Thursday, January 27, 2011

What you can do for your public school

We've had some great discussion at Bloom about educating our children. We've talked about some general concerns we all have about sending our kids off to school. We've discussed the option of charter schools and the option of home schooling. But I would guess the majority of us are going the public school route.

Maybe you are entirely satisfied with your public school. I certainly hope that is the case. But I happen to know that many of you aren't. Because of my time spent teaching, I often have sisters/friends/neighbors expressing concerns or dissatisfaction to me, asking me what I would do in their situation. They are most often frustrated with teachers who aren't meeting their children's needs.

I may have traded my briefcase for a diaper bag, but I am still passionate about my once upon a time career as teacher. I am passionate about education. Particularly education reform. Today's post is 2 parts. Part one--what is happening in education reform and how I think we can see overall improvement in American schools. Part two--what you can do RIGHT NOW to make your public school amazing.

Part one:

Em and I typically avoid getting political on Bloom. We don't think Bloom is quite the right forum for discussing the national debt or who might run in 2012. But today I'm going there because it's about our children and I think it's appropriate for this particular venue.

I think the number one problem in public education is tenure. Tenure essentially means that after three years of provisional teaching, a teacher can have complete job security and can't get fired for almost anything, short of physically harming a child. Tenure also means that when budget-required layoffs come, younger teachers get fired while teachers with seniority keep their jobs, regardless of performance. Tenure is protected by laws which teacher unions fight hard to protect. And I just think that's wrong. I taught next to too many teachers who didn't belong in the classroom. Teachers who were lazy, teachers who used the same purple ditto sheets I was taught with in the '80s, teachers who aren't implementing the latest strategies and programs, teachers who--quite frankly--know they can't get fired.

So what do we do?

Meet Michelle Rhee. She just finished over three years as chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., where she created all sorts of awesome upheaval--getting bad teachers and administrators removed, and fighting for students' rights. Now she has started Students First, an organization dedicated to: Treating teachers like professionals, Empowering parents and families with real choices and real information, and Ensuring accountability for every dollar and every child. (See this editorial Rhee wrote in the Wall Street Journal.) Some of Rhee's sentiments are a bit extreme for me, but overall I agree with her platform and am thrilled to see someone leading real reform in American education. You can read more about Students First (including what you can do to get involved) here.

Part Two:

We all know that legislative reform takes a lot of time. So what can we do right now?

I would bet that most of you mothers of school-aged children spend some time volunteering in the classroom. Ask yourself, 'could I spend more time there?' Some of the charter schools that we rave about require upwards of 20 hours/month from every parent. No wonder they can boast such excellent teacher to student ratios! Just imagine if we all doubled the amount of time we spend in our children's classrooms. What an awesome force we would be!

There are all sorts of things teachers need help with. Here are three areas I would suggest:

#1. Simple tasks (grading papers, cutting out, making copies, etc.)--
As a teacher with almost no prep time during the day, it was often a sigh of relief to have a parent come in and take care of some of the simple tasks that were piling up. It gave me more time for planning lessons and working with individuals.

#2. Working with students one on one--
*The most important example of this is working with children whose reading is below grade level and need extra support. (Make sure the teacher gives you some instruction on what reading strategies the particular child needs to work on and how to help them with those.)

*Another great example of this is performing math assessments with individual students. Some math skills--such as counting out loud to 100 or counting a pile of coins--are difficult, even impossible to assess in a written exam. As a parent volunteer, you could pull children aside and assess these critical skills. If your child's teacher doesn't have assessments like this in place, suggest them, and help the teacher set them up.

#3. Teaching--
In many schools there have been drastic budget cuts, resulting in the disintegration of things like PE specialists, music programs, and art instruction. When I taught second grade, it was up to me to teach everything. Thankfully, I had excellent training and passion for the arts, so my students still got visual art, drama, and music. But a lot of classroom teachers don't have much training in those areas, and even if they do, many have no interest or confidence in teaching those subjects, so many students are completely missing out on the arts.

