The staggering impact of violence upon our children

You look at the numbers and you just can’t believe it’s so, but it is so. Alex Kotlowitz, the author of There Are No Children here and current write in residence at Northwestern, write in a recent New York Times article (“The Price of Public Violence”) that according the Chicago Police Department and University of Chicago Crime Lab, in Chicago, since 1997 up to now, 8,083 people have been murdered, and 36,000 people have been shot and wounded.

Almost 45,000 people shot and killed or wounded.

ALMOST 45,000 IN THESE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS!!

Think of the impact this miasma of violence always lurking in your neighborhood would have on your children.

Kotlowitz spent some time this summer with those adults and students associated with Harper High School on Chicago’s South Side.  The previous school year (prepare yourself for this, oh readers) Harper High School lost eight current or former students to gun violence and 21 others were shot and wounded.

Eight killed, 21 shot or wounded. One high school. Imagine yourself driving to work there each morning. Imagine the students pulling on shoes with that destination. What think you about their frame of mind? What lessons would you prepare?

As one social worker reported “You’ve got kids walking around who are just on guard with everything and everyone. It’s almost like you don’t have a moment to rest.”

Remember when you had that kind of day at work? At least odds are you weren’t worried that weaponry might be involved. Imagine that being your atmosphere every day. Every day. And you wonder about the drop out rate in the city.

Kotlowitz reports on a dire social possibility: “the Department of Justice released a little-noticed report that suggested that children exposed to community violence might turn to violence themselves as ‘a source of power, prestige, security, or even belongingness.’”  Has there been not similar study done of those who abuse having been abused themselves, and become predator as a counterbalance to the predation visited upon them earlier?

Life in violence smacks of post-traumatic stress disorder, and soon it will be discovered that our wounded warriors never leave the streets of their town, begin to suffer its effects as children, perpetuate violence when opportunity is presented.

As I have asked in previous blogs, what is it going to take before these issues are meaningfully addressed? You may see this staggering impact of violence upon our children numbly, like driving under the IDOT signs that post the number of citizens killed on our highway, while texting maybe. Maybe we need to see the impact of this violence daily, a virtual Emmett Till-like open-casket view of this impact—murdered children, burned-out children, violence-inured children, students without affect, students without hope, students attending funerals of their classmates,  students with post-traumatic stress symptoms. Maybe we need to see them as we commute. Maybe we need to see them as we converse. Maybe we need to see them in our homes. Will that do it?

Will anything?

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Leapfrogging over the drama to what schools of the future must have

We can revel if we wish to in the political maelstrom of the moment in whose agenda will be forwarded or thwarted, who has the upper hand or who has the more cynical plan. We seem to wallow in this drama. Meanwhile the future beckons, our children remain ill-taught and ill-prepared for the kind of world for whom its newest vestige is beginning to appear.

We laugh when we see TV shows of the 80’s when the character pulls out a car phone the size of a shoebox and holds it to his ear. No longer cool—laughable, is it not? In the world of innovation and invention we slough off the former for the newer with breathtaking rapidity. Silently, without fanfare, people on trains pull out Kindles and within seconds are reading 1100 page historical accounts of Lincoln that would weigh down the sturdiest satchel in hardcover form.

Yet when it comes to educating kids for their future, we are not even holding shoe boxers to our ears; we are sending up smoke signals in the Windy City. We have classrooms with antediluvian lab equipment, textbooks that don’t acknowledge Alaska and Hawaii as states. We teach as we were taught as those that taught us were taught by those who taught them.

Enough! Let others engage in the rolling around in the political mire to the detriment of preparing students for the future. We at Golden Apple, along with our partners at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and National-Louis University, seek through a two-part symposia that begins Monday, March 18th at 6:30 p.m. at the CST seek threads of a newer conversation: what should school in the future look like? If you could “blue-sky” (as those who wave a particular flag like to use as a verb) the school experience for children, what would it look like? How would such a school be governed? What would the role of the teacher be? How would technology play a role? How would a child progress through that experience. We hope these and other, better insights will be addressed by our guests that night James Paul Gee and Stephanie Pace Marshall. You can connect through a link someone smarter than I am will provide to learn more about them and about our second symposium on Tuesday, May 21st  (at 6:30 p.m. at CST) with noted author Tony Wagner and Constance Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation. Come take a listen and ask a question and let’s set some foundation for a future we have to be better at preparing kids to enter than we do now.

An evening of old-school thoughtful conversation without Jerry Spinger-based dramatics or platitudinous chanting. Sounds as retro-modern as a Kindle. I hope you can join us.  Reserve your tickets for the March 18 and May 21 events here.

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“Pressure drop, oh pressure, yea, pressure drop-a right on you…”

(Today’s kudo for anyone who recognizes the singer of that line, and another hit from that singer….)

