Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas --> Hall Fight

Today was the last day before Christmas Break (or, if you're PC, winter break). Of course, not much learning happened today. But that's fine -- it's to be expected on the day before a two week break. We had holiday parties and played games and all was well.

That is, until third period when rando girls started walking into my classroom and picking fights with my students. Apparently there were two girls who were fighting over some guy -- I asked around, and the guy is a real douche who never does any work and is already repeating the ninth grade... good choice, ladies -- and they decided to bring this disagreement to my room. In all my time teaching I have never had a fight break out in my room, and I wasn't about to break that record. So I pushed two of the girls out and called security (on my cell phone, because why would my school provide teachers with in-class phones that actually work). This delayed the fight for a while, but then my student walked out of my room and went and found these girls and got into it later. So now, on the last day of school of this year, kids are getting suspended and parents have to come up for meetings. So stupid.

The worst part is the girl that was fighting is a good student. She's been getting A's and B's on all of her tests, and she recently applied for a summer program at Howard University (for which I wrote her a recommendation). Why couldn't she control herself?? At least wait until tomorrow when you won't get suspended for fighting. Kids...

Needless to say, me and the other teachers got a drink after school. We needed to upgrade to some Holiday cheer. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Truancy Problems in DCPS

Thanks to reader Daniel L. who brought these reports on WAMU to my attention. The city council is proposing new regulations regarding student truancy, which is definitely a huge problem in DC. The reports cite a statistic that 20% of the students in public and public charter schools have already racked up 15 absences or more. In my school, the percent is definitely higher -- for my students, it is around 40%.

This problem was brought to my attention even more as I was giving an end-of-unit assessment yesterday. Of the 82 students on my rosters, only 40 came to take the test. I know some children take off early before the Holidays, but this is ridiculous. And I know I was not the only teacher with a test or other important project today (the 9th grade English teachers had a major paper due today).

Currently in my school, there is very little being done to address truancy. We (like all of DCPS) have a computerized calling system that places a phone call to parents any time their child misses a class, but many parents just ignore the computer system because it's not a real person. I personally can't call every time a student is absent, or I would be making 42 phone calls today alone. DC schools require full time attendance support staff that can be available to call the parents of absent children so that parents can be kept aware. Most schools already have one attendance assistant, but our truancy rates are so bad that this is usually too much for one person to handle and do a good job.

The proposals seem fine enough -- if a child misses a day of school they get a phone call, if the child misses more than 5 days an intervention team is assembled to work on the problem, and if these steps fail CPS and the courts get involved -- except for those schools that already have functional attendance systems. If schools have already found a way to address these problems, they should be left alone. Working schools should not be interfered with. But these proposals are great for schools that do not have working systems.

The problem with these proposals is that it requires a lot of time on the behalves of people who do not have a ton of time to give. The proposed intervention team includes a teacher and counselor -- when will I have time to meet with a team to discuss the 30+ students that are routinely absent? And what about the counselors, whose case-loads are even larger? Again, the proposals are great ideas, but we have to remember that there are real people who are going to do this work, and without extra staff there is no way they will be able to do it well. Of course, DCPS isn't about doing things well. It's just about compliance.

WAMU also reported that some charter school officials are very against these new proposals. It seems to me if children are not coming to school, it doesn't matter whether or not they go to a public or public charter school. Kids need to be in school -- end of story. Charter schools with high truancy rates need to take steps to reduce them. The only exception should, again, be for charter schools who already have a working attendance system that happens to be different from those proposed by the city council.

These sorts of top-down mandates are problematic because they assume that the things that work in affluent schools will also work in poor urban schools with the same level of financial commitment. This is simply not true. Urban youths from low-income communities can learn at the highest levels, but they often require extra support along the way. Attendance, like anything else, will only improve when we make education of poor minority students in DC an actual priority.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why Arne Duncan is a better choice for Secretary of Education than Michelle Rhee

Obama announced this week that Arne Duncan would be his choice for Secretary of Education, and I think this is a great decision. A lot of people in DC were hoping / fearing that Michelle Rhee would be picked. On paper, the two seem very similar. However, I think Duncan is a much better choice than Rhee, at least at this point.

Duncan and Rhee are both reformers. They have both closed schools, both supported out-of-the-box programs that have a history of success, and both have fired numerous teachers and other staff that were not performing adequately. They both support pay-for-performance among teachers, and they are both data driven leaders. So why is Duncan a better choice?

