Not The Change We Need

“We need an outsider to come in and change things up for the better.”

“Our education system needs some radical changes if it’s going to improve.”

I’ve heard both of these things, and their derivatives, in the days since Donald Trump announced that Betsy DeVos was his choice for Secretary of Education. I agree that we need radical change in how we approach education in America. I vehemently disagree that appointing yet another outsider with no understanding of education is the way to achieve that change.

In America, we tend to equate wealth with knowledge. I don’t mean to imply that Betsy DeVos is unintelligent, but I do mean that her large bank accounts do not qualify her to make decisions on education policy. We’ve also listened to the education ideas of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and it turns out that they might not be education experts either.

We’ve got a long, rich history of letting people from outside the field of education determine education policy, and Betsy DeVos is a continuation of that tradition. Below is a list of previous Secretaries of Education, and their jobs prior to their cabinet appointments:

Shirley Hufstedler – Lawyer and judge

Terrel Bell – HS teacher, bus driver, public school superintendent

Bill Bennett – Executive director, National Humanities Center

Lauro Cavazos – College professor

Lamar Alexander – Court clerk, legislative assistant, Governor of Tennessee

Richard Riley – South Carolina state legislator, Governor of South Carolina

Rod Paige – HS teacher, college professor, public school superintendent

Margaret Spellings – Political director, senior adviser to George W. Bush

Arne Duncan – CEO of Chicago Public Schools

John King – Charter school teacher, NY commissioner of education

Betsy DeVos (nominee) – Chairman, Windquest Group, private/charter school activist

Since the position of Secretary of Education was established in 1979, 10 people have held the position. Only three of those people had experience in K-12 education prior to their appointment. Only two of those people have had extensive experience in traditional public schools. Perhaps the “radical change” we need to improve our nation’s schools should involve the appointment of a candidate who has dedicated their lives to public education. Who would better understand the challenges facing American schools and teachers than somebody who has spent an extensive amount of time both attending and working in public schools?

A public educator would understand that our kids can not be tested out of poverty. They would understand the value of a strong public school system. They would understand that mass privatization and school choice do not work. They would understand that putting students first does not mean actively fighting teachers and working to destroy unions. They would understand that empowering and trusting teachers would create far more positive changes than any amount of testing or accountability measures ever could.

So no, DeVos is not going to bring some radical, positive change to education in America. She’s essentially more of the same, another “outsider” with no understanding of what works or what is best for students. We already know her ideas won’t fix anything (but they will make a few people a lot richer!) This appointment is not draining the swamp, it’s yet another baffling refusal to listen to the experts in the field.

I’ll be calling my representatives in the coming weeks and urging them to vote no on DeVos’ appointment. I urge you to do the same.

Chamber Music For Middle School Students

Back in college I took a course titled Secondary Instrumental Methods. One of the projects for the course involved arranging Amazing Grace for a small chamber ensemble. I credit this class, and that project in particular, with getting me to start thinking beyond the traditional school large ensemble structure. Activities like composition, orchestration, and chamber music now seemed like realistic possibilities for my own band classes as a teacher.

Fast forward to three years ago. It was my fourth year at my current job, and I felt comfortable enough to start taking some musical risks. When scheduling the concerts for that year, I decided to take the plunge and set up two chamber music nights in March instead of our traditional spring band concert. Each grade would have its own chamber music recital in a more intimate performance venue.

The first year was a lot of trial and error, and here in year three of the annual chamber concerts, I’m still tweaking a few things. I’ve also learned quite a bit during these three years, and I encourage any teacher considering doing something like this to just go ahead and take the plunge.

Why chamber music? It’s simple. My basic goal as a teacher is to provide my students with the skills and thought processes necessary for them to function without me. Rather than me dictating things from the podium, I want them making their own decisions about dynamics, phrasing, tempo, balance, and blend. I want them to have total ownership over the final musical product. Chamber music does all of these things.

Dip your toes in the water. Several months before our first chamber night, I wanted to make sure my students would have just a taste of what they were in for. There’s safety in numbers, and to be successful, they needed to be comfortable playing in an environment where they would be more exposed. The week before Christmas break, they divided themselves into groups of 4-8 students, and we got to work learning some selections from Quick And Easy Carols, by Scott Watson. Each group then went around the school right before break and caroled to several classrooms. They gained performing experience without the pressure that comes with a formal performance.

Flex arrangements are your friend. I let my students choose their own chamber ensembles, because they know who they work well with. This results in some strange instrumentation, which is fine. There are several books out there that will work with any combination of instruments, most notable the Duets/Trios/Quartets For All.

