Friday, December 30, 2016

Improvement is Everyone's Business.


I was pleased to read about State Superintendent DeMaria's recent holiday visits to schools in western Ohio in which he celebrated the overall quality of Ohio schools. According to The Daily Standard, DeMaria called an Ohio education 'first rate,' but said that officials are always trying to improve. He compared attempts at improvement by the Cavs and Browns to his and the ODE's attempts to spearhead improvement in Ohio's schools. From the article...

"DeMaria said he is working to bridge the gap between the ODE and area school districts, adding state and local officials must cooperate if education 'is ever going to improve.'"

I hope that Mr. DeMaria recognizes that these attempts to improve are not only undertaken by himself and other administrators, but by teachers on a daily basis. As a teacher, I was taught that this "reflective process" is integral to achieving excellence. One learns to recognize, moment to moment, the adaptations and improvements necessary to provide a quality education. I'm following this process daily. This is one of the reasons why education in Ohio is first rate, teachers like myself reflect and improve throughout our careers. Unfortunately, all too often I get the sense, and perhaps other teachers do as well, that the ODE believes that teachers are the problem. Contrary to what Superintendent DeMaria might suggest to the media, I find that he and the ODE are unwilling to listen to practitioners in the field, and are more susceptible to their own rhetoric, than the actual analysis of data.

Some of the Superintendent's comments regarding the graduation problem illustrate his, and the ODE's, unwillingness to recognize the legitimate need for a change as argued by teachers, principals, superintendents, and other stakeholders. At the meeting in western Ohio, Celina superintendent Ken Schmiesing voiced his concern over the coming decline in graduation rates. DeMaria recognized the concern as legitimate, but believes that over time graduation rates will stabilize. 

The problem once again here is that Superintendent DeMaria is talking about a "rate", an arbitrary percentage, where teachers like myself are discussing people, an actual number of students who will NOT graduate because of an arbitrary system. If the percentage of non-graduates is 30, as has been widely anticipated, and my school has 400 seniors next year, then 120 do not graduate. Except that mine is an urban high school, so we would skew higher than the average. Urban schools might realistically estimate 40-60% of non-graduates, maybe more. Again, the percentages don't do this justice. In that senior class of 400, that's 160-240 students, maybe more, who will not receive a diploma.

I am talking about Tom and James, Haley, Judy, Tim, Alex, Carol, Marie, and Jack. The ODE speaks in percentages. Teachers speak in lives. 

Unfortunately, it seems as if the State Superintendent and the ODE are cool with this situation because "over time" the rates will stabililize. I'd like to know how much time is involved, and how many students Mr. DeMaria is willing to sacrifice. I know these kids, and I'm not willing to sacrifice one of them. 

I think we can easily conclude that those sacrificed will include ALL students currently in high school, and likely those in grades 6-8 (and possibly lower) since they have not had the benefit of the new state standards throughout their educational career. Regardless of the purpose, this scenario of failing kids is unacceptable. What is worse, is that the reasoning posited by DeMaria, the ODE, and many Ohio politicians is utterly unfounded. According to the article, DeMaria says...

"We saw too many students were going to college and finding they need remediation, or they were going into the workforce and finding that they didn't have the skills to be successful,"

First of all, and perhaps this is splitting hairs, but Mr. DeMaria didn't see anything when these decisions were made as he wasn't the Super when this was undertaken, but as a member of the Ohio Board of Regents he would have recognized that Ohio students scored above the national average on ACT scores.


Furthermore, and more importantly to his first nonsensical argument, is that the rate of students in need of remediation has been declining, according to the Ohio Department of Higher Education. From information published in January of 2016... "Data in the recently published 2015 Ohio Remediation Report shows that the percentage of students needing remedial coursework decreased from 37 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2015. There also was a reduction in the number of students solely needing mathematics remediation (from 32 to 28 percent) and English remediation (from 16 to 13 percent) during the same period."

A study by the state you work for runs contrary to your argument to fail my students, Mr. DeMaria.

It should be recognized that these improvements in the lack of need for remediation have absolutely nothing to do with the graduation requirement  because the students in question were not under the "new" system. 

As for the second reason for more "rigorous" standards and testing, I've long heard about the approach of business leaders saying that Ohio's graduates just don't have the "skills" for the workplace. And yet, I've never actually heard this quoted from a business leader.

As a matter of fact, at a faculty meeting earlier this year our administration reported that local business leaders looked for employees who 1) showed up, 2) showed up on time, and were 3) able to work well with others. 