If you hadn’t the indication that the teaching profession has become increasingly stressful, the good people of MetLife, who annually survey American teachers on a host of topics, serve as the proverbial coal mine canary. They report this year that job satisfaction amongst teachers has hit its lowest point in a quarter-century. While 62% of teachers described themselves as very satisfied with their jobs as recently as 2008, that number plummeted this year to 39%–5% lower than just last year.

The reasons are clear. MetLife reports that “factors contributing to lower job satisfaction include working in schools where the budgets, opportunities for professional development, and time for collaboration with colleagues have all been sent to the chopping block.”

Let’s add to that the lingering stress impact test-mania has had on our colleagues, and we have the elements of job conditions that make the profession seem so much less enticing than it was when I entered.

Principals are also a downtrodden lot as well, with 75% of those surveyed by MetLife claiming the job has become too complex. I’ll say! Part business manager, part test preparation foist-er, part confessor if imbued with a heart and soul and part pariah if a micromanaging megalomaniac, with constant pressure to improve test performance by the outside forces and part public relations (read: crisis) manager—who has the time to be an actual instructional leader.

So the challenge remains to bring high quality teachers into less well performing, higher-poverty schools. To do that you need enlightened leadership able to balance the outcry from the test data horde and serve as a heat shield for trusted teachers to do the job, not cut corners and deliver quality experiences for these deserving children. Oh, and ignore that seeping boiler of constant pressure just outside the school doorway.

Anybody game out there? Hope so!

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Panen et circenses—being Atari in an X-box world

It seems we sit around and wait for that Sputnik-like paranoia to compel us to make things better for our children in the quality of their education. The momentous, slap-in-the-face, get-our-butts-going , the sky is falling, change NOW issue hasn’t arrived. Meteors zip by us, the sky yellows with pollution, climate change rips apart our land, children are shot in clusters or in moments of retribution or cruel circumstance and still we soldier on deafened to calls to change to alter, protect or improve.

Now in technology-land, where there is no such thing as the FINAL THING, the only thing you can count on is change. Today’s model customers line up in the rain to purchase is soon succeeded by a newer reason to stand in a newer line for newer product that does newer things. In the technology world paranoia rules. We of this company must have better stuff than that company, or we will be gulag-material, a car hone the size of a shoe box, the Atari in an X-box world.

But in education we don’t seem to care enough, or care too much about the wrong things, to enact the changes we know will makes things better for students. But again, the catalyst is still to surface.

The US Department of Education issued a clarion call this week entitled For Each and Every Child :  a strategy for education excellence and equity.  The twenty-seven member commission , including the usual suspects (Linda  Darling-Hammond, Kati Haycock, Randi Weingarten) as well as Illinoisans (Ralph Martire, Jesse Ruiz and Jose Torres) write in a blistering introduction to their recommendations an indictment that we have by our own sloth, political machination and inertia brought America to lesser-tier status through our educational inequities foisted upon our poorest children. “America has become an outlier (emphasis theirs) nation in the way we fund, govern and administer K-12 schools….No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children.” They term our seemingly willful neglect of education improvement today’s brand of segregation—a segregation of quality: “Ten million students in America’s poorest communities….are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students….the current American system exacerbates the problem by giving these children less of everything that makes a difference in education. As a result, we take the extraordinary diversity…that should be our strategic advantage in the international economy and squander it.”

Strong words indeed. Their recommendations in improved funding, revamped teacher preparation and compensation, investment in early childhood education, and, as their conclusion hints “a stronger federal role in governance and accountability within a general framework of a partnership with states, districts and schools” may become the they-want-to-take-our-guns-away response to this call to arms. Read the report and see if you are not moved. And if you are not moved, then the issues that they conclude “weaken the country internationally, economically and morally” continue to fester. However, Dancing with the Stars may be in semi-finalist mode and that kid on The Voice should make the next round. Our bread and circuses are electronic now, don’t cha know. They have color and music and instant information. Turned on loud enough, our ear buds drown out the retort of gunfire or the more subtle sound of a child’s potential to learn being damaged, mea maxima culpa.

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What’s the secret in Union City?

Maybe we should all head east and find out why the schools in Union City, New Jersey are performing so well. When a town with mostly poor immigrant kids can boast a high school graduation rate of 89.5% and attract the attention of educators nationwide, as David Kirp reported in the New York Times last week, something of merit must be going on there.

After spending a year in research for his upcoming book, Kirp is agog at the transformation of a school district once on the edge of state takeover. This chage was accomplished without turnaround strategy, without a plethora of charter schools, without mass firing. It seems the change is rooted in what Harvard professor Richard Elmore depicted as “ ‘the instructional core’—the skills of the teacher, the engagement of the students and the rigor of the curriculum. To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers.”

Now there’s a concept worth emulating—systemic change brought about by teacher excellence, strong expectation and an adherence to learning rather than high stakes test performance. The district is also heavily invested in early childhood education.

