Pressing the “Any” Key

I had a life once…now I have a computer. —Author Unknown

While Christa McAuliffe famously noted that “I touch the future.  I teach.”  It’s a common motivational meme that teachers like to stick on things (pencils, pens, coffee mugs, etc…).  What rarely gets addressed, however, is what would happen if the future decided to punch back.

I got punched this week.  No, I didn’t have a disgruntled student hit me.  Nope, instead, I experienced what has become a concern as the movement towards full implementation of the new Common Core Standards:  how to implement the intent of computerized standards-based assessment?  

The most problematic capacity issues will be at the schools themselves, Mr. Russell said. If an Internet router can’t handle 60 or 70 computers at once, for instance, problems could arise if a social studies teacher decides to stream video for her class while large groups of students are taking tests elsewhere in the building, he said.

This week, my lone MacBook was having trouble even accessing the internet at my school, much less trying to give out a standardized assessment.

My school site dates back to 1949, one of the first local schools built to meet the onrush of the first set of baby boomers.  It went through a physical sprucing and modernization at the turn of the century, and then, a bit later on, classrooms were wired for direct internet access, and, eventually, wireless access was added.  Our attendance records became computerized (we take class roll call via the internet), we became more dependent upon e-mail, and eventually, software was written for our report cards–which, turn, was made web-based.  Finally, when money was granted to my school for the purposes of turning it into a magnet school, the campus was then wired to add document cameras which eventually replaced our dated overhead projectors;  document cameras that also allowed us to connect our desktops or laptops also worked with those same projectors to replace our old television sets.  (I often marvel at the historical images I have of having watched, along with 3 other of my colleagues who were early to school that morning, the 9-11 attacks on an old, heavy television, and then 6 1/2 years later, showing Barack Obama’s inauguration on my classroom’s projector screen, as if it was a movie.)

So while all of this sounds marvelous, somewhat wistfully romantic, and nostalgic, this was also the week where I felt like Jim talking to Bart in “Blazing Saddles”:

What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?

Since being moved to 6th grade, my classroom is a trailer that resembles one that looks like FEMA rejected it for use during Hurricane Katrina.  I am out on the edge of the field, feeling like, at times, like I should be colonizing Australia.  Except this past week, at least I knew the Aussies were getting internet access, and I wasn’t.

Why?  Well, it rained this past Monday.  And, because of the way in which our internet cable was laid, for whatever reason, we lose consistent internet access on a rainy day.  When I couldn’t get consistent wireless signals on Monday, I attributed it to that, and dealt with it.  Tuesday was dry, as the weather began to shift, but still my issues with the internet, I again attributed to the fact that now the wiring had to dry out.  By Wednesday however, with temperatures nearing the high 70s, and ground pretty dried out, my failure to be able to get internet access was now becoming frustrating, particularly since I was getting kicked off the wireless network every time I downloaded a page.  What should have been a 10-minute digression to talk to my students about Owens and Mono Lakes here in California (as Science background on ecosystems) became a 20-minute nightmare.  Ok, now what? I was worried.  Progress Reports were slated to go home on Friday.  I wanted to work on them at school, as you would think a teacher should, but when I pressed for an explanation, I was told:  “Sun Spots”.  Problem:  since our report card software is web-based, no internet access meant no work at school on them.  I couldn’t stay connected long enough to be able to access the web for any length of time.

Grumbling to myself, I took my work home.  Thanks to a balky knee and some back issues I’d been having, I went to work on them after I had gotten the child to bed, but fatigue and distractions enabled me to only finish 23 of the reports.  I had 10 more to write, but the wife pointed out that I shouldn’t be expected to completely work on something that should have been and could be done in my classroom.  Given that I still had some time, and when I’m focused, progress reports don’t take *that* long, I packed up and took them back to school.

Fail.

Internet access remained intermittent, and now, under the gun, I had to start complaining–and loudly.  I have been hounded about report card deadlines in the past, and while I haven’t missed one in 2 years, I was taking no chances, particularly since I should have access to be able to actually DO work while AT work!

