  Called ALiCE, it is a specific set of steps to be taken in case of an event where someone enters the school intent on harming one or more people in the building. It has a reasonable premise that makes it an improvement over the old response model. In the ALiCE response, you can take steps to defend and protect yourself.

ALiCE is, of course, an acronym. It works like this:

A – Alert. When you realize an incident is occurring, you make an announcement to the whole school. You also alert authorities. A sturdy radio box was installed in my main office with a large red button. Pressing that red button quickly handles several tasks: it sets off an alarm in the school that indicates that the building is on lockdown, it immediately connects you, via radio, to emergency dispatch (and, curiously, to every other school that has one of these boxes), it disables the key card readers at the doors and locks the front door, making the building harder to access. It also sends an emergency text to my phone, and I suppose the phones of a CPS security staff. The red button is serious business. I’ve told my office staff they can never press the button without my order, unless I’ve been shot. (More on that later.)

L – Lockdown. Initiated by the red button, or by a PA announcement during drills or non-emergency lockdowns (such as when police notify me they are pursuing an armed suspect in the vicinity of the school), lockdown is a common drill. There is a series of steps that teachers should take in their classroom, mostly to make the room inaccessible and to make it seem empty, and thus not a target.

i – inform. [Note: not a typo. A trademark protection prevents the creators of this system from using all capital letters.] This is where the new system deviates from the old one. The old protocol was that after you were placed on lockdown, you waited under your desk until the voice of an authority figure announced you were safe. Now, with the use of cameras and the PA system, my responsibility is to try and locate the person intending to harm others, and share his location with the whole school. These give important information to teachers, and are also meant to disorient and frustrate the individual attacker.

C – counter. Another innovation in this system is the permission  to “counter” the individual. Instead of sitting passively in a ball under your table, you can act to protect yourself. A disoriented attacker is more likely to fire his gun inaccurately or to move on to an easier target.

E – evacuate. Using the information provided over the PA system, teachers now have the opportunity to decide whether it might be in their best interest to get their class out of the building and away to a safe place – in our case, St. Catherine’s. If they determine that the attacker will not see them, they can exit the building to go to our rally point.

CPS has assured teachers that they can now use their best judgement in an ALiCE event, and will be protected from prosecution if something happens during their evacuation.

This new twist on the protocol prompted an unusual conversation outside of school. Cora is a family friend in the fourth grade at St. Catherine’s, a school on the other side of the park behind our school. At a recent community event, she approached me excitedly. “Mr. Jose, your school is our safe place in case we have to get away from a shooter.”

“Hey, yes, I knew that. Your principal and I agree to that every year. Your school is our safe place.”

She was eager to tell me more, “And, you know what?”

“What?”

“If someone comes in to shoot us, we get to throw things at him!” Her enthusiasm was clear. In a child’s mind, this situation, and the chance at self-defense by throwing a book at an assailant, was a wonderful adventure. These are the sorts of flights of fancy a person’s mind naturally takes in daydreams, or heroic stories they tell themselves and each other while playing. A child tries on certain roles, and then can easily discard them – a police officer, a criminal, the President, a teacher, a superhero. But this self-defense training is an awful intrusion into the world of play for a child. The message that this particular act might not be play one day is damaging. You may have to throw a book to save your life; you might not be safe here; we don’t have bulletproof whiteboards.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you.

When it happens to you.

When the district adopted this ALiCE protocol as policy, principals were required to attend training to implement it. Designed by our district security and facilities staff, this half-day in a conference room felt a little like officer training. We were given the outlines of ALiCE, with a bevy of statistics. Dozens of students shot and killed in mass victim incidents in Columbine and elsewhere. (This was before Sandy Hook, another school name we should never have heard, but which now haunts our collective consciousness as unspeakable terror.) Individual students shot in dozens more incidents, which gained less publicity, throughout the school year. We learned that time and time again assailants were successful in getting into the school, which is a relatively soft target. We learned terms like “soft target” – which means a building that is not set up to actively defend against unwanted visitors. We called the aggressive student the “perp”, short for “perpetrator.” We learned about “choke points” for student egress, where students can’t all get out quickly and become easier to harm, spots to be avoided during evacuation. We learned that frequently these angry students had easy access to weapons, and they used them to inflict harm on one or more people. We learned that more than half the time, one of the targets was the principal.

I was half joking when I told my staff they could only press the red button if I had been shot. As part of the training, we learned that statistically it is more than just a possibility, in the event of a shooting at my school, that I will be a victim too, along with one or more of my students and staff. Along with the terminology, that night I carried home some of the machismo that was communicated through the training. “It’s okay,” I reassured my wife. “Almost seventy percent of the time when a principal is shot in one of these incidents, he lives.” It took several minutes for her to be able to speak to me, to ask me to vow that I would never joke about that again.

I knew that my actions in the moment could actually save lives, and I took that seriously. This was not news to me. I already believe my actions every day are saving lives, or at least changing them forever.

We were provided a slide show that talked about the history of the ALiCE concept, and the ways that the process might work at any given school. And then we were shown a video.

