Education Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Dress code enforcement obsession

I’ve worked in a number of high schools, both public and private. I also went to high school myself (obviously). In every school, there were always a handful of teachers or staff members who were obsessed with punishing (or at least commenting incessantly about) violations of the student dress code. I don’t think it’s appropriate for female students to dress in revealing clothing at school (what they do outside is their business). Same deal for boys showing off their underwear with saggy pants around their ankles (again, what they do outside of school is a different story). School is a place to learn. It isn’t a fashion show venue. There is a certain level of respect you show your teachers and fellow students by dressing appropriately and—unless you have to wear a uniform—there usually remains a great deal of leeway for you to express your individuality.

Nevertheless, I find this obsession with dress code enforcement to be disturbing also. Is her skirt too short? Is that girl showing off too much cleavage? Do I really want to see his polka dot boxers? These are all legitimate questions, but ultimately we as teachers and staff should focus on the task at hand, which is getting students to learn. And even though enforcement-obsessors are always careful to throw in the token mention about boys, the policing does seem to be very much about what girls (and much less so about boys) can and cannot wear, and that is ringing all the feminist sirens in my left-leaning brain. Is it empowering to dress in almost nothing, knowing that you’re probably doing that just to take advantage of how society sexually objectifies women and rewards women who embrace that sexual objectification? No. But is it a feminist act to obsess about and police the way women dress? I don’t think so, either.

To be honest, I really don’t notice it. If a student were wearing a wet t-shirt or only a g-string, of course I’d be fashion police in a second myself. But often I hear other adults commenting to me randomly (even interrupting a worthwhile discussion we were having about curriculum or logistics and scheduling) “That skirt is too short” or “Did you see what she’s wearing? That is not okay.” In some cases, there is just the shake of a head. In other cases, the faculty or staff member will actually leave our conversation and actively police the girl right away. In those situations, I wasn’t thinking, “Yes, it was too short. I thought I was the only one who noticed.” I was honestly thinking, “Weren’t we talking about something else? I didn’t even notice until you pointed it out.” I’m not in the habit of looking students up and down.

Leaving aside how sociologically problematic this constant vigilance about particularly what girls wear is, on a sheer practical level, I just feel there are other things to focus on. I’m a big fan of the cliché “You have to pick your battles.” And especially with teenagers, you do. I was a teenager once. Did my parents say something about everything I did that they disapproved of? No. We would have gotten into a million more fights then. They picked their battles and showed me what really mattered to them. I’d love it if every student dressed appropriately for school. I’d love it. Really. In the grand scheme of things, though, I’d rather focus on them doing their work, having patience with and helping other students who do not learn as quickly as they do, participating in class and extracurriculars, picking up after themselves, and learning to think critically. Call me new-fashioned, but if students can do all that, they can dress however they want.

Further Reading
School dress codes: Necessary or sexist?
Distracting Dress Codes


Obama won’t fix education in this country

Even though some people have accused me of being a blind Obama follower, I’m actually not that big a fan. I like him. He’s okay… for a politician. I really voted for Kucinich in the primaries, and if Clinton had won the primaries, I’d have voted for her for president. The truth is, with all the blue states and red states, and with all the polarization on abortion, immigration, taxation, health care, and the military; anyone who gets elected to the presidency has to be a liar and a politician. You can’t hold too tightly to your principles if you want to piss off as few people as possible.

Obama’s latest speech on education got me annoyed, though. And if that’s really his plan going forward, I don’t really see the American K-12 education system getting any better.

Because improving education is central to rebuilding our economy, we set aside over $4 billion in the Recovery Act to promote improvements in schools. This is one of the largest investments in education reform in American history. And rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it. That’s how we can incentivize excellence and spur reform and launch a race to the top in America’s public schools.

I see. So if Wall Street gets itself in trouble through excessive greed and unethical business practices, then they get a bailout. K-12 schools will get a measly (by comparison) $4 billion only if they can improve without the extra money? That’s ridiculous. With a few rare exceptions, the best schools in America are well-funded and the worst are under-funded. So withholding the money until the schools get better isn’t going to make them better.

