Back To School

Testing…testing…does this thing work?

No, I’m not talking about this neglected website. I’m talking about the grueling season that is right now bearing down on many of California’s kids. It’s testing season, folks, the time of year when No. 2 pencils and prison-like lock downs on school campuses reign. It’s the season that helps make Pearson one of the wealthiest companies in the world (read that thing with tissues in hand because you will weep); the season that causes Michelle Rhee, Ben Austin, Rahm Emmanuel, and other like-minded education “reformers” to gleefully piddle in their pants at the idea of closing more “failing” schools. Score one for privatization.

Of course, I’m opting my child out of the tests because I don’t subscribe to child abuse. Tomorrow, while the kids in my daughter’s second grade class spend day one of six bent over Scantron sheets while chomping on prohibited-during-all-other-school hours mint gum, my child will be eating crepes she made while learning about the Greek diva, Maria Callas.

448px-Maria_Callas_(La_Traviata)_2

Like Maria Callas, my poor kid has an overbearing mother, one who simply could not take her girl by the hand and lead her quietly away from bubble answers and into the light of Verdi’s La Traviatta. No, her mother had to create a Shit Storm first by posting her opinion on Facebook. And yes, I’m really missing my CityBeat platform these days, thank you very much.

Anyway. Ruby’s school sent out an email with suggestions on how best to prep our little Social Experiments for the next two weeks of testing. This inspirational missive came after a very lucrative solicitation last week for the aforementioned mint gum. Because some random un-cited research claims it helps kids stay focused and calm…which might be an argument to offer it everyday, no? Ponder that for a moment.

Some of the things the email encouraged parents to do at home were:

  • Ensure your child is at school everyday, and on time!
  • Ensure your child eats a nutritious breakfast, daily.
  • Ask your child to read a bit more than usual this month, or read with your child for longer periods to build stamina.
  • Talk with your child about the tests & the importance of doing his/her best.
  • Encourage your child to think positive thoughts like “I can do this!”
  • Talk with your child about their anxieties & express your confidence in his/her ability.
  • Be sure your child wears comfortable clothing
  • Encourage your child to pay careful attention to test directions and matching the right answers to the right question  

The email included some “other cute ideas” as well:

7_smartwater
“SMART WATER”:  give kids a water bottle each with original smart water, or one with an added label……gives kids the motivation that they can do it!

A special snack each day:

baggie of cheerios with “We’re cheer-ing you on”
baggie of Lucky Charms w/ “Show What you Know, Good Luck”
baggie of pretzels w/ “Don’t let the test “twist” your head”
baggie of popcorn w/ “Poppin’ in to say you’re doing great”
box of raisins w/ “You’re Raisin’ your score”

A special treat to start the morning:
die cut star  with label/ “I’m a Test Takin’ Star” and a starburst candy
a bookmark that says “I’m a Smart Cookie” and a cookie
a bookmark that says “Do your Bear-y Best” and gummybears
a eraser w/ “Erase those fears right outa your head”
business sized card with “Believe, Achieve, Succeed” and a penny

Uh, huh. Yes. Fo’ realz! Our school just did some serious product placement. I’m starting to think that Pearson owns Smart Water, Starburst Chews, gummy bears, mint gum, cookies, all ingredients needed to make cookies (including oatmeal, just to cover the bases), cookie sheets and Teflon®. Bwahahahahahaha!

Some important context here: Our school has an extremely strict stance on food. Students are not allowed to bring treats to school on their birthdays; junk food, candy, sweets of any kind—including gum—are all prohibited in packed lunches; even Valentine’s Day is a no-go. Teachers are allowed to have 3 parties each year, the only time that food is permitted, but all food items must be cleared with the nurse first. Ah, the drudgery of childhood.

no-junk-food

There is value in this policy, sure. I get the allergy angle, and can appreciate the collective effort to protect children from danger. But c’mon. This is excessive. So what if the kids ask each other to Be Mine! with a lollipop or a SweeTart? Who cares if a teacher gives out a piece of licorice at the end of a long day? Whose business is it if I want to put a small sweet in my kid’s lunch box because…well…just because.

