The Council of Elrond

These days, it seems that those of us fighting to save public education are living in the novel, The Lord of the Rings.

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“You will unite or you will fall.” (Gandalf)

Yesterday, public education advocates, teachers, parents, activists (Opt Out Florida, Parents Across Florida among many others), pastors (Florida Pastors for Children), AFT and NEA (Randy Weingarten and Becky Pringle respectively), Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (Keron Blair), a few politicians (legislators, school board members, and superintendents), and other policy groups gathered in Orlando for the purpose of “Bringing Our Voices” together.

In a follow-up post, GOT will report what took place in the World Cafe format. But given the reaction so far, let’s look at who was and was not at the summit, the Council of Elrond.

Gandalf was not there. As Federick Ingram, a/k/a Fed, opened the conference by saying this: there’s no silver bullet. There’s no wizard from the world beyond who has the answers and the strategy. No one is working behind the scenes to move all the players into the right positions.

The Council met to discuss the problem of the RING, the evil it represents, and how it works to get back to the one who will destroy all that we hold dear.

The RING was there, not physically, but in the minds of all: the policies into which the enemy, the privatizers for profit, the politicians who are getting their cut, and the publicans who support them, poured all their malice and cunning. The RING that would return to the hand of Sauron (Betsy Devos or perhaps DeSantis, Corcoran, Diaz et alia, but maybe I’m reaching here) to finish the overthrow of Middle Earth (public schools.)

Aragorn was there with his Rangers. These are the people who do not work in public schools but long have kept watch and fought the efforts of our enemies to overrun them. They lobby in Tallahassee every year, they organize parents and communities, they push opting out of the destructive testing that is at the heart of all that is wrong with how we teach our children … they came. Like Aragorn, they will journey with the quest as long as they have the strength to do so.

We felt the presence of the dwarves, who are now reacting to posts about the day with criticism. Gimli cried, “Never trust an elf!” The naysayers are crying, “You can’t trust Fed! FEA is useless! We have been talking about the RING forever and nothing happens!”

What would you have us do? Sit within our borders until all is overrun by Orcs? Until no school remains, only charters and private schools, supported by a direct diversion of FEFP tax dollars?

We are to do nothing? Let’s hide the RING away? Until the enemy comes for it in numbers we cannot resist?

In the end, Gimli joined the Fellowship of the Ring. Let’s hope others do as well. In the words of Gandalf (slightly altered), “We must unite or we will fall.”

The elves. Yes, the elves, who are leaving Middle Earth. That brings up the slow-moving walkout of teachers as they give up the profession to undertake new careers.

Yet many elves remain to fight. That was the bulk of the attendees, teachers. Teachers who will not go; teachers who want to remain in Middle Earth. Teachers who came to reinforce and support the dawning of a new age.

There were a few Boromirs, those who came with their own agenda. Boromir’s heart was in the right place, but always he sought to put his own city at the forefront. In the end, he turned out right and GOT is sure that the Boromirs in the room will do so as well.

In the end, the Council of Elrond decided upon a daring deed.

In the end, the summit demanded that attendees commit to action. Most did.

This is Florida. In LOTR, at the worst moment, a captain of Rohan lamented, “We cannot defeat them.”

Theoden, the king, responded, “No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.”

We are not at the moment. We can defeat them. Let’s rise to the battle. But even if you don’t think public education can win, join us. We will meet them in battle nonetheless.

PS: Always the Hobbits get overlooked. Frodo is the solitary hero, but he did get noticed. GOT is not Frodo, maybe he is Merriadoc Brandybuck. Overlooked, unnoticed, not among the movers and shakers who had to be at the summit but he showed up anyway, GOT is okay with that and will do his part so that, when he joins his forefathers, he will not be ashamed.

PPS: #Voices4Ed. Follow it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms if you want to keep up.

Not One Red Cent, but maybe half?

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Red for Ed.

