Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When we lost what was really important

In one of my recent blogs, I wrote about a teacher whose “intangibles” could not be measured by student test scores or a complex algorithm.  It read: His lesson plans are sketchy – at best. His record keeping leaves a lot to be desired.  He operates under the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mantra most of the time.  But he knows his subject area better than most college professors.  His vocabulary, writing and critical thinking skills are unparalleled.  More important, he knows how to relate to his students – from the nerd who sits alone in the back of the room to the loud-mouthed girl who is taking care of three younger siblings at home.  He makes learning meaningful and relevant, and they remember the life lessons he teaches them – as well as the subject area lessons – long after they leave his classroom.  His effectiveness cannot be measured by a protocol and certainly is not accurately reflected based on how his students perform on one test. 

That “teacher” was actually an amalgam of several teachers I have worked with over the past 20 years.  One of those teachers was Mike Martin.  This past week, Mike passed away.  He was only 66 years old and had just recently retired.  His death has caused me to consider (re-consider) my role as an educator, father and husband. 

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to leave the classroom and pursue other career opportunities.  To be honest, on more than one occasion, I was more than ready to close the book (pun intended) on my teaching career. 

What kept me coming back – and keeps me coming back each year – is the reason why so many teachers enter the profession and stay in it year after year.  It’s not the “cushy retirement” (30 years in the classroom for less than 50% of your top five years).  It’s not the “three months off in the summer” (which is really 11 weeks for kids and 8 weeks for teachers, which is really more like 5 or 6 weeks for dedicated teachers).  It’s not the “no weekend hours” (all teachers spend countless hours working over the weekend – in and out of school). The reason is simple.  For me, for my wife, for the teachers I work with, and for Mike Martin, there is (and only has been) one reason – our desire to share our love for learning with the kids.

Mike Martin’s career spanned 40 years in the classroom.  During those years, Mike witnessed (and endured) countless programs, assessments and educational pedagogies.  Despite working in a profession that was in a constant state of flux, Mike’s primary focus was making learning meaningful for kids.  His classroom was filled with models, magnets, rocks, compasses, fossils, puzzles and an array of “hands on” learning activities.  Mike was never concerned with the X’s and O’s of teaching.  That wasn’t important to him.  Relating material in ways that kids would remember and understand was.  Comments former students have made on Facebook are a living testament to his “old school” approach to teaching and learning.

Mike’s passing should be a wake up call to those who make policies and laws that affect our schools and children.  Losing Mike should be a reminder that the “old school” approach, one in which children were the primary focus, is dying too. 

We cannot bring Mike back, but it is not too late to bring back some perspective to teaching.  Do we need to assess students?  Sure we do.  Can test scores help us understand our students’ strengths and weaknesses?  Of course they can.  Should we monitor teacher performance and look for ways to improve instruction?  Absolutely.  Have we made student assessments (and now teacher evaluations) far too much of a focus in education?  If you would have asked Mike that question, his response would have been “heck yeah.”
Rest in Peace, Mike.  You will be missed in more ways than one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When standing up for children became "childish" behavior

To those of you who receive my blog posts via email, I apologize for the multiple times I have published this particular post.  In my haste, I had several typos that I wanted to fix.  Here is the most recently edited version.

Over the past few months, I have engaged in series of personal letters with Florida State Representative William Proctor.  Representative Proctor is the Chancellor of Flagler College in St. Augustine and a life-long educator.  Mr. Proctor wrote a letter to me after reading an article (a Guest Column piece) I wrote in the Press Journal newspaper. In his initial letter, he challenged several analogies I made comparing how teachers will be evaluated (under the newly enacted Student Success Act) versus how other professionals are evaluated.  I returned his letter and answered his questions.  I further explained my analogies and presented him with a list of objections I (and other teachers) had with the new evaluation system, one that ties 50% of a teacher's overall job performance to student test scores.  Representative Proctor returned my letter with a second letter.  Sadly, in this letter, rather than present a logical, rational and lucid explanation of  the evaluation system in terms of validity and bias (two primary conditions for any educational assessment), he felt the need to educate me in terms of the state's budgetary shortfalls.  He closed his letter with the following statement, "If you have a parking space, and it is in the shade, consider yourself fortunate."

I have to be honest, I had never heard the expression he used, so I "Google it".  I got no references to the phrase.  I asked others - people I know and respect for their experiences and intellect - and none of them had ever heard the expression either.  They all agreed that it sounded like Representative Proctor was telling me to stop complaining because I had a job.

