The Thing About Spelling

Some people equate spelling with morality. Good spellers, good people. The sheeps and goats in the New Testament? Good and bad spellers. Spelling’s importance is a topic capable of producing more heat than Adrian Peterson’s parenting, Scottish independence, and Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Parents worry incessantly that their children are destined to always be poor spellers. What kind of lives will they live? Will people whisper about us? Heaven help children with dyslexia.

This week the New York Times ran this lead front and center on their website, “A geneticist wins a prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award and uses the spotlight to all for much wider genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer.” Technically that’s a typo, but the Spelling Police don’t distinguish. The Spelling Police LOVE reading things like that. It gives them a purpose for being. And makes them feel superior. “Know that I am among those that can spell.” They despise any variance from what they deem to be “writing conventions”. Like when people start sentences with “And”.

Before determining if spelling is a life or death matter, we have to distinguish between drafts and final copies. Most of what we write and read, like electronic messages, are drafts. In fact, where does the constantly updating front page of the New York Times fall on that continuum? Irregardless, many would read that lead and think less of The Grey Lady. I would too if it happened with any regularity, but it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter, short of perfection, the Spelling Police pounce. If only they’d save their righteous indignation for final drafts.

Like teachers’ letters to parents. Nothing gets the Spelling Police more fired up than teachers’ letters to parents. Full. Riot. Gear. Misspell a word, lose your life right to teach my child ever again.

I’m not advocating for laissez faire (damn, got that right on the first try) creative spelling. Instead of seeing every spelling error as an opportunity to assert their spelling prowess, maybe the Spelling Police could take a second or two to consider whether the error is part of a larger pattern or not. If not, maybe you could try the impossible. Letting that one error on the third grade paper go, or the one in the newspaper, or heaven help us, the one in the parent letter.

Sometimes, okay, a lot of the times, I amaze myself—fore hundred and six words and not a single mispelling.

 

 

 

What Chester Finn’s Fordham Institute Gets Wrong about School Principals

Jacoba Urist in The Atlantic asks, “Should Principals Be Treated Like CEOs?”

Urist references a new report just released by Finn’s Fordham Institute. Chester Finn’s answer is “Yes, principals should be treated like CEOs.” As usual, he’s clueless. And offensive.

According to Finn’s Fordham Institute, inadequate salaries and limited power over key hiring decisions make the job an increasingly tougher sell. Consequently, good principals come and go. Their solution? “Stop viewing principals as ‘glorified teachers’ and more as “executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.” “To that end,” Finn believes, “principals should earn considerably more than other school staff who have less responsibility.”  As in $100k more.

Hey Chester, the term “glorified teachers” is revealing. Now we know how you feel about the lifeblood of schools. Most teachers have at least as much expertise in instruction as their principals most of whom haven’t taught on a daily basis for decades.

And your suggested pay “bump” reveals how little you know about school culture, administrator-teacher relations, and faculty morale more generally. A typical teacher makes $50k, a principal, $120k*. Both work extremely hard and have lots of responsibility if you count shaping 30 children’s or 150 adolescents’s lives. The current pay gap often breeds animosity and contributes to adversarial relations. You’re proposing doubling the gap again, so that school CEO’s make four times more than teachers. The predictable result? Twice the current animosity.

In fairness, Finn deserves credit for acknowledging that an additional $100k by itself won’t solve the problem of attracting and retaining a new generation of excellent principals if they’re not given greater professional respect and autonomy. But Checker fails to connect the dots. Those are the exact same things teachers want and deserve.

Far more insightful than Finn is Todd Whitaker, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and author of the book What GreatPrincipals Do Differently. Whitaker says, “. . . most principals would rather have a full-time assistant than a hefty raise. It’s not necessarily even the hours. It’s the intensity. The truth is, if we gave principals an assistant or a lot more money, we probably end up giving them increased responsibilities and we’re right back where we started.”

Urist adds:

In other words,  one way to fix the leadership shortage may be not increased salary, but additional funding for assistant principals, school counselors, and other administrative support staff. Principals are like all people with high responsibility, according to Kate Rousmaniere, professor of educational leadership at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and author of The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal. They work better in teams, where they can share the workload.

Urist honors the complexity of the topic by concluding with questions:

The task, then, is to strike the right balance. How much should we pay principals to attract new talent, and how much additional support do they need to meet the demands of the modern job? How do we make the role more appealing to promising candidates without pouring more money into retaining ineffective people already in place?

Given the ratio of administrators to teachers, even paying principals a lot more would be considerably less expensive for districts. However, doing so will result in unintended consequences, most of which will be negative.