This is where you come in. You could help the students put on a small play. You could come in for an hour a week to help them learn holiday songs or basic music skills. My favorite example of a way you could help is this: The Meet the Masters Program. It is an excellent program available for purchase by schools and best run by PTAs. Using the program's instructions and materials, you teach students about famous artists--their lives and artwork, and then help the students create a piece of art based on the artist's style. It is a brilliant program. I absolutely love it! You could suggest its use in your school, help the PTA raise funds to purchase it, and organize a schedule for it to be used in the school. Read all about it here.


I can see some of you reading this and thinking, 'But I pay taxes for teachers to teach my children. Why should I spend so much time in the schools when I'm paying other people to be there?'

I'm not suggesting teachers aren't responsible for teaching your children. But right now teachers are dealing with over-crowded classrooms, little help from aids, few specialty teachers, and low budgets. Some teachers deal with these challenges brilliantly, but some don't. And the reality is, your child may be missing out. You can help change that.

Feel free to weigh in with comments, ideas, etc.


Rachael said...

Love this post, Anne. We're fortunate to have an absolutely phenomenal teacher for our only child in school right now (she just started kindergarten). But she's able to do a lot of the things she does because she DOES have a crew of parents who are there helping to facilitate activities or do prep work that frees her up to be with the students.

Can I add a selfish reason for volunteering in your child's classroom? I have learned a LOT about my daughter by just sitting in the back of the class, cutting out laminated papers, and listening to how she interacts with her peers and the teacher. It has given me some great strategies to use in motivating her, plus being in her classroom means I invariably get to talk one-on-one with her teacher about how my daughter is doing in her class. It's like a parent-teacher conference every time I go in. AND I have learned some awesome little tips from things I've done helping in the classroom, like using a hot-glue gun to stick together gingerbread houses before you let the kids attack them with the frosting (our gingerbread houses worked WAY better this year than they ever have before!)

Katie said...

I agree with this 100%. I find that in kindergarten there is an abundance of parent helpers willing to participate but in the older grades this is so not the case. I plan on helping out in my older child's classrooms the most because they are the ones that need it!

In our district we have some great "docent" programs for nutrition, art and science. A parent volunteers to go to training and come teach the students. It is excellent and I have really enjoyed my opportunities to teach both of my girl's classes in nutrition.

I know that the teachers love all the help they can get!

kami said...

Excellent ideas! I have a degree in Elementary Education so it is something I'm passionate about too, although I have not taught formally because I became a mother just after graduating. I struggle with the difficulties teachers/students are facing and wonder how to make a difference. I think you're right...a parent volunteer can do a world of good for a classroom by offering support to both the teacher and the students. When my children are in school, I will definitely spend as much time as I can volunteering! I also like the idea of changing the tenure rules because I, too, have seen old teachers who are simply there because they can't get fired and younger teachers I graduated with are having a hard time finding work for that reason.

Carrie said...

I live in a great area for public schools (rated 10 in, but there is sooo much parental support. In fact we are asked to donate around 1600.00 per year per student (if possible) to supplement our weak funds from the California government. With those funds the school districts can hire great teachers including Music, Art, and PE teachers. They have also done away with School buses and school lunch. There is a school bus company that can be used for an annual cost, the school district doesn't cover it. the Parents Association is in charge of the lunch program which is pricey (about 4.50 a day) but is catered by local restaurants and also an all you can eat salad bar is provided by the parents. And of course there is always the option to bring our own lunch from home. With the money saved from cutting those programs they put it directly into the educational programs.

We just moved into this district from Utah, and at first I was outraged by how much they asked to donate, but now I see the benefit of it. I am very impressed.

Also, what you mention about "tenure" in so true. There is actually a movie called "Waiting for Superman" that confronts this problem head on. A great movie and so worth the time of watching it.

Jonesy said...