With the oldest school buildings in the state, Diana Greene, Superintendent of Schools for the Duval County Public School district (Florida), commissioned an analysis of its buildings, including condition and capacity. What resulted was a report with recommendations on consolidation, renovation, and replacement. The price tag? Two Billion Dollars.

(That’s before the charters begin demanding a piece of the action.)

The need is real. Few would question it. The boldness of the plan is that it would tackle more than one issue; not only would it renovate or replace outdated facilities, it would also address issues of under-capacity that hamstring the district from building new schools in the developing areas of the county.

That, of course, was going to cause community pushback like what immediately came from the alumni of Raines and Ribault High Schools.

It’s hard to close a school in Jacksonville. That is why many remain open even when it is obvious that consolidation is needed. The advantage to the plan is that, where consolidation is needed, it proposes to merge the schools into a new location so nobody has to feel that somebody won and they lost.

The hard question is how to pay for it. The School Board would like Jacksonville citizens to agree to pay an extra half-cent in sales tax for 15 years.

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And now we enter the bizarro world of Florida school politics where power is everything, there’s a whole lot of public dough available for profiteers, and everyone’s scrambling for a piece of the pie even as a lot of Dudley Do-rights try to stop them.

There’s a lot of fodder for many blog posts, this is Jacksonville, Florida after all, but we do have the inimitable A.G. Gancarski of Folio Weekly and Florida Politics fame to do the muckraking. What GOT wants to focus on is the timing.

The timing is terrible. The ink is barely dry … oh, let’s refresh the cliche for our techno times … the characters are hardly typed on the screen when the school board rushes ahead to schedule a referendum for November.

The reasoning is simple even when not stated. The legislature passed a new law, taking effect on January 1, 2020, that all future tax referendums must be placed on a general election ballot. If the November referendum does not happen, the voters will not get to decide for a year and a half, which will delay the new funding for at least a year, maybe two.

Then again, the legislature did not approve a proposal that a two-thirds supermajority is needed to pass local tax referendums, but most experts expect that this idea will resurface in next year’s session. If that happens, no additional tax proposals will ever pass. Two-thirds is a threshold too high. It has never happened even for the Better Jacksonville Plan.

If the vote doesn’t take place now, it never will.

Thus, GOT understands why the School Board is moving ahead even as the details of the plan are not final.

Yet, GOT also understands why the city’s politicians are reluctant to get on board until more is known and the details are worked out.

It’s a mess and thanks to the Florida legislature and the politicians that dominate state government, the School Board is playing a game of Calvinball, a game where the rules are made up and change on a whim so as to produce the desired result.

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(Spoiler alert! That’s not to take care of the needs of Florida’s public schools. For those of you confused by the current governor’s doublespeak a la the novel 1984, those are the schools also known as traditional or neighborhood.)

There are a lot of good points on all sides. But the School Board should take note that many on the City Council, who are in charge of scheduling an election, aren’t opposed to putting a referendum on the ballot, but they want more details and a firm plan in place.

Even the mayor, whom many suspect (possibly correctly) is hostile to additional taxes, wants the schools to fail so he can take control, is controlled by the wealthy forces privatizing the nation’s schools, or all three, is right to say he cannot support a tax measure until more is known.

We are rushing ahead.

Even GOT, who is looking for assurances that charter schools won’t grab all the new funding, either by court decision or legislative fiat, before he supports a new tax, is willing to pay new school taxes if the revenue is used for the designated purpose of renovating and replacing obsolete or crumbling buildings.

No one wants to be the new Detroit.

It’s important to get this right. It’s important for the community to get behind the schools. That means taking the time needed to make the case.

It can be done. November is too soon.

Slow down, School Board, and build the community support you need to make this happen.

Musings on Test-Taking

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I wonder what they’re thinking.

It’s that time of year: testing. For GOT, it’s the most boring time as he must watch students work without actually seeing that work, maintain a hawk-like scrutiny of computer screens to make sure students are not exiting the test to look up answers without actually observing what is on the screen (strictly forbidden for a proctor to actually read a test question), and otherwise spend hours doing absolutely nothing except reading a sentence out of the test manual at the prescribed times.