I'm waiting to hear something like, "Good god, she's management potential, but she just doesn't know enough about how the Northwest Ordinance relates to statehood." Or "That guy is the best sales associate I've ever seen except for his complete inability to identify the denouement in an American short story."

As a matter of fact, the most valued qualities in employees are not things that can be measured on a standardized test. According to a recent survey of business leaders done by Forbes the top five qualities businesses look for in college graduates are as follows...

1. Ability to work in a team structure

2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)

3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization

4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work

5. Ability to obtain and process information

As you can see, this has little, if anything to do with Ohio's, or anyone's, standardized testing system. This is why Ohio is one of only 13 states to require a test in order to graduate, it is utterly unnecessary.

Mr. DeMaria needs to take his own advice and begin to cooperate. There is no requirement at the federal level for a test to be passed in order to graduate. There are no legitimate reasons to maintain this system. 

Despite how this sounds, I believe that Superintendent Paolo DeMaria seeks to improve education in Ohio. Why else would he accept his post? In the article in The Daily Standard, he wonders how school districts in such close proximity can have such different results. If he is truly befuddled, I would draw his attention to the recent census reports in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on median incomes and poverty rates  and suggest that he compare them to the Ohio Department of Education's measures of district success. What he'll find is predictable, at least in my mind.

He will find the situation to be as it has always been.

The rich kids win.

The poor kids lose.

The problem now is that he and the ODE, the State School Board, and the Ohio Legislature are more than willing to let thousands of kids we know to fail to get a diploma for absolutely no reasonable purpose.

Perhaps in the new year Mr. DeMaria might make a resolution to step outside of his insulated affluent reality, to internalize a long-proven fact that poverty impacts education, and begin to dismantle the graduation requirement in favor of funding programs that actually benefit students.

After all, Mr. DeMaria, in your own words, "Improvement is everybody's business."

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas, you've got it made.


I ran into an old friend of mine at my niece's Holiday Band Concert earlier this week. My niece plays the trombone, and she and her fellow fifth graders rocked a version of Good King Wenceslas, among other tunes. Interested, I looked up the story of Wenceslas and found that he was not only generous with his meat, wine, and logs as indicated in the song, but was also murdered by his brother, Boleslaw the Bad. The thought of those kids sincerely blowing tribute to a brutally assassinated Catholic duke filled me with holiday cheer, and (I felt) leant an artistic cutting edge to the proceedings.

After the show, we headed for the hallway, where we would stand around smiling ridiculously at everyone and wait to congratulate the kids on their good work. I caught up with my friend on the way through the door and wished him a Merry Christmas. We talked about the show a bit and, knowing I'm a teacher, he asked about my holiday. We've got a long break this year, I told him off-hand, feeling fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with my family. His reply was predictable, I guess, something in the spirit of, 'You teachers have it made."

My first instinct was to use some language that wouldn't have been school appropriate. Instead I just smiled, wondering what method Boleslaw used to kill his brother. We wished each other well, and that was it.

Except it wasn't. I'm sure that dude didn't mean anything by what he said, but I keep thinking of what it is that I do for I living, and of all my friends and colleagues who devote themselves to teaching. I keep thinking of Wenceslas, head down, marching miles through knee deep frozen snow on the cruelest of winter days just to help someone in need. 

So, for all of you teachers who internalize your students every problem and perhaps find it difficult to sleep... 

For you who spend your free time coaching every season, or organizing student council and other clubs, or running after school programs because kids deserve it... 

For the teacher activists who will not rest until there is an end to high-stakes testing, until there is equitable funding, until your students are well represented... 

For any teacher who attends programs and competitions outside of their school day, spends to supplement the shortfalls, tutors for the test or simple understanding... 

For you who continue in this profession despite the not very thoughtful comments or outright attacks from those who are ill informed or simply mean-spirited...

Merry Christmas, you've got it made. From "Good King Wenceslas"... 

"He who now will bless the poor
will yourselves find blessing."

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

State School Board does nothing, calls it a success.

 Esteemed President of the Board, Kasich appointee Tom Gunlock.

So, the state board's plan of action regarding their graduation debacle is inaction.

They have voted to establish a committee to study potential problems with the graduation requirement as well as potential solutions. April was given as a vague end point to their study. Until that time, Ohio's juniors are left to wring their hands in worry, and wonder why they're expected to grind through the rigors of their high school education, while those in power have yet to do anything to fix the system that fails them.

