About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Trickle down or trickle up school reform?

For San Diego's North County Times

Say what you will about Occupy Wall Street, it has focused our attention on the sharp rise in income inequality over the last 10 years. Since facts are facts, on that we can all agree. Where we disagree is what to make of it. That depends on whether you're a believer in trickle-down or trickle-up economics.
There's the same disconnect in public opinion about educational inequality. We agree that family income is the best predictor of a student's success in school. Children from low-income families are mostly left behind. Where we disagree is what to do about it ---- fix our public schools, or give up on them.
In California, No Child Left Behind and charter schools were intended to improve learning through school accountability, free-market competition and parental choice. But test scores show they've done nothing to narrow the achievement gap separating students by family income. This year's standardized-testing results show only 42 percent of economically disadvantaged students are proficient in grade-level math, compared with 62 percent of the non-disadvantaged.
That 20-point spread has remained unchanged since testing began in 2003. Proficiency in math leads to jobs with better pay, which may explain the vicious cycle of educational and income inequality.
The legislative intent of California's 1992 Charter Schools Act was to "Increase learning opportunities for all, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving."
North County's 17 charter schools enroll 10 percent of students in their sponsoring school districts but only 5 percent of the districts' disadvantaged students.
The only charter school to enroll more low-income students than its sponsoring district is Vista's North County Trade Tech High, with 68 percent compared with 61 percent districtwide. It is a charter school that lives up to its promise, focusing on students who've been left behind in larger, traditional schools.
Its success can be measured by impressive test-score improvements and a project learning, "many paths to success," hands-on curriculum that ranges from college prep to training for construction trades.
A group of Oceanside parents is now lobbying for a local campus of San Bernardino's Oxford Preparatory Academy. The charter school opened in 2010 in Chino Valley, where 40 percent of local school district students are economically disadvantaged. According to Oxford Prep's 2011 Academic Performance Report, only two of the 683 students tested are disadvantaged.
Ninety-three percent of Oxford parents attended college. Forty-four percent are college graduates, and another 28 percent attended graduate school.

If you favor trickle-down school reform, this San Bernardino charter school's for you. If you're a trickle-up advocate, look no further than North County Trade Tech High.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Senior bullying

For San Diego's North County Times

In my last column I praised Escondido High School for the bottom line on their sexual harassment policy: "Sexual harassment is based upon the impact on the victim. It is not based on the intentions of the perpetrator."

I thought of that last week when I stood in line at the checkout stand of our local grocery store. No, I didn't see sexual harassment there. I watched a woman, looking to be in her late 70s, subjected to elderspeak, a kind of unintended bullying of seniors.
"Hello, how are you today?" a standard cashier's greeting, spoken at normal speed and volume before eye contact.

Then, after her customer struggles with the payment keypad, the clerk notices who she is and raises her voice, speaking more slowly, word by word. "Can I help you, dear," she asks. "You have to press the button with the little green arrow on it after you put in your number. Here, dear, let me do it for you. Can you tell me your phone number, dear?"

Judging from the look on her face during the cashier's overly solicitous efforts to help her enter her telephone number, identifying her as a shopper's club member, eligible for discounts, what the lady probably heard was: "You're old, hard of hearing, and have a failing mind. So I'll speak to you as I would a child."

Finally, as a reward for taking her receipt, the older lady gets a patronizing farewell: "Now, you have a good afternoon, dear."

The fundamental assumption behind elderspeak is that older people are cognitively impaired, needing "help," and must be spoken to very slowly and loudly. To paraphrase Escondido High's sexual harassment policy, the impact of elderspeak on an older person depends on what is heard, not on the speaker's good intentions.

I'm guessing the lady who'd been publicly humiliated didn't file a complaint. If she had, the cashier would probably tell her boss she was just trying to help a grumpy old lady and promise to be even "sweeter" to her next elderly customer.

Yale University professor Becca Levy says of elderspeak: "Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging, and those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival." Her survey of 660 people over 50 in a small Ohio town found those with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, exceeding the beneficial effects of exercising or not smoking.

Store managers who value their older customers should train their sales clerks to drop the sweet-talking belittlement of elderspeak and replace it with simple friendliness and common courtesy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sexual harassment in schools

For San Diego's North County Times

The week after Herman Cain launched his "nein, nein, nein" campaign denying sexual harassment allegations, Penn State fired its legendary football coach as a result of a grand jury report alleging that his former assistant coach engaged in a decade of sexual assaults on young boys.