I took umbrage to several of the statements Representative Proctor made in his letter.  Namely, I was very disappointed that he turned a professional dialogue about issues facing Florida's students and teachers into a rhetorical diatribe.  I responded with a very pointed letter in which I told him how disappointed I was in his response and the condescending tone to his letter.  I told him that I was going to make it him rue the day he decided to question my intellect and integrity.

Well, I got another letter from Representative Proctor this week.  This letter, like the previous letters, was marked - in bold, underlined and capital letters  - PERSONAL.  In order to respect Mr. Proctor's desire to keep the exact contents of his letters "personal", I have resisted the urge (and the ardent request of others) to publish his letters in their entirety on Facebook or by copying them and distributing them to friends and colleagues.  I have published excerpted comments in order to give a context to my responses.  I am going to continue that practice in this post.  In his latest letter, Representative Proctor wrote the following:  "my having presentation of the facts of the state’s current financial position may have been so frustrating as to bring about what I consider to be a childlike response..."  He continued by stating that I had made "idle threats".

My return letter to him was not marked PERSONAL; therefore, I feel no moral or professional obligation not to post my response to him in this blog.  Here is my latest letter to him.  I welcome your feedback.

Dear Representative Proctor:

Again, I am both pleasantly surprised by your willingness to engage in discourse with me and disappointed in some of your tactics.  I was hoping – if you did return my last correspondence – that you would return to a discussion focused on the original topic – SB 736 and the subsequent Student Success Act – and its impact on the education of Florida’s children.  Instead, you regressed to calling me “childish” for chiding you for turning our discussion away from the topic and to one of taxes, funding and budgetary constraints.  I was not “frustrated” by the “facts of the state’s current financial position.”  I was frustrated by your attempt to turn the discussion away from the original conversation.  Since you seem to be focused on the facts, let me present you with the “facts”.

FACT – None of my Guest Column articles in the Press Journal, nor any of the posts on my education blog posts, have been about teacher pay or the new merit pay system in terms of how it will impact me directly.  They have been about how merit pay is not good for students and Florida’s school system because it is an unfunded initiative, and it creates a “competitive” system that unfairly rewards and punishes teachers.

FACT – You voted for legislation that cut funding to education and cut taxes to businesses and property owners.  Last week, it was reported that Florida’s education budget faces another $1.2 billion shortfall.  According to the article, the primary reason for the budget shortfall was a decrease in revenues from property taxes.

FACT – You supported a bill that was/is unfunded (although it calls for districts to “reward” top performing teachers) and is without the proper testing and assessment measures to do what the law now requires.  In other words, it requires school districts to implement a new teacher evaluation system and more student assessments but does not provide the necessary resources to do so.

Recently, a group of teachers from Indian River County Schools met with Representative Debbie Mayfield to discuss the concerns teachers, administrators and parents have with the new teacher evaluation system and the impact it is already having on student instruction.  After listening to our concerns, Representative Mayfield was asked, “Given what you now know about the impact of SB 736, would you still have voted in favor of it?”  Her response was, “Probably not.”

Representative Proctor, I offer two challenges for you to consider:  One, answer the concerns listed by teachers in our district – without digressing into any Republican rhetoric – in terms of how the Student Success Act will improve education in the State of Florida. Two, explain the mathematical algorithm used to calculate the Valued Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teachers using student test scores.  In fact, have one of the math professors at your university evaluate it and give a logical, mathematical explanation of how it is unbiased, valid and reliable (The list of concerns and the mathematical algorithm are attached.).

If you accept both of these two challenges – in manner listed above – I vow to do the following:  I will cease to write to you.  I will stop publishing Guest Column pieces in the Press Journal.  I will stop writing my blog.  I will remove my Facebook page – Education is about children, not test scores.

If you decline to accept the two challenges I have presented to you, I vow to do the following:  I will increase my letter writing to you and other state legislators.  I will seek additional media outlets to publish my criticism of the Student Success Act.  I will increase the frequency of my blog posts. 

Nothing I have written or said should be construed by you or anyone to be an “idle threat.”  The word threat – in this political environment – is a poor choice of words on your part.  I have far too much respect for authority to “threaten” anyone.  It is, however, my constitutional right – and I feel my patriotic duty – to question and challenge laws that are not in the best interest of me, my family, my community or the children of the State of Florida.  Franklin, Adams and Jefferson were called traitors for challenging the laws and oppressive rule of the British monarchy.  They are now revered as patriots.  I will not allow you or any elected official to deny me of that right by calling me childish.


Paul Mucci