School grades measure nothing. Stop citing them.


Most of us know school grades are bogus, yet we all use them to attack opponents when grades fall. We need to cite actual facts instead.


Corrine Brown and the NAACP are justified to take issue with Vitti’s and the Board’s record. But this quote gave me pause:

President Isaiah Rumlin says the district’s 59 “D” and “F” schools, many with large populations of African-American students, is unacceptable.

There are plenty of reasons to question the effect of DCPS policy on minority populations. School grades are not one of them.

There are two components to School Grades:

1. Components outside administrators’ control. We should not measure administrators on factors outside their control.
2. Components within administrators’ control. Most of these components are poorly conceived, easily manipulated or both.

So, when we use school grades to criticize the Superintendent and School Board, we forfeit credibility, and even cause people to come to the defense of those who deserve criticism.

There are real things DCPS has done that disproportionally hurt minorities, or at-best are only for show:

1. Changing the way DCPS counts dropout percentage then claiming victory when little has truly changed.

2. Redrawing borders and converting “underperforming” schools into magnets. I agree with Mr. Rumlin that both are smokescreens:

(a.) Vitti is currently trying to expand magnets  despite research showing they exacerbate racial segregation.

(b.) The border redraws are likely for political show and school grade manipulation. Because if it’s a matter of pairing the right staff with the right students, DCPS can simply move staff where they are needed without redrawing borders. In fact, shuffling principals around like they’re pieces on a Risk board seems to be Dr. Vitti’s hobby: 65 changes in the past two years.

So when Mr. Rumlin calls the border shuffling “a charade”, I agree. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to accomplish.

3. Vitti closing almost all middle/high school libraries disproportionately hurts poor students without rides to the Public Library (who are disproportionately minorities). It wasn’t too expensive; it just was something DCPS was content to kill.

Again, the NAACP is justified to take issue with Vitti’s and the Board’s record; they simply need to leave school grades out of it.

Leave a Comment

Filed under DCPS Issues

Duval County School Board moves to silence teacher blogs


If teachers are lying in their blogs, they can already be sanctioned for libel. This means such rules are not set in place to prevent lies, but to prevent teachers from stating the truth.


It’s become apparent that the School Board is mostly targeting a single teacher with this new “professional standard” forbidding blogs: Chris Guerrieri.

Board Member Scott Shine left this comment on Mr. Guerrieri’s blog post regarding the new policy:

Chris,

Just an fYI on the social media policy, this was proposed as a policy addition from Dr. Vitti and was taken up by your liberal friends on the board in the policy review subcommittee (against my wishes)a month ago. They were unanimous in moving it to next years employee professional standards. So, you only have a few months to add to your resume of false and reckless statements. Sadly, I did not even get a chance to vote on it. So, give your thanks to Hall, Wright and Couch for the “anti-Guerrieri” code of conduct addition next fall. While I am highly disappointed I did not get in on the action, and still want to bring it forward as a policy addition as originally submitted by the superintendent, so it can take affect in before the end of this school year.

An elected School Board official gloated about a personal “victory” over one of his teachers, in the comment section of a blog belonging to that teacher.

He even called it the “anti-Guerrieri” rule; I’m no lawyer, but this strikes me as an extraordinarily foolish statement from a liability standpoint.

Shine seemed to issue a thinly-veiled threat against Chris Guerrieri’s job, telling a school teacher in writing he only has “a few more months to add to your resume.”

No matter how he finished that sentence, the choice of the word “resume” was intentional. Imagine a city councilor or state legislator bullying and threatening the career of a blogger who criticizes the politician’s actions. It’s demeaning to Shine’s elected position.

Shine has made it clear that Duval County, a government entity, is considering taking targeted punitive action against a whistle-blower. And possibly, as a government entity (DCPS is not a private employer), might (or might not, again I’m not a lawyer) be infringing on teachers’ First Amendment rights.

I’d tread very lightly on this topic if I were Shine, Vitti, or the School Board.

Exposing corruption and incompetence in Public Education is in the public interest. Teachers are the often the only people able to do so.

