Archive for the 'Education in the news' Category



Does Spelling Matter?

spelling-998350_960_720By Stephanie Nicoletti

Does spelling matter? Do children learn proper grammar? Do children learn cursive anymore? It seems lately there is this concern about how children are learning writing and spelling skills, which is valid, but the answers to these questions are YES, OF COURSE! It just probably looks different than it used to and these important questions deserve an answer.

Learning to spell is a very difficult task because children are trying to use many different skills at once. When children are so focused on spelling every word exactly correct, the writing process gets slowed down. Many teachers, especially in the early grades, and including myself, encourage inventive spelling: the child makes his or her best guess on the spelling of the word. When a student asks, “Miss Nicoletti, how do you spell ‘because’?” I simply respond, “stretch through each sound of the word.” This practice is research-driven and when children use this method, their writing becomes more fluent with richer vocabulary.

Of course, in the older grades spelling does count, but most teachers have their students engage in a writing process. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar come in the final stages of the writing process. Spelling in the older grades comes last in the writing process for the same reason as the primary grades: focusing on spelling too much early on will limit the student’s flow of ideas and quality of writing.

So, do schools still even teach spelling then? Something that our district has implemented that I am particularly proud of is the use of the Words Their Way spelling program. To sum up: students are placed in “spelling groups” based on actual spelling patterns students need help with. When they are “tested” each week, we only look at the spelling pattern that they are focusing on, not the spelling of the whole word. This is a new type of thinking for parents and even teachers, this individualized program supports the research stated above while fostering reading and writing skills.

My Not-So-Good Blogpost

Warning: This is not a good blogpost. A few days ago, I was good to go. I had this month’s blogpost in draft form, in need of a little polish, but it was done—it was timely, relevant, I felt pretty good about it—–and then I decided to chuck it.

You see, a few days ago, my life as a blogger, a teacher, a human being was different, all of our lives were different. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and Officers Lorne Abrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa have changed everything. They have me reeling. They have me recognizing the gross insufficiency of my blogpost, and so I’m chucking it to make way for my not-so-good blogpost, not so good because the right words to process this tragedy are simply unavailable, and the full-circle format so satisfying in a blogpost (problem and solution, question and answer) won’t happen this time around. No pat answers or easy solutions here.

After all, how do we even talk about this? Gun violence. Racial injustice. It’s an understatement to say that these are difficult issues to talk about. Do you dare talk about them with your extended family, your co-workers, your students? They are mired in layers of history, race, identity, and socioeconomics. I’m certain that I’m not the only one, fingers on keyboard right now, not knowing which keys to tap, what words to use. But the very fact that these subjects are so hard to broach underscores their complexity and the urgency with which they must be tackled.

So, how can we tackle them? Here’s my not-so-good attempt:

First, Get Upset

The easiest thing to do is nothing: do nothing, say nothing. News happens and life goes on. If you do nothing and say nothing, none of your Facebook friends will be offended; no one will be arguing at the dinner table; there will be no weirdness in the break room at work. But doing nothing and saying nothing is akin to accepting the horrors of last week as “the new norm” as US Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned.  Doing nothing and saying nothing is complicity.  Our membership in the human race requires more of us.

Second, Say Something, Do Something

As a wife and mother, this means taking about it at the dinner table. As a citizen, this means picking up the phone and calling my representatives to voice my concerns about gun legislation (a topic I find tragically tied to these events). As an English teacher, this means necessarily complicating my teaching of Huck FinnThings Fall ApartTo Kill a MockingbirdOthello—to include the gamut of voices on contemporary race issues (Michael Eric Dyson’s recent “Death in Black and White” and others). It means giving my students the tools and the uncomfortable but important opportunity to process these issues in a safe, rational setting (a complex task, but one sorely needed in our world of increasingly uncivil and unbalanced discourse). As an American, this means being a part of a larger conversation, a larger action. And while I’m not certain what that will look like, I’m committed to being a part of it, as difficult and uncomfortable as it’s sure to be.