Kirp reports “a quarter-century ago, fear of a state takeover catalyzed a transformation. The district’s best educators were asked to design a curriculum based on evidence not hunch.”  WHAT? When was the last time you heard that superior teachers were consulted to design the way out of a district’s educational morass? Oh for such enlightenment in other parts of the land!

Look for Kirp’s upcoming book on the Union City transformation: Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of s Great American School System.”  Just wonder what good could occur if the ills of a school were placed in the hands of the professionals most able to achieve transformation?

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Long past the Dairy Bar

In my high school years conflict was resolved at the Dairy Bar, an ineptly and not very masculine-sounding name where Catholic boys worked out their issues in fisticuff fashion behind a place that sold milk and ice cream. “You meet me behind the Dairy Bar” was the code of aggression, a declaration an opening salvo, a cousin of the glove slapped across the face and a date set for the following dawn. Well in 1960’s Chicago it was set at 3:30pm, and word would race around school and the crowd would gather as we thick heads in our white shirts and dark blue ties would circle, feint, throw a few blows to testosterone-fueled cheering. Once the good Brothers got wind of our practice they tried to control it further by supplying boxing gloves and the gym floor for such conflict resolution. The good Christian Brothers were not above seeing a goodly display of leather flung in a teenager’s face, just wanting a more controlled atmosphere and less of a blight on the high school reputation amongst the neighboring establishments.

Looking back at those days now is comic. It is a time that could not be reproduced today. In four years of almost bi-monthly fisticuffs (full disclosure: one involving me in a kamikaze mission going after a senior football player when a freshman, but hey, honor was involved, so it must have been important, whatever it was) I never saw one weapon produced. No one was strapped, no lives were in jeopardy. We knew whoever won and whoever lost would return to class the next day, the issue uneasily settled.

Today, one would not know who was armed and who with the slightest provocation would respond not with a shove or a demand to be met behind an ice cream parlor, but would instead start shooting or slicing. Now teenage perceptions of honor, disrespect and machismo can have as instant gratification for their slights through weapons that they have with their mobile devices.

Enter the current gun debate. Defenders of the Second Amendment with their fervor rhetoric counterbalance the families of child victims with their fervor grief. How many children must die before this gets addressed? It seems to me some gun advocates would say an endless number, because freedom to possess and perceived freedom from governmental tyranny trumps any dozen of innocents. Fifteen-year old girls, ten-year old marshal arts students, nineteen-year old gang wannabes, there seems to be no combination nor number that would finally turn a majority to say this country is either just too gun-crazy or just too crazy to have guns so proliferate.

It used to be teachers would have to worry about how to keep order when a wasp found its way into the classroom, or if one jealous guy or girl approaches another with menace. Now you can hear suggestions that teachers should be armed, or should acquire FBI-level negotiation skill. Reflection on will you defend your teaching practice against attack now becomes reflection on will you put your body in harm’s way when this American madness enters your classroom.

Teaching was such an automatic no other thing decision for me as a high school senior in 1972. Forty-plus years later, with all this violence going on, I wonder if I’d respond so fervently. Would you?

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Gates Foundation weighs in on metrics of effective teaching

The result of a three-year study on what makes an effective teacher noticeable was recently released by the Gates Foundation in their report “Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching.” It is well worth downloading and reading.

Their summary is that three major types of evaluation done in concert reveal the strong teacher. The details is in what proportion to place on each of these three elements: classroom observation, student survey and student performance on state tests and the vale-added metric created by that performance.

They conclude that observation of teacher practice more than once by more than one person produces the most reliable perception, especially if those observers are well prepared, especially if one of those observers is from outside the faculty. Can you imagine the fun that job would be? Going from school to school to engage in high stakes observations of teachers that would have job retention implications? I hope the state or federal government issues remote car starters to such agents! From my years serving that role as a department chair I can attest that the practice of accurate observation and reflection with a colleague on practice is valuable, time-consuming, exhausting. I remember the horror expressed when I suggested teachers have their practice video-taped (older technology in the 90’s, mind you). We had to plan gross-out time for the teacher to get over how he/she looked do we could get into what he/she did or did not do.

Student surveys have also their role to play in separating teacher wheat from chaff. This I have always believed. Though students do not have perhaps the handle on education-ese or proper vocabulary to discuss methodology, they have an innate handle on teacher effectiveness. And it’s not just the easy-A teacher or the teacher who wants to be your friend that they select. Their instincts as consumers are more attuned than we allow.

Performance on state tests brings up the usual hue-and-cry of what testing is doing to the quality of the educational experience. And teachers and parents rebelling against administering/allowing students to take high stakes is increasing the volume of the argument. But the Gates Foundation researchers are adamant that placing the highest emphasis on state testing produces the most reliable metric for determining effectiveness. But you have to read the study to see the gradations and the decisions school districts and state education agencies will soon have to make as the result of this interesting study. Your thoughts?

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