Slightly grainy black and white, this video was taken from up above the subjects, as if the camera was on the ceiling. Framed on the right side by a shelf of books, it must have been from a library security camera. The movement below a table was confusing at first, then I realized there was a crouching girl in a white sweatshirt, and I knew for sure that I was watching a surveillance video from one of these infamous school shooting incidents. When a male figure entered from the left, I did not need to see anymore. I could not see anymore. I stood, said to no one in particular “I can’t watch this. Get me when it’s over.” Then I walked out of the room.

On my way out, I heard our instructor announce that this was video from Columbine. He named the young man who had just entered the picture, a name too familiar to us now, and I heard the voice of a young woman pleading for her life. Then, thankfully, the door shut behind me, and I sat down on the floor in the hallway, and willed myself not to cry. I was sick to my stomach. Even now, more than three years later, I viscerally experience the intensity of that moment.

I did not need to be convinced of reality. I did not need to be persuaded to do all that I could to protect my students. I did not need to hear the pleas of frightened children, or hear the pop of semi-automatic gunfire in order to take my work seriously. I do not want to become callous to those sounds, or familiar with them. But I still cannot reconcile this strange contrary aspect of my job, the expanded role of protector of my students against immediate threat, and the chief nurturer and educator. Ten minutes later the group took a break and the other principals left the room, subdued.

We know that safety codes and frequent drills work to keep people safe in public buildings. The last death in a public school due to a fire was in the 1950s. Strict building codes have made fires less frequent, and largely eliminated blocked exits and broken signs and signals.  Schools are required to do safety drills continually for a variety of potential threats. Recent changes in the expectations in the state of Ohio have added emergency drills, for the potential of a shooter, to the bevy of fire and tornado drills. In total, we are required to do 14 such safety drills a year – one fire drill each of the 8 months we are in school, one tornado drill each of the three months we are in school during tornado season, and three safety / ALiCE drills.[2]

Teachers take these drills seriously. The questions I am asked come from a desire to understand the policy fully and to implement it effectively. We work to take the drill as a full “dress rehearsal” – if we are to evacuate silently, we do. If we are to crouch or sit, we do, even if just briefly.

I know that these ALiCE drills traumatize my students and my teachers. Several years ago, at a team leader meeting, one teacher was nearly in tears as she sought answers to a question about her windows. To reduce theft, first floor windows were built to only open enough to let air in, but not a person. Likewise, in the event of an emergency, a person could not get out. Her students were going to have questions, and she wanted to get the answers right.

A year earlier, in our old building, an officer knocked loudly on the door of a classroom and identified himself as a school officer. With the teacher’s permission, a student let him in. “Bang!” he yelled. “You are all dead. You can never let anyone in until the all clear has sounded.” Some students laughed. Others jumped and crouched harder in place.

 

Shortly thereafter, when the all-clear had been announced, we called home to have a parent pick up the student who opened the door. She was so distressed that she could not stay in school the rest of the day. Our students understand the nature of violence, and some of them have seen it play out in their lives. Some of them walk home to houses on streets that my teachers suggest are too dangerous to drive down.

This year, Krista related the hard questions her students asked her as they debriefed the drill.

“Why can’t we let someone in?”

The answer? “It might be a hostage situation.”

“What happens if one of us gets shot?”

“I won’t leave you.”

I understand that fires and tornadoes happen. I understand that conflict happens in school.

I can’t understand why shootings occur in school.

Following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, where 26 students and staff were shot and killed, several parents of the victims created Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing school violence. While they acknowledge that larger solutions need to be taken societally, their approach has been school-based. The emphasis is on providing support for every student, and being aware of the signs of social isolation and aggressive behavior, is the right approach to helping solve the problem. Their awareness video, entitled “Know The Signs”, is a powerful reminder to us to make sure we are vigilant and attentive to the needs of every student. We are inclined, in reviewing the video, to see a perpetrator. But what we see is a child.

Intentionally building community among students, whether in very large high schools or in small elementary schools, is the best way to make sure no student feels so angry and left out that he must make such a dramatic statement.

How do we do that?

  1. Build community into the school. Using specific classes such as advisory, or a team-based approach to schools, allows teachers to intentionally develop a relationship with individual students;
  2. Strengthen access to mental health support. Through hiring counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies students in crisis can be given the individual support they need to get through an individual incident or a long-term mental health concern;
  3. Teach grit, and that it gets better. Let students know that their current personal, academic, and interpersonal concerns are not world-ending. Instead they are temporary, and they have solutions.
  4. Teach empathy. Give everyone the skills and the responsibility to look out for one another. Let them know who to talk to if they are worried about themselves, or if they are worried about someone else.
  5. Offer multiple definitions of “success” in education. Celebrate athletes, artists, academics, and advocacy. This allows for students to be part of the community of the school without having to pursue one or two narrow definitions of what it means to fit in.

In a society where children have nearly unlimited access to every imaginable media, from supportive videos reassuring them that “it gets better,” to destructive videos idolizing and rating school shooters, we cannot put up a barrier to keep problems out. We must instead equip students with the skills and the support to make wise decisions and to look out for one another. The answer is not bulletproof whiteboards. The answer is not ALiCE. These are band-aids as a response to needed heart surgery.

 

 

[1] And here are some of them: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/promise/pages/17/attachments/original/1445441287/Gun_Facts.pdf?1445441287

[2] https://saferschools.ohio.gov/sites/default/files/HB178-TB15-001%20-%20Flow%20Chart%20-%20final.pdf