Thursday, April 26, 2018

Everyone is fighting a battle

Libby Strout, one of two main characters in Jennifer Niven’s book ‘Holding Up the Universe,” was once known as “American’s Fattest Teen” and was so big they had to cut a hole in her house to get her out. Imagine a student in your school who comes back after several years of home school, during which this extrication took place on national TV for all to see. 

Niven captures the moment so well from the point of view of Libby, and also gives a hyper-realistic look at the other student’s reactions to her. Needless to say, the bullying is heartbreaking.

My internal thoughts of “what would you have done” were laid bare when, referencing two characters in the book, my wife flat-out asked: “Which of these boys would you have been?” The question is one we should all ask ourselves.

Jack Masselin is the other main character in the book. On the outside, Jack has it all going on. So as not to divulge any spoilers let’s just say Jack has issues of his own. Issues no one can see because of his philosophy: “Be charming, be hilarious, don’t get too close to anyone.” These are the students who are so good at “playing school” that no one knows their pain.

You will have to read the book to get the rest. “Goodreads” gives it five stars. I simply couldn’t put it down. My wife complains about our shared Kindle and audible library being all war books and scary thrillers; I have been trying to expand my horizons. My niece suggested this one. It’s not about history and it’s not scary; unless you have ever been a victim of a bully. Which means it is all about history and it is scary for pretty much everyone.

The October 11 edition of the New York Times Magazine included an article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” One could ask more provincial question: Why is Kansas’ suicide rate 25 percent higher than the national average? These questions have no easy answers, and the problems have no easy solutions. Reading and discussing “Holding up the Universe” would be a good place to start learning the lesson that everyone is fighting a battle, even if we can’t understand it.

If you are an educator I recommend you read this book. Student’s in our schools struggle for so many reasons beyond academics. A wise person once said everyone we meet is a mirror. This book provides us with a mirror in which we can see the pain and joy of being a teenager.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Let's arm teachers with...

The KASB School Board Review editor asked me to write a column about school safety.

I’ve spent time over the past two weeks reading research and opinion about school safety. I’ve read about schools being the safest place for kids and about the extreme number of shootings we have compared to other countries. I’ve read about too many guns and not enough guns. There is research about mental health problems causing-and not causing-school shootings. And of course, there is a great debate about whether we should provide firearms to school staff. 

The conclusion I have reached is that we should arm teachers and time is of the essence.   

Let’s arm teachers with a salary commensurate with their skills and training. More importantly, let’s arm teachers with pay that aligns with their responsibilities. A recent Bureau of Labor statistics study, reprinted in The Economist, shows Kansas has the largest teacher salary to private sector gap in America. 

Let’s arm teachers with time. The time they need to work together, to plan curriculum and lessons. The time they need to develop healthy relationships with all their students.  

Let’s arm teachers with quality training. Arm them with the opportunity to learn about the latest research on trauma and mental health, instruction, and content.  

Let’s arm teachers with quality leadership. The number one reason new teachers give for leaving the profession is lack of administrative support.  

Let’s stop complaining about so many overpaid administrators and start arming teachers with strong administrators who are also compensated in a manner equal to their responsibilities.  

Let’s arm teachers with quality spaces in which to teach. Educators need classrooms and buildings that are up to date and have the latest safety enhancements. 

Let’s arm teachers with reasonable class sizes. Smaller numbers of students per teachers means safer schools. When teachers have manageable class sizes they have the ability to get to know students and recognize when students are hurting and need help. 

Let’s arm teachers with quality support staff, arm them with counselors and social workers who are trained to recognize and support students and families who are under stress. 

Let’s arm teachers with respect and consideration equal to their responsibility for the future success of our nation. 

Finally, let’s arm teachers with visionary and supportive school boards. School board members like the ones we have in Kansas, focused on keeping our students safe while we prepare them for post-secondary success.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

An Economist's Guess is Liable to be as Good as Anybody Else's. - Will Rogers

As much as Mark Tallman makes fun of me for being an “economist” because I taught sophomore economics for a semester at Lawrence High School, I should be able to tell an old economist joke:

A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job. The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks, "What does two plus two equal?" The mathematician replies, "Four." The interviewer asks, "Four, exactly?" The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says, "Yes, four, exactly."
Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question: "What does two plus two equal?" The accountant says, "On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four."

Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question: "What does two plus two equal?" The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, "What do you want it to equal?”
It is totally unfair to diminish a profession based upon a silly joke. I am sure those students I taught back in 1980 would agree that economics is an honorable discipline. (At the very least as honorable as executive director.) However, when one of the folks doing the hiring of the economist who is to study the Kansas School Finance system makes the statement “We’re focused on finding experts who can help show the court that funding is adequate,” it doesn’t help the perception.

In the interest of fairness, we should give any study a fair hearing. But we should be listening with a critical ear. With that in mind, what can we expect from the upcoming study being conducted by Texas A & M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service Professor Lori Taylor? For school finance fans, the best clues will be from Dr. Taylor herself when she briefs the legislature on February 23 (Watch KASB publications for times, location and broadcast information.) Another opportunity will be on Saturday, February 24 at 10 a.m. at KASB offices, 1420 Arrowhead Road, Topeka. Legislative leadership has graciously arranged an opportunity for the education community to hear from Dr. Taylor at that time. We should thank Dr. Taylor and Legislative Leadership for this chance to meet and interact.

It will be important to learn about and understand some critical aspects of the study. The first concerns the assumptions being made in the formulation of funding models. Does the researcher assume that all districts are alike, or is the researcher making assumptions about variations in local districts that need to be accommodated? Functions such as school and district size, location, population density, demographics and cost-of-living are assumed to affect funds necessary for educating students in our current finance model. Will they be included in this new study?

Another set of assumptions has to do with individual students. Do different students have different learning needs? Do these needs translate to additional costs? Does the funding model allow for the differences associated with poverty, social and emotional needs or trauma? It will be important to understand how a study provides for students with additional needs.

Assumptions can also be made about how money can be spent. Does the researcher lump all funds together and assume that all money can be spent directly on classroom instruction? Some studies do not allow for the fact that funds like school lunch cannot be spent on an additional teacher. How will this study treat different funds?

While the aforementioned assumptions and issues are important, the most important aspect of any school finance study is the measurement of success. For over a decade, schools were measured by a reading score and a math score. The courts, legislature, executive branch and state board of education of Kansas have all acknowledged the need to move beyond this limited view of student success. The Rose Standards have been endorsed by all of the previously mentioned groups as what Kansas students need. Any study that ignores these as an outcome does not fit the expectations of success for Kansans. The Kansas State Board of Education’s Kansas Can vision defines what Kansans want for our children.

By changing assumptions and desired outcomes, the total dollars necessary to fund a system can be changed dramatically. It is essential the we learn about the principles behind the new study that is being conducted. Please take the time to get educated.

Watch KASB publications over the next few days to learn more about how you can engage in the process. Dr. Taylor will be addressing the legislature on February 23 and will be at the KASB offices on February 24. Educate yourself!