* I call bullshit on the “in many districts some aspiring teachers take a pay cut on the way to the principal’s office” assertion. There may be an isolated case or two of that, the technical term being “outlier”, but the average teacher doubles his/her pay when they become administrators.

 

Teaching and Learning New Skills

What’s the best way to teach? It depends. The most effective methods vary depending upon whether one’s aim is the transmission of knowledge, or the application of knowledge, or the development of skills or particular ways of thinking and acting.

More succinctly, is the focus on knowledge, skills, or dispositions? Too many teachers emphasize the transmission of knowledge at the expense of its application and the development of skills and dispositions.

Recently I’ve learned two new skills—how to make a green tea latte and how to change a flat bicycle tire without tire irons. The way I’ve learned these skills has me thinking about how teachers need to adapt to 21st century realities.

I despise all things coffee, which as a Pacific Northwesterner, puts me in a precarious position. I shudder to think of the consequences if I am outed. I used to “pass” by drinking tea, but the truth of the matter is I was never “all in” with tea. Then, one day, before a flight, I was walking through the Seattle airport when a Starbucks employee handed me a small sample cup of their green tea latte. Love at first taste. I began to drink them usually when I scored a gift card, but an addiction began forming, and I began dropping $4 of my own money for occasional warm, sugary, liquid fixes.

Then I got inspired by my neighbors’ and brothers’ declarations of independence from pricey coffee in shops. Their badass expresso machines and money saving morning rituals were the height of cool. So I resolved to stick it to Howard Schultz too and turned to the great 21st teacher of skills—YouTube. I watched four or five different tutorials on how to make “the same green tea latte that you get at Starbucks”.

Now I should make my own instructional vid because after a few months of tinkering, I have it dialed in. Of course, green tea latte making is a subjective and creative art. Mine are made the right way—stronger, hotter, and slightly less sugary than the mass produced default.

And since my sissy will wonder, no, I’m not buying any of the green tea health hype. Any alleged benefits of the green tea matcha powder are no doubt offset by the teaspoon of sugar, cow’s milk, and pure vanilla extract.

Simply put, I like the ritual and love the taste. And while this is weird to write, so probs even stranger to read, I feel different after finishing mine each morning—calmer and more centered. Also cool, I save at least 75% of what the inferior mass produced drink costs and the time and expenses of a roundtrip car trip to the local Starbucks.

Skill two. Recently, while mixing things up on a team training ride, the tube in my front tire exploded. It was harder than normal to change because I had just replaced my tires. New tires sit much more snuggly on the rim, usually necessitating tire irons. I had one, but should have added another to my seat pack after switching out the tires. Sitting in gravel on the shoulder of the road, I stared hopelessly at my rim. Then I remembered a YouTube vid I had recently watched in which a professional cyclist showed how you can pull the skewer out of the hub and use the quick release as a tire iron. Brilliant. I was up and running in a few minutes.

When teaching skills, school teachers and parents and coaches need to show students how to ties shoes, write persuasively, throw a javelin, make a green tea latte, or change a flat bicycle tire. It’s not enough to tell them. YouTube videos aren’t the only way to model skills, but they may be one of the best.

[What's a helpful skill you've learned via YouTube?]

 

Teach Skepticism

The Tacoma News Tribune has a lengthy, sordid story on a 41 year old con artist named Ryan Rhodes. The story’s utter ordinariness makes it noteworthy. At the center were well-to-do parents who took on faith that Rhodes would build a “high end” competitive baseball league for their 10-14 year old sons. Little did they know that Rhodes ripped $100k off of his grandparents when he was 24 years old and had a history of writing bad checks.

The final sentences of the article:

The list of parents and families dismayed by the Pioneer debacle includes Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman, who had a grandson in the Tacoma-based league and coached in his spare time. No stranger to scammers, Troyer said the real cost falls on young people who just wanted to play baseball. “Tacoma really needed a league like that, and now it’s gone,” he said. “It’s pretty sad that all those kids don’t have a league.”

ET, please tell me you’re kidding! That’s the take-away?! The most important take-aways from this case study have nothing to do with baseball. The real cost falls on young people who will never cultivate a healthy skepticism if their parents and grandparents don’t detail for them all of the mistakes they made from the very beginning of the sad saga.

If the boys learn these life lessons all is not lost:

• Learn from your mistakes.

• Never trust anyone automatically. Especially people asking you for money. Know that some people will lie to you, steal your money, and run.

• Be doubly wary of solicitors that are more personable and charismatic than normal.

• If you’ve never done business with a person or group asking you for money, never give it to them in advance of whatever their promising.