Now I agree with what Obama said back in the debates with McCain that throwing money at schools doesn’t automatically make the schools better. Obviously. You can never just throw money at a problem to make it better. You have to carefully place the money instead of throwing it.

This is not about more tests. It’s not about teaching to the test. And it’s not about judging a teacher solely on the results of a single test.

It is about finally getting testing right, about developing thoughtful assessments that lead to better results; assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can use a pencil to fill in a bubble, but whether they possess basic knowledge and essential skills like problem-solving and creative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship.

If you create a test that you’re judging the success or failure of a school on, you are necessarily creating a teach-to-the-test atmosphere. It’s like saying “I’m going to give raises to the employees who do what I say. But I don’t want you to do what I say. Just do your job.” If you say that as an employer, suddenly “your job” becomes “what I say.”

And good luck trying to create a standardized test that measures all that.

From the moment a student enters a school, the single most important factor in their success is the person in front of the classroom.

Really? So if I take the best teacher in the country, put her in front of a class of 30 students who have varying abilities (most of which on the low end), who all have behavioral or psychological problems, some of whom have learning disabilities of varying types; give that teacher no textbooks (or ones falling apart), no pencils, no computers, a room that’s constantly a mess; create a culture of low achievement and high grade inflation where every challenge to authority must be disciplined immediately or else the students will run amok—somehow that teacher is going to do better than a mediocre teacher with a class size of 14 students who all get outside tutoring, parental support, computers, textbooks, pencils, a clean building, a school culture of students being treated like responsible adults and, for the most part, living up to that expectation?

Nice try.

I’ve worked and taught in both of those environments, and I can tell you right now the mediocre teacher will get more done in class and her students will end up learning more by the end of the year, even if they’re in class for fewer hours.

Throw out your Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver DVDs and stop believing the myths. Having great teachers is great, but that isn’t the solution to our educational problems.

Success should be judged by results, and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can’t ignore facts. We can’t ignore data. That’s why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a grant.

You should not link what you perceive to be student progress to evaluation of whether a teacher is a good teacher or not. One of the best teachers I ever had was my US history teacher. She taught me stuff that lasted through college and beyond. She taught me to think critically. She taught me about instititutional racism and about feminism. I got a B+ in her class sophomore year. I got a B in her class junior year. Then I took another history class senior year and got a B-. You can see where this is going. So how would Obama’s new test get that this teacher was amazing? It wouldn’t. In fact, it would look as if she was terrible, because my performance was going down.

Better standards. Better teaching. Better schools. Data-driven results. That’s what we will reward with our Race to the Top Fund.

I’m sorry, but your plan stinks, Mr. President. It’s well-intentioned but extremely misguided. You know nothing about how to fix education in this country. Have you taught in a public school before? Are your kids in one right now? Are your daughters in an underfunded public school? No? Why not? Because you know it isn’t just about having good teachers and results. You know that your daughters are getting a better education because their school provides smaller class sizes, adequate school supplies, a whole school culture where learning is valued, and proper support and rest for its teachers.

The worst part about your plan is that even if it works the way it’s supposed to, then a handful of schools and states will get more funding and better schools, and then the other states will get less funding and worse schools. Talk about the rich getting richer.

Do you want to know how you can fix education the easy way?

  • Have states evenly distribute funds to all schools within the state. Schools in rich suburbs should get no more funding than schools in urban areas.
  • Focus spending on reducing class sizes. Even without textbooks, even without computers, even without desks, even with learning differences, if I have only 10 or 12 students in my classroom as opposed to 30 or 40, I can operate more effectively just being a good, decent, or great teacher instead of having to be a superhuman teacher.
  • Give financial incentives to colleges and universities to reward high schools that do not inflate grades.

