Teachers: It’s time to speak to local voters

Two weeks.

We have two weeks until Election Day 2014.

We usually view mid-term or “off year” elections with some apathy, but Indiana teachers know that this year’s election is crucial to our livelihoods, our profession, our school children, and our schools.

We must send a bold, clear message to our governor, legislature, and State Board of Education: Stop!

We are in the midst of one destructive idea after another in regards to Indiana education policy. Our public schools and the profession we love have radically changed in the last five years. We know it. We feel it. And we know that we cannot continue down the same path.

One trusted colleague of mine with almost 40 years of experience as a teacher recently made this observation — she has never seen teachers as upset, as burdened, or as fed up as we are right now.

Another Indiana educator, a fifth-grade teacher who has chosen early retirement and whose story is shared in the documentary Rise Above the Mark, says this:

“I still love what I do, and I loved it up until the end, but I feel like the legislators have beaten us down, and I hope that some way we find a way to fight our way back up to the top.”

Later in the documentary, she adds, “They’ve taken education, the profession that I love, and turned me into a number.”

This is the truth of what is happening in Indiana schools all over the state thanks in part to our current legislature. I won’t rehash the litany of bad ideas here — feel free to explore past posts on this site for more details — but I will say this:

Our mailboxes been inundated with a glossy litany of half-truths and lies from legislators all around the state claiming to have preserved local control of our schools in the last few years.

Teachers know the truth. Teachers know that is simply not true.

Indiana public schools suffer from less local control and more excessive intrusion from our state legislature than ever before.

When it comes to education policy, this current legislature is full of fake conservatives who shackle innovation, stifle creativity, and intrude endlessly into our local schools.

Our daily lives as teachers are burdened with the evidence of less local control — from excessive standardized testing, to the ludicrous flip-flop of standards (Yes, we’ll adopt Common Core. No, wait, no we won’t!), to the fact that the state has changed our evaluation system, to restrictions on how we bargain our contracts, to the reduction in the worth of our advanced and master’s degrees — the list of excessive intrusion into our schools and classrooms from our current state legislature is long and tedious.

So, please know this, voters — any current legislator who claims to have worked tirelessly for the cause of local control of Hoosier schools while supporting and voting for corporate education “reform” scams is either deceitful or delusional.

Or both.

And that is why I am calling on all teachers to talk with voters here. Now. Because we teachers must speak up now.

We must tell voters the truth about how our profession and our schools have changed.

We must tell voters that while we love our profession, our schools, and our students, we will no longer silently tolerate the constant assault of bad legislation that has radically altered our public schools.

We must ask voters to stand with us to restore local control, common sense, and research-based decision making to our schools.

And locally, we must make the case with voters to vote for three outstanding educators and experts — Kevin Sue Bailey, Heidi Sellers, and Chuck Freiberger.

I challenge every teacher to find a way to work with or on behalf of at least one of these pro-education candidates.

Teachers, do not be silent. Do not be passive. There simply is not time.

This is not about political parties or ideology. This is about telling voters the truth about how our current legislature has hurt our schools.

Tell the truth about our schools.

We have two weeks.

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When it comes to education, we need to vote for change in the Indiana legislature

Change is good.

You’ll notice some changes in my blog, beginning with the overall look. In the coming weeks I’ll be tweaking the design more, hopefully adding a more visual appeal through photographs.

You’ll notice, too, a content shift.

When I began writing a few years ago, I had three primary goals in mind based on my life as a high school English and journalism teacher and media adviser. Call them my core values:

  • Explore educational issues
  • Promote literacy and civic engagement
  • Support scholastic journalism

I’ll continue to use these three values to guide my writing here, as each one is close to my heart. However, I have also added a fourth:

  • Advocate for public schools

I am a proud public school teacher. I support strong private schools and educational choices for families as well, but I believe our nation’s greatest resource and hope for the future lies in our public school system. I also believe our public schools are more misunderstood and disrespected than ever before.

That is especially true in Indiana.