Find a rehearsal schedule that works. I eventually settled on spending 1-2 days per week focusing on just chamber music. On those days, each group goes into a different practice room or spreads out around the band room. I spend 5-10 minutes working with each group on those days. For the other 3-4 days per week, we work on some full ensemble music, and I have the flexibility to send groups that might need some extra practice out to work. It seems to be a good balance for us, and I’ve noticed increased engagement among my students during this concert cycle each year.

Take time to teach decision-making skills. With younger students especially, they might not have much experience reaching a consensus democratically. A strong personality can threaten to take over the whole chamber group. I stress that each individual in the ensemble has a valuable contribution to make, and no decision should be reached until all members have a chance to give their input. We do a few exercises with our warmup chorales as a full ensemble to give students a peek into this process. We’ll play through a chorale, and then I ask for student input on things like dynamics, tempo, and phrasing. If we get three different suggestions for dynamics, we perform the chorale three different ways, and then as a group choose the one that we feel makes the most musical sense.

Find a way to hold students accountable. Since you are not with every chamber group all the time while they are rehearsing, you might need a way to keep them on track. I created a simple rubric, and ask groups to rate themselves in categories like teamwork, preparedness, use of time, rhythm accuracy, pitch accuracy, etc.

Show them how the process works. I’ve got a basic map for the students to guide them through learning a piece. The first step is learning your own individual part, just notes and rhythms. From there, we move to learning how the parts fit together, to making decisions about dynamics and phrasing, to polishing things like blend and balance for the final performance. This gives the students a more tangible goal for each step in the process.

Be encouraging! For many students, this might be their first time in a “1-2 players on a part” situation. There will be some growing pains, so make sure you celebrate the successes. This will keep your students motivated to continue with more chamber music in the future, and they will keep developing these valuable musical skills.

Competition Is Not The Answer To Everything

The Michigan state legislature is currently mulling a substantial financial bailout for Detroit Public Schools. If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that this aid is sorely needed. Schools in Detroit are physically falling apart. Students aren’t safe. Teachers are falling ill.

But don’t worry, education expert Betsy DeVos has an alternative solution!

I wish sarcasm translated better to text.

Ms. DeVos has joined the chorus of education “experts” who feel that all of the problems with our nation’s public schools can be solved with the magic bullet of competition.

Look, competition can be a good thing in some areas of life. Business pour money into product development hoping to gain new customers. We generally get better products as a result. Sports teams compete all the time, and it’s wildly entertaining.

But there’s one undeniable fact of competition, one that the education reform crowd always seems to ignore.

When two entities compete, one always loses.

This is fine if we’re talking about a couple of college basketball teams. This is not a game we should be willing to play when it comes to our children. The math just doesn’t work out. Forcing schools to compete for students and funding would probably work out great for districts that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would remain wealthy and continue to achieve. And some students will be left behind.

But what about school choice? Comes the reply.

Again, great for districts and schools that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would attract more students, and would no doubt change some lives. But many students would inevitably be left behind at their old schools, and the gap in the quality of education children receive would widen.

Look at this on a small scale. District A markets itself as a home for school of choice students. It offers a diverse curriculum, rich in the arts, filled with opportunities for students to create and grow. Thanks to the state funding that comes in with each student, District A’s budget grows with each student it attracts. District A is able to continue offering a fantastic curriculum, and the cycle continues.

Districts B and C are neighbors of District A. They were a little slow in adding programs to their curriculum, so they lost students, and thus lost money. Class sizes grow a little bit, parents continue to be attracted to the offerings of District A. More students leave, funding drops. Districts B and C are forced to cut programs to balance their books, only accelerating their decline. The students and families remaining in Districts B and C watch the quality of education drop. District A wins.

Look at it on an even smaller scale. I teach music. I could choose to foster a highly competitive environment with my 7th and 8th grade band students. Kids would compete for chairs, there would be challenges, all that stuff. Some kids would be motivated to practice more, and would thus win challenges and rise to the top of their section. Students who continue to lose challenges might lose their motivation, their passion, and may eventually leave the music program. Would my bands sound better? Maybe, but I’m not willing to pay that price.

We’re not talking about a battle between Comcast and Uverse for customers here. We’re talking about people willing to gamble with the education of their children. This isn’t something we should accept as a society. Instead, legislators and reformers should be proposing solutions that encourage schools and districts to collaborate. District A has some programs that have been very successful in enriching the lives of students? Great! Here’s some release time for the teachers in District A to share those lessons with teachers in Districts B and C. Everybody wins in that scenario.

Well, except for Betsy DeVos. And I’m okay with that.

Stand With Detroit Teachers

The anti-teacher rhetoric in Detroit is out of control these days. If you aren’t familiar with what’s happening in Detroit Public Schools at the moment, let me bring you up to speed. After dealing with a state takeover, nearly a decade of frozen pay, and deplorable working and learning conditions, Detroit teachers have been staging ‘sick-outs’ to protest and shed some light on their predicament. The sick-outs closed 64 schools on Monday, and and almost two dozen on Tuesday.