GOT has some observations to share:

  • Based on the number of students GOT has to wake up, there is something soporific about sitting in a hard plastic chair staring at a screen. If tests are ever eliminated, the manufacturers will find a new market in the sleep aid category.
  • Teachers can fix their low salary problem by selling pencils to students. The number who show up unprepared! And it’s not only for tests, it’s every day that children arrive in class without the supplies needed: pens, paper, and the like. In the moment, it’s a seller’s market.
  • Deafness will mark this new generation. After listening to ear-pounding music every second they are awake, they won’t reach 40 with their hearing intact.
  • States make many graduation requirements. Most of them are unnecessary, but GOT would like to add one. No student may graduate without going into the wilderness to experience silence. Off the grid, off the net, no phone, no music … silence. It would be a profound experience.
  • GOT is a good actor as he is able to read the part of the script that admonishes students they must never, ever at the cost of their first-born child talk about the test after it is over, including Snapchat and Instagram, without laughing. Kudos to test manufacturers for somewhat keeping up with preferred social media platforms, but based on actual experience with teenagers, the manufacturers would do better to demand that they must share about the test. Teenagers seldom follow directions.
  • We have a test today?! GOT would like to give one test without hearing that. He’s only mentioned it for the past two weeks, had it posted on the whiteboard, sent an alert to parents the week before, and done everything he could short of streaking through the classroom to draw attention to the fact that a test has been scheduled.
  • Computer testing is awful. Many students simply read the screen and take their best guess. If they had to mark an answer on a paper medium, they would take the time to think about a problem and try to work out an answer. There’s something about technology … that suppresses critical thought.
  • The public needs to learn that a READING test is not a reading test. That’s not what is being tested at all. The reading test actually attempts to measure critical thinking skills and how well they can express those thoughts.
  • What’s up with the computer system locking students out of their accounts? It never happens at any other time of the year.
  • BTW, no pencil ever said to a student that they had attempted to erroneously pick it up too many times.
  • God bless test coordinators who must explain to teachers why they lose their planning time to testing.
  • God bless test coordinators who somehow make it all work when teachers take a leave day without warning because they don’t want to administer a test. I’m not talking about those who protest (God bless them for taking a stand and acting on it); GOT has in mind those teachers who are uncooperative.
  • God forgive all teachers who participate in the system knowing it is wrong, but must do what they have to do.
  • God forgive administrators who never drank the kool-aid, but have to do the same.
  • In closing, let’s bless the hearts of all lawmakers who congratulate themselves that they are improving the lives of kids. Well, that would be true if their kids were the dollars in their bank accounts.
A toast to Papa Dollar and Mama Dollar and they better have a family …

The Challenging Challenge Index

One week ago, GOT noted the discrepancy between a press release of his school district and the website maintained by the creator and sustainer of the Challenge Index, Jay Mathews. Original post here.

As a result of subsequent confusion regarding the actual rankings (it seems there was an additional website providing the erroneous information), GOT contacted Mr. Mathews to clear the issue up. Mr. Mathews confirmed that his website was correct.

He then contacted the school in question about the press release. That kicked off a flurry of activity, quite hilarious by the way, but in the end, it turned out Mr. Mathews had received incorrect information from the school district.

Those corrections being made, the school’s ranking changed from 26th on the list to being 5th on the list.

While the website will not be updated for a few weeks, GOT will end with a quote from Shakespeare: All’s well that ends well.

The Challenge Index

In my school district, we are very proud of our academic magnet programs and the high rankings they receive each year. Recently, Team Duval News congratulated the high school generally regarded as the county’s best for placing in the eighth position.

Except they didn’t. The Challenge Index is produced by the Washington Post’s education columnist, Jay Mathews. If you check his website, you find that the school is actually in the 26th position and another district high school placed higher in the 23rd position.

So what’s up?

GOT doesn’t know why the news release doesn’t agree with the actual rankings on the website. But GOT realizes that we are in challenging times for school districts and traditional public schools in Florida.