We live in a state in which far too many of our current political leaders and legislators do not understand or value our public schools. This includes some of our local legislators. My colleagues and I in all corners of the state — and our students — are impacted negatively by poor policy making in Indianapolis. We feel it every day in our schools and classrooms.

So, as we approach an election that is essential for the survival of Indiana public schools, I’ll use this place to advocate more strongly than ever for our public schools in Indiana, which means also advocating for specific candidates that will support and stand with my colleagues, students, and me.

I hope my words expose the truth about our public schools and enlighten and educate readers about the complexities of the issues and policies that impact our schools.

I hope, too, to explain just how severely recent legislation and policy making have damaged our schools, communities, and pocketbooks.

I hope to persuade you to vote for and support those candidates who support our schools, and to send a clear message to those who do not.

I hope to share some of my own thoughts and insights along the way, too, as I found my views of education have shifted in the last few months. I question my own place and future in a profession that I love but that has changed so drastically so fast. If I am being honest, I am not sure I have a role in what our profession is becoming, as I have realized that change for change’s sake — which is both the intent and effect of Indiana’s recent education “reform” movement — is not good for our students, teachers, schools, or communities.

Indiana public education is the noblest of professions, but it is currently being governed by those who neither understand nor value our profession. And for that reason alone, we must either elect change in our legislature across the state this November or be prepared to accept the consequences in our schools and communities.

And for that reason, I hope to convince local readers in the coming weeks to ignore political parties and instead vote for several educators and local legislative candidates — Dr. Kevin Sue Bailey, Heidi Sellers, and Chuck Freiberger — who most support and understand education.

I am asking this as a teacher who needs their support. I am asking this as a teacher who needs your support.

So, I am going to ask you to vote for change. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but that is usually when it is the most needed.

Because change based on our civic responsibility to do what’s best for our schools is both necessary and good. As a proud teacher I hope to do my small part in the coming weeks to convince you of that.

 

 

 

 

Teen Voices: How should we improve our schools?

by Jim Lang

In my final week with my AP Language and Composition students, I asked them to participate in a voluntary activity. I wanted to share some of my students’ viewpoints – their voices – here in the hopes that we can entertain and value their opinions and ideas, too.

The task was simple. I asked them to answer five open-ended questions on a survey:

  • What is the biggest misconception about your generation?
  • What one book should every person read, and why?
  • What is your generation’s biggest challenge?
  • What makes a great teacher?
  • How should we improve our schools?

The rules were simple. Participation was completely voluntary. They could choose to respond to all, some, or none of the questions. They did not indicate their identity or grade. They knew that some of their responses would be shared here.

Student Views

“Test students less.”

“Less testing. More focus on promoting the creative habit. Less memorization. More support to the arts.”

“Less emphasis on grades and competition with grades. Not only valuing academic achievement. I don’t understand why being good at math is so much more valued in society than music and creativity and expression.”

“Less testing and have a wide range of classes for everyone to explore new things.”

“Cut out all the testing, man. Teach the power of knowledge, not the power of the GPA (grade-point average).”

“Make teacher reviews more serious. Teacher evaluations seem to be done just as a formality.”

“We need to have a strong public education that students look forward to going to. The schools need to work on being supportive, which is what we students really need.”

“To improve our schools, we must break out of the box we have surrounded education with. We must allow creativity of teachers and students alike to flow naturally. We must find teachers devoted to improving their students’ lives.”

“Well, I would say we should imitate other school systems that are the academic leaders of the world, like Finland, but I know that would never work. We have too many students from too many walks of life. So, how do we fix it? That’s definitely about to be a problem that plagues my generation, so I hope we deal with it by creating an entirely new system that pulls aspects from other systems together to create something unique that works for Americans.

“All I know is the bell system makes me feel like an animal. We can read clocks. We don’t need bells ringing to tell us when to switch classes.”

“Do everything Finland does.”

“Finland. But really: all public education; don’t tie funding to test performance; pay teachers like they deserve to be paid; live in a country where education actually matters.”

