Monday, March 2, 2015

Another Snow Day, and Another Argument Against Forced Starting of School After Labor Day

Baltimore was hit by a little snowstorm on Sunday, but, more importantly, hours of cold and freezing rain that thawed and refroze, creating a beautiful but treacherous frozen city. Sidewalks were so slippery that it was pretty scary to walk on them. School was canceled for the third time this year, or the 4th time if we include the loss of the teacher Professional Development Day a couple of weeks ago. And that's not even counting the half a dozen school days that started with a 2-hour delay; on those days, our classes are shortened and not as many kids attend school.

All of this is just another reason why forcing school systems to start after Labor Day would be a mistake. With our current August 25th start date, my students and I have 153 days of class to prepare for IB exams before they take them on May 4. Those 153 days of class have been interrupted by scheduling conflicts, as they will, with events such as assemblies and senior inaugurals. In addition, I've taken four sick days, all having to do with my newly diagnosed cardiomyopathy and the procedure I underwent in October, and I would say that's probably an average amount for a teacher (and more than I usually take). I say this only because this is something to consider: teachers get sick, and so do kids. That's time out of the classroom. This year, with my illness and regular school-level interruptions, we've lost around 8 days of instruction. When we add in the inclement weather days, we get to eleven. Add the delay days, which usually see the morning classes empty and later classes somewhat full, but shortened instructional time, and we've lost around 4 more days. So, out of those 153 days of school, we have had around 135 days of class to prepare for this rigorous exam.

This is not the fault of the schedulers who create the calendar for City Schools. We attend school through December 23rd before Christmas. We have a full day of school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Of our 10 Professional Development days for the year, 4 are held before the school year begins, and 1 afterwards, meaning there are 5 sprinkled throughout the 10 months of the academic year: these days are critical (and too infrequent) to meeting with vertical and horizontal teams, moderating assessments, and learning new policies and technology. We have the standard holidays off: Labor Day, Election Day (because the schools are used as polling places), Thanksgiving, MLK Day, President's Day, and Memorial Day. All of this adds up to around 135 days of school to prepare students for a rigorous college-level exam.

Forcing schools to open after Labor Day would force another five days to be shaved off that instructional time, just for the Maryland students and schools that politicians that schools are threatening to inflict this law upon. As we endure another weather-related interruption out of our control, why would we intentionally put our students five days behind students in other states who have the same testing date, which is the same throughout the world for the International Baccalaureate. But this isn't an isolated single test. All IB, AP, PARCC, and SAT exams are the same date, or dates, throughout the academic year, and there's no reason that Maryland students should be forced to have less classroom time than other students in preparation for any of those tests. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Heart Awareness Month (Or, an Overview of My Cardiomyopathy)

Today marks the last day of Heart Disease Awareness Month, and I'm posting this in support of that awareness. 

Some of my closest friends don't know much about my status or condition, or what caused it, so let me elucidate for a few sentences: I have left-ventricle dilated cardiomyopathy, a blanket term for the weakening, or failure, of the heart. It's idiopathic, meaning doctors don't know the cause, but it was likely a virus of some kind that moved to my heart somehow. As a result, my heart is pumping with an ejection fraction of around 35-40% last time it was tested in October, which is about half of what it should be (some people, at diagnosis, are at 10% or 20%, so in that respect I'm lucky). 

My next test is in late March, and they're hoping that 6 months on pretty serious heart meds (including a beast called Carvedilol, which makes me tired and dizzy sometimes, and even sweatier than I was before) will improve the function. No real prognosis until then, and the science on this stuff is only 20-30 years old (before that, people just keeled over, I think), which is why I'm posting this status; there's really a lack of awareness and research on it; there are no "Cardiomyopathy 5K's," as far as I know. Some people do well with 6 months on this medicine, and others stay the same, and, with others, the deterioration continues. With me, a next step could be installing a defibrillator into my chest, but hopefully my EF improves so that doesn't have to happen. 