First, Duncan has been schools' chief in Chicago for seven years, and has shown that he actually can do the job. Rhee is less seasoned, and while I think many of her proposals are on the right track, we don't have the kind of success here that Chicago has enjoyed in recent years. If Rhee left after only 1.5 years on the job -- and after causing all of the shake-ups she's caused -- I would be PISSED.

Second, Duncan is well-liked by both sides of the education debate. Randy Weingarten (whom I cannot stand) thinks he was a good choice, as do more reform-minded groups. You don't have to be well-liked to be effective, but it helps.

Third, and most importantly, Duncan is not as polarizing a figure as Rhee. I've mentioned before that I think Rhee is pretty great, but I also think she goes about things in a totally wrong manner. She talks too much about bad teachers. She criticizes and uses fear to motivate. Any classroom teacher can tell you that celebrating the good is a lot more effective that shaming the bad. Why doesn't Rhee do this? Her proposals and ideas are right on the money; we should close under-enrolled schools, pay teachers for performance, and hold everyone accountable for good work. But the way she presents herself -- and the way she makes enemies with people -- is not constructive, and it's not good leadership.

Rhee might be a good education secretary someday, but she's too immature to have the task now.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Conference Day Strikes Again

Today was parent teacher conference day in DCPS, and these are always interesting days. My favorite thing is when parents come in with the kids. All of a sudden the kids who, in class, are like "Mother F-this" and "I'm so thuggy, G-Unit!" are instead like "Yes, ma'am, I'll do better." (I was talking with an administrator about how why it is that our kids are perfectly behaved in the classrooms of older black women, and he had this to say: "Well, it appears to me that black men are scared to death of their mothers. So any teacher that reminds them of their mothers is automatically terrifying." I don't know if it's true, but it makes some sense. Also, I think the effect is multiplied generationally because whenever a kid's grandmother comes in there is sure to be an ass kicking. Those old broads don't play around.)

On the whole, today was good. I got caught up on some organizational stuff for my class, and I met with a good number of parents. And not just the parents of really well-behaved kids, but I actually got to meet with the parents of kids who really need some help. The best, though, was a parent whose kid is very smart but who sometimes acts up in class and causes problems. She gave me her cell phone number and said, "Call me whenever you need to -- call during class even. My daughter isn't here to look cool, she's here to learn. Feel free to embarrass the hell out of her." Yes, please.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Anger Management Issues

My third period class is a little, let's say, rambunctious. Some might say crazy. I've developed a plan to deal with the crazy, and it seems to be working better.

Even so, I was pretty shocked today when a student, during the middle of my lesson, lept out of his seat, put his pencil to the neck of the girl behind him, and yelled "I will f*ing stab you in the neck if you don't leave me alone!" Yikes, right? I removed the child from my room, and he began to punch lockers in the hallway. An assistant principal heard the commotion and came to take him away.

After school, I had this conversation with the administrator:

Administrator: Mr. Potter, I talked with *crazy student* and he said that the girl was poking at him.
Mr. Potter: OK, well, that's not really an excuse.
Aministrator: Well, that student has anger management issues.
Mr. Potter: You think???

Am I too hard on this kid? It seems to me, if you hold a pencil to someone's neck and threaten to stab that person, you maybe shouldn't be in a classroom with people. Should it matter that you have anger management issues?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Michelle Rhee in Time magazine, needs to get a new communications team

So, I'm a relatively big fan of Michelle Rhee. I think she's smart enough to tackle some of the issues, I think she's ballsy enough to make unpopular but needed decisions, and I think she is generally right that teachers need to be well paid and held highly accountable. Can you sense the "but" coming?
BUT, I think she and her team have done a terrible job marketing their message. Instead of saying things like "teachers, administrators, and students need to all be held accountable for their performance" she says "teachers need to be held accountable." Administrators and students already are held accountable (principals are dropping like flies, and students get grades), but when you say all three it makes it sound like teachers aren't the bad guys. Much better messatge. Or, instead of saying things like "we have a small group of ineffective teachers who are damaging children, and we need to take steps to remove them from the classroom so our really incredible teachers can do their jobs" she says things like "if you're ineffective, you will be fired." See how much nicer the first one sounds? I really believe that if she just changed the way she said things she would earn a lot more friends among teachers. She needs to stop saying teachers are the enemy. First off, we're not. Second, it's annoying.
Also, who in the world let Time use that picture? Does she really need "wicked witch" comparisons?