Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Adventure Running for Schoolboard.

Preface: The election was last Tuesday. I made the ballot by one vote.

Yes. I am running for school board. Why? Because, once again I have to back up my rhetoric with actions. Plus, I am no longer willing to watch my local community-school get squashed by the market driven reforms being thrust upon it. If our school goes down I want to go down with it.

There is a quick story as to how I became a candidate. In the winter, two of our board members stepped down, creating temporary vacancies. A call went out to the local community for volunteers. I got a little nudging from "friends" but I made the decision to put name in pretty much on my own. Walk the talk.

The process for replacing board members that step down is relatively simple. You submit your name and resume and explain your desire to be considered. You then appear in front of the current board and answer some school board-related questions. If the current members find you acceptable and they vote for you, you're in. I completed all the necessary paperwork and received confirmation that I would be considered as a candidate.

The following week I was at the elementary school dropping off some materials for my daughter when I was stopped in the hallway. According to this person there were a lot of people supporting me. The term would only be for four months until the general election, and considering my background as an educator, I felt relatively confident in my chances of being selected by the remaining board members.

However, one week before the interviews I was informed by a friend that I was not going to be selected. "How could that be? I hadn't even had my interview," I thought. The current board didn't really know anything about me except for what was on my resume -- or so I thought. I pressed my friend for information: "Why? What was the problem? How was it possible to be eliminated before even interviewing?"

That's when living in a small, conservative (and I don't necessarily mean that in a derogatory manner) town smacked me upside the head. According to my friend, even though some community members liked my background in education, I had a major problem. You see, according to some in the community, along with being involved in little league baseball and football and being a member of the PTO, I am also a liberal college professor, most likely an atheist, and I probably have plans to get rid of the Christmas play. I looked at my friend in disbelief.

He then told me how he launched into an hour-long promotion of my education related qualifications and how I actually have really great ideas when it comes to public education. But he said his listeners had serious hearing problems. In truly conservative towns, right wing rhetoric is typically viewed as unbiased news -- absolutely factual! Therefore, since I actually do work at a college as a faculty member, I must be an unabashed liberal, atheist, and Christmas warmonger (according to the leading news agencies -- right wing radio).

Anyway, after pondering this new professional reputation, I attended the interview process the following week. I gave great answers related to public schools and what's best for children and communities that value public schools (I kept my disdain for Christmas a secret), but in the end I only received one of the four votes needed to be selected to finish out the terms of the vacating school board members. Oh well. It wasn't like I didn't have enough to do at my university job -- advocating socialism and the destruction of all religions.

However, after a month I received a strange call one morning from a standing school board member (a no vote for me). He told me that he had just filed his paper work for re-election and found out that I wasn't running. He wondered why. I told him very simply that since my "interview" with the board and finding out my reputation in the community, I was not going to run in the election. I told him I did not stand a chance at winning. Then it happened again (small town politics). According to this person, he now wished that he had voted for me and that "other community members" were hoping I was going to run. I just listened and thought, "Really? What about Christmas?"

The caller also volunteered to help me file paper work, collect signatures and "not hold it against" me that I was registered Democrat. My new supporter lived up to his word and within three days we had collected all the necessary signatures. I took all my paper work to the courthouse and filed it with the elections office and in five days I received confirmation that I was an "official" candidate for school board. Now what? Hand-shaking? Baby-kissing? Christmas in April celebration?

No. My next experience came in an official looking envelope addressed to "school director candidate Timothy D. Slekar." I didn't take the time to look at the return address so when I opened the letter I was a bit surprised. The letter was from the local Tea Party. According to the letter, the Tea Party was gathering information on all local candidates for school board. Along with this letter was a questionnaire. The Tea Party wanted me to answer their questions concerning my ability and desire to run for school board. If I answered the questions the Tea Party would post my responses to their website so community members could make some kind of judgment concerning my candidacy for school board.

After reading the questions it was obvious that the Tea Party had no objective intention to "gather information." They were looking for certain answers to their loaded questions. Considering that my reputation as an intolerant atheist was already known, I decided to answer their questions anyway. I'm sure they were looking for me to proclaim my hatred of taxpayers, my love of unions, and to finally come clean about my intentions for the Christmas play. However, I decided to play my own game and below are my answers to the Tea Party school board candidate questionnaire. I also decided that since I had taken the time to answer their questions that they should answer some questions for me. So after you read my responses you can see my questions to the Tea Party.

What are the main responsibilities of a school board, and what would your priorities be?