But these are the rules, and I go along quietly because these are the rules. Until they aren’t any more. Because what better time than test time to start your PearsonBot’s morning with a special treat of “starburst candy”? What’s better than sending Tommy Test Taker to class with school-sanctioned Ziploc bag of Lucky Charms? LIVE LARGE, KIDDOS! SNAP THAT GUM LIKE NOBODY’S WATCHIN’!

That is, until June 11th and then don’t you show up with that poison on campus or else.

And so—you know me—I went ahead and mentioned this hypocrisy on the school’s Facebook page with the purpose of highlighting how our culture of standardized testing is so big, so important, that we will do ridiculous things in the endless hunt for high test scores. Since January, my kid’s homework packets have included lengthy practice test questions in English despite the fact that, according to the school website, “[i]n grades K-2, students receive academic instruction in French only.“  With such explicit teaching to the test—in direct opposition to their stated curriculum—it can’t be a stretch to think there would be free Jell-O shots at the school entrance if “studies showed” a correlation between reading comprehension and vodka.

My post elicited an angry reaction from parents (rightly so) aaaaand also the admonishment that I shouldn’t have made my thoughts public, that Facebook wasn’t the right place to have this particular conversation. But I disagree. I think it’s as fine a place as any to be having this conversation.

Teaching to the test has officially begun at my daughter’s school.

And by OFFICIALLY, I mean, EXPLICITLY SANCTIONED.

Behold the notice included with the first homework packet that came home following the Christmas break (and again in a more specific letter from the school that followed a few days later):

Dear families: Welcome back! Starting this week we will begin adding a book report (to be completed in French) and English homework. The English homework is to prepare your child for the standardized state tests in June.

To re-cap: Ruby’s school—a magnet school—is an immersion school where kids are enrolled in either Spanish or French. The French program is laid out on the school’s website like this:

Grade
% French
Approx.
No. of minutes
% English
Approx.
No. of minutes
K
100%
360 min.
0%
0
1
100%
360 min.
0%
0
2
100%
360 min.
0%
0
3
60%
215 min.
40%
145 min.
4
5
50%
180 min.
50%
180 min.
6
7
8

French Language Arts-4 hrs a week

History-4 hrs a week

English Language Arts, Math, Science and P.E.

 

Grade

%

Min.

French Subjects

%

Min.

English Subjects

K

100

360

All subject areas

0

0

1

100

360

All subject areas

0

0

2

100

360

All subject areas

0

0

3

60%

215

French Literacy
Science/Health
Math
VAPA

40%

145

Social Studies
Literacy
P.E.

4
5

50%

180

French Literacy
Math
Science/health

50%

180

Social Studies
English Literacy
P.E.

6
7
8

30%

History
French Literacy

70%

250

Math
Science/Health
English Literacy

Notice that there is no English instruction until 3rd grade. None. Instruction is taught 100% in the target language. As is common with immersion programs, children learning a second language often lag behind in their English reading until 4th or 5th grade, at which time they catch up. My child falls into this category, and hoo-boy! is she ever frustrated by it. English reading is in this house is an endeavor that is more nerve-wracking than this:

Like, who here can read with that kind of music in the background? Am I right???

So it is bothersome that homework—which we are already opposed to in this household (thank you, Alfie Kohn)—now includes material that doesn’t coalesce with the stated goal of the school, but rather appeases test zealots. Which is to say, who gives a shit about the kids? Not only is this material above the reading level of many children in 2nd grade at this school, but it is explicitly not designed to cultivate curiosity or to spark a love of reading for any child in any school. Of course, it also comes with those fun and useful multiple-guess questions at the end. This is about data and data manipulation and lying to ourselves and cheating our children. Standardized testing, and the prep for it, is child abuse.