By the end of the school day, I was breaking out cables and using my smart phone to get independent access.  Off I went, finally making headway, with only 2 more to get done…

Then the district took the report card maker off-line.  I was denied access.  I couldn’t get back on.  At first I thought it might be my own connection, so I switched back to the school’s wireless, miraculously got a signal, and tried to log on to the report card maker.  Nothing.  Denied.  Since I was now late to go pick up Kate for a dentist’s appointment, I quickly gathered up my stuff and marched up to the office, where I emphatically pointed out that I was desperately trying to get these things done.  I was told to not worry about and that “it’s ok to get them to me on Monday”.

As I type this, even after my attempts to get on to the report card software all day Friday (along with the lousy internet access), I still can’t log on.  I am told that it’s in use by another “user”, and I can’t work on them.  It’s cold comfort that I’m not alone in this frustration, as one of the 4th grade teachers is also having the exact same issues.

The internet issue bugs me so much.  My MacBook works fine on other networks, and I don’t trust the district people to troubleshoot my laptop to see why I can’t connect.  Of even greater concern is that I have to get my Progress Reports finished as we’re in mid-trimester.  Why the district chose to take the reporting system down the day before these forms had to go home to parents is beyond mine or anyone else’s pay grade.  And while I grumble about stuff at school constantly, just because, I feel that in this instance, my outrage is wholly not misplaced.

But it goes back to where we started–what happens when these standardized tests are slated to go on-line for Core Content assessment purposes?  My school just happens to be wired, but I know that are some that still aren’t connected.  To paraphrase California State Superintendent of Schools, Tom Torlakson:

Torlakson acknowledged that computer-adaptive testing may be a challenge in California, which he said is ranked 47th in the nation in its use of technology. But he said he plans a technology initiative that will call on businesses like Comcast to assist schools and will include technology components in the next state school bond issue.

While Torlakson is specifically addressing the issue of adding the basic infrastructure to be able to  accommodate the need to upgrade school’s computer infrastructure, I’m worried about the quality of the infrastructure already in place.  I doubt that money could be spent fixing the issues our school already has, especially if it means that money gets taken away from a school that has less than what we have.  My own issues this week notwithstanding, my school site has far more than other schools when it comes to computers.  Each classroom has several computers already in them.  Each teacher was assigned a laptop.  Lastly, we have a mobile cart filled with a classroom set of laptops, to go along with a classroom with over 30 computers in a computer lab.  You would think, therefore, that we are far from being left behind on the information superhighway.

ELMO document camera, similar to what is found at our school site.

But just like there are cars on the freeway that could suffer mechanical issues without warning, our school, as this week brought home to me directly, can suffer “blow-outs” at inopportune times.  For me, for example, I have become so dependent upon my ELMO document camera, that there is no “Plan B” if it goes down.  I know better, but that doesn’t mean I plan for it.   What struck home this week was that with technology, the flighty nature of trying to mass wire-up the school site is going to lead to technical issues that will answer to Murphy’s Law at the worst possible time.  I needed access to get my progress reports done, so naturally I couldn’t do so while battling the triple terror of rain getting the wires wet, sun spot outages, and a bored guy over in our district’s IT department messing with the report card software for poops and giggles.

What happens if this access issue occurs during the state testing window?  While the window by 2014-15 will be expanded to the 12 weeks leading up to the end of the school year, ostensibly to allow for students to retake tests to improve their score, schools still have to put routines in place to ensure that all the students get tested.  My school site currently has over 550 students (last time I checked, anyway), and some 300 of those are eligible to be tested.  Realistically, we therefore have to come up with a schedule that can funnel these guys through their battery of tests with the 30-something computers in our lab (not all of which are working at any given time, in addition to the fact that some are 4-5 years old), and, maybe, the mobile laptop cart in a classroom (these are much newer, but they depend upon the wireless to get internet access).  My wife, who is spearheading the transition to the Common Core in her own district pointedly asks, “What do we do with the other kids at this point?”  She also points out that you need to pity the poor classroom group that has to go take their tests in the afternoon, when attention spans are waning with the end of the day coming, not to mention that it’s warmer at that time of the year, and the kids are coming in from recess.  Just imagine…”now let’s go take our state tests!”

So much for keeping the testing conditions optimal.

I am worried about the logistics.  While I am quick to be the gadfly to complain about just about anything at my site, these concerns about the Common Core computerized assessments are not me going off just to hear my head rattle.  Our decisions as to how to wire up our school site were made long before the push to adopt the Common Core, and while it’s easy to adopt the Bush-era mantra of “No one could have anticipated…“, we really didn’t anticipate this direction.  Our school didn’t, nor did our district.  When this went down, the district had the money to spend.  Now, in this political climate, there’s really none to be had.  I can’t imagine what will transpire if the choices for funding use means teacher jobs, or student materials versus internet wiring.  Ugh.