Local School boards serve the community. The community includes all members—children, parents, taxpayers, business owners, etc. My main priority would be to help establish communication between all these constituents and focus our discussions on how the community can support the main mission of the public schools.

Right away defining the mission of the community schools is a priority. Our community schools’ function in American society has been corrupted over the last 30 years. The schools are not the property of the federal government or businesses that have a single-minded idea about the function of schools—to supply compliant workers and obedient citizens.

It is time to get back to the roots of public education—providing a rich learning experience rooted in the classic liberal arts that prepares children for life in a democratic society.

Cite personal experiences that qualify you to set and direct a school curriculum.

I have spent the past 21 years as an educator at the elementary level, middle school level, and college level. I have developed curriculum at each of these levels and I have conducted and published research on issues dealing with teaching and learning. Also, I am a constant reader of education research and I am readily able to provide a rich analysis of educational programs that involved either the new development of curricular materials or judging the merit of existing curricular materials. Not that this matters much, but I also have a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Maryland.

Cite personal experiences that qualify you to develop and direct a multi-million dollar budget.

In my current position as Head of the Division of Education, Human Development, and Social Sciences I have spent the last three years developing and directing a $500,000 budget. This budget is also part of Penn State Altoona’s “multi-million dollar budget.” My combined duties of managing my Division budget in concert with the College budget has helped me develop a budget philosophy that continually looks for efficiencies, but keeps the core mission of providing the best educational opportunities for our students as my guiding principle.

Do you support every line item in the current budget? Are there essential items that could be provided more efficiently? Are there non-essential items than can be eliminated?

If anybody has a defined answer to this question then they are politically pitching an election gimmick. Community based school districts are constantly changing as society changes. I can answer generically that, yes, there are essential items that could be provided more efficiently and that there are non-essential items that can be eliminated. However, I am not in a position to judge specifics. I need to look at the total operation and investigate all the budget items and determine how the budget promotes excellence in education. If I find items that do not support the mission of helping all children thrive in a democratic society then I would be willing to discuss these items.

The student population has been declining and is projected to decline, while the cost of administration has been increasing. How do you propose to reconcile this?

Those darn statistics always have a way of being used by the messenger to make a point that supports a certain political position. A declining student population is only true for certain districts. In fact this question doesn’t even bother to identify where there is a declining population. Should readers assume a declining population in all of Pennsylvania, the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, or locally? Even if you mean locally, can you be more specific? Well at least I’ll be specific. In Bellwood where I am running for school director student demographics seem to indicate nothing—no growth and no decline. As to whether the cost of administration has increased in Bellwood at the moment I don’t have those statistics so I can’t confirm or deny the cost has risen. I do know that Bellwood has eliminated one administrative position for next year. This will save the district around $100,000.

Cite two steps you would work to implement and to improve communications between the school board and the public.

Personally I would be willing to be available on some kind of regular basis at a local establishment so that the public can come and talk directly to me about issues or concerns they have about the community school system. However, the public has the responsibility of making their concerns known. This democratic system requires participation. Griping over coffee is fine but it will never amount to policy changes. The community based public school system can only function when residents are fully engaged in the democratic discourse available to them in the form of public school board meetings. I have no ability to force residents to take their responsibility as a citizen. I can only remind them that if they have something to say then “put down the coffee and call me or come to the meetings.”

How was last year’s, one-time federal stimulus money spent by the district;and should it have been used differently?

The answer to this question involves understanding that the stimulus money was a one-time deal. Therefore how it was used is no longer an issue. It’s gone! Speculating on how it might have been used differently would be a dishonest act of politicking. Since the money is already spent why criticize how it was spent? Doing this requires no courage because it’s easy to criticize something that’s already been done. I’m sure candidates for school director can come up with ways to spend last years stimulus money that might make potential voters happy, but that’s all it would be is political pandering with no real consequences because if elected there is no promise to keep because spending the stimulus money is totally hypothetical. There is no stimulus money. Why would I try to spend something that doesn’t exist anymore?

Do you believe the total cost and design of all recent district construction projects can be justified?

Do you believe there is a method of determining whether district construction projects can be justified? If so, please share it with me in case I win the election. That would be a really handy tool. As for the design, I am not an architect so I am not qualified to judge the design to cost effectiveness equation. As a visitor to the newly renovated elementary school (Myers Elementary) I don’t have any problems with its aesthetics. The renovations are not ugly in my opinion. Internally the design seems to support a sense of community and the learning spaces appear to support good teaching. I have also heard “over coffee” that a lot of parents are very proud of “their” school. I have also overheard others “over their coffee” question the need for the renovations. My guess is that this is common. Depends with whom you speak.