My cardiologist works with a lot of young athlete types, and I like her. I can and should exercise, but sometimes, like yesterday carrying some baseball equipment (not even very far) in preparation for the season and then running up a couple of flights of stairs to my classroom, the next period I continued to be so winded and drenched in sweat that my students make me sit at my desk with a fan and cold water instead of continuing to teach them. I felt fine after a spell, but I often field questions about looking tired or terrible, which is par for the course. It's often kind of exhausting to live your life with your heart only pumping half as well as it should, but the "I have good days and bad days" mantra definitely applies; most days I feel okay. It helps when I'm exercising regularly and making sure I watch my diet and maintain my low sodium levels. 

I'll have to really take it easy coaching this year, in a year when I've already done more seat teaching than I've ever done. But I'm hopeful and it feels better to know about this, rather than the months/years of uncertainty about why I couldn't breathe very well and coughed all the time. So, Happy Heart Awareness Month! You are now more aware. I'm comforted by knowledge and spreading knowledge, so thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Please don't be fooled, Maryland: Forcing Districts to Start After Labor Day Would Be Bad for Students

This issue of a Maryland law forcing schools to start after Labor Day just isn't going away, and it appears it has public support, with 72 percent of Maryland voters approving of the change. However, all school districts and most educators (whose summer breaks would be longer if enacted) are against it, and there's very specific reasons for that.

Judging from the comments on the Baltimore Sun article on Facebook, most in favor seem to be happy that the proposed law change would bring things back to how they used to be, how they remember it as kids themselves. State Comptroller Peter Franchot believes it will mean more vacations to Ocean City and more tax dollars in the coffer, but that's not enough for me.

The reason for this is that my concern is always going to be what is best for my students. Neither vacations in Ocean City or nostalgia for how things used to be will improve student achievement. And, indeed, this policy change forcing districts to open after Labor Day may very well hurt our students, especially our most at-risk ones.

Please don't fall for this, Maryland. If this goes through, what you'll see is the following:

1) Schools will be forced to cut down on breaks throughout the year: a shorter winter break, a shorter spring break, and pushing kids to go into schools in the tired heat of June, when schools are hot, and everyone is ready for a break rather than excited about the new school year. Why is the tired heat of June worse than the heat of August? Because it's a tired heat. Those days in August are heavy learning days, done after weeks off from school, when there is excitement and energy in the air for a new school year. In June, the days are after major testing, and after the seniors have graduated. The kids are ornery and the building is hot. These are often trying days, and they are soft days of education.

2) Maryland students falling behind other states in terms of student achievement, since national and international testing dates don't change. Starting after Labor Day will give less preparation time for such tests as the SAT, IB exams, Advanced Placement exams, and PARCC tests. And time in the classroom is important time early in the year replaced by softer days late in the year, after these testing dates. Forcing all Maryland schools to start on a specific late date puts them at a disadvantage over states that don't have this forced late start date. As a teacher who is concerned that my students do well on International Baccalaureate exams in order to get college credits and save themselves money on tuition, I will have several hours less of instructional time to prepare for their first-week-of-May exam. And this is not a unique experience; this is why every school superintendent in Maryland is against the proposed change, because most educational reforms work with testing dates that are inflexible. Why put Maryland at a disadvantage compared to other states with flexible start dates and more hours of instruction?

I also argue that this change would hurt Baltimore City (and other more at-risk) students disproportionately. The summer slide of skills is a real problem for students and educators, and a summer break that ends quicker is better for those students whose parents can't afford to send their children to summer camps, SAT prep classes, and other educational endeavors. Forcing districts to keep these kids out of school until after Labor Day, and replacing that rigorous first week of classes with the softer days in the middle of June, hurts poor students disproportionately.

The state of Maryland should let school districts decide on their own what day is best for their kids to start: not voters remembering how things used to be, or politicians with their eyes on dollar signs but not on kids' best interest.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is It Time to Consider a Mid-Winter Break To Ease Weather Interruptions in Maryland Schools?