The concern and skepticism of those invested in the situation is well merited as the record does not suggest that the board is capable of, or even intends to actually study the problem. 

Myself and other stakeholders have been contacting public officials since February about a potential problem. Board members raised concerns as early as June suggesting real issues with test results, and the possible train wreck of graduation rates. Over the last two months the board has been presented with graduation projection simulations by the ODE, concerns and corresponding data from hundreds of local superintendents, and no doubt countless letters from students, parents, educators, and administrators.

After months of input, the state board, in their wisdom, has decided that now they will investigate the matter.

It has become difficult to determine what is most frustrating about this situation. Is it the muleheaded reluctance of many members of the board to consider factual information from experts in the field? Perhaps it is the insistence of board members like President Tom Gunlock and Todd Jones in placing the blame on students and teachers with anecdote and hyperbole. Both also insist that these assessments actually provide some proof of student college and career readiness, when decades of statistical analysis of scores indicates they are best at measuring economics.

Jones and Gunlock insist that lowering the points necessary for graduation would be akin to handing out diplomas without merit, kind of like being appointed to a position in state government because your family is old friends with the governor, and they consistently make sizable donations to the right candidates. Was it $30,000 to Kasich's campaign, Mr. Gunlock

In reality, a high school diploma is actually earned through 4 (or 13 if we measure K-12) years of coursework, reading, research, writing, projects and presentation, collaboration with one's peers, problem solving, and the critical analysis of new information in order to fit it in with one's existing schema as a student informs their skill set and world view. And yes, there are tests as well, the most valuable of which are created by classroom teachers based on standards driven class content. The thing is, student success is not measured solely by these test scores, and certainly not by a single test score. Students in thoughtful educational environments are provided a variety of opportunities to prove competence because quality education is a process. 

Unfortunately, members of the school board are failing to understand the most basic elements of the process and merits of education. Their decisions are based on a long ago refuted philosophy that standardized tests create increased rigor and excellence in education. Those of us working in the field know that programs, personnel, and students do those things.

What is worse is that many members of the Ohio Board of Education do not have to answer to constituents because they have been appointed. Their willful ignorance of what might be best for students, and inability to admit that they are complicit in the creation of a system that is failing Ohio's kids will go unanswered. Their insistence on blaming teachers and students, instead of listening to them, has no recourse.

In November, Senator Peggy Lehner said regarding the graduation crisis, if the school board can't fix it, then she and the legislature will. Now she appears smitten by this idea to form a committee. She mentioned leading a task force on testing issues in 2014 and said it had "tremendous value." Unfortunately, educational stakeholders would largely contest the relative value of her task force. In a recent study by the Ohio Department of Education for the state's transition under new federal guidelines according to ESSA they report  "Ohio's assessment system received the most significant pushback of any of the issues that were discussed." As reported by the Plain Dealer in discussion of chief issues to come out of the ESSA meetings, a senior policy advisor for the ODE said, "The amount of testing was at the top, followed closely by concerns around charter schools."

To make a long story short (too late), I'm not sure this new committee is necessary. I can think of two committees already in existence that could solve the issue...

Committee #1: The several hundred local Superintendents that met in Columbus last month.

Committee #2: Schoolteachers.

I really don't care if it's the state school board or the legislature that fixes this issue. Whoever it is should keep in mind that Ohio is one of only 13 states that require the passage of standardized tests in order to graduate. It is not required by federal law.

And there is your solution. Committee meeting adjourned.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

We Are All Youngstown. We Are All Lorain. We are all living through a series of nightmares worthy of Dickens.

The Ghost of Christmas Future, Betsy Devos

As a public school teacher, I've spent the past few weeks suffering night terrors, waking up screaming in defense of public schools. The specter of Betsy Devos is haunting me like the ghost of Christmas future, showing me scenes of myself teaching in an underfunded Christian charter school that was once the effective public school in which I currently teach.

What I realized yesterday, is that in all of the well-meaning hysteria about educational (and other) politics on the national level, this Dickensian nightmare is already happening here in Ohio. HB 70's Youngstown Plan has already resulted in the takeover of Youngstown, and now Lorain looks set for a CEO to take over as early as January. The Chronicle-Telegram has just published an excellent, if not well overdue, article on the predictably awful results of this legislation in Youngstown, the ramifications for Lorain, and some interesting commentary on the mentality and goals behind the plan.