As teachers, we have many moments of truth. I’m reminded of one such moment faced by a colleague of mine during our Homecoming Parade several years ago. He stepped into the road, preventing two students in a truck donning a giant confederate flag from joining the tail end of our homecoming parade. Aside from being a physical risk, it was a social and professional one. There he was out in the community in which he taught—no time to consult with the principal, superintendent or lawyers—he decided to step in front of the truck and stop a symbol of oppression and racism from being associated with our school and community.

I’m reminded of another moment of truth in recent days by Robert, a former student of mine (how frequently our students become our teachers). Reading his post on Facebook shortly after finishing my original blogpost is what prompted my rewrite. Here are his words:

“I don’t know what to say about it, and I don’t know if I’m qualified to say anything about it. But damn it, staying quiet doesn’t feel right: I am 4 times LESS likely to be killed by the cops than any random black person is. This is not an opinion, this is fact. Because I was born with pasty white pigment, I’ve always felt safe during routine traffic stops. I’ve never carried a weapon, but I’m sure if I did I would be given credit by many for “exercising my second amendment rights.” Of course in a perfect world we should all (no matter our pigment) respect and admire the police. But you do not gain respect and admiration by also being feared. There is no doubt (just look at the stats and our ugly history) black communities have good reason to FEAR the police while white communities largely don’t. Now, I’m not saying all (or even most) cops are racist. What I am saying though, is that there is a systemic problem and police killings of black people happen at a disproportionate rate. And it must stop. If you’re white and this status makes you uncomfortable, it should do more than that. We all should be in this together to demand better.”

I’m proud of his words. I’m proud that he had the courage to struggle with words and contradictions and the complexity of what we cannot allow to become the new norm.

Third: Ask Uncomfortable Questions

My building principal has a saying that I’ve always found helpful. He says that part of his job is to make people uncomfortable. To change, to improve, to grow, we must be uncomfortable with the status quo. I can think of little that’s more uncomfortable than discussing these ideas in a classroom, but the classroom is a microcosm of the world, and choosing silence means accepting the events of last week the status quo.

We have little choice, then, but to ask uncomfortable questions, and there are many:

  • What does it mean that President Obama, US District Attorney Loretta Lynch, Dallas Chief of Police David Brown are all African Americans in the highest positions of power in politics, law enforcement and justice, yet our politics and law enforcement and justice systems are mired in racial tensions and inequalities?
  • How do we come to terms with the progress we’ve made and the problems that remain?
  • What is the relationship between our gun laws and violence? Between patrons bearing arms and police violence perpetrated against them? Between police deaths and gun proliferation?
  • What is the majority opinion in America regarding background checks and the legality of assault-type weapons?  Is this voice being represented by our legislators?
  • What happens when violence escalates, but conditions don’t change? What have other countries—historically and contemporarily—done to curb gun violence?
  • What initiatives are in place to examine and improve race relations?  What role does segregation play in race relations?
  • What role/responsibility does social media play in peace-keeping, accountability, and inciting violence? What role do television and radio media play?

I want to live in a country where we ask the uncomfortable questions, where we relentlessly strive for social justice, where we respect and protect our institutions of law enforcement and justice, where we do what’s required of us as citizens in a democracy.

That’s why as a blogger, a mother, a teacher, a citizen, and a human being, I was required to write this not-so-good blogpost.

Drop Educator Effectiveness: an Exercise in Common Sense

By Claudia Felske – If you lose 50 pounds, do you buy some new clothes you’ll look great in, or walk around in saggy, baggy old ones?

If you finally pay off your car, do you spend that money elsewhere, or do you keep sending in that $500 check every month?  

If your engagement is broken off, do you move on, or do you spend the rest of your life sitting in your wedding dress in front of your uneaten wedding cake, Miss Havisham style?

If you’re driving to Disney for a family vacation, do you stop when you reach Orlando, or do you keep going because there’s still gas in the tank?  

If the federal government revokes Educator Effectiveness (an ineffective, time-consuming mandate that makes teachers feel like dogs chasing their own tails) do you revoke it at the state level as well, or do you keep it in place because, well, it’s in place?