Nevertheless, as I finish typing this post, I still can’t access my progress reports with the software. So tomorrow I will go back in, continue my complaints about it, harangue the boss about the internet access, and, while I am it, remind her that I am also still waiting for a bank of classroom lights that our custodian ordered for my classroom over a year ago, leaving a corner of my trailer somewhat darker than the rest.  While it harkens back to a romantic time of learning by candlelight, it’s an 18th century solution for a 21st century problem.  I mean, I am charged with teaching Ancient History as a 6th grade teacher, but this is getting ridiculous.

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Tools of Insouciance

Got to school this morning, and outside my classroom there was our school custodian, working with the leaf blower, clearing off the playground.

Actually, more to the point, he was showing some of my 6th graders how to use the leaf blower.

Given how this week has gone down, I couldn’t resist…

“Hey, Mr. W., you better be careful!”

“Why?”

“Some of the teachers are supporting that Republican, Newt Gringrich, for President.  He’s the guy that wants to get you fired, so the poor kids can do your job instead.  You’re gonna just give them more ideas!”

Our custodian just laughed and laughed.

Getting Fingered

This:

Just curious, Mr. President, do you ever wonder, when and if you think about it, how different your situation in Arizona could be, if you hadn’t listened to your advisors’ advice on your cabinet choices sometimes?

Take Arizona.  Didn’t you realize, if at all, that when you decided to ask Janet Napolitano to be your Homeland Security Secretary, that the Arizona Secretary of State would be elevated to the Arizona state house as her replacement?

Yup, and that Secretary of State was Jan Brewer.

Consider, Mr. President:  SB1070, among other controversies that have blown up out of this state.  And now, the episode pictured above from yesterday…

Consider how less of a headache your first term might have been, if you hadn’t chosen to gut the Democratic Party at several state levels to fill cabinet-level positions, in particular, a cabinet position that, by its very name (“Homeland”) smacks of something Reich-like.

Consider how less of a headache your first term might have been, if you had paid less attention to what Rahm Emanuel wanted.  (Hey Rahm, how did that 2010 mid-term election work out for Tim Kaine’s efforts?)

That finger yesterday was wholly avoidable, Mr. President, if you had only been a bit more thoughtful.

And now, a word from our Future…

Piling on the stuff I wrote last night about Newt Gringrich, I had a little nugget that I had planned on using, but I couldn’t fit into what I ultimately wrote.  Nevertheless, it’s worth sharing:

Public Investments in Children Matter. The amount of public investments in programs is strongly related to CWI values among states. Specifically, higher per-pupil spending on education, higher Medicaid child-eligibility thresholds, and higher levels of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits show a substantial correlation with child well-being across states.

I know this is an area of disagreement.  For instance, shortly before Christmas, I posted what I thought was an innocuous statement on my Facebook page:

Christmas is the season when you buy this year’s gifts with next year’s money.

It was a throw-away line;  like a lot of people, I was looking for that sort of irony that marks a typical Facebook status.  Instead, I had my own Newt Gingrich moment.  A friend’s response:

Like our government does every day?

I let it go at the time, if only because I was in the middle of the chaos that normally settles upon my household when my wife goes into hurricane-mode in Christmas preparation.  Still, it actually merited a response.  Yes, if you consider that I am a teacher. Yes, all the money the government spends now is for “next year’s money”.  Surrounded by a classroom of 31 students, each of them trying to get a public education, I am definitely working with next year’s money.

It goes towards what disturbed me most about teaching colleagues, who should know better, deciding to turn against the best interests of their constituents, their students.  (This is true when they ignore *who* a Newt Gingrich happens to be;  this is true when they complain and whine about the poor kids in their classrooms or the fact that many of our parents speak a language other than English in their homes.)  A public education is a government investment in our youngsters.  It is next year’s money, and the money spent the year after that.  I’ve always had difficulty wrapping my understanding around a teaching colleague’s belief that the government is wasteful spendthrift, and then decrying the lack of a new textbook to coincide with the recent state adoption of the new Common Core State Standards Initiative.  We can’t be working in an industry that needs state spending in order to operate, then openly root for the state spending to be cut off.