What didn't make the news was a report by the American Association of University Women, "Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School," of findings from a nationwide survey of 2,000 students in grades 7 to 12.

Schoolyard taunting may not be as newsworthy as workplace harassment and child predators, but the same code of silence hides the pain of isolation and self-doubt that's led to teen suicides after sexual harassment at school.

According to the AAUW report, nearly half of students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in one year. Although 87 percent said it had a negative effect on them, only 9 percent reported it to a teacher or counselor. Just 12 percent felt their school did a good job of addressing the problem.

Students suggested online resources could help schools reduce sexual harassment, so I was disappointed to find many local schools don't have links to codes of conduct on their website homepages.

Carlsbad High School's can be found by a link to a student handbook that is available only on the district's website. To find Oceanside High School's sexual harassment policy, you have to hunt through a lengthy list of board policies, accessible only from a link on the district's website. Not exactly a student- or parent-friendly process.

The helpfulness of information about how to recognize and respond to sexually harassing behavior also varies in quality by school.

Escondido's Classical Academies charter school defines sexual harassment in its list of unacceptable behaviors, but does not include how to report it and what the punishment will be for violators. The school defines bullying as "repeated physical, verbal and/or emotional harassment," tells how it should be reported, and describes the punishment for it.

Sexual harassment is a kind of bullying, but it is not necessarily a repeated behavior, nor do harassers choose victims the same way bullies do. Students may be reluctant to come forward with reports of sexual harassment if it isn't as threatening to them as other kinds of bullying.

Poway High School and Escondido High School have exemplary policies, easily accessible from their home pages.

Poway's is exceptionally comprehensive and clear. Escondido's lists freedom from harassment as a student right, describes the difference between flirting and harassment, and concludes with the best advice of all, "Sexual harassment is based upon the impact on the victim. It is not based on the intentions of the perpetrator."

Friday, November 4, 2011

Irresponsibility, not spending, is the problem

For San Diego's North County Times

In a recent speech on school reform, LA schools superintendent John Deasy attacked the assumption in America that anybody can teach. Describing teaching as "remarkably complex, deeply nuanced, highly technical skilled work," he declared it to be "rocket science to have a third-grader master the skill of decoding print into cognitive and coherent meaning." He could have also pointed out that rocket science skills are acquired, not inherited, dispelling the myth that teachers are born, not made.

It's no wonder teachers are underpaid for the important work they do. Why would we pay them more if their work is so easy, requiring little or no training, and there's an endless supply of those who love to work with kids?

Who do we value more than teachers, based on what they're paid, besides rocket scientists? According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average salary of California elementary school teachers is $63,000.

Here's a small sample of occupations commanding pay ranging from an average of $70,000 to $111,000, but requiring no more education and training than teachers: computer hardware engineers and programmers, landscape architects, civil engineers, dental hygienists, chiropractors, personal finance advisers, registered nurses, police officers, firefighters, insurance sales agents and undertakers.

Personnel costs represent about 85 percent of most school district budgets, so when schools face cuts, it usually involves teacher layoffs, reductions in pay and benefits, or both. The Carlsbad Unified School District faces a potential $11 million shortfall in next year's budget. Ruling out increasing class sizes, since they were raised last year, the district has invited the public to weigh in on what should be cut by responding to a survey on the district's website.

It's more of a setup than a survey, though, an invitation to comment anonymously on a list of cuts school officials have already prioritized. Leading the list is, you guessed it, employee compensation reductions, just one step higher on the chopping block than slashing special education expenses.

The median household income of nearly 1 in 4 Carlsbad households exceeds $100,000. Will the wealthiest city in North County, boasting of a $50 million-plus general fund reserve and flush enough to give yearly million dollar bailouts to its failing golf course, be willing to help bail out its underfunded public schools? I'm not holding my breath.

The most predictable applause line these days in speeches by conservative politicians is, "We don't have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem." But when it comes to investing in our children's future by those who have the means to do it, I'd say, we don't have a spending problem, we have an irresponsibility problem.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Unoccupied Carlsbad?

For carlsbadistan.com

On Saturday I had an attack of déjà vu in downtown San Diego that made we wonder if Occupy Wall Street could ever come to our sleepy little Village By The Sea. Let me explain.