There. You’ve just leveled your playing field and saved yourself $4 billion.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Education Linux Ubuntu

The woman who dropped out of MATC after mistakenly buying a Ubuntu laptop from Dell

I know I’m probably the millionth person to comment on this (is millionth even a word?), but I have only two things to say.

1. To the anti-Linux folks and tech “journalists” who blame this on Linux not being “friendly” enough for new users or being for only those who want to tinker with their computers, how exactly would Ubuntu (or any Linux distro) have been friendlier or easier to use in this case? Does Ubuntu have any control over the fact that Verizon gives you the impression its software is necessary to set up an internet connection? Or that Verizon’s CD provides Windows-only software for it? Does Ubuntu have any control over the fact that Microsoft has made Microsoft Office closed source and not made a Linux version? Does Ubuntu have any control over MATC’s requirements misleading people into thinking they need Windows when Linux will do just fine? Did this woman really have to drop out of college because of the laptop?

2. To the supposedly pro-Linux folks who feel the need to harass this woman through Facebook or whatever, shame on you. Should she have known better to research what computer she was buying before plunking down $1100? Sure. Is she an idiot? No. She’s just an idiot when it comes to computers, and I know a lot of otherwise brilliant folks who are idiots when it comes to computers (I was a computer idiot only five years ago myself). There’s no need to send hate mail her way when the people really at fault are the “journalists” who don’t actually do any kind of investigative reporting and rely solely on catchy headlines and misinformation to gain readership and website hits.

A friend of mine recently went back to school for interior design and previously had been a Mac user. Surprise, surprise—she got herself a Windows computer, because she knew AutoCAD wouldn’t run on her iBook. Somehow, though, I can’t picture WKOW 27 running a news story on Mac OS X forcing her to drop out of college because it doesn’t run AutoCAD, even if she had stuck with her iBook.

Edit: Here’s an example of a Mac user on Yahoo! Answers who is having trouble with the .exe file to set up her Belkin wireless router. Anyone going to run a news story on it? Doubtful.

Computers Education Windows

I’m an enabler

Last night, my wife called me an enabler. I guess I am. But I can’t help it. (Yes, I know—that’s what all enablers say!)

Here’s the deal (and this is not specific to the school I’m currently working at—this has happened at other schools I’ve worked at as well): When I see people doing something inefficiently. I say, “Hey, you know you can do it this way?” they get all excited, and then I show them how to do it a more efficient way. Then, even though they took notes on the process, they will still come back to me and say, “Can you show me how to do that again?” and I do. So, yes, I’m enabling those people. But I also know that if I said, “No, you took notes. You figure it out yourself,” they would just go back to doing things the inefficient way. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah. I guess I should learn it myself” and then figure it out on their own based on the notes they took.

What does my wife have to say about it? “Well, let them do it the inefficient way, then. It’s their time, not yours.” I guess so. I’m busy at work, but I’m not so busy as to not have time to teach people how to do things correctly, and it pains me to see people spend hours and days doing something that can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, even if I have to show them two or three times how to do it.

I’m a classic enabler.


Why schools play “the game” with students

If you’ve ever worked as a teacher in a high school, you’ve probably had to play “the game” with your students. You become acutely aware of how awkward “the game” is when you start talking about school events with adult friends of yours who do not work in education. Here’s how such an exchange between adults goes. Chandra works as a teacher in a school. Gemma has a non-school-related job (investment banker, magazine editor, graphic designer, consultant, etc.).

Chandra: I can’t believe they made me chaperone that dance last night.

Gemma: Oh, did they put you on sex-and-drugs patrol?

Chandra: Yeah, it was terrible. There were students freaking in the middle of the dance floor. There were people trying to sneak off to the main building to smoke pot and make out. We didn’t have enough faculty to supervise.

Gemma: I remember my junior year in high school, Daniel and I were the only ones who were able to sneak out of our homecoming dance to hook up.

Chandra: Yeah, well…

As you can see, Chandra is playing the game, and Gemma is inadvertently calling Chandra on it. Chandra was probably once in high school as well, experimenting with drugs, fooling around sexually with other students, and trying to skirt the rules of the school. Now that she’s a teacher, though, she has to enforce the rules.