Emboldened by Governor Rick Snyder’s steadfast commitment to destroying public education (see: the EAA, and the assault on democracy that is his emergency financial manager law), conservatives in Michigan have been lashing out at the teachers. A spokesperson for attorney general Bill Schuette kicked off the fun with this gem (note the plea to ‘think of the children’. More on this later):

“Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”

Here’s a question for you, Mr. Schuette. Are the dangers of black mold and falling concrete not also hurtful to children? Is the fact that we are asking students to learn in this environment not outrageous?

Darnell Earley, the new DPS emergency manager also attempted to pile on when he called the sick-outs “highly unethical”. I do have to defer to Mr. Earley’s expertise in the field of highly unethical actions, as he is one of the people directly responsible for poisoning the children of Flint in the name of saving the city a few bucks.

As if the comments from Earley and Schuette’s lackey weren’t enough, the Detroit News posted an editorial calling for the leaders behind the sick-outs to lose their jobs. This editorial is amazing, for all the wrong reasons:

Students should never be used as bargaining chips

The irony here is delicious. This is exactly what Schuette, Earley, and others are doing when they ask teachers to go back to work for the sake of the children. The teachers are out there protesting for the sake of the children, because no educator in Michigan can expect the state government to do the right thing when it comes to our schools and our students. Snyder side-stepped democracy with his emergency financial manager law, the state takeover of DPS crippled the district and sent it into massive debt, the performance of the schools in the EAA continues to plummet, and Snyder and others have rammed through anti-teacher legislation despite initial promises that they would not do so. The self-proclaimed One Tough Nerd is nothing more than a bully. Anyway, back to the editorial.

In regards to Michigan’s anti-strike laws:

Lawmakers have failed to strengthen the law in recent years, but they should make it a priority now.

Because when faced with workplace and classroom conditions like this, the reasonable response is to punish the people who are trying to fix it.

“These actions by certain DPS teachers do absolutely nothing to address or correct the problems tied to the district,” stated Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “All it’s doing is damaging the education of thousands of students.”

Oh look, another lawmaker attempting to use students as a bargaining chip! Look, when going through regular channels to fix problems does nothing, teachers have to resort to drastic action. The teachers participating in these sick-outs are acting as a voice for their students. They are advocating for safer, healthier learning conditions. Representative Kelly is essentially refusing to acknowledge that crumbling buildings are an issue. These sick-outs are shining a national spotlight on this problem. Calling attention to the neglect of public education in Detroit is the most important thing that DPS students can do for their students right now.

I guarantee that none of the legislators that are sounding off on DPS teachers would send their own child to a crumbling school like Spain. They’re urging teachers to return to their classrooms, but they seem completely unable or unwilling to empathize with the plight of the teachers or students. Forcing students to learn in these conditions every single day surely does more lasting damage to them than missing a few days of school.

I urge you all to stand with DPS teachers. If you’re in Michigan, tell your legislator that the state’s treatment of DPS is unacceptable. Help raise awareness of what these brave educators are doing right now.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

MDE Top 10 Survey

Michigan’s new State Superintendent, Brian Whiston, is asking for public input to help improve Michigan’s public schools. His goal is to make Michigan schools among the 10 best in the nation, in the next 10 years. So, the MDE decided to put up an online survey to help collect opinions.

Here are my responses to the survey.

What are the top two or three goals that Michigan should focus on?

1. Fixing the poverty problem. Teacher quality has a minimal impact on student academic performance when compared to the impact of poverty.

2. Drastically cut back on standardized testing. Instead, promote things that foster creativity in our students AND teachers. Increase emphasis on the arts, allow time for teachers to collaborate with those both inside and outside the district.

What current policies get in the way of that goal?

1. Teacher evaluations are too reliant on student growth, which is measured by standardized test scores. The tests are a poor metric, which means the evaluations are flawed. Come up with an evaluation tool that doesn’t encourage teachers to teach to the test, but rather one that asks teachers to get their students thinking and creating.

2. Right to work. Teacher working conditions are the same as student learning conditions. Right to work shows that the state doesn’t value teacher input when it comes to determining those working conditions.

What policies are needed to expedite our progress toward that goal?

1. Policies that address the social issue (poverty) will go a long way toward fixing many educational issues.

2. A repeal of right to work legislation.

If you were the State Superintendent, what are the first three things that you would do?

1. Get rid of as much standardized testing as possible. Long testing days make kids dread coming to school, and these tests don’t teach anything. Give some autonomy back to the teachers, and encourage them to spend this new extra class time teaching and creating with their kids.

2. Encourage districts state-wide to increase their salaries. Teaching is a great profession, we should not struggle to make ends meet when we decide to enter this profession.