My wife and I had to wade through an Occupy San Diego encampment in front of the Civic Theatre, where we were headed to see the revival of the 60’s rock musical, HAIR. Karen was more excited about seeing the show than I was. Although we both have vivid memories of those psychedelic days, hers are more pleasant than mine.

She found her inner flower child in the late 60’s, leaving a stuck-in-the-50’s husband who preferred the kind of obedient wife we see today only in the popular retro TV series Mad Men. I was a high school English teacher affecting a Bono look, no not that Bono, the Sonny one who harmonized with Cher. Sporting fashionably long hair and a slightly droopy mustache, I wore paisley ties, a macramé belt and waffle-stomper boots. But my polyester sport coats gave me away. The only risk I took in the 60’s was standing too close to an open flame in that attire. I was a hippie wannabe.

The hundred or so protesters camping out in front of the theatre appeared to be about the same ages as the actors on stage portraying pot-smoking, advocates of peace and love. But there were some important differences. There were no faint aromas of marijuana, petula oil, or incense wafting through the air. No angry chanting or taunting of the four good-natured police officers keeping a friendly eye on the group.

We were approached by a young woman who asked if we had any questions. I asked her if she was a student. She had been, she explained. But after completing two years of college, planning to be a teacher, she had run up $18,000 in student loans. She dropped out because she feared she’d be taking on more debt than a teacher’s salary would allow her to ever pay off. She’s now making what she called “good money” as a waitress, earning a whopping $2,000 a month. Her top priority in the protest was to make college more affordable…like free, as it is in several other countries.

Her sad story helped me see a link between the reason she was there and what’s currently happening with funding for Carlsbad schools. Announcing a potential budget shortfall of $11 million next year, the district is asking the public for feedback on how to cut costs by responding to a survey on the district’s web site.
The irony here is that, according to SANDAG figures, the city has the largest collection of wealthy households in North County, with nearly one in four enjoying incomes exceeding $100,000. But, revealing the wealth gap, more than half have incomes below $60,000.

While its schools face severe cuts, Carlsbad enjoys a comfortable budget reserve exceeding $50 million and provides annual million dollar bailouts of its failing golf course. The city council is currently looking for ways to save more money by outsourcing the jobs of the city’s lowest paid workers.

In his state of the city address, Mayor Hall declared that Carlsbad’s business climate “is about to explode” because of the city’s special efforts to become business friendly.

Will the city consider a bailout of its public schools, or does that not qualify as business friendly? I’m not holding my breath. It appears Carlsbadistan is not ready to be occupied.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stop testing and start listening to students

For San Diego's North County Times

States opting out of No Child Left Behind are required to find other ways to hold schools accountable for student success. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed California's first try, SB 547, which would have replaced the Academic Performance Index (API), with an Education Quality Index (EQI) that includes graduation rates and career and college-readiness, in addition to standardized test scores,

Never having been a fan of test scores alone to measure a school's success, I was initially disappointed by the governor's action. But after reading his veto message, I think he got it right, praising the bill for going beyond test scores, but pointing out the new EQI would require "multiple indicators that would be expected to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddying the picture of how schools perform."

Brown suggested that a better way of measuring success might be for "locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine their coursework." He apparently doesn't understand how vulnerable to local politics that would be, creating the illusion of accountability, but making it more difficult to measure achievement over time or to compare schools.

If we don't use test scores, must we return to the days when schools were judged simply by how well-behaved their students were and how many of their graduates go to college? I don't think so. Despite its many failings, No Child Left Behind's use of measurable results has held schools accountable for the success of all students, regardless of family background. There's no turning back from that worthy goal.

Unfortunately, our path to better schools in this country has become a matter of teaching to the test and providing school choice. Finland proves there's a better way. Their 15-year-olds lead the world in reading, math and science test scores, but there are no mandated standardized tests in Finnish schools, other than one exam at the end of the senior year. Schools are not ranked. Every one of them is expected to do whatever it takes to help each student succeed. To see how they do it, read Lynell Hancock's recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine ("A+ for Finland," September 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html).

Vista's Trade Tech High School, enrolling many students left behind in other public schools, increased its API score by nearly 30 percent last year. The school uses the Hope Survey, and the Gallup Student Poll to assess three ingredients researchers say are directly related to school success: hope, engagement and well-being. All three can be reliably measured by student surveys and enhanced through direct action.