I would argue that Chandra probably does not really believe that high school students should not indulge in any risk-taking behavior at all. She probably does not regret any drug use or sex (unless she was raped) that she had as a young adult. She probably views that time in her life and all the “mistakes” she made as part of her growth into being an adult. Gemma not only feels that way but acknowledges it vocally. Gemma can do this, because she doesn’t work in education.

If Chandra started telling kids it was okay to smoke a little pot or to have sex in high school, she’d probably get a reprimand from the school administration and some parents. She might even get fired. Parents of teenagers, as a whole, don’t want to encourage their children to do illegal drugs or have sex, and they generally will not enroll their students in a school that encourages the teenagers in that way.

If a school existed (and schools like this may exist), it would quickly gain a reputation as being for “bad kids” and would attract students who don’t just casually experiment with drugs and sex but who take both quite seriously as endeavors.

I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve had to play that game. I don’t feel like a hypocrite for doing so, as I didn’t have sex or do drugs in high school. I was pretty much as straight an arrow as you could get. I didn’t drink before I was legally allowed to. I didn’t go to wild parties. I didn’t baseball bat mailboxes. I didn’t throw eggs at houses. At the same time, though, I don’t think that everyone should do what I did. I don’t think it’s healthy to force all teenagers to or to pretend all teenagers do run the straight and narrow.

I don’t know a good solution, though. I don’t want to be in a school that says to the kids, “Hey, make sure you lose your virginity some time in high school. We don’t want you doing hard drugs, but smoking the occasional joint won’t screw you up big time.” But I don’t like the other directions schools have gone, which is basically “Don’t do anything bad. We may have done bad stuff, but we’re all adults now and we’re going to pretend we never did that. You shouldn’t do it.” Who knows? Maybe the game is necessary for the sake of order. At least these days, when students go to college (university, to you non-Americans), the schools no longer demand students be squeaky clean. In terms of legal liability, they’ll play a little of the game, but not as much as secondary schools play.


Are graduation speeches just pretty?

I’ve been to a lot of graduation ceremonies. As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, I attended other people’s high school commencements for fun (and to support my friends, of course). Kids and parents alike are happy to be there, to celebrate the end of something, the beginning of something, or both. It’s a day to be proud. It’s a day to laugh. It’s a day of speeches.

I can’t tell you how many (high school and university) commencement speeches I’ve sat through. Too many. How many can I remember? Not many. Pretty close to not any.

I remember fragments of certain speeches. Usually someone will talk about the root of the word commencement, which has to do with beginnings, not endings. The person speaking will talk about how the people graduating are the future, they can make real change, and they should be themselves. There’s usually a funny or cute anecdote thrown in for a few laughs. The best part is when the commencement speaker says something like, “You probably won’t remember this speech, but if you have to remember one thing, remember this…”—even that one thing I was supposed to remember I don’t remember.

So do graduation speeches do any good? Are they just pretty prose? Are they just a way to fill up the time? I know my high school graduating class was little more than 100 students, so the reading of the names and handing out of diplomas certainly weren’t enough to be the whole program. They had to put those speeches in there to make it a ceremony and not just a blink of the eye.

Don’t get me wrong. If I were asked to speak at my school’s graduation, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d say all the regular cheesy stuff and throw in an anecdote for good measure. I just wouldn’t imagine the kids would actually remember my speech or have it change the way they think about life.

I’ve been to speeches that I’ve remembered and been affected by; they just haven’t been graduation speeches. Maybe graduation is a bad time. Kids have their minds on other things (like partying?). Either way, since I’ve either been attending or been working at schools my whole life, I’m sure I will get to enjoy a lot more pretty speeches. Maybe one will stand out from the rest and really be memorable. Maybe. Could be today.