Here, for your thank-God-I’m-not-in-school-any-more reading pleasure, is the first homework assignment to help my seven year old proficient-French-reader prepare for the California Standardized Test in May, which she is not taking. (She is not doing the English test-prep assignments, with the support of our wonderful teacher, but more on that later). If you have the stamina to make it through these zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz passages and the questions that follow, weigh in in the comments on problems you have with any of it. Hint: There were zero drawings included with the homework. Okay, pick up your pencils and GO!

English Homework: Read the selection.  Then answer numbers 1 through 10.

How an Orange Grows

An orange is a sweet and juicy fruit.  A drink of orange juice is like drinking sunshine.  Oranges grow best where there is plenty of sun.  California has many orange trees.

Orange Groves

 Most oranges are grown on farms where there are many orange trees.  The trees are in long rows.  Many orange trees together are called an orange grove. Orange trees have green leaves.  The leaves stay green all year.  In the spring, flowers bloom on the trees.  The trees are white with blossoms.  The blossoms fill the air with a sweet smell.

Blossoms and bees

Orange blossoms are beautiful.  Blossoms make pollen.  Pollen looks like yellow dust.  Bees fly from flower to flower.  They pick up pollen at one flower.  They leave some pollen at another flower.  An orange may start to grow.  Bees are important in an orange grove.

Green oranges!

The blossoms fall to the ground.  A tiny orange begins to form.  It is green and small.  It slowly grows bigger.  It fills with juice.  Seeds grow inside the orange.  Finally, the fruit grows to its full size.  It turns orange.  Then it is ripe.  Ripe oranges are picked carefully.

From the Grove to Your Table

Most oranges are made into orange juice.  Some oranges are sent to stores.  You can but an orange.  Cut it or peel it.  You can squeeze an orange yourself to make juice.  Oranges taste great!

1.  The author uses the FIRST paragraph mostly to

A  tell the reader where oranges grow.
B  let the reader know what the article is about.
C  make the reader want to drink more orange juice.
D  tell the reader a funny story about oranges.

2.  Leaves on an orange tree are

A  white.
B  orange.
C  green.
D  blossoms.

3.  Oranges grow best

A  in sunshine.
B  in the dark.
C  in a lake.
D  on the roof.

4.  Why do the trees look white in the spring?

A  There are no leaves on the trees.
B  Snow is on the trees.
C  Pollen covers the trees.
D  The trees have white flowers.

5.  What color are oranges when they start to grow?

A  green
B  pink
C  orange
D  blue

6.  You need to answer a question about pollen.  Which section should
you read again?

A  Orange Groves
B  Blossoms and Bees
C  Green Oranges!
D  From the Grove to Your Table

7.  Why are bees important in an orange grove?

A  Bees look nice in a grove.
B  Bees can make honey.
C  Bees leave pollen in the blossoms.
D  Bees eat flowers.

8.  When you look at the drawing on page 1, you can learn

A  how a tree grows.
B  where the pollen is in a blossom.
C  what a tree looks like a winter.
D  which bugs like flowers.

9.  What is likely to happen if no bees go to an orange grove?

A  Many new oranges will grow.
B  Oranges will get ripe faster.
C  No oranges will grow.
D  The orange blossoms will not fall off.

10.  The author probably wrote this section

A  just for fun.
B  to get people to buy fruit.
C  to tell readers about oranges.
D  to teach readers how to grow an orange.

Fighting back against mandatory school testing, Part 2

“The bottom line is that standardized testing can continue only with the consent and cooperation of the educators who allow those tests to be distributed in their schools—and the parents who permit their children to take them. If we withhold that consent, if we refuse to cooperate, then the testing process grinds to a halt.”

Alfie Kohn, parent, author and education expert

(photo from Peg With Pen)

Jan. 7 has been declared National Opt Out Day by the grassroots organization United Opt Out National, whose goal is to eliminate high-stakes testing (HST) in public education. With the unreachable goal of 100-percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and its component standardized testing will result—in fact is designed to result—in an unprecedented, manufactured event of 100-percent school failure. Education privatizers are salivating like hyenas.