It's time to stop testing and start listening to the ones we're teaching to find out what gets in the way of their learning.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Trade Tech high lives up to charter school promise

For San Diego's North County Times

We once took pride in our nation's comprehensive high schools. While other countries divided their students at an early age into either academic or vocational training streams, our schools prepared students both for college and for jobs that paid a living wage.

Now, after a decade of obsessing over standardized test scores, vocational/technical education has been largely abandoned. What's been left behind is a lingering achievement gap between the haves and have nots and little interest in measuring skills required for jobs of the future: learning how to learn, becoming a self-starter, creative problem-solving, collaboration, teamwork, and leadership.

Not many charter schools live up to California's 1992 Charter School Act, requiring an "emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving." Parental choice has resulted mostly in giving up on neighborhood schools as the great levelers of educational and economic opportunity.

Vista's North County Trade Tech High School is an exception, a charter school that lives up to its promise. The school's success with a diverse student population of 120 students (60 percent nonwhite, 66 percent disadvantaged), is a model of what charter schools were meant to do.

Doreen Quinn, Trade Tech's chief executive officer, and Principal Bryan O'Donnell explained how the school delivers on its mission statement by implementing the new three R's ---- Relationships, Relevance and Rigor: "to graduate students with a strong blend of academic and workforce competencies necessary for future success in post-secondary education and in the building and construction industry."

You read that right. It's a voc/tech high school, with state-of-the-art classroom technology, which also offers courses required for admission to the state's two public universities. Those not headed to a university may complete courses yielding community college credit. The school's affiliation with local building and trade unions offers opportunities for non-college bound students to enter paid apprenticeships directly from high school.

The school attracts many students who may have felt like losers before discovering Trade Tech High. O'Donnell told me, "Many, if not most, of our students have had attendance problems at previous schools." Their average daily attendance is now 93 percent. As Quinn put it, "There are many ways to win here."

If you measure success by test scores, Trade Tech's project-based learning is working. This year's Academic Performance Index score (API) rose by an astonishing 159 points, nearly 30 percent higher than last year's score. Success on the high school exit exam is even more impressive, with 87 percent of 10th graders passing in English Language Arts, higher than the passing rates of the district, county and state.

This charter school takes us back to the future to what a truly comprehensive public high school should be.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Direct democracy at its best

For San Diego's North County Times

As the campaign season heats up for the 2012 elections, we hear candidates singing the same old song, "What the American people want is ..." Candidates seem confident we want our elected officials to follow, rather than lead us.

If Californians don't like what politicians do after they're elected, they can take matters into their own hands by recalls, initiatives and referendums. Ours is one of 24 states that allow votes by the people to throw the rascals out, overturn unpopular laws and create new ones. It's called "direct democracy."

California adopted it by constitutional amendment exactly one hundred years ago in an attempt to eliminate the bribery and corruption that ruled state politics at the time. On Oct. 8, 1911, two days before the measure was passed by the legislature, a New York Times editorial warned of its potential negative effects:

"The number, complexity, and minuteness of the propositions submitted to the popular vote make it physically impossible that the ordinary voter shall understand their nature and effect or the actual consequences of his own act."

Peter Schrag, a former editorial page writer for the Sacramento Bee, recently praised the prescience of that editorial. In the recent edition of BOOM: A Journal of California, Schrag wrote, "What was designed to be an exceptional remedy has come close to overwhelming representative democracy."

Citing several examples of how direct democracy doesn't work as promised, Schrag gave three important reasons for its failure:

1. It costs only $200 to file an initiative proposal, but volunteers alone can't bring it to the ballot. You need about $3 million to pay signature collectors, direct mail firms, consultants, pollsters and lawyers. The process is driven more by big money than by little guys with big ideas.

2. Rather than being subjected to the scrutiny of elected representatives, a proposition's fate is vulnerable to the rampant rumors of the blogosphere.

3. Successful propositions that don't allow for their own amendments can only be changed by another cumbersome and costly initiative process, even if serious problems turn up.

Direct democracy at its best comes to Oceanside in June, when residents will vote on whether to overturn the city council's decision to phase out rent control in the city's mobile-home parks. The referendum drive, conducted entirely by volunteers, produced 15,000 signatures, twice as many as required for the ballot and nearly four times the number of mobile-home park residents.

If rent control is phased out, the winners will be out-of-town park owners and the well-to-do. The losers will be Oceanside's most vulnerable residents: the elderly, retired military veterans and the disabled.

The city's values hang in the balance.