The Tracking Problem

Usually when it comes to educational issues… or any issue, really, I have strong opinions, but tracking in schools is an issue I have mixed feelings about. I’ve worked in five different high schools, and have seen tracked curriculum and untracked curriculum in action in various subjects, and I have to say it’s hard to find a good working solution.

For those unfamiliar with the term tracking and its attendant problems and benefits, tracked classes are classes covering the same material or curriculum requirement that are tiered into higher and lower levels of rigor. For example, in a 9th grade English class might have Honors English 9, English 9, and Remedial English 9. Of course, the course title rarely uses the word remedial in it, but it’s understood by both students and teachers alike to be remedial. One school I taught at had a little “grade inflation” for the titles. So remedial English was English, regular English was Honors English, and Honors English was Advanced English—presumably a self-esteem boost for all parties involved.

If you don’t have tracking, the classes you teach have too much of a diversity of motivation, ability, and knowledge for you to tailor the curriculum properly to suit most of your students’ learning needs, so you end up either teaching to your best students and leaving the struggling ones in the dust or teaching to your slowest students and leaving your best students bored. In most cases I’ve seen, teachers tend to teach to the middle-of-the-road students and offer extra help (outside of class) to the struggling students, but still leaving the brightest kids more or less bored.

If, however, you do institute tracking, the remedial classes tend to know they’re the lowest level and that doesn’t do much for their motivation. Their peers tend not to push them much, and so they don’t end up having to do much to get to the middle of the bell curve. Behavioral issues also tend to get compounded in these classes. And, worse yet, it’s often the most experienced teacher who ends up teaching the AP classes, leaving a teacher straight out of college or grad school with the remedial classes, which tend to be larger and full of a mix of learning issues, constantly distracted students, and low motivation.

I do have a rather radical solution (which, as I said before, I don’t feel too strongly about) to this problem, but it’s so radical that I doubt any school would ever adopt it. Get rid of the grade-level system and social promotion. This would have to be delicately implemented, as there would be cultural barriers to overcome in addition to policy ones. In other words, instead of having just English 9, 10, 11, and 12 or English 9R, 9, 9H, 10R, 10, 10H, etc.; have English 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and have a whole bunch of levels in various other subjects as well and get rid of this whole grade level business. You’re not a 9th grader or an 11th grader. You’re a student. One student might be taking English 3, Math 2, Spanish 5, History 6, Science 1, and Art 9. Another might be taking English 1, Math 5, Spanish 4, History 2, Science 2, and Art 1. That way, if you’re having trouble with one particular subject, you don’t automatically advance an entire grade or get held back an entire grade—you don’t advance to the next level of that one particular subject.

This is more in line with how students really are. Yes, there are many all-around spectacular kids, who excel in every subject. Yes, there are some all-around not-so-great kids, who do poorly in every subject. But I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle. I considered myself smart in high school, but I struggled in science and history big time, while simultaneously excelling in English, math, and art; and doing only so-so in foreign language study. If I had attended my own make-believe high school, I might have started off in Science 1, History 2, Spanish 3, English 5, Math 6, and Art 8. Kids in this make-believe school would get very used to the idea of having in any given class a mix of first-year, second-year, third-year, and fourth-year students, and there would be less of a stigma attached to being in Science 1, as even smart-in-other-subject kids would be in that class.

Of course, where this gets tricky is in college counseling, as it might be difficult for a guidance counselor to explain how this kind of curriculum prepares a student for college. We would know, of course, in real life that a student in my make-believe school is just as, if not more, prepared for college as someone at a regular high school, but on paper, it’d be ridiculous for someone who never got past English 2 to advance to university-level studies, even though plenty of high school seniors complete 12th grade English and cannot coherently express their thoughts in writing.

Well, that’s my mental barf of an educational theory. If I ever start my own school, I’ll keep this in mind.

Education Life

Public speaking jitters

I used to be an English teacher. Back in those days, I would get nervous for the first day of classes; but on a day-to-day basis, I didn’t think too much about speaking in front of a group of people. If you have to do it that often, you don’t have time or emotional energy to spare on getting nervous—you just do it.