Consider the following quote from Lorain Rep Dan Ramos, "This plan is much worse than people think it is. The CEO has to come in and have a plan for the district to improve, but it also has to find a way to expand charter schools in the district. That’s actually part of the law and I’m terribly concerned that it’s been the plan all along. We have all of these brand new buildings that are perfect for someone to stick a charter school in.”

Exactly. The CEO arrives to "improve" education in your district by taking power from a locally elected school board, dismissing administrators, teachers, and other staff who have invested themselves in the community, and privatizing schools when improvement isn't evident.

For anyone who has watched this situation from the "safety" of their districts and said something like, "I'm glad I'm not Youngstown." or "At least we're not Lorain." You are. If we combine the language of this law with the reality of the new assessment system, every district except the most affluent are within 3-5 years of a CEO state takeover. I teach in Elyria, a district that has been cited by the ODE as close to a Youngstown or Lorain scenario. I teach in a new high school here, and along with many others worked diligently this fall to assure the passage of a bond issue to build all new elementaries and middle schools. According to the timelines of both of these things, it is conceivable that a state takeover and move to charter schools would be occurring at the same time as the completion of the first of those new buildings. Coincidence or not, this is an injustice I'm not prepared to accept.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, Paolo DeMaria

So, yesterday when I remembered that while billionaire Betsy's desire to "advance God's kingdom" in America's schools is a nightmare for public education, the current purveyors of atrocities are right here in Ohio. So, I decided to write Superintendent Paolo DeMaria. If you recall, the Superintendent put out a call for input on education in Ohio. DeMaria also has the power to step in and prevent a takeover in Lorain through a safe harbor that's been granted to every other Ohio district as the ODE has transitioned (read butchered) us through a roll out of new assessments. DeMaria was also given significant input by Lorain stakeholder's as to why they are, in fact, making progress. So, what gives Paolo?

Here's my note to the super.

Superintendent DeMaria,

I hope this note finds you well and in the holiday spirit. I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me. The first few are about your decision to take no action regarding the takeover of the Lorain Schools. It was in your power to provide safe harbor, especially considering that Lorain's poor scores, like those of the vast majority of public schools in Ohio, had more to do with the well documented problems with the new assessment system, subsequent statewide resistance, and implementation of new tests last year. Those tests, as you know, made use of questions developed out of state in such a short time frame that proof of validity would be impossible. Every other school had safe harbor due to these, and many other issues. Why not Lorain?

When you took on your position as state superintendent, I championed your desire to listen, to hear from Ohioans. I know for a fact that legislators from the area, members of the state appointed distress commission, and other stakeholders implored you to take the only action that seemed just in Lorain, a safe harbor. So, if you are making informed decisions, and I believe you intend to, who provided the input to the contrary of those who actually work in the district?

I hope that your expressed desire to make informed decisions can be evidenced in your forthcoming explanation. I say this because while I am disappointed by the outcome in Lorain, I know that there are dozens of districts (including mine) that are 3-5 years from takeover under the current assessment system. You and I met face to face in Elyria, where I teach, at an ESSA stakeholder meeting. According to the findings from those meetings, stakeholders like me want far fewer tests, federal minimums as a matter of fact, as well as an end to the use of assessments in making high stakes decisions like those that result in the state takeover of school districts. Do you and the ODE plan to advocate for dramatic changes in the assessment system as recommended by stakeholders?

I would like to indicate that these are not intended as rhetorical questions. I would appreciate an answer. Thank you for your time, and your service to education in Ohio.

Merry Christmas.
Matt Jablonski

The Ghost of Christmas Past, John Kasich

I hope to get a response, and if I do, I will let you know. Perhaps it will be as simple as, "I am the Ghost of Christmas Present." or "I am in the Governor's pocket." Maybe it will be more thoughtful. I'd like to believe that when he talked to me about the school year when we met in Elyria, and we shared a vision of a collaborative improvement of Ohio's schools based on ESSA input, he wasn't bullshitting me. We'll see.

In the mean time, let's not forget... We Are All Youngstown. We Are All Lorain. Senator Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown has crafted a piece of Legislation, SB 230  that tempers the most awful aspects of the Youngstown Plan and establishes more local involvement. Senate leadership relegated it to the Finance Committee, a quiet burial. However, it was heard, and if it receives two more hearings this week it can be voted on. Find some basic info on the bill and contact info for the Finance Committee here. Let them and your own legislators know that you demand a more reasonable plan.

Fight the good fight.
Merry Christmas.