Continue reading here…

 

 

Together we are stronger

A teacher at Ruby’s school organized a rally last Wednesday morning to show support for the six teachers who have in their possession, at this very minute, layoff notices (Ruby’s kindergarten teacher is one of Golden Ticket holders). Yay for creating a healthy work environment! Pfffft. The rally was also aimed at expressing frustration with the district’s handling of…oh…pretty much everything. Parents, teachers and students were instructed to wear red and meet an hour before school. Signs were to be provided.

I woke Ruby early, packed her lunch and over a breakfast of eggs, mixed berry applesauce and vitamins—don’t forget the vitamins!—I explained why we’d be stepping between the raindrops that morning. The discussion went swimmingly. I told her about silly people firing teachers, and she responded with, “Mama, Ella is the best dog in the whole world!” I told her about buses becoming extinct like the dinosaurs, and she sang out “I got no chicken in my chicken pot paahhhh!” When she stood to shake her booty to the sound of her new chant, I knew the conversation was over. I grabbed our umbrellas and hoped something had sunk in.

When we got to the rally, we found that we were the rally. Just the two of us, sign-less in our rain boots, standing on a damp sidewalk as cars whooshed by. Because I don’t usually check my email at 7:40 AM, I missed the rally-canceled-due-to-rain notice to disarm. To think: Thousands upon thousands of folks stood in snow and sleet and freezing temperatures for more than a month in Madison, Wisconsin, this past winter. They slept in their capitol building, too. But here in San Diego, a little marine layer rolls in off the ocean and we need chains on our tires. That is if we don’t call off the job. I’m convinced this type of halfheartedness is why Chargers fans are the only thing lamer than the Chargers.

I was miffed and voiced my opinion to the appropriate source. Poor guy. But I got over it and focused on the so-called teachable moment. On the way to the drop-off area, I talked to Ruby about apathy. Then she placed one kiss on each of my cheeks before wiggling off to class singing, “I got no chicken in my chicken pot paahhhh. I got no chicken in my chicken pot paahhhh.”

The rally was rescheduled for yesterday, and because I support our teachers and our school, and because I want my daughter to learn to stand for what she believes in, I woke her early, packed her lunch and reminded her over breakfast why we were going to stand with teachers in the glorious morning sunlight.

Tonight, when she told her dad about the rally, she said to him, “TEACHERS! YES! TEACHERS! YES! LAYOFFS! NO! LAYOFFS! NO! COUNSELORS! YES! COUNSELORS! YES! CUTBACKS! NO! CUTBACKS! NO!”

I’ll tell you what: That girl most definitely has some chicken in her chicken pot pie.

False Solutions: Waving goodbye to the yellow school bus

Hey-ho, readers. I have a public-service announcement for you: Don’t have children. Too late, you say? Well, this piece is for you, too.

The reason I say this is not because kids suddenly need to talk to you every time you pick up the telephone to chat with your best friend. It’s not because they use their favorite Hannah Montana rubber stamp to decorate the floor, baseboards and west-facing wall of your newly painted dining room. It’s not because you have to hold post-potty depositions after every single mother@!&#*^!! bathroom trip—complete with hand sniffing and counterarguments—about whether hand washing actually occurred. No, this stuff isn’t why I implore you to put on a rubber.

I beg because trying to get a decent public education for your child in this city is like walking up a down escalator. On crutches. While simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your tummy. It’s way more fun to be a childless hipster. Even a tragic, brooding one.

The reasons San Diego children are completely screwed are myriad. But the standard We’re broke! excuse has brought us to the latest emotional, ideological, political and un-thought-out decision to do away with all but federally mandated busing.

For those who don’t speak educationese, that means the roughly 6,000 students in San Diego Unified who aren’t designated as special-education kids or who aren’t bused out of failing schools under No Child Left Behind—and further encouraged by the district’s very own School Choice program, mind you—will no longer have access to transportation. School-board members Scott Barnett, Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans like to paint it as a return to neighborhood schools. I like to call it re-segregation.