If you have missed what’s going down in Florida, you will find no better summary than this: Florida Really Is the Worst. The only thing missing is that Florida has also decided to allow public (but do we even know what that adjective means anymore?) universities and colleges to authorize charter schools. School districts will have to share their funds but will have no say over whether a charter is ready to open in their territory.

How do schools compete? They have to market themselves. If you’ve been wondering why schools need more money today than they needed decades ago when you passed through the classrooms, one huge reason is that schools, traditional, charter, and other, all need marketing budgets with lots of dollars for advertising.

Truth-in-Advertising laws be damned, everyone pushes the boundaries in this Darwinian struggle for survival.

(How ironic that the Florida legislature, determined to remove all mention of evolution from science classrooms, justifies their ongoing demolition of the public school system as allowing the marketplace to determine the survival of the fittest.)

Some puffing here, some misrepresentation there, shoot, the privatizers do it, don’t we have to fight fire with fire?

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Actually, firefighters fight fire with water.

There’s no better water in the public school system than delivering an outstanding chance to learn in the classroom.

The phony baloney is not needed.

When parents are asked, most of them say they think the school that actually educates their children is excellent; it’s only that those other schools are terrible.

But all those other schools also have parents who say they are pleased with the school and the education their children are receiving.

When do we realize that there are no other lousy schools?

As for the marketing, schools need to be full of integrity. Isn’t that the lesson we want to teach children? Character education has been around for a long time.

What do we model? Exaggeration, hyperbole, a little lie here or there is okay because it furthers an important purpose?

Eight does not equal 26.

Or do we show children that the truth is important and should be clung to? No matter how embarrassing it may be.

The challenge index for public schools? It’s not about how many AP exams are taken. The challenge is to turn out young adults with integrity who will change the world.

(And these days, our world does need changing.)

UPDATE: I contacted Jay Mathews, the creator of the Challenge Index, who confirmed that the ranking of 26 is the correct one for the 2019 index that he released a week ago.

SECOND UPDATE: GOT set off a minor kerfuffle in his district by this post. Go here for the rest of the story.

Choose to Be Kind

In a world full of choices, choose to be kind.

May is the time of testing. Now is a good time to be reminded that there are more important things in life than a particular test score.

Darian Locklear was living the life of a teenager. Everyone remembers those awkward days: worrying about pimples, social status, grades, popularity among peers, and the hormonal changes of transforming to an adult.

Wanting to be unique, but wondering if anyone thinks we are special.

It wasn’t the major acts that defined her life; it was the many small acts of kindness that Darian is remembered for. A tragic accident took her life, but her memory will live on in the lives of others whom she helped.

The boy who never ate lunch alone because she would bring all her friends and sit with him.

The peer-ostracized children whom she would talk to.

The teenager she believed even no one else did regarding an assault.

The girl she helped through a dark time.

There are many stories.

In a world full of choices, choose to be kind.

You will be remembered for your choices.

Teacher Appreciation: Parents Edition

It’s that time of year.

Teaching is a hard gig. So is parenting. GOT wants parents everywhere to know he appreciates their challenges to raise their children to become confident, self-sufficient adults that someday they will turn to in their old age for support and comfort.

GOT also knows that parents support him in his job to teach their children not merely a subject but to help them develop their characters and internalize the discipline and resilience they will need as they encounter new responsibilities for learning and life.

It’s not easy. We work together. When Teacher Appreciation Week comes along, GOT wants parents to know he doesn’t need a gift. A mere thank-you is enough. Even that is not necessary, but there are a few things that would help.

Parents, here’s how you can appreciate your children’s teachers:

  1. Keep your child in school. Delay your family trips and vacations for the times school is not in session: Winter break, Spring break, Summer. It is a huge disruption in your child’s learning to pull them out of school for a week, not to speak of two or more weeks. Teachers understand an emergency, but children should not be sent to provide care for an extended period of time. That is an adult job.