So, here’s the thing. As you may have guessed, this last hypothetical is not a hypothetical.

In December, the United States Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act). The re-authorization includes revoking the federal mandate for the Educator Effectiveness System.  Yet, thanks to Wisconsin legislators, this highly problematic initiative remains law in the State of Wisconsin.no-nonsense

My question (and I believe the question of many Wisconsin educators) is: Why not buy new clothes, stop sending in extra car payments, take the wedding dress off, stop in Orlando, and why not bow out of a failing Educator Effectiveness System, which yields negligible results and diverts enormous amounts of time and resources that could be better spent in Wisconsin schools?  

Anything less is nonsense.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Slovak_referendum,_2015,_portable_ballot_boxBy Peggy Wuenstel – There is a piece of proposed legislation making its way through the Wisconsin state house that every free-thinking Wisconsinite should be aware of. Bill 355 seeks to put significant limits on the ways in which local school districts can ask for financial assistance from their taxpayers through referenda. It is a drastic move away from the traditional local control of schools to the state government assuming the authority to determine what kinds of schools our children attend. Why should the lack of local control of Wisconsin schools concern you?

  • There is a reason that local governing bodies that direct the policies and funding of schools are called school boards or boards of education and not boards of tax control. The charge of these bodies is to determine the needs of local students and their families and the willingness of the community to meet those needs. While some members seek office with the intent of reducing tax burdens, the majority are motivated by their desire to direct and support education within their political, social, and personal point of view. The service of these individuals is often direct democracy at its best, with these public servants attending meetings, making decisions and meeting directly with constituents in ways that far outpace other representative bodies.
  • School expenses continue to rise as costs of materials, insurance, energy, security, and staffing to meet expanding student needs grow. There are state and federal mandates which much be met. Even after exploring supplemental funding sources like grants, charitable donations, naming rights, and expanded student fees, the gaps remain between what it costs and what state and federal governments provide.
  • State funding has been slashed in Wisconsin over the last few budget cycles. With rising costs, and shrinking state support, local districts are forced to go to property owners to make up the difference. The overall cost of educating children does not go down, the responsibility just shifts from one level to another. Property taxes are often a very unfair way to apportion support for schools.
  • Wisconsin schools are diverse and proudly so. While a common set of standards drives the curriculum and content of instruction, local needs, strengths, and preferences vary widely. Areas of the state have different priorities. Some districts highlight athletic programs. Others demonstrate patronage for the arts. Agricultural programs might meet local community needs and closely bond schools, industry and community governments. The varied cultural and socio-economic needs of home districts require local control to understand, direct, and make these visions reality. Some districts are large and urban in nature serving tens of thousands of students. Some boards of education govern a single school. Wisconsin education has historically been the antithesis of one size fits all.
  • Schools are often the heart of a community, its social life, and its hope for the future. Leadership in government, civic, church, and are connected, nurtured and directed by schools and school personnel. Our buildings, staff, facilities, and initiatives are rich resources for cities, towns, and villages all over Wisconsin. They deserve, and thankfully often receive, community support.
  • The Wisconsin system for financing schools contributes to significant inequities between districts. Property rich districts are well-funded and offer superior facilities and outstanding educators due to the ability to attract and retain employees with salary, benefit, and continuing education packages that support professionals in their work with children. Rural and revenue-challenged districts face the dual challenges of smaller labor pools and limited tax bases. Providing quality education statewide should be the goal of every parent, local community leader, and school official regardless of where they live.

The current proposal before the legislature seeks to reduce how often, what time of year, and how frequently school boards ask their communities for support. It seems to be another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The ability to ask at a local level for support for education gives that say to voters, not state senators who want to centralize control of Wisconsin schools. One has to wonder if this attempt to limit “the ask” of local school boards is a reaction to a recent up-tick in positive outcomes of local referenda.  An administration that hangs its political hat on the promise of tax reduction might find it hard to convince citizens that shifting responsibility to local school boards from state tax revenues saves anything except politicians’ reputations as being tough on tax increases or as advocates for centralized, depersonalized education for Wisconsin’s children.