Currently, parents who can afford it are asked to pay to use school buses. I’d advocate for increasing the fee before puncturing all the bus tires, but that’s because I care. The school district, though, has been incompetent when it comes to tracking current payments, with approximately half of the 5,000 paying families delinquent. (Oh, bureaucracy. You’re so adorable I want to squeeze your chubby cheeks!) Of course, it is difficult to track bus ridership in the day and age of children swiping pre-paid ID cards each day to eat cafeteria lunch.

According to an analysis by the district’s very own Tiger Team on Transportation, it costs $32,000 annually to operate a bus. This is whether one child is on a bus (say, a federally mandated rider) or 40 children are on a bus (say, all the kids who live in the general area and could get on that bus but won’t be allowed to). Here’s the thing: The school board would sorta need to know who’s riding the bus in order to know how much money could be saved by eliminating bus routes. Can I get a witness?

Anti-buser Scott Barnett says that eliminating busing will save teacher jobs and he projects an overall savings of $3.1 million—amid an estimated $140-million deficit. Drop, meet bucket. (Things will change a bit with the governor’s new budget, but unless Evans is open to reason, it’s unlikely busing will remain untouched.)

Interestingly (which is probably why the school board is uninterested), the Tiger Team projects that 36 schools will be below capacity if busing goes the way of the dodo bird, and at least 11 will be over capacity.

Mission Bay High School could see enrollment nosedive as much as 75 percent if its bused students don’t find another way to get there. Teachers will be laid off, and then the school will be—what? Operated at 25-percent capacity? Or will it be shut down and remaining students sent—where? And if the latter, will they be—bussed? Or will Barnett arrange for them to have taxi vouchers? He seriously proposed taxi vouchers as an answer to busing. That’s out-of-the-box thinking.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town where the real beating will take place, Lincoln High School—with 2,100 to 2,700 students enrolled in any given year—will absorb as many as 1,120 students, according to the Tiger Team. Jackson pshawed that as a “worst-case scenario” and defended her vote to eliminate busing by saying that there’s no way to know what the actual number of new enrollees would be. I love the let’s-just-hop-in-the-car-and-see-where-we-end-up plan of action. It’s an especially effective policy when you start on empty.

I ask Jackson & Co.: What already-large high school can absorb another thousand students? Or even 500? Or whatever made-up number you’d like to propose? Will you accommodate this mystical influx by building more buildings? I wonder if the school board has wondered whether that will cost more than $3.1 million.

The elimination of busing will be the third decision in a series aimed in a not-so-veiled way at closing down magnet schools. With the redistribution of magnet funds and the phasing out of Title 1 funds, my daughter’s school will face a reduction of up to 47 percent of the student body if busing is axed. Taxis are likely out as an option since I don’t know one parent who’s going to put a first grader in an Orange Cab, or on a city bus, for that matter. Will my school operate at half-capacity? Will it close? And how many teachers will be let go? Yup. I see the savings now.

Readers: On the morning of May 10, our school board met to discuss this issue in an air-conditioned room. The National Weather Service recorded the high temperature in San Diego as 68 degrees that day. And they say busing is a waste of money.

Any estimation of savings from eliminating busing is magical thinking. Educating our city’s kids with nincompoops as sitting board members is the sad, sad reality.


Don’t write to me, silly! Write to the school board and urge them to take busing off the table. Then write to aaryn@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

Undervalued: The absurdity of teacher as scapegoat

“Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true: Teachers make a goddamn difference! What about you?” —From “What Teachers Make, or Objection Overruled, or If Things Don’t Work Out, You Can Always Go to Law School” by poet Taylor Mali

As I write this, the battle between the mouth-breathing governor of Wisconsin and American workers is raging. It’s my hope that, as you read this, the 14 Democratic senators necessary for a vote on Scott Walker’s union-busting bill will still be in their undisclosed bunkers, fondling their newly grown balls. It sure has been nice to see the Dems finally stand for something, even if it is too little too late.

Regardless of how this “brouhaha”—as Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal dismissively called this pivotal moment in American history— plays out, and aside from the larger issue of Unions: Good or Evil?, I am awestruck by the widespread disdain for teachers, a profession, as it happens, largely undertaken by women. But that’s another column.