In a roundabout way, my friend, in his own hope to be ironic, forgot what I did for a living. Even worse, both of us are Cal grads, and given that the investment in the UC was prioritized specifically so that he and I and others could benefit through the money spent on a state-sanctioned university system, then we are denying the same benefit to others that we ourselves were able to enjoy.

Heck yeah, in effect, I want the government to spend next year’s money for this year’s kids.  As I type this, as our students are working in their Writer’s Workshop, lacking lined paper for their drafts because we have to wait until next week to order more, I am reminded about how the lack of investment in our youth will have far-reaching ramifications  for these kids, as well as my own little girl, in addition to immediately impacting the short-term quality of the instruction I am able to deliver to them.

On a Facebook page, we throw away rhetoric in our choice to be ironic.  Most of the time it’s funny, and I laugh, especially when it’s innocuous fluff.  But sometimes it comes across as tragically shortsighted.  How am I supposed to respond when I work in a profession dependent upon state revenues?  Teaching was not something I chose to do so I could get summers off.

Once again, Jonathan Kozol:

Instead of seeing these children for the blessings that they are, we are measuring them only by the standard of whether they will be future deficits or assets for our nation’s competitive needs.

Too Broke to Pay Attention

“GINGRICH WINS BIG IN S. CAROLINA” greets me as I stumble out to grab the Sunday morning paper.

“Well, that ought to make someone happy”, I think to myself, “even if they’re not paying attention.”

It is my burden that I tend to do so.  But before we return to Gingrich though, this will get somewhat convoluted.

It was back in the Fall of 2010, and I was working a Cal table at a College Fair in Orange County, on the day the Athletic Department announced we were cutting the baseball program (since saved), among others.  Naturally, the first kid we had that night had asked about the baseball program being slashed. He was in disbelief that the budget issues has reached the level to where we slashing a collegiate sport. I then had to talk to him about how much a Cal degree would cost, using budget numbers that were already out of date thanks to the fact that the Office of Admissions hadn’t yet updated the flyers because they were trying to have us use up the older flyers thanks to more budget issues.

 

The reality remained that he was going to be paying more for his Cal degree.  And, if he wound up applying and was accepted to begin his studies last Fall, undoubtedly he was paying more.  Worse yet, at around the same time, the UC was openly promoting the idea of accepting more out-of-state students, simply because they paid higher student fees.

 

Last week, in something seemingly unrelated but connected nonetheless, the University of Washington hired away a Cal assistant coach for an annual salary averaging $416,000 a year.  While rumors also noted that this assistant coach also received a boat from UW as part of the package, the raise was nevertheless in excess of his previous salary at Cal of $163,000.  At this point, the story of this particular coach’s departure gets complicated and emotional, particularly given the fact that the coach was leaving his own alma mater for this job opportunity, but doing so in a critical time in the college football recruiting cycle.

Suffice to say that the timing of this news was unfortunate.  On the other hand, it brought to the fore the issue of athletic coach compensation in the era of budget cuts and fee increases at state university systems like the University of California.

Good on UW for having an endowment for its Athletic Department to be able to pay what they’d like for their sports and coaches. They also only fund 19 intercollegiate sports, while Cal, for its part, funds 29.  I am proud of the fact that there are additional athletic opportunities at Cal for its student athletes.  It’s not just about what happens on Saturdays in the Fall months, even though the football program generates the lion’s share of the athletic department’s revenue, in addition to the costs associated with running it.  How would it look therefore, for UC to be paying an assistant football coach nearly half a million dollars to coach defensive line play in an era of funding issues?  Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but the political situation stopped being about nuance an awfully long time ago…

Because in California, the education funding battle remains ugly. As a public school teacher, I have to cheer smaller cuts to the K-12 budgets, while at the same time I’m seeing the fee hikes hit the UC and Cal State systems. I find myself unconsciously and inexplicably relieved that the budget burden gets passed off to the hapless undergraduates rather than coming out of local school district budgets.  I have to be happy it’s not happening to my end of that education spectrum, all while going out in the evening talking to parents and students about UC, addressing how expensive it’s getting.  I am literally rooting for my self-interest against my own alma mater.

