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Minnesota Teacher of the Year - Part 2
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“I can’t believe it passed!” If I’ve heard this comment once, I’ve heard it a dozen times this week from teachers at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, where I teach in the mornings. This Tuesday, while most districts saw requests for increased funding get denied, residents in the Robbinsdale school district approved not one, but two school levy referendums to increase funding for schools in the district. The first referendum on the ballot will provide over $7.6 million dollars in critically needed funding for school programs. The second will provide an additional $1.8 million. The funding will allow the district to rehire teachers who lost their jobs last year, restore some of the after-school programs that were eliminated last year, and reduce class sizes from their overflowing levels.

To be honest, I was skeptical leading up to the vote. It was a general election year, meaning that voter turnout would be high. Conventional wisdom says it’s much harder to pass a referendum in such years, as the average voter is reluctant to vote to raise their own taxes. On top of this, it’s easy to imagine how worried voters are about their finances given the economic turmoil of the past two months, with its plummeting stock market, falling house values, and threatening recession. And if that isn’t enough, the district is home to a small yet underhanded “Say No!” movement. Last year this group hired a consultant whose goal is to eliminate public schooling in the United States, they peppered the district with a mailing that included egregiously false information on the day before the 2007 vote, and they even sued the state of Minnesota over its statute that bans factual distortions relating to school referendums. So yes, I had my doubts that passing even one of the referendum questions would be possible.

But as the K-Mart posters of my youth used to say: “People who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” An active group of concerned residents of School District 281 refused to give in to the impossible. Continue Reading »

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Mike SmartIn early October, the Pearson Foundation brought all the 2008 National State Teachers of the Year to New York City to make two-minute videos titled “Why We Teach”. Each Teacher of the Year created a short speech and brought some photos to a Manhattan studio. We spent an afternoon making our videos with the help of members from the Mobile Learning Institute.

All the finished Teacher of the Year videos recently went on the Pearson Foundation’s website. You can see them here. Mine is on the page as well, but here’s a direct link.

The project was great fun, as was the entire stay in New York City. I’d like to publicly thank the Pearson Foundation for their generous support and hospitality while we were in New York. They gave us first class treatment the whole way: treated us to dinner and a Broadway play (Spamalot was awesome!); gave us a handy Flip video camera and other goodies; and covered all the costs associated with our New York stay. Thank you!

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The Danger of Nothing

The quality of a school system directly impacts home values and overall community quality, and after-school programs are one of the many reasons. Every year I see the difference that sports, music, and arts programs can make in kids. Occasionally I hear opponents of the upcoming school referendums in Minnesota say that we don’t need these extra activities, that Minnesota schools should concentrate on teaching in classrooms. When the alternative is nothing, these opinions are dead wrong.

In seventh grade, I had nothing to do after school so I started hanging out with neighborhood friends on the suburban streets of Quincy, Massachusetts, where I grew up. I was on the cusp of that fragile age when your parents are no longer cool and your peer group is your world. Left to the streets, we had little direction and no guidance, but we craved excitement and found ways to get it. We started by running down streets and snapping antennas off parked cars. We graduated into breaking windows in neighborhood houses. Over the course of the year, one thing led to another, and before long beer, then marijuana, found its way into our group. I remember parties getting raided by police, and me running, always running. I remember arguing with my parents over everything and well, nothing. I had less energy for classes, and cared less about homework. I was thirteen years old, and my life was heading in all the wrong directions.

The next August, shortly before eighth grade started, I got a phone call from a classmate at school. He told me that he had signed up for the football team. The coach said the team needed players, and since I was big for my age, my classmate called me to see if I wanted to play. I had never played organized football, but with nothing else to do, I went ahead and signed up.

Every life has turning points. That moment was perhaps my biggest. I no longer had “nothing to do” after school. I had practices or games every day of the week. Most important, I had excitement of the good sort, and I could earn peers’ respect in a way that didn’t involve vandalizing neighborhood property. I had a place to go and good supervision. I made friends with other kids on the team, and I quickly found that I didn’t have time to hang out on the street with my old friends and do “nothing”.