We can’t allow teachers to be silenced on this crucial issue. Thankfully, I’m not convinced the School Board or Vitti have this power.


EDIT: Here are my follow-up questions, as a non-lawyer:

  1. As stated above: I’m no Constitutional scholar, and I may be misinformed, but a government agency threatening the livelihood of an American citizen for criticizing government actions seems like a reasonably straightforward violation of the First Amendment [see new information below], at least to me.
  2. Barring that, I’m not sure an employer can impose such a far-reaching imposition into the after-hours activities of unionized employees without negotiating it with the union.

Again, I’m not a lawyer. These are just thoughts.


EDIT 2: For public employees, the First Amendment Center has produced a document detailing a legal litmus test called the “Pickering Test” (PDF Warning) that “balances the employee’s interest, as a citizen, speaking on matters of public concern with the government’s interest, as an employer, in providing the particular public services efficiently”. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule (little in the realm of Law is), but this quote from a Supreme Court decision stood out to me:

“Vigilance is necessary to ensure that public employers do not use authority over employees to silence discourse . . . simply because superiors disagree with the content of employees’ speech.”  -Justice Thurgood Marshall (in Rankin v. McPherson)

2 Comments

Filed under DCPS Issues

DCPS must stop nullifying expulsions and alternative school assignments

In the interest of student privacy and avoiding FERPA violations/other retribution against those involved, I don’t feel comfortable sharing any of the multiple stories I’ve confirmed to be true regarding Duval County’s handling of discipline.

What I will say, is that Duval County has nullified expulsions/alternative school assignments, sending multiple dangerous students back to multiple neighborhood schools against the wishes of the schools’ administrations.

The best I can do at the moment is talk about my own experience that I wrote ten years ago regarding a Dean nullifying my own discipline decisions as a first-year teacher.

The parallels are strong, except I had someone to appeal to when the Dean undermined my authority, whereas these principals do not.

As always, I encourage any who doubt this is an issue to do their own research:


Written Mid-Year 2005-06

For a first year teacher like me, student behavior can become an issue at times. We are learning on the job, and learn little by little what works and what does not. I learned some things quickly, and have been able to handle most matters.

But my main problem is not with students.  In my experience, many administrators are more interested in whipping their new teachers into shape than whipping their students into shape.

To illustrate, my only real discipline issue has been with a handful of students in one of my five classes.  Like most of my classes, it’s comprised of students who have not performed well in the past. Some of the students are strong characters, and it takes a lot of creativity to manage them.

Still, I mostly deal with problems myself. I take students aside and talk to them privately.  I assign “problem” students to different seats. I send them for a timeout with another teacher. I call their parents. And, I document my actions.

But now, for the first time in any of my classes, I cut a lesson short because students talked loudly during lecture. I repeatedly told the same students to be quiet, politely but sternly. When that did not work, I finally turned off the overhead and explained, “Half of this class wants to learn; the other half doesn’t (which is accurate – many are in this class for laziness, not lack of ability). Those of you who don’t are interfering with my teaching and their learning. This will not continue.” For the first time that day, the class was silent.

Three of those students were problems from day one, and I had logs to prove it.  They neither feared their parents nor respected my requests. So, I wrote three referrals for 2.01 offenses (“Failure to follow directions regarding order in the classroom”). According to the Student Code of Conduct, a 2.01 is appropriate for students who habitually disrupt class, and mandates a minimum 2-day suspension.  Along with the referrals, I submitted six single-spaced typed pages of corrective-action logs for those three students.

The dean approached me and asked if she could change the names and publish the logs as examples in her doctoral program, because they were “a model” of what teachers are supposed to do. I was glad I had done well, and hoped the suspension would be a wake-up call for those students.

The next week, I received all three referrals – not just the teacher’s copy of the referrals as I had expected, but the entire triplicate – unprocessed.  They said, “Schedule parent conferences.” No punishment. I was slack-jawed. I had talked to their parents in the past, with no results.

After speaking to her privately, she said this was not an “order in the classroom” issue, but rather a “classroom management issue.”