Tuesday, there was a snow day. Yesterday, there was a 2-hour delay. Today was a normal day, although with single-digit temperatures at 6 a.m., it could have gone either way. Tomorrow is a likely  2-hour delay day, with record-breaking cold temperatures on the way (Baltimore County has already announced their delay because of this). UPDATE: Baltimore City Public Schools is CLOSED tomorrow, because of the extreme cold and heating issues in many buildings.

For a few weeks now, our students have been scheduled to see Selma at The Charles. Because of the timing of the movie and the bus company, this trip could only happen on a regular day of school. Today, on the 4th attempt, we were able to make the trip; each of the other scheduled days were delayed because of weather.

Let me tell you a little bit about teaching on a delay day: it's better than no school at all, but, often, there are no students present at the start of the school day, because the buses and the students don't adjust accordingly. By the end of the day, most classes are pretty full, but not near a normal day of school. Most at-risk students often take the day off, widening the gap between them and other students with better attendance.

And it seems to me that February is often like this, and that this year might be better than other years that are filled with snow days. This year has actually been mild, yet it is filled with interruption and distraction.

That leads me to this question: is it time for Maryland Schools, or, at the very least, Baltimore City Schools, to schedule a mid-winter break around President's Day? Boston Public Schools does it; so do New York City Schools. With the mid-Atlantic weather being plenty crazy on its own, I think it would be better for students to schedule in this week as a mid-winter recess, to eliminate, or at least lesson, the impact of weather-related interruption to regular school schedules.

Of course, this is part of my plan for year-round school, with the same amount of school days spread out more evenly throughout the year, to eliminate the "summer slide" that our most at-risk students get every year. But absent this, this small adjustment to the schedule may make February a little more easy to take, with interruptions to instruction that we can plan for instead of hearing about at 5 a.m.

There are problems with this, of course: IB  and AP exams would still be the first week of May, and perhaps other exams may have stationary dates as well, but I think we could make adjustments. Is it time to think about this? Honestly wondering out loud here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thoughts on Marietta English's BTU statement on Sun Budget Article

Yesterday's news report in the Baltimore Sun that Baltimore City Public Schools has a $60 million budget shortfall, even without the budget cuts made by the state of Maryland, was addressed to teachers today by BTU President Marietta English, who issues the following statement to teachers:

Ms. English
"Baltimore City's impending budget deficit is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Any suggestion that the teacher contract is in large part responsible for the school system's deficit is not earnest on its face.
 The Baltimore Teachers Union will happily work with Central Office to reduce and ultimately eliminate the deficit but will not support any reduction, layoff or furlough, to staff. These personnel are essential to the academic improvements city students have made.
 The Baltimore City Public School System has been through this before. I remember vividly working with Dr. Bonnie Copeland on reducing the budget deficit without significantly reducing the workforce. 
 We believe with a thorough evaluation of essential bureaucratic personnel and strong leadership from Dr. Thornton and others, the school system can fix this issue without jeopardizing the welfare of ​ Baltimore City Public Schools students and staff."

A few thoughts:

1) I have learned that BTU was contacted by Sun reporters Erica Green and Liz Bowie, repeatedly for two days, and they didn't hear back. I would have liked the comments that Ms. English offered here to have been in the newspaper article that everyone is going to remember, because the general public will read the article and blame the teachers (contract) for the budget deficit without hearing this other perspective.

2) I'm glad that Ms. English is pushing back on the idea that the teachers contract is to blame for the budget shortfall. I can't figure out if Dr. Thornton is blaming it on the contract or not (there are no direct quotes in the article about this), but I don't like the idea that the teachers and their contract (which I truly believe pays teachers what they are worth and keeps strong teachers in the system) is to blame for the budget shortage, and not waste and fraud that I'm sure is present throughout the system. 