I liked organized sports so much that I went on to play football and baseball in high school, then football, cross-country skiing, and baseball in college. I never ran from the police again. My seventh-grade friends? Many of them got arrested before they graduated from high school. Some of them never graduated.
_______

Early one morning this September, I was waiting at the school bus stop with my young children. We share the same stop with a few other kids, one of whom is Peter, a friendly twelve-year-old boy. As he walked to the bus stop, I noticed that he wasn’t carrying his tennis racket. I knew he had played tennis every day last fall, and I had seen him with his racket at least once already this school year.

“Hi Peter, where’s your racket?”
“Oh, we don’t have tennis every day now. The school doesn’t have any money to pay coaches. We just get to practice twice a week.”
“What will you do after school then, when you don’t have tennis?”
“I don’t know.”
He pauses.
“Nothing, I guess.”
_____

This Tuesday, November 4, residents in 42 school districts across Minnesota will go to the polls to vote on local school district referendums. With state funding lacking, districts have no choice but to ask voters for help. In addition to the threat of larger classes and more teachers losing their jobs, failed referendums will mean many districts will be forced to make even deeper cuts into after school programs.

I ask you a favor: Please vote yes. Let’s get rid of nothing, before it’s too late.

Photo Credit: Chad Davis, JFK Hoop.

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The Wrong Question

In education, we take pride in good answers. But in order to get good answers, you’ve got to have good questions. Bad questions can cause all sorts of problems. Take, for example, the education question in the final debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. In case you missed it, here is the lead-in: “The US spends more per capita than any other country on education, yet by every international measurement in math and science competence from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, we trail most countries of the world.” If you’d like to hear the question, here’s the video:

Seriously, who permitted this question? This is a perfect example of how a poorly composed question can frame answers and subtly lead public opinion to dangerous and unfounded conclusions. It’s so easy to hear the underlying assumption in this question: “We spend all this money on education in the US, yet we stink. What are you going to do about it?” The question is misleading in so many ways.

Money per capita spent on education is a grossly inaccurate measure of public commitment to education. Of course the United States spends more dollars per student than any other country: the US has a high cost of living. In simple terms, stuff is expensive here, and a dollar goes a lot further in the Philippines than it does here. A more accepted and better measure of a country’s commitment to education is the percentage of Gross National Product devoted to education. This measures how much of a country’s production is invested in education, and using this removes much of the bias that other measures reflect. And where does the US rank in this regard? According to the latest United Nations’ figures, the US ranks a paltry 38th, behind such economic powerhouses as Mongolia, Estonia, and Morocco. Furthermore, the US spends extraordinary amounts on Special Education. Many countries marginalize the deaf, the disabled, and children with autism; in the United States, we do the right thing and help them become productive citizens.

The question also states that the US trails “most countries of the world” in math and science scores. Comparing international science and math scores is fraught with pitfalls, but even if you accept the scores’ validity, US students range from top-ten to the mid-twenties on most tests. While there’s definitely a need for improvement, it’s hardly “trailing most countries of the world”.

But the bigger problem with the question is the implication that multiple-choice test scores in science and math somehow magically reflect US educational effectiveness. In the United States, the Friedman-fueled debate rages on how to prepare students for the new world of international competitiveness. If we want to build students capable of thriving in the 21st century, we’ve got to educate children in a wide range of skills. Our schools are gradually transforming to reflect this: where possible, we provide a broad curriculum that focuses on areas such as health, world languages, music, art, and technology. Our students can do so much more than prepare for multiple-choice exams. They collaborate in teams, work creatively and do a plethora of activities that facilitate building the skills needed for this new century.

So if math and science scores are a poor proxy for our nation’s educational effectiveness, what is a more effective measure? Given that the angle of the debate question was on international competitiveness, could we have used worker productivity? Isn’t that the heart of the private sector’s concern: making productive, employable citizens? Well, then, consider this: According to the UN’s International Labor Organization, the US worker is the most productive worker in the world.