• Before giving money to any unfamiliar individual or group, find independent references who can vouch for the veracity of whatever they’re claiming about themselves.

 

 

 

 

What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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What Great Communicators Do

Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.

Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.

• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?

• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?

• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?

Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.

I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or  “For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.

Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.

Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:

. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.

Your reward, George, is in heaven.

Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.

Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:

It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.

The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.

Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.

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North Carolina’s Downward Public School Spiral

Deborah R. Gerhardt for “Citizen of the First Part of 2014″ for detailing in this Slate magazine essay the downward spiral of public education in North Carolina and also for acting to reverse it. She writes:

North Carolina’s intentional assault on public education is working. It is pushing our best teachers out. In 1997 the state ranked 42nd in teacher pay. The year before, Gov. Jim Hunt had run on a platform to invest in public education. After he was elected, he worked with the Republican House Speaker to focus on excellence in teaching and raised teacher salaries up to the national average in just four years. That bipartisan investment paid off. In the 1990s our public student test scores rose more than any other state’s. North Carolina became known as “the education state.” As recently as 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the nation.

Things can change quickly, especially if you’re not looking. Now, the brand that attracted us—“the education state”—sounds like a grim joke. After six years of no real raises, we have fallen to 46th in teacher pay. North Carolina teachers earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average. And if you look at trends over the past decade, we rank dead last: After adjusting for inflation, North Carolina lowered teacher salaries nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012, while other states had a median decline of 1 percent. A first-year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800. Our school district lost a candidate to a district in Kentucky because its starting salary was close to $40,000. It takes North Carolina teachers more than 15 years to earn $40,000; in Virginia it may take only four. Gap store managers on average make about $56,000.

If you talk to a teacher in North Carolina, you will hear the bitter truth of how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Most teachers . . . work at least one extra job.  An elementary school teacher told me that his daughters do not have the chance to play soccer or cello like his students. He has no discretionary income left to spare.

How did this happen? Both political parties share responsibility. When the recession began, the Democrats in power froze teacher pay. After years of salary stagnation, in 2013, Republicans made the following changes: Job security in the form of tenure was abolished. Extra pay for graduate degrees was eliminated. A new law created vouchers so that private academies could dip into the shrinking pool of money that the public schools have left. While requiring schools to adopt the Common Core standards, the legislature slashed materials budgets. According to the National Education Association, we fell to 48th in per-pupil expenditures. State funds for books were cut by about 80 percent, to allocate only $14.26 a year per student. Because you can’t buy even one textbook on that budget, teachers are creating their own materials at night after a long day of work.

As if that weren’t enough, the legislature eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teacher assistants even though the student population grew.  North Carolina public schools would have to hire 29,300 people to get back up to the employee-per-student ratio the schools had in 2008. The result?  Teachers have more students, no current books, and fewer professionals trained to address special needs, and their planning hours are gone now that they must cover lunch and recess.

For public school teachers in North Carolina, the signals sent by this legislation are unambiguous: North Carolina does not value its teachers.

Free-market loving Americans argue that workers are motivated by pay, but by remaining ignorant of what it’s like to be a public school teacher, many convince themselves teachers are paid more than adequately. They argue that teachers only teach for nine months meaning $30,800 is more like $41,000. What they fail to realize is that to sustain their energy over the course of decades, hard working teachers need to decompress for awhile afterwards. Also, the best teachers use portions of their summers to refine their curriculum and craft.

Also, as their pay lags their peers in the rest of the country, teacher quality in North Carolina will steadily decline. This will give those whose default is to denigrate teachers even more fodder. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Pay teachers less. Get weaker candidates. Criticize them more.

Somehow people who think of “x” and “y” supply and demand curves as biblical, don’t think improving teacher pay matters.

It takes 15 years to make $40,000. That statistic is depressing enough to turn the most ascetic of talented college graduates from the profession. Every other state legislature in the country should be studying North Carolina as a lesson in what not to do to attract and retain excellent teachers and families that value public education.

Most institutions of higher education understand the importance of investing in faculty excellence*. Consequently, they’re intentional about it, thus sabbatical programs, teaching loads that are about one half of public school teachers, and financial support for professional development. In contrast, it’s nonsensical that public school teachers are supposed to help the U.S. retain it’s precarious lead in the global economy, under much greater scrutiny than ever before, for $30,800 a year.

* Granted, I’m part of a dying breed, a tenured professor, if I was an adjunct, piecing together a living by driving to two, three, or four different universities every week (thus the moniker “freeway flyers”), without benefits, my perspective would obviously be less generous.