Translation: an administrator looked me, a teacher, in the eye and said, “It is not the students’ fault that they were defiant: their defiance was your fault.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of it. She said she would not punish the students for “Failure to follow directions,” because no one was physically threatened.  So in effect, students are free to disrupt class and be defiant to teachers; only when there is a threat of violence will administration be roused. Anything less is dismissed as being the teacher’s fault – a “classroom management issue.”

Yes, I’m a new teacher. In the future, I will learn to deal with difficult and strong-willed kids more smoothly than I do now, and diffuse tougher situations than I can presently.

In the meantime, I’m doing the best I know how. And in the moments I have a little trouble treading water, I expected administrators to throw me a rope instead of pushing me back down.

Administration tends to blame teachers for student behavior.  We should strive for a system where deans fulfill their charter to administer discipline, so teachers can concentrate on our charter to teach curriculum to students. I say this for one important reason:

After I stopped that lesson, I counted seven students who asked me for individual help. They are the victims; I’m not. For their sakes, I need the administrators on my side while I’m trying to figure out the art of teaching a little better. I don’t feel that’s unreasonable.

Teach the kids a little self-control, and give them a swift kick in the pants when they don’t exercise it.  At least that kick is from someone who cares about them and wants them to improve.  To me, that’s better than what the real world will offer them.


In fairness, I need to say how this story ended. On the advice of an experienced teacher, I took the unprocessed referrals and my six pages of documentation to the principal. By the end of the week all three students were suspended.

The principal’s actions sent the correct message to both the students and to me. Class behavior, class performance, and even my relationship with those three students all improved markedly after the suspensions.

The big difference between my situation and today: my discipline decision was nullified by a Dean, so I had someone to appeal to (my principal), and she made it right.

When a discipline decision is nullified by DCPS, there is no one to appeal to.

I’m not convinced DCPS administration have been using this power judiciously.

Leave a Comment

Filed under DCPS Issues

Educational Technology is a false savior

I was a consumer of Educational Technology as a student; I benefited from taking computer classes in school. I started doing BASIC programming on a Commodore 64 when I was in fourth grade. I have a B.S. in Computer Information Systems, have worked in Information Technology for over fifteen years, was an I.T. teacher, and leveraged technology in the classroom.

I was also a producer of Ed Tech as a teacher. My colleague and I set up a Moodle server for our students, and administered tests and curriculum through that interface with positive results.

The most important thing I learned from these experiences is that effective Ed Tech comes from tech-savvy teachers who use tools in their own unique way. These technophile teachers still taught traditionally (myself included); they simply used technology to streamline and improve its delivery.

So let’s be clear: I do not espouse abandoning educational technology, but I think we have to be much more intelligent and methodical about purchasing it. In my own classroom I used technology, but only in ways I felt helped me do my job better, almost never by administrative mandate. In fact, I’ve always suspected top-down mandates and purchases of classroom technology are rarely effective, especially the haphazard way it’s implemented.

This morning, the BBC  reported on a study by the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development that seems to confirm my suspicions:

[The] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results. . . If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms . . . Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately.”

I believe our recent attempts in the U.S. to measure and quantify Education have exacerbated the issue.

Teachers are evaluated on their use of technology. Their raises and even their employment are at risk if they don’t leverage computers to teach English or History. How many teachers know enough about effective use of computers to use them intelligently? How many teachers are sufficiently knowledgeable about technology to be able to take this increase in funding and translate it to an improvement in student learning? Almost none. Yet all of them are forced to take time away from traditional teaching to leverage these technologies they (quite understandably) don’t know how to use properly.

This well-intentioned but misguided thinking largely applies to how we approach Educational Technology. If a teacher is not extremely comfortable with technology — or if this technology creates more work rather than streamlining existing tasks — it will probably not have the desired result.