Amen, amen AMEN!!! to getting rid of tenure!!!! It's a travesty that it was even brought about in the first place and we've been paying for it ever since.

I will add that volunteering inside the classroom is not always feasible, especially when you work or have other little ones at home to take care of. In those circumstances, ask your teacher(s) if there is anything you can help with from home. I've had thing sent home with my daughters to cut out/correct, etc. so I'm still helping lessen the workload.

Jessica said...

Thank you for all of these great comments/ideas! As a former public school teacher, I know how much parent involvement can help. As junior high teacher though, I never once had parents ask me if they could volunteer in the classroom. I think there are usually lots of volunteers at the elementary level, but the teachers are not taught how to use parents at the junior high level, plus parents don't tend to volunteer there. After I had my first child and was done teaching, I volunteered in a French high school classroom occasionally to help the teacher perform individual oral assessments. It was a great help to her and fun for me to do. Even though I didn't yet have any children that were school age, I was glad I could volunteer to help.

Also, I think as a parent, it is a great help to the teacher just being involved at home. Be aware of what your kid is learning/reading/doing at school, and try to enrich that learning at home. When I taught 7-9th grade English, I know some parents would read all of the books that their kids read. They were able to have great discussions with them that I wasn't able to have one-on-one in a classroom of 35 kids. You can also see how much your child is understanding (and not understanding) from their reading when you do this!

Abbie said...

When I was watching the State of the Union, I was like "please be more specific when you say we need to improve schools!!! What are we going to do!?!" Education is definitely my highest concern, even higher than health care and job creation.

I love your ideas of things we can do to help. I also think the way we vote makes a huge difference. And I love that reading that Michelle Rhee's wsj article, I can actually believe her since she applies what she preaches (Why is that so rare?!?! Blarg! Drives me crazy!) I think she can rock this thing and we should all support her.

I think it's crazy for any parent to say "I pay taxes, I'm good." It's your child and you should be involved in their education! For heaven's sake! I just think American's (including myself) have gotten so good at outsourcing everything that we kinda think that we have no control, which isn't true at all. We have the control, we just choose to ignore and outsource.

Also, I went to a Democrats for School Reform thing - they showed Waiting for Superman and then had a panel discussion. So interesting. (I hate that politics are even involved in education. Yet another way for adults to be selfish and show that it really is all about us and not our children.) Anyhow, it was interesting because this really is an issue that I think both parties should be able to see eye to eye on. And I think things are rolling and it's going to change. Unfortunately not soon enough for our children to see it, but maybe their children. (That will make up for all the horrendous debt we're giving them, right?:))

I won't even get start on teacher's unions and tenure! Ahh!

Anyway...I could go on for a year about education reform, obviously.

It's funny, I totally feel like a cop-out because I'm homeschooling Eli, but at the end of the day I have to do what's right for him and he's not a good guinea pig. Audrie on the other hand...I think she'll be a great guinea pig and maybe we can raise our neighborhood school's rating from a 3 to a 4. haha. But whether I homeschool, charter school or public school - I can vote and be involved! Booyah! This is America's issue, not just people that send their kids to crappy public schools.

(i'm punchy and snarky right now and education get's me fired up! can you tell?)

Dani said...

Love this. We are ultimately responsible for our children's educations. Public schools are there to help, not completely take the full responsibility. Too many parents view school as daycare. As a former teacher, I love every minute I get to spend in my daughter's classroom. We recently moved from a place that had amazing schools to California (the schools here are terrible, and we're in one of the best districts). It's been an eye-opener for our family. We have to be the advocates for our child. We have to take responsibility for her education. I can't put all of that responsibility on her teacher's shoulders. I'm her mom. It's my job too!

Meghan, Carson and the Kiddos said...