In my three decade career I have trained and worked in large districts and small. My own children have attended urban and rural schools. I have had the opportunity to compare per pupil spending, student to teacher ratios, course offerings and extracurricular offerings, all before the expanded school choice system. I have been employed by districts that never passed referenda, and those who have graciously supported the schools every time they were asked. I hope we continue to live in a state where the ask as well as the answer remain local decisions.

There Are No Rules and All the Rules Have Changed

rot appleBy Claudia Felske – A great man once said (actually it was Tom Brokaw last week on Meet the Press): “There are no rules and all the rules have changed.” He was talking about the trumpification of politics, but he might as well been talking about the state of education since it’s become clear that all the rules in education have indeed changed.

Incidentally, the alternative title for this blog post was “I Just Lost My Two Best Friends.” The two titles are, in essence, one: I lost my two best friends because all the rules in education have changed.

We three began our teaching careers together, same year, same high school. The year was 1993—she, the beautiful new French teacher, he the handsome, smiley guy of the math department, and me somewhere in between. Over the next 22 years, we became best friends, our social lives and families deeply intertwined. Naturally, I assumed we’d also share a retirement banquet decades later.  

Now, somehow that dynamic French teacher and that gifted math teacher are no longer in the classrooms down the hall, no longer at my lunch table, no longer in the faculty lot when I arrive in the morning or leave after school. And I’m heartbroken, as are many of their students. It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like someone broke the rules because there were rules after all, unwritten as they were.

Broken Rule #1: Loyalty is a two-way street.  Our school district was good to us; and in turn, we were good to our school district. Teaching in a small rural school, we were immune to many problems faced by larger districts. We knew this, and we were grateful for it. We educated generations of students, and we knew our students, our curriculum, and our community inside and out. This was a win for our students, our district, and for us. We could also rely on predictable pay scales with a clear path to increased salaries over the long haul. For all of these reasons, we stayed put. Whenever someone left, it was for one of three reasons: retirement, a serious health issue, or a change of vocation altogether. Teachers didn’t leave in order to teach somewhere else. We were “Lifers,” and many town residents had the same teachers as their parents. Classroom stories were passed down generation to generation like sacred folklore. 

broken rulesCompare that with our current reality: Three of our teachers recently left to teach at other high schools, two left within two weeks of the new school year. And this is hardly an anomaly; it’s happening on a much larger scale in districts across the state. Act 10 and decreased state funding (the “tools” Governor Walker gave localities) have forced many districts to freeze or decrease their payscales. This has led many teachers, with mortgages and college tuitions looming, to surf the job market. Talk to any superintendent or principal in Wisconsin and you’ll hear the same story: I spoke recently with a principal who’d lost 14% of his staff the month before school started. Imagine the long term consequences here: wealthy districts landing the most qualified teachers and poor districts, the least. The gentrification of teaching. Hardly the ingredients of free and equitable public education.  

Broken Rule #2: Faculty is family. As cliche as it might sound, faculty was family. The shared goal of providing an excellent education to our students fostered a “we’re in this together” attitude among teachers, an attitude often absent in private industry. Teachers weren’t looking over their shoulders at other teachers or other districts. The new paradigm? Frozen pay scales, lack of bargaining rights, privatization (vouchers and charters) have all contributed to suspicion in the faculty lounge, decreased collegiality, and a greater tendency to view co-workers as transitory acquaintances rather than lifelong friends. All of this has greatly affected morale and job satisfaction.   

Broken Rule #3: Kids first. It’s all about the kids, right? While you would be hard pressed to find a single teacher or administrator who would utter anything to the contrary, the reality of education in Wisconsin sings a different song. When hundreds of classrooms across the state began the school year with a substitute teacher instead of a qualified, content-certified teacher, clearly it’s not all about the kids. And it’s the learners who are the biggest losers here, not teachers, administrators or taxpayers. Increasingly viewed as widgets and data points by politicians, textbook and testing agencies (Pearson & the College Board leading the way), and the larger powers that be (ALEC), kids are treated by many as dollar signs instead of the pillars of our future. It’s clearly not all about the kids.