My experience as School Technology Coordinator and high school teacher (of Math, Science and Computers) has taught me a few things about Educational Technology. Here is my experience; others may have different experiences or may disagree, and that’s fine. Here is what I’ve observed:

  1. Technology advances are purchased without proper research.
  2. Technology advances are applied recklessly without proper transition or training once purchased.
  3. A significant percentage of technical advances purchased are best described as “solutions without problems”, which are invariably forced upon teachers who neither want nor need them.
  4. I have never seen User Acceptance Testing implemented prior to completion of an Ed Tech project.
  5. Borderline-inexcusable oversights (I certainly hope they’re oversights) like:
    • Issuing computer-based curriculum without making sure there are enough computers to deliver the curriculum to all students using it.
    • Issuing Macintosh-based curriculum to teachers without issuing Macintosh computers to teachers.
    • Issuing a class set of laptops or tablets without Wi-Fi access points that can handle an entire classroom.
  6. Replacing Intensive Reading (“remedial”) textbooks with iPads.
    • iPads are great, but a waste at $500-$700 a pop. Why not, for example, this $99 Kindle for Kids bundle that includes cases (to take the abuse students will inflict) plus a 2-year replacement warranty? And this $99 is a retail price, not a bulk contract price.
    • Again: these iPads were issued to classrooms without installing WiFi hotspots capable of handling 30 wireless clients at once.
  7. Everything is rushed. Superintendents and politicians have short terms, so they have to “do” something or “change” something in order to give the appearance of success.

I think of stories where American Government textbooks were removed and replaced with online curriculum. At any given time, there were always significantly more American Government classes than there were computer labs. And during standardized testing season (which is scattered throughout the entire school year), instruction would grind to a halt, unless teachers prepared their own lessons from scratch. This means the introduction of technology (a.) lowered the quality of instruction for students, and (b.) created extra work for teachers.

Technology should be a tool that makes formerly manual jobs more easily accomplished, and/or with better quality. Too often, it is quite the opposite in my experience. Educational technology is a false savior; we can’t just throw money at it and expect it to work. We have to be intelligent and informed in our purchases. And again, this is not scientific, just an observation that may be flawed. But I think there’s a strong basis of reality beneath the observation.

I can’t help but think that looking at ways to improve how Ed Tech is purchased and implemented would be a very interesting project and might alleviate some of the problems found by this study.

2 Comments

Filed under General Thoughts

My speech to the Duval County School Board

Below is from the April 7, 2015 Duval County School Board meeting:


In 2013-14, the number of high school classes was increased by 14%, without properly funding extra teachers. This led to many elective and core classes having 50-100 students. Teachers were not hired to relieve these huge classes in many cases until over two months were gone into the school year.

In the meantime, secondary principals were given a choice to convert their librarian position to a teaching position. Given the situation above, I believe this was a false choice.

As a result, roughly 70% of existing middle school libraries, and roughly 80% of existing high schools libraries, were closed. Some will tell you they were open, but what they mean, is that the libraries were unlocked.

Twenty-eight librarian positions were eliminated for a cost savings of $1.8 million out of a roughly $1.8 billion dollar budget (1/10 of 1%). Meanwhile, the School Board and Superintendent agreed to save and set aside over 60 million extra dollars in a rainy day fund according to Khris Brooks of the Times-Union. Saving money is wonderful. But not when you are closing libraries and having math classes of nearly 100 students, as reported by First Coast News.

This is not new information. In fact, Joey Frencl, Duval County Teacher of the Year, told you about these library closings nearly two years ago in June 2013. Yet we continue to close down libraries. According to Denise Smith-Amos in the Florida Times-Union front page story last Wednesday, there is only one high school and one middle school left with a librarian. This hurts everyone, but most of all low-income children who have neither Internet access nor a ride to the public library.

Who is making sure books aren’t stolen? Who is doing inventory? Some have suggested volunteers and students could fill the gap. Meanwhile, retired librarians like Susan Santos have stated, “$600 digital projectors, $300 presentation carts, DVDs… cameras are walking out of the library.” I have heard reports from various reliable sources that thousands of books have gone missing from our libraries during this time without librarians.

I encourage those of you who are interested to read further information at miketheteacher.com. Also, please read the Times-Union article on librarians becoming an endangered species, my guest column in the Times-Union, and Superintendent Vitti’s rebuttal to my Times-Union column.