This is a topic that is actually causing me a lot of stress right now. My oldest is going to enter kindergarten this fall and all hear from the other parents at church is 'what are you going to do with her?' 'Where are you going to send her?' 'We go here but that family over there goes to this school....' The simple fact is that at this point, I DON'T KNOW!!!! I have heard from so many people that our state ranks last for education funding so that gives me no faith in the system as a whole anyway. Before we moved here, I had a charter school all picked out for her and I was really excited about it. then we moved and there is not a charter school to be had. I don't believe that charter schools are the ultimate answer to any of the education problems, but I know that the ones I looked at in Colorado were perfect for her needs. Now, I'm stuck. I've even discussed homeschooling her because I was excited about the potential things she could learn from me that she wouldn't get at school.

That all being said, I hate that the government is involved in education in the first place. They control what the kids can eat, what they learn, etc. That bothers me. Just looking at my own experience in school, there are certain things that I was taught as a child that I don't want my kids learning in public school. Or at least the way they teach it. I don't think our education system is balanced in anyway and in no way does it encourage free thinking. That is so frustrating to me.

Thanks for the post. I appreciate all the ideas you offered for how we as parents can get involved in classrooms. But I do think that that's not always possible when you have other small children at home or other commitments such as work. Any options for people in those situations who still want to lend a hand but can't actually physically be in the classroom?

Rae. said...

AAAAAAAAAAA!!! I can't tell you how much this topic excites me!

We are on the precipice of school-age children ourselves.
I have seven other siblings, and we have run the gamut of educational choices: public, private, parochial, homeschooling, etc.

My husband and I have been recently researching which school we think will be right for our girls, and so this has SO been on my mind lately.

Rhee is my hero! Everything I've read about this lady is magnificent. My Dad is a State Assemblyman and he was just appointed to the education committee (which I consider next to political suicide at a time when nobody is going to like the reality of the situation: lots of cuts. I just learned that of the entire education budget in our state, about 90% of it goes to teacher's salaries alone. No wonder we hear complaints about lack of supplies for classrooms! I'm all for teachers being paid, but my goodness!) our Governor's State address Rhee was even in the audience and is serving as a consultant. I can't tell you how hopeful it made me about our state (NV, which basically ranks lowest in about every possible education category possible...bleh!).

I couldn't agree with Anne more: tenure is just ridiculous. Talk about smashing incentive and motivation!

I'm excited to get more involved myself. Thanks for the info, great topic.


mom22 said...

While I certainly can understand that not everyone is 100% satisfied with their public school, I 100% disagree with your assessment with the concept of tenure. It is unfortunate that you have fallen for the conservative rhetoric and anti-teacher union propaganda. You should check out Not Waiting for Superman on Facebook and groups like Rethinking Schools to get a more truthful and accurate depiction of tenure.

Danielle said...

Thanks so much for this post Anne! I really love having your professional perspective because education is a big deal (obviously) and you have such great insight.

Danielle said...

Also...I thought I would point out that Anne has not "fallen for" any kind of "propaganda", but is basing her opinion on her actual first-hand observations and experience in being a teacher and interacting with other teachers. I'm not sure how a facebook page could be any more accurate or truthful then that?

Anonymous said...

"It's unfortunate that you have fallen for the conservative rhetoric and anti-teacher union propaganda." Really???? I'm so tired of the disrespect flung at those who offer an educated and well-thought out opinion that happens to be conservative. Obviously opinions run the social and political gamut, but try to have some tact when disagreeing.

Astyn said...

I love this post. I don't have school age children yet, but in a few short years I will. We are moving to a new state this summer and have been looking heavily into the schools in the area.

I love suggestions about how to help in a public school. I am not very familiar with that area at all.

P.S. Don't you love the WSJ?

J'me Shillig said...

Thank you for your post! As a teacher myself, I can see the gaping holes and, like you, was so excited when I heard about Students First and Michelle Rhee.

I signed up thinking that was the first step. It's forums like these that will start (and foster) the revolution. We don't need a change; we need a total reform!

Thank you for adding this issue to your blog. We're behind you 100% and can't wait to get this ball rolling!

Thanks again as a fellow teacher, mother, and citizen concerned about our schools.