3. Encourage the state legislature to get rid of the EAA. This state-run district has been a disaster from the start. Spend some of that time and energy working to address the poverty problem.

Google Classroom, part one

Thanks in large part to a couple of presentations I’ve seen at conferences and district PD days, I decided to start using Google Classroom with my music technology class this semester. This series will track the successes and struggles of using Google Classroom, and hopefully offer some insight into the process for others considering adopting it.

Why Google Classroom?

My district is in its third year using Google Apps for Education, and Google Classroom (GC) seemed like a more logical choice for my music tech class than Edmodo. We’ve been using Edmodo for two and a half years now, and while it’s definitely a great product, GC seemed like an attractive option because of its simplicity and the fact that a student could potentially access materials for all their classes in the same place.

The initial setup

There are two options for getting students into your classroom. First, GC produces a unique code for each classroom. Students can log into their school account, head to GC, and enter that code to join the classroom. The other option is to log into your teacher account, and invite each student on your roster via email (this is the option I chose). This is a little time consuming up front, but it allows you to see which students have not read their invitations, which means you can always give those students a reminder or help walk them through the signup process.

The first assignment

Our first assignment was a simple one. Students had to create a brief ABA composition using Incredibox. When they finish recording, Incredibox spits out a link to their recording that can be shared.

On the teacher’s end, you can create an assignment right in your GC feed. You can attach a Google Doc, YouTube Video, link, or file to this assignment. Each student will see this assignment in their own feed, and will click on it to submit their assignment.

Once the student goes to submit their assignment, they have the option of attaching a link, Doc, or file before they click “turn in”. It was a relatively simple process for them to add a link to their Incredibox project and turn in the assignment. And I could open up the assignment in GC and see how many people were finished, which helps with scheduling and planning.

Grading and feedback are equally simple. If a student needs to revise their project, you can make comments and “return” the assignment without entering a grade. The student then has the opportunity make edits and resubmit. No matter how many times a student submits a project, you will only see their most recent submission, which cuts down on clutter.

First impressions

I’m really impressed by how simple and easy it was to get GC up and running for my class. Feedback and organization on the first assignment was great. The next test will be seeing how GC handles large MP3 files with our next project.

Another Unfair Hit Piece

Hot on the heels of the Vergara decision in California, the New York Post has decided to step into the fray and attack tenure in the schools of New York City. They begin with an anecdote designed to cause outrage and alarm, a story about a teacher sexually harassing students with inappropriate comments and physical contact. The authors of the piece express surprise and anger that the teacher was slapped with a fine and an order to attend a sexual harassment workshop, rather than being fired.

That’s not the part of the story I take issue with. I agree that the teacher involved got off with a very light punishment. If I had kids of my own, I definitely would not feel comfortable having them work in close quarters with that teacher. As teachers, we are in a position of power and trust, and it is our duty to not abuse that by attempting to take advantage of a student.

But then, the Post loses the plot. The authors cite some actual, concrete statistics (something that Eric Hanushek fails to do in his statements attacking tenure), stating:

Of 133 educators taken to trial since 2013, the city Department of Education has gotten just 50, or 37.6 percent, fired, it said. In 77 cases, hearing officers found the employees guilty of poor performance or wrongdoing, but imposed lesser penalties. Six cases were dismissed.

Okay, fine. The Department of Education attempted to get 133 teachers fired, and an independent hearing determined that firing was too harsh a punishment in many of those cases. There are a few problems with the Post’s manufactured outrage though. For one, they only offer details on eight of those 133 cases. Not a single shred of insight is offered on the other 125. Perhaps the Department of Education made a poor case. Perhaps the independent arbiter felt that the issues were correctable with less extreme measures. By not expounding on the bulk of these cases, the Post is basically asking the readers to make a leap of faith and assume that the cases were all equally valid, fireable offenses.

Secondly, the title is pure sensationalism. “It’s nearly impossible to fire tenured teachers” is far from the truth. Yeah, it’s tough to fire a tenured teacher…if administrators don’t do their homework and collect well-documented reasons to fire said teacher. Based on their batting average, that’s probably exactly what happened with the NYC DOE.

And lastly, the Post is attempting to attack the entire tenure system based on the fact that the NYC DOE attempted to fire 133 teachers since 2013. That’s 133 teachers…out of 75,000. For those of you that prefer percentages, that’s less than two percent of all teachers in New York City. That leaves over 98 percent of teachers diligently working to deliver a quality education, without a major issue. Ninety-eight percent is an incredible batting average. It tells you that the tenure system is working for the overwhelming majority of teachers in New York City.

If the Post is really concerned about those 133 teachers, perhaps they would be better served looking at the administrators who granted them tenure in the first place, instead of attacking the 74,000+ teachers who continue to do a great job.