Similarly, birthday milestones should not be a two-week trip out of the country during the school year. Also, no matter how talented your child may be, they should not be missing school to engage in a hobby.

2. When they miss school, make sure they follow the teacher’s procedure to identify the work they must make-up; then, see that they do it. In GOT’s experience, the students don’t make up the work. Not only does that impede further learning as their gaps in understanding ensure future difficulty, it means they will receive a failing grade for the quarter.

Today’s student doesn’t seem to understand that assignments must be done regardless of their presence in class. They seem to believe that an absence means they don’t have to do it. This is especially true for athletes. They miss class to go to a game and make no effort to make up the assignment.

You can appreciate teachers by making clear to your children that they will complete all work or they won’t participate in extracurricular activities.

3. Teachers know, GOT teacher among them, that there are inevitable times when children miss school: doctor/dental appointments, funerals, court, etc. But when your child calls you in the middle of the day and says pick me up, you can appreciate a teacher by asking why and refusing to take your child out of school because the child merely wants out or has a test to avoid.

Don’t do it. Insist that your child remain for the full school day. GOT has seen parents who routinely take their child out of their last period class and then wonder why the child isn’t passing.

If your child is having a problem at school, show them that avoidance is not the solution. Meet with the administrator so the problem can be resolved.

4. Understand that a secondary teacher has a class load of 150 students if they are lucky. Many teachers have upwards of 200 students on their rosters. Teachers don’t have the time to contact you about missed homework or other minor academic concerns.* It is unrealistic to tell a teacher that they need to contact you every week about your child’s progress, and for those who demand a daily contact? It’s not going to happen.

Utilize the online tools that school districts have made available. You can monitor your child’s grades and assignments.

Then, if you have a concern, by all means contact the teacher. GOT responds quickly.

Also, know progress report and report card dates. Children will lie and claim that they didn’t get one or that you got the date wrong. It’s a simple visit to a school district’s website to know when your child should hand you these reports.

*Teachers have four hours of planning time per week, sometimes less, and much of that time is not discretionary time for correspondence and grading. Most schools mandate meetings during some of that time as allowed by contract.

5. Believe teachers and administrators when we have to call you about your child’s behavior. Beyond your presence, your child will act different at times. The stronger you are as a parent, the more likely it is that, when you are absent, your child will behave differently. Much of that is due to the age and the adolescent agenda to break away. They will experiment and try out different personas to see how their peers will react. Their brains are highly sensitive to a dopamine rush in a way that ours are not and that rush comes from the approval of peers.

Do not worry. Much of what teenagers do is to reject your values so they can adopt them as their own.

But when they act up at school, believe us when we call you. Your child really did what we are telling you.

6. When you need to speak to your child, call the school. A message will arrive to the classroom for your child to call you. GOT points them to the classroom phone. When you text your child, you are interrupting their learning and causing a classroom behavior problem. Whenever GOT catches a child texting, they always respond it’s their Mom. Somehow, children are never using their phone to contact anyone except their Mom.

Cell phones are a huge classroom problem. You can appreciate teachers by using the school’s phone number to contact your child, not their individual phone. Then we can police cell phone usage.

If your child uses their phone to text you, respond that they shouldn’t be doing that. Tell them to ask permission to use the school phone if they really need to talk to you.

Not only will that reduce the cellphone problem, but it will also promote the independence your child should be acquiring. You can’t solve every problem for them. Remember those self-sufficient adults you want them to be. They cannot become one if they constantly contact you to solve every difficulty for them.

7. Make sure that your child understands that the responsibility for learning is theirs. If they waste the opportunity their teacher gives them, it is not the teacher’s fault.

Sometimes, children have to learn the hard way. Failure can be the best teacher if that teacher is needed.

Let them fail so you can show them how failure is not final. Point them back on the path to success. Be patient; they will go down that path once it can be their decision.

GOT, as do teachers everywhere, will work with you. Children, especially teenagers, are going to make mistakes. It is not our job to prevent that, but to give them a way back.