The broad demonization of teachers is being underscored by the daily news cycle. It’s not just one or two states taking an antagonistic stance toward teachers; this is happening everywhere.

State education officials in Michigan have ordered closure of half the schools in Detroit, where class sizes in the high schools will swell to 60 students in the coming year.

In Providence, R.I., teachers were given a layoff notice last week. This doesn’t mean all 2,000 of them won’t have jobs next year (some of them definitely won’t). But it does mean they work the remainder of this year knowing they may not have jobs next year. Yay for workplace morale! I should point out that annual layoff notices are not uncommon and are, on the contrary, part of the fabric of our modern education system. They’re a yearly occurrence across the country. Sort of like Christmas. With lumps of coal. Delivered by Scrooge.

Back in Madison, Wisc., highly paid (non-unionized) administrators are refusing sick pay to teachers who were absent from work while protesting Walker’s proposed bill. Each of these administrators—who I know have never fudged on a sick day—is conveniently channeling an inner Helen Lovejoy. The poor children are not learning when a teacher spends a day in the capitol rotunda with her sign that reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

Never mind the civics lesson inherent in civil disobedience; these teachers should shut up and teach—and never deviate from mandated curriculum. Or else.

As if the headlines aren’t alarming enough, one little jaunt into the toxic waters of any comment section reveals a widespread derision.

“I love teachers…. for all their self righteous babble…” wrote someone calling himself Deucejack on The Huffington Post. “[T]hey don’t give two nickels about the kids they supposedly provide a service to. LMOA at teachers…. Now I’m laughing at the unions in their last nose dive.” One thing is certain: Douchejackass here could have used a better grammar teacher.

Comments like this are disturbingly abundant and wildly narrow in their vision. Just as in any other profession, there will always be what I call “driftwood” among teachers; there is a small subset who are underachievers, skaters, system-bilkers and incompetents. They exist and Sarah Palin is the poster child for this unrefudiateable fact. Her devotees serve as supporting evidence.

But, by and large, teachers teach precisely because they give at least—and usually far more than—two nickels about the children in their care. With a child six months into kindergarten, I’ve had an opportunity to spend time in the classroom and see what a teacher does when she’s set adrift by a society that progressively downgrades her worth.

With increasing class sizes, no aides, few support staff, absurdly limited supplies and resources, an endless barrage of new training requirements and too many too-busy-working-multiple-jobs-to-be-involved parents, a teacher puts a smile on her face and welcomes her children in the morning. Then she goes right on ahead and teaches her ass off.

While meeting district-, state- and federally mandated goals, she also acts as counselor, nurse, custodian, disciplinarian and parent. She manages personalities, fixes scrapes and cuts, wipes noses and tears. She helps her kids navigate ever-changing relationships and moods. At any given time, she’s attending to the hurt feelings of one child and attempting to engage another whose attention span is fleeting. She may be patiently problem solving with a child who struggles with a concept or assisting four others on a math test. Often, she’s doing any number of these things simultaneously, while teaching!

In addition to all of this—and her prep work and training and certifications—she responds to perhaps the most demanding customers in her equation: parents, both those who respect what she does and those who don’t. There isn’t enough money in the world that could entice me to do even that part of the job, let alone the rest of it.

For seven hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks each year, for 13 years, we put our children in the care of teachers. But from the way many folks are vilifying them, you’d think our little bumpkins were spending time with Osama bin Laden.

(As published today in San Diego CityBeat.)

In solidarity

Le Sigh, Le Boo Hoo, Le Don’t Grow Up, S’il vous plait

Ruby had her orientation last Friday. We visited her new classroom, met her new teacher and some of her new friends. She was one cool cucumber. ,I on the other hand, was not. Sam told me as we walked down the street toward her school, to pull it together at least while she’s around. Then he went for the jugular: “Don’t be my mom.” (Hey, Marsha! :)) Suffice it to say, I wore my very big, very dark sunglasses, which I will be wearing again on Tuesday. Ruby was none the wiser.

I’m a writer, but I cannot formulate the words right now. So photos will have to do for the moment….