I’m out of practice, though. The past four years, I haven’t been teaching. I’ve been working in administrative support in schools. So, yesterday, when I had to speak in front of the whole school during morning meeting, I had jitters, serious jitters. I could feel my heart pumping. I could feel my throat getting dry. I got a headache the night before. Theoretically, I knew I could do it, but I also knew I was four years out of practice, so I was worried I’d choke.

Of course, I didn’t do my nervous self any favors. First of all, I am not one of those people who can memorize a speech or just read off a piece of paper. I don’t like creating PowerPoint presentations in which the text is there on the screen and all I do is read it verbatim to the audience. Frankly, I don’t even like notecards. I did do a mock write-up, but I strayed from that significantly during my talk. That was a brainstorm more than anything. I like being extemporaneous… I guess that’s the problem I’ve created for myself.

In the end, though, I managed to pull it off. I’m no Obama, but I didn’t freeze up or lose words. I somehow got through all my points and said Um maybe only five or six times (instead of fifty times). I’m glad I got a chance to speak to the school. Thank God that’s over with, though!

Education Writing

Efficient communication is a worthy goal

There are two instances in which I have had this jumbled-word paragraph brought to my attention:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

(The original source is here, but the server appears to be down right now.)

The first time was when I was still an English teacher. One of my students, after having gone through a rather rigorous unit on grammar thought it was amusing. When I shared it with my co-planning teacher, he said he’d rather have shards of glass stuck in his eyes than read papers written that way.

The second time was on the Ubuntu Forums, and a forum member thought a few of us (who occasionally correct others’ grammar or spelling when we just can’t take it any more) were being pedantic, so she or he saw fit to show us that spelling doesn’t really matter.

Here’s the thing, though: as my former colleague pointed out with his exaggeration about shards of glass, just because you can read something doesn’t mean you want to read it the way it’s presented.

After all, I can watch fuzzy black-and-white television on a four-inch screen while I constantly push the antennae around in futile attempts to get better reception, and still hear all the dialogue and understand what’s going on in the movie or television show I’m viewing. I can also listen to third-generation mix tapes that have had two decades of deterioration and still “hear” the music I’m listening to.

Nevertheless, I somehow still like clear pictures in HD on large screens that have digital surround sound and also still prefer to listen to CD-quality recordings of music. The same goes for language and communication. Grammar and spelling conventions and rules don’t exist just to make your life miserable—they actually are around because consensus gives meaning to words, phrases, syntax, and punctuation. If you follow the established guidelines, you don’t leave it up to your reader to make meaning of what you’ve said; you convey the meaning to your reader. Good writing is like an HD-quality movie or a CD-quality song.

That doesn’t mean we have to fly off the deep end and nitpick grammar points that don’t matter (split infinitives or misuse of the terms compose and comprise, for example), but it does mean we should strive to be understood most efficiently, with the fewest words, and with the least amount of work on the part of the reader.

Education Health

Running with the track team again

I recently have had the opportunity to help assistant-coach my school’s track team, and it has been a wonderful experience. A wave of nolstagia has swept over me as I’m constantly reminded of the pain and fun of my own training in high school. All the workouts these students are grumbling about as they sweat through them bring back fond memories of my own grumblings. I just wish they knew what a rare opportunity they have—a chance to have physical training built into their pre-5:00 PM day. I think the lack of such a program is the reason why most adults (even ones who were serious athletes in high school or college) are out of shape (or don’t work out “enough”). All the working adults I know work at least nine-hour days, if not longer. That means if they want to exercise regularly, they have to wake up extra early to work out before their commutes or work out late after work and then have an even later dinner, both options being less than ideal if your workout is an outside workout (as it’ll be dark when it’s not during the work day).

So even though I’m not able to do all the workouts with these kids (I have to supervise them or time their splits), it’s great that I can use part of my work day to get some exercise. I just have to keep reminding myself not to tell these kids too many “When I was your age, do you know what we had to do for our track workouts?” stories.