Are there any lessons have you learned from the mistakes of the current or previous school boards?

I am not in a position to answer that question if it applies directly to a particular school board. If you want to know if school boards make mistakes then that seems like a pretty silly question. All forms of democratic institutions make mistakes. That’s the beauty of democracy and self-government. The ability to admit the fallibility of a government institution seems central to democratic ideals. If it was without fault then as a form of government it would not be democratic. There would be no need for active participation by the citizens—only subservient obedience. That’s what makes a community based school system worth having—it provides community members a true forum to practice living in a democracy. If you take away the public school system then you take away a piece of democracy. If elected I will always advocate for the community based public school system. The schools are the souls of our communities and a gauge on our willingness to continue to experiment with self –government.

Now that I have answered your questions, would you mind answering a few questions related to the Tea Party and its support of community based public schools?
  1. How do community-based public schools support the concept of self-government?
  2. Does the Tea Party support community-based public schools?
  3. If so, can you detail any Tea Party efforts to strengthen local schools?
  4. What would a Tea Party candidate offer a community-based public school if elected to the board?
  5. Does the Tea Party support the expansion of charter schools?
  6. If the Tea Party is for budget restraint in public spending, why do Tea Party candidates largely support school voucher bills when vouchers have been demonstrated over the last 10 years to actually increase the burden on local taxpayers?
  7. Does the Tea Party support limiting collective bargaining agreements that enable teachers to advocate for budget items that help children?
  8. Why does the Tea Party care about school board members when most visible Tea Party candidates openly advocate for policies that would harm community-based public schools?
  9. If the Tea Party believes in the concept of self-government, why do so-called Tea Party candidates take monetary donations from groups that are hostile towards policies that promote citizen voice over corporate interests?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Candy Crowley and Education

CROWLEY: Joining me now, Democratic senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He was the superintendent of Denver's public schools, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, he is the former education secretary and former president of the University of Tennessee, Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers and CNN education contributor Steve Perry is the founder and principal of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. Thank you all for being here.

Let me throw out to you just the overarching question, I think that I personally was sort of appalled when I saw how the U.S. stacked up against other education systems around the world of 38 countries, we're about 14th, very middling. What are other countries doing that we're not doing? Just jump ball.

WEINGARTEN: So, we actually had an international summit sponsored by the secretary of education just this past month to think about just that, with many of the countries that out compete us at that summit. And what they are doing they focus on preparing teachers like we prepare doctors in this country. They focus on the support in classrooms. They look at teachers as the president has often said as nation builders and with a lot of stature.

We do things where, you know, we think a charter school here will work. Let's focus on testing one day. Let's focus on charter schools one day. We do the silver bullet theory. They do the theory of really growing knowledge.

BENNET: We have not recognized how the world has changed around us both in terms of our delivery of education and the international delivery. So when the last president became president George Bush, the second George Bush, we led the world in the production of college graduates. Today, ten years later, we're 12th or 15th in the world. That's how fast it's changed. And we're running a system right now that's producing from children in poverty only nine college graduates out of 100 kids.

So my view is that, you know, if we were given a blank sheet of paper to redesign the system, we wouldn't design the system we have today. One of the things we do is figure out how to much better support people that want to teach in our country.

CROWLEY: Either one of you, it seems to me that we don't really have time here to -- an entire generation is being lost in an educational system that's not just serving them badly, it's serving the nation badly.

PERRY: Well, what we've done is we've designed schools to support the needs of adults, not the expectations that the country puts on its children. So we've created working conditions that are most conducive to the adults. We have 6 1/2 hour school days. We have an eight month school year, all of which is counter to what children need.

So one things that we're not doing that other countries are doing, and successful schools in this country -- because we need not leave this country, we have very successful schools in this country -- we haven't put children first.

CROWLEY: Let me just -- I just want to give these figures to our audience. 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, 25th in math. We must be doing something -- what is glaring here?

ALEXANDER: Well, let's think about what we're doing right. What we're doing right is by any standard we have almost all the best colleges and universities in the world, almost any standard. We should change our elementary and secondary system and make it more like our colleges which is to say create independent schools, we call them charter schools, and let the money follow the children to any school that fits the needs of those children. If they need to be there from 6:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night and on Saturday they can select that school. That would help.