“Get rid of standardized testing. Make sure the students learn, not just memorize.”

“Do not give kids who are failing the opportunity to quickly recover the credit with minimal effort. This encourages failure. The kid should have to deal with the consequences or try harder.”

“Some of us are actually curious and intrinsically motivated to learn. Do not destroy that by trying to extrinsically motivate us.”

“Start teaching a foreign language in elementary school. It’s much easier for us to learn it then.”

“Don’t get me started.”

My View

My students researched education as part of a second-semester research project that required them to synthesize information from a variety of sources and propose a solution to a problem in modern education.

It’s interesting that so many of them were compelled to compare American schools to Finnish schools in their responses. Finland offers a very different model to educating students than America. Truthfully, in many areas they are far more successful in educating their children than we are.

Improving American schools, in my view, requires us to commit to all of the following:

  • A recognition that we can only improve schools by first addressing poverty and income inequality, the defining problems of our nation
  • A commitment to hold more fully engage parents in our schools and to more fully hold them accountable for the academic success and behavior of their children
  • A complete rejection of market-place education reforms that have increased standardized testing and have contributed to the inequality hindering our schools and communities while reducing funding, effectiveness, and local control
  • A return to the American principle that our nation’s success depends on the vitality of our public schools (This, by the way, is a conservative principle, contrary to what many narrow-minded, intellectually challenged political “leaders” will tell you).

We have been reforming education for over thirty years. The reform movement has become the status quo, and it hasn’t improved anything.

Only by finally meeting the four challenges listed above can we truly begin to once again ensure that America is the world leader in education.

Hoosier educators can finally fight the WAR ON CHRISTMAS!!

by Jim Lang

Well, Christmas came early for Indiana teachers and our students.

After years of budget cuts and education legislation and rhetoric that would make Ebenezer Scrooge proud, one state senator is poised to finally address the most significant problem facing Hoosier schools today … the WAR ON CHRISTMAS!

First, you may notice I have capitalized the WAR ON CHRISTMAS! We all know this is necessary, as a WAR as significant and pervasive as this one requires extra EMPHASIS, as well as excessive use of EXCLAMATION POINTS!!

According to an article in the Indianapolis Star, state senator Jim Smith, R-Charlestown, will introduce legislation in January that would “preserve Christmas traditions in Indiana schools.”

Specifically, the legislation will protect public school educators who want to celebrate Christmas. As Smith said in a press release, Christmas is under attack, and Hoosier teachers fear acknowledging Christmas traditions in our classrooms because of potential lawsuits.

I think I speak for all educators when I state that this is a true CHRISTMAS  MIRACLE!

After years of budget cuts, school closings, program cuts, larger class sizes, an increased  emphasis on standardized testing, less local control of our schools, an increasingly convoluted teacher evaluation system, growing child poverty in Indiana, and education “reforms” that marginalize teachers’ voices and defy all current research and best practice, the good senator has swept in like Buddy the Elf to address my greatest frustration as a teacher and fight for my right to hang shiny ornaments on a plastic tree in my classroom.

Finally, we educators are once again empowered to fight the WAR ON CHRISTMAS! in our classrooms, just as our founders who sought religious freedom for all intended for us to do.

Imagine the immediate changes that will result if this legislation is passed.

Suddenly, for the first time ever, public school music programs (that haven’t been cut due to decreased funding) can FINALLY! invite the public to listen to holiday music at Christmas concerts.

Elementary art teachers (whose programs haven’t been cut due to decreased funding) can FINALLY! fill those three leftover minutes after standardized testing by letting the little tykes draw a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, or the Baby Jesus.

Educators can triumphantly wish our students a MERRY CHRISTMAS! or HAPPY HOLIDAYS!, confident that we no longer risk the danger of sacrificing our “highly effective” status, losing our twenty dollars of merit pay, or being fired or imprisoned as a result.

As Smith points out, “Christmas is under attack in a way that no other cultural traditions are.”