Brokaw was right.

There are no rules, and all the rules have changed.

On Family Feuds & Teacher Training

images (1)By Kenzie Kilb – My poor dad.

He’s always the odd man out: as literally the only man in the family, and by way of profession. He’s a financial advisor: he comes from a world of numbers and order and efficiency.

Then there’s the rest of us: my sister, an Elementary Education major at UW-Madison, my mother, an Adjunct Professor at Carroll University, and me, a graduate student in the Education Policy and Leadership program here at Marquette.

While as a family we share many core values and beliefs, when it comes to the topic of education…well, there are arguments. And snarky comments about Scott Walker (from both ends).

One topic that’s become particularly contentious is the debate regarding teacher training and evaluation.

For my dad, education should run like any other business, and the process is black and white. You’re either good at your job or you’re not; if you’re not you should be fired (or at least earn less money).

For those of us in the education field, we know there are complexities. And fortunately, these complexities are starting to be addressed through new methods and research. Last week, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote about a project at The University of Michigan School of Education that made two major proposals in terms of teacher evaluation: the first deals with the way teachers are observed in the classroom, and the second deals with measuring student growth in terms less restricted to standardized testing.

Most importantly, Nocera notes, the proposal avoids “divisive political language” by emphasizing the importance of using teacher evaluations as a means for feedback and improvement, rather than as a means of getting rid of bad teachers.

Ultimately, the proposal in Michigan didn’t pass. But, to me, it offers a hopeful indication that the national conversation might start to shift.

You can find the article here. The ideas are worth consideration– even my dad agreed with them.

The Takeover of MPS: Will it Solve Anything?

6384685_GBy Shannon Bentley – Last week when I was at Hamilton High School, a substitute teacher told me about the new MPS takeover proposal put forth by senators Alberta Darling and Dale Kooyenga.

At first I thought that the substitute teacher over exaggerated, telling me random, extremist ideals that nobody would ever allow to be placed on the table. However, when I went on the Milwaukee Public School homepage, lo and behold, there was an article about the proposal. I read the proposal and grew afraid. There weren’t too many details about what the takeover would mean for students and teachers in the Milwaukee Public School District, so I did more research.

The proposal had a few items on the list that concerned me:

  • Allows for the takeover of struggling public schools in Milwaukee under the control of an appointed commissioner to convert them to voucher or charter schools while paving the way for similar takeovers in other school districts.
  • Provides for licensure of individuals with minimal qualifications, some with little more than a high school diploma, to teach in our public schools.
  • Eliminates the Common Core State Standards.

The list is very scary to me for three different reasons:

  1. Teachers who serve in the underperforming schools will be fired, and they will have to reapply for their jobs. If the requirements to be a teacher will have lower qualifications, then a teacher who has worked through a certification program and earned their bachelor’s degree will be competing for a job with someone who just only graduated high school.
  1. It is unfortunate that the senators suggest we should take our underperforming schools and turn them into voucher schools. The elected commissioners or board that the senators suggest should run these schools will not consist of people who have prior education experience or been a representative of MPS schools in the past.
  1. The students will have low standards for themselves because eliminating the Common Core State Standards will both lower the expectations for students and will take away the means for teachers to set goals and measure their students’ level of success.

I am a graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools, and I remember the consistent budget cuts that butchered the school district. Millions of dollars have been taken away from MPS and those millions took with them home economics, shop class, driver’s education, and extra-curricular activities (music and art programs were non-existent for a while). A lack of necessary funds and a constant lowering of standards – no wonder why some MPS schools are failing. The proposal is too drastic to place on a school that needs more support financially from its own state. Minority students will be affected most by this proposal if it is taken into effect.

However, the real question is: Would this proposal be applied in a failing suburban school district?


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