WEINGARTEN: So, let me just jump in here, Senator. Because the senator has had tremendous amount of experience in terms of education. But that's -- but what the other countries are doing right is that they are actually focusing on making sure that all kids have a decent shot at education. They are not doing the kind of silver bullet theories we do in the United States.

(CROSSTALK) ALEXANDER: The silver bullet theory is not giving -- if you give a poor kid a ticket to a good school, that's not a silver bullet, that's an opportunity.

WEINGARTEN: But what I'm saying is when we look at the evidence, look at the evidence, we have some incredibly great schools in the United States of America and we have some really terrible schools. But if you look at the evidence of what works, what works is having a strong group of teachers and principals working together collaboratively.

Having a real good curriculum that -- where we're engaging kids in a real way and trumping poverty, not making excuses for it. But these other countries in the world don't have independent charter schools.


ALEXADNER: Why don't you let a poor kid have a ticket to a good school, at Hartford for example.

PERRY: Why is it -- if you believe what you said, then why is it that the teachers unions are the first in line to stop children from leaving failed schools? Why is it on a regular basis your organization stands in support of the teachers in failed schools. If we put children first, if we put children first, than what we don't care where they go to school, we just care they go to a good school.

We need your organization and others to stand with the education reforms and say children are first, every day, and regardless of what we think the school is or how hard the teachers are working if they are not producing shut the school down period.

WEINGARTEN: Actually, we've done a lot of those shut the schools down for the last 20 years and it hasn't worked. But on the ground right now as we're talking in Washington, there are cuts in school budgets throughout the country. So kids are losing out in terms of music. They are losing out in terms of sports. They are losing out in terms of arts. They are losing the kind of activities that they need to engage them.

The issue is...

ALEXANDER: Why don't you let them then go to a school that has music and arts.

PERRY: One of the reasons that we have that...


WEINGARTEN: We need to have the finances in schools so we can help all kids, not some kids. The bottom line is...

PERRY: That's not the issue. One of the issues, as a principal who is... WEINGARTEN: Steve, one more -- can I just finish one more point, which is that the point that you're raising about these kind of alternatives, there are studies now that say that 80 percent of these alternative schools, the charter schools are not performing as well as public schools.

PERRY: But that's not the only alternative. And as somebody who is on the front line and who does have the responsibility of maintaining a local budget, I think that one of the best things to happen in education has been the budget crisis because it requires us to hook into ourselves and make decisions and realize that what's driving the cost of education is not football practice, it's not band practice it's the personnel. And if you have people who get guaranteed increases regardless of whether or not they do anything well, then that's what drives the cost.

CROWLEY: Let me -- I'll come back and start with you, Senator. We're going to take a quick break here because I want to get down to some of the specifics because we're talking teacher pay here. You started out about talking about respect for teachers. I think I've heard that for 30 years in Washington about how we have to have more respect for teachers, we have to elevate that career choice. And I want to talk a little bit about how you all want to go about doing that. We'll be right back after this break.


CROWLEY: We're back and talking education reform with senators Michael Bennet and Lamar Alexander, as well as Randi Weingarten and Steve Perry.

Thank you all again. Let me start with you, Senator, because you did start out -- I promise you, since "Nation at Risk," and I remember doing a story about "Nation at Risk," and said, you know, if a foreign country had done to our schools what we're doing to our schools, we would have declared war, essentially. Here we are, we are still talking about we have to find a way to make this an elevated career path. How do we do it?

BENNET: Well, I would argue -- I said the other day on the Senate Floor that if the hundred senators in the Senate faced the same odds for their kids that kids in poverty face, I guarantee you, we wouldn't be hanging around the Senate Floor for very long, we would be going home to figure out how to get our kids into the finest schools with faculties that are doing the work that we were talking about earlier.

One of the things that I think we need to do is under and, and this is a positive thing about our country, we need to understand that finding people that are willing to do the same job for 30 years of their life is going to be really hard to do in the 21st Century. We used to do that. We take the best British literature student in her class and we'd make her a teacher for 30 years, because we wouldn't let her do anything else.

That's no longer the case. I'm very interested, as a result, and I've been thinking about how you think about compensation over a seven- or nine-year period of time, you know, in the classroom. Today we've got a system designed with a very low current wage. But we say, if you hang around for 30 -- or if you're there for 30 years, we'll give you a pension for your retirement.

Well that incentive structure may have made sense at one time. It probably makes less sense today for new people that are coming to the profession.

CROWLEY: Do you think that the system, as it currently is, protects bad teachers? Would you admit that?