Let’s go back and rephrase the original question. “Despite ranking 38th in the world in terms of percentage of GNP spent on education, the US educational system fuels the most productive workforce in the world. What are you going to do about it?” That puts a different slant on the question, doesn’t it?

To be fair, my purpose isn’t to put education on a pedestal of perfection. To say that our system needs no reform is just as ignorant as saying that it’s totally broken and should be disassembled. I’m also not arguing that worker productivity is a better measure of a nation’s educational achievement.

The point I’d like to press home is that good questions get good answers, and bad questions lead public opinion to devastating conclusions. When you ask only one question about education in a debate, and you frame that question to make it sound like the United States is the greatest proponent of education yet gets the worst results, you paint an unwarranted and false picture of US education. We have grave and pressing educational issues in front of us. Let’s begin tackling these issues by asking good questions.

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There are still three weeks left to nominate a teacher for the upcoming 2009 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. Anyone can nominate a candidate, so if you’ve had a teacher that has had an impact on your life or whose teaching you greatly respect, nominating them for Minnesota Teacher of the Year is a wonderful way to send them a special thank you. I was thrilled to have been nominated two years ago.

The Teacher of the Year nomination process is simple. Just go to the 2009 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Nomination page on the Education Minnesota website, fill out the online nomination form, and submit it electronically. Very easy and elegant.

Nominees must teach pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, hold at least a bachelor’s degree and Minnesota teaching license, have completed at least three full years of teaching by the nomination deadline, and intend to teach the 2009-10 school year. A lot of people assume that the award is for public school teachers only, but that is not the case. Any teacher—publicly or privately employed—who meets the above criteria can be nominated.

In addition to a significant financial reward, the Minnesota Teacher of the Year also participates in the National Teacher of the Year program, which five times during the year brings together all the recipients of the state level awards for a series of educational seminars and events. During my year, I got to travel to International Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama, meet the President of the United States, and travel to New York City to make an educational video. The people you meet and the experiences you get as Teacher of the Year will be some of the highlights of your educational career.

The deadline for nominations is November 17, 2008.

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Sigh…

I understand that the financial crisis stands in the forefront of voters’ minds, but seriously, couldn’t education at least have made an appearance in the latest CNN Election Issue Tracker? Is it really buried in the 2% of the “Other” category? And education loses to illegal immigration? Sigh.

I’d be interested in seeing a poll that ranks voters’ top five issues. I would think that education could sit as a third of fourth issue in many voters’ minds. Education may very well get lost when voters only state their most important issue.election-issue-tracker.jpg

Graphic Source: CNN Election Tracker

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ING: Thank you!

pumpkin_coloring.jpgI wanted to extend a special note of thanks to our local ING Investments office. A few weeks ago they sent me an email telling me that I had been selected to be the recipient of their school supplies drive for this year. It turns out that every year their office collects random supplies from staff, puts them all together, and gives them to one teacher for use in his or her classrooms. This year I was the winner.

Last week I stopped by our district office to pick up the supplies. There was an entire cart of stuff: backpacks, notebooks, pencils, crayons, markers, clips, paper, folders, etc. By the time I got everything to my car I had filled a half dozen grocery bags to the top.

Although teachers have a certain amount of supplies in school, we are always short of stuff for the classroom and for special activities. Some students often don’t have basic class supplies either, and it’ll be great to be able to help these students out. I’ll put everything that I’ve received to good use, and will be able to spread this generosity out to dozens of people. The big box of crayons that we received already was put to use this past weekend: we used them at a coloring table at a local Pumpkin Festival, where Japanese students had volunteered to man a booth of activities for children.

When I speak in public, I often emphasize the importance of breaking down our isolated schools and linking community, parents, and schools in a powerful triangle of support and learning. ING’s gifts are a perfect example of one way that an office or business can get involved in education and make a difference.

Thank you!

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