School Board, Superintendent, you have a chance to undo some of the damage. We must hire media specialists, and fund our libraries. Thank you.

2 Comments

Filed under DCPS Issues

My guest column in the Florida Times-Union

My guest column in the Florida Times-Union regarding Nikolai Vitti’s leadership was published Wednesday. Superintendent Vitti’s rebuttal to my column was published alongside my column.

And for good measure, a letter to the Editor comparing our columns (I believe it’s the fourth letter from the top).

On the same day, Denise Smith-Amos’s story on our school libraries made the front page of the Florida Times-Union.

1 Comment

Filed under DCPS Issues

Education is not the solution; it is an opportunity

Education is not the solution for poverty, injustice or even ignorance. Education is an opportunity — no more, no less — for each individual student to work their hardest to escape these evils. If we actually want to improve Education, we have to accept this.


When we lose sight of the fact we’re here to provide opportunities, we spend billions on redundant exams and unneeded curriculum changes while dissolving libraries (to save mere millions) and failing to prepare teachers properly for the constant change. We spend billions to fulfill the demand for guaranteed outcomes, when nearly any guarantee in Education outcomes is a fantasy; most variables are outside our control.

I think it’s obvious this trend stems from businesspeople lobbying and advising our government to run Education like a business. I actually think the people wanting to run schools like businesses are overwhelmingly well-intentioned — with some exceptions — but it doesn’t work. I’ve lived in both worlds, and they are extremely different. By nature, businesses have much tighter control of their input and processes. When you hire someone, you choose the person you think has the best chance for success and tell the other applicants (nicely) to hit the road. When an employee disrupts your business processes, you might fire them. If someone is valuable to your company, you have powerful incentives at your disposal like raises or bonuses to retain them.

But schools are not factories, students aren’t widgets, and they certainly aren’t our employees. Students have minds of their own. They have different backgrounds, aptitudes, desires and work ethics. In Education, we can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) hire and fire them, give them raises, or control their study habits, strengths and weaknesses.

And since students are the only ones who live with the privileges or consequences arising from their performance, all we can do — and must do — is ensure we provide students with the best opportunities possible, and encourage them to take advantage. But we still can’t guarantee any level of student success, because the rest is up to them.

Administrators say, “Kids don’t read much; why should we provide libraries for books to collect dust?” Administrators say, “Kids never take their textbooks home to study, why should we buy a book to issue to each student?” Even if many kids don’t use these resources, it doesn’t matter. If we are to reasonably provide children with the best opportunities, all of them should have the choice to take a book home for a couple of weeks (as I’ve pointed out numerous times, restoring librarians would be incredibly cheap), or their textbook home at night, and read it. Whether or not they do so, is up to them. Education is here to provide opportunities, not make guarantees.

I am not pretending that all, or (let’s be honest teachers), even most students are conscientious enough to take full advantage. That doesn’t matter, because the children who have (or develop) initiative should have the choice to better themselves. To take a textbook home, and study. To take a vocational book home, and get started on learning a trade. To take a novel home, learn to love reading and become better readers (And who knows? Reading scores might even improve if you provide kids books to read). Whether or not kids do so, is up to them. Some will, many won’t. We hope and strive to encourage  as many children as possible to do so.

I say this with the firm belief that we have already won 90% of the battle in Education over the past century with two strokes of the pen (Child Labor Laws/Compulsory Education Laws) and the struggle to enforce one Supreme Court decision that sets the ideal of equal opportunity for all (Brown v. Board of Education).

Yes, there are legitimate concerns and debates, but they pale in comparison to progress already made. The opportunity is there for the taking; parents and students must seize it. And as anyone who runs any kind of enterprise should know, unnecessary or improperly applied changes are at least as likely to harm than help. For this reason, I advocate common-sense boosts and moving spending towards the work of teachers and students, rather than sweeping reform that shifts spending towards administration and exam publishers. A bit of calming down all the way around may be what we need. This is much easier when we acknowledge Education is not the solution, but an opportunity for all.

1 Comment

Filed under General Thoughts