WEINGARTEN: I think that the system -- I think that right now whereas there's no epidemic of bad teachers, we've got to do a lot better job at the preparation, the support, the nurturing, and then if somebody can't teach, ushering them out. And we have...


CROWLEY: If we're 14th around the world and our...

WEINGARTEN: Wait, wait, let me...


PERRY: It is teachers. We can't just say that we live in a country where we have bad parents.

WEINGARTEN: Let me finish.

CROWLEY: Let me have her just finish.

WEINGARTEN: It's not -- we don't have bad parents. And we don't have an epidemic of bad teachers. What these other countries do is that they do what our new teachers have just told us they want. They support and nurture.

Teaching is not like speed-dating. You can't just plop somebody in and say, do it, and then if they don't get the test scores that one wants, to usher them out of the profession. We have to nurture and prepare.

Having said that, we have to evaluate and we have focus on performance. Steve is right about that. And the AFT has been focusing on how we do evaluations in a way that doesn't shield incompetence, but also doesn't allow management to have an excuse not to manage.

PERRY: The problem with many of us, principals in particular, like I am, is that we spend a year or two sword-fighting with the organizations that protect them to make sure that we have dotted our I's and crossed our T's to get rid of this teacher.

That teacher is responsible on the low end for 120 students. So that teacher is the Algebra I teacher, and she's not very good. Then all of the children who had her for Algebra I do not know what they need to know. We can't get that year back.

So what we need you to do...

WEINGARTEN: Steve, we are doing in Connecticut -- in Connecticut, we are doing the kind of innovation in terms of legislation that actually will help us identify, people are doing a good job, and if they are not, to help them, and if they are still not, to usher them out of the profession.


CROWLEY: Let me interrupt both of you at this point only because, you know, if you're the mother of the child, and the teacher that you want to help, your don't want your child with that teacher that needs help, you want it with a teacher that knows what they are doing.

WEINGARTEN: Right. But, Candy, the issue becomes what's happening right now is that there in the countries that outcompete us, in the schools that do well, it is a joint venture where what I'm suggesting here is that, as a former classroom teacher, you cannot just say to somebody, OK, just do everything we're asking you to do with every single child without help.

And what we're talking about and what Singapore has done so well is that they focus on evaluation and they focus on continuous improvement. That's the kind of stuff that they did, that Michael did in Denver. That's the kind of stuff that we need to do throughout the country and we can do it.


PERRY: Just real quickly, if I could say practically, when I have a teacher, for instance, who falls asleep in class and I try to fire this individual, and it takes me four to six months to fire them, and I have to counsel them and deprive them of the support, that's what we're talking about. We're talking about people not doing their job, and us trying to get rid of them.

WEINGARTEN: But, Steve, we are changing that.

CROWLEY: Let me call a time on this.

WEINGARTEN: We are changing that. And you know that and I know that.

CROWLEY: As you can see, there's always a conflict with the unions versus, you know, what people want to do to get better teachers in. So let's put it on the table, what's out there? I know you all have been working up on Capitol Hill in terms of federal legislation, federal reforms. What's the single best reform you all think is doable at the federal level right now?

ALEXANDER: Well, if you hadn't said federal level, I could have answered that.


ALEXANDER: Because the whole...

CROWLEY: Well, $71 billion, you ought to be doing something with that.

ALEXANDER: Federal spending on elementary and secondary education is about 10 percent of the whole package. And action is in the classroom and in the community. The holy grail of elementary and secondary education is teacher evaluation and principal evaluation.

How do you -- how do you evaluate a good teacher? And especially how do you relate student achievement to teacher performance? We're in the Model T phase of that. We don't know how to do it very well. Michael did it in Denver. BENNET: Not very well but it's getting better.

ALEXANDER: Well, but we tried it in Tennessee, lots of people are trying it. But we need to focus. The Gates Foundation is funding that. Tennessee is moving ahead on it even today as it was 20 years ago. But that's what we need to do to attract and keep the best teachers in the classroom.

I'm not talking about kicking people out. I think it's more important to keep good people in, and to find out who they are and reward them, pay them well, and you have to have differentiated pay and pay some more than others to do that.

CROWLEY: Senator Michael Bennet, Senator Lamar Alexander, Randi Weingarten, thank you, and so much, Steve Perry as well. I have to have you back because I'm not sure we have solutions but we do know what the problems are.


CROWLEY: Yes, we started the conversation anyway. Thank you all so much for joining us.

We'll be right back.