Nevertheless, the budget knife is still coming for the K-12 public schools.  To deny the political component of our day-in/day-out reality of my life in the classroom is pure folly.  I see the results of the political decisions over the last decade playing itself out, whether it be the light fixture that doesn’t get replaced, the lack of an adequate supply of copy paper, the broken chairs and loose desks, or the fact that a number of my students are not able to afford the fees to go to 6th grade camp.  I see it when our school has to focus upon raising the test scores of students in lower Socio-Economic Status.  I see it on a cold, rainy day like today, when students come to school without an adequate jacket.

These are the results of political decisions, and deny that one is not paying attention is as heartbreaking as it is tragic…

I had a chance to ponder the relationship between UC and my elementary school when I hosted two Cal students in my classroom 2 weeks ago.  It had been a few years since I had had a pre-service teacher shadow me in my classroom, and with 2 students from my alma mater watching me for 3 days, I conducted a crash course in what I used to do when I worked with student teachers in the past.  Amidst the expected discussion of instructional style, discipline, classroom management, and reading assessments, came the one lesson I have always imparted to all of the student teachers I’ve had work with me in the past:  our students are our constituents.  Without them, we have no career.  As such, we need to be their biggest advocates.  When something in education affects us, it, by definition affects them.

It was in the midst of this reflections therefore, that a colleague chose to use a Newt Gringrich quote for motivation in a Facebook status:  “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.”

As Katelyn might say these days, “What the”?

The quote itself was innocuous, but I was stunned by the subsequent refusal to consider who it was who delivered this message–especially by a man whose idea of perseverance is to be married 3 times.  Worse, this was a man who, earlier in this current presidential campaign, was openly advocating that schools dismiss their custodial workers:

“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in child laws which are truly stupid…These schools should get rid of unionized janitors, have one master janitor, pay local students to take care of the school.”

Replacing them would be the poor students at a school, in order to give them a work ethic doing something considered “legal”, given the apparent lack of role models that poor kids have.  I tried to get her to consider this quote, and she agreed that it wouldn’t be good to let our custodian go, but truth be told, she didn’t really pay attention to the politics.

What the?

Newt had himself an inadvertent new fan, which is what he wants.

When he gets power he believes the rules do not apply to him….’People want to hear what I have to say. It doesn’t matter what I do.’ In the Newtonian world, people only care about what he says; the rules are to be followed by the rest of us. This distorted vision of the world also applies to whether Newt is allowed to ignore the facts. He does so with such conviction that, unless one knows the truth, his delivery mandates believability.

So much for trying to explain the ethics violations that had Gingrich removed as Speaker of the House in the late 1990s.  <sigh>

As this past week went on, Gingrich managed to win the South Carolina Republican primary, drawing attention to himself by positioning his campaign in opposition to those who dared question him by pointing out the inconsistency of his past actions.  But more critically, he’s positioned himself as a presidential candidate by attacking the poor, with his claim that President Obama is the “food stamp President” among his distinctions.  Like all Republican candidates this year though, the candidates complain that the President is engaged in the class warfare that they, themselves, are conducting.  And who is the enemy?  Public school teachers, and their unions, along with all of the poor kids who sit in our classrooms.  Of course, it’s also those college kids’ fault, since they have to time to Occupy Wall Street rather than sit in their classrooms.  Finally, in Gingrich’s case, for many of our kids who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), he views their home language, Spanish, as the language of the ghetto.

“We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”

So, naturally, it makes sense for a public employee to be quoting Newt Gingrich in light of all of this.  With furlough days cutting into our salaries, not to mention an increasing need to  go into our own pocket to buy our classroom supplies, it would make perfect sense for us to be too broke to be paying attention to politics these days.  Especially since those of us among the 99% are being forced to fight each other for a decreasing piece of the budget pie. The UC versus K-12 is, sadly, just one of those many battles constantly being fought.  If we view part of our role of advocates for our young charges though, it boggles my mind, to not pay attention to the policies that will affect these kids lives.  Even though our state might be close to being financially bankrupt, it is not helped when our jobs depend upon us not being intellectually bankrupt as well.

Author Jonathan Kozol has repeatedly written about the inequalities in school systems throughout the country, rich versus poor, speaking about the very ramifications of the political choices that have been made (or not paid attention to).  Kozol concludes:

“Evil exists.  I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher would call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people-that is my idea of evil.”

Pity our schools should Gingrich actually be given that power he’s convinced he should have.