As a public school teacher who has watched school closings, program cuts, budget cuts, benefit cuts, larger class sizes, education “reforms” that have re-routed public tax dollars to private schools and failing charter schools, and a devaluing of the teaching profession by Indiana governors and legislators through their rhetoric and policies, it truly warms my heart that we have a legislator who is so willing to fight for a tradition that is so persistently under attack.

My twenty ‘truths’ about education and reform

by Jim Lang

Writing and maintaining this blog has become like therapy for me, especially when some clueless legislator or governmental body pretends to know one iota about education.

On days like today, when the Indiana Supreme Court ignores our state constitution and unanimously upholds legislation that provides government-supported handouts…oh, I mean vouchers…to families to send children to private and/or religious schools, I feel like I have to vent.

On days like today, when Kentucky senator Rand Paul calls for federal legislation to expand vouchers (essentially the same irresponsible legislation supported by “Mr. 47 Percent” Mitt Romney), I feel like I have to do something to maintain the illusion that educators’ concerns and frustrations are actually listened to by our political “leaders.”

So, today, I am particularly disillusioned and annoyed. And to those who know me well, this means I must vent, often sarcastically and even maliciously, or explode. And since I do not want to explode during what has been an otherwise relaxing Spring Break, here are my own 20 “truths” about education, one for each year I have been teaching, and in no particular order:

1.  There are far more bad parents than bad teachers.

2. If your school is successful, it is primarily because it is a reflection of a successful community, quality parenting, and dedicated teachers.

3. If your school is failing, it is primarily because it is a reflection of a failing community, poor parenting, and dedicated teachers who strive everyday to make up for deficiencies of a failing community and poor parenting.

4. While critics waste time whining about teachers’ unions, for-profit corporations are shaping curriculum, testing, and schools far more than unions ever did.

5. Choosing to send your children to private schools should not in any way release you from your societal and moral obligation to pay taxes to support public schools for those who cannot afford private schools. Previous generations understood this.

6. Private and religious schools should remain absolutely independent of state and federal government intrusion…except when they accept vouchers.

7. Those who constantly criticize public schools for “indoctrinating” students have either rarely been in a classroom or are guilty of indoctrinating their own children. Or both.

8. If you are shocked that your child is suddenly failing a class, you aren’t paying enough attention to your child.

9. Teachers don’t get summers “off.” Ever.

10. Teachers don’t get weekends “off.” Ever.

11. Standardized testing is a waste of time.

12. Common formative assessment (n): an educational opportunity for children designed to ensure educators can prove to even the most illiterate person that we’re doing what we say we’re doing. Syn: waste of time. Sentence: I spent four hours grading my common formative assessments and entering the data into a spread sheet, and it revealed exactly what I already knew!

13. Voucher (n): a government-supported handout, primarily for private and/or religious schools, disguised as a tax break for people to distract them from the fact that our state government is failing in its constitutional duty to ensure a quality, public school system for all. Syn: handout. Sentence: My voucher helps ensure that I can exercise my already-existing freedom to send my child to any school I’d like without having to fully pay for it.

14. Merit pay (n): 1. a tiny or invisible token of appreciation from legislators to educators in hopes we won’t see what they’re really up to. 2. dumbest educational reform idea ever, and in Indiana, that’s saying a lot. Syn: a tiny or invisible bribe. Sentence: We’ll reward highly effective teachers with $400 of merit pay, which will prompt them to work even harder and make them feel really good about themselves.

15. If education is its own reward, then weighted grades should eliminated.

16. If Indiana citizens should receive tax credits in the form of vouchers for poorly-performing public schools, then teachers should receive tax credits for poorly-performing students and parents.

17. If anyone can now become a teacher or superintendent in Indiana with minimum of educational training, then I should be permitted to perform major surgery with a minimum of medical training.

18. Most online classes are a joke. Really.

19. Those who criticize educators and schools the most have an ulterior motive…and it’s not the well-being of our nation’s children.

20. If any of the above ideas offend you, you’re probably part of the problem.

Feel free to add your own educational “truths” in the Comments section.

I now feel much better. Until next time…