3) My vivid memories of 2003/2004 are not of Marietta English and Dr. Copeland working together to save jobs. My memories consist of being asked to vote for 8 days of furlough, which was defeated 3 to 1, and of a lot of my friends and colleagues losing jobs. It was a dark, scary time, but I do remember Marietta English standing up for Baltimore Teachers, saying things like, "There can't be any further bailout by the teachers." I'm hopeful and optimistic that this can continue. While I think that Ms. English has had some flaws as a Union President, history shows and I do believe she will fight to ensure teachers and students don't have to endure layoffs, pay cuts, or furloughs, to correct mistakes and mismanagement by those running the school system.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Decade Later, and Another Huge Budget Crunch for BCPSS

Liz Bowie and Erica Green reported tonight in The Baltimore Sun that the BCPSS budget shortage is worse than the initially reported state budget shortfall of $35 million: in addition to that, the system has a $60 million deficit even without these state cuts. This is creating nearly a $100 million shortfall for Baltimore City Public Schools.

According to the article, Dr. Thornton has inherited a budget shortfall that is even greater than that left by Dr. Carmen V. Russo, who left with a $58 million budget deficit when she resigned in 2003. I've been in the system since 2001, and remember her well: the big flashy speeches heralding herself as a change agent who would run the school like a business, but this soon descended, three years into her 4-year contract, into a period of great distress for Baltimore City Schools. The 2003-2004 school year in the immediate wake of Russo's departure was a horrific one, marked by many layoffs and fears; one of my best friends at the time, an excellent guidance counselor who had, like me, moved from a different state to work with the kids of Baltimore, was given his pink slip the week before Christmas, as were several other teachers, guidance counselors, staff members, and all temporary employees. Like many, I lived in daily fear of getting that same pink slip in my mailbox (I don't think it was literally a pink slip -- more an unexplained call down to the Principal's office after the school day ended). When the new year hit, teachers were threatened with more layoffs if we didn't vote to give ourselves an 8-day furlough, and myself and most younger teachers -- scared for our jobs -- voted for it. It didn't pass, and Mayor O'Malley -- in a move certainly assisted by some one upmanship with Governor Ehrlich, which was fine by me --  eventually swooped in with the city's rainy day fund and eliminated the budget shortfall and saved all us teachers' jobs (I still, for this reason, I have always been a Martin O'Malley supporter. Governor Bob Ehrlich's response at the time was to call our budget shortfall "fascinating").

Anyhow, this was all a scary time, and it appears to be repeating itself a decade later, in the aftermath of another departure of a school CEO.
Left BCPSS w/ $58 million shortfall.

That's not to say the departure of Dr. Alonso (who I largely thought did good things for City Schools) and Tisha Edwards is anything like the scandalous Carmen Russo departure. The article in the Sun blamed largely the new teacher contract, but didn't cite any quotes or statistics about it, except that according to state data, the average teacher salary in Baltimore City has risen $4200 since 2010. With 8000 teachers in the system, that appears to be an additional $33.6 million in salaries. And that shortfall could be part of the $60 million deficit, but that jump wasn't in one year (indeed, I bet most of that jump was in the first year, with all the grandfathered Model teachers) and it should have been accounted for better. At the time of the initial teacher contract signing, which I voted for, union membership was promised that this money was there via Race To The Top funds. Clearly, it wasn't. (I voted NO on the contract the second time because I didn't think it was being implemented fairly, but most of my union brethren didn't vote at all. In a union with 8000 teachers, the vote was 540-480 in favor of keeping the contract when it was re-negotiated in 2013-2014.)

The jury is still out on whether the contract was a good thing or a bad thing overall. I have a job I love and am paid well for it, and that right there makes me think I will never leave Baltimore City Schools. I know many teachers who are in similar situations, that the contract has made any plans to leave the system unfathomable. I think this is a great thing for Baltimore City Schools and its students: it largely keeps great teachers where they are. I think it's merit pay that, at least somewhat (though biased for those of us in good schools, and the AU system has not functioned properly), works.

Dr. Thornton with many tough decisions
That being said, of course if the contract forces hundreds of layoffs and the cancellation of many programs this year and next, the damage could take a long while to repair. Will it be the contract's fault? I'm not sure if it can be proven without more numbers, which Baltimore City Schools don't seem very willing to release. It should be public information how many model teachers there are, how many lead teachers there are, how many model teachers were grandfathered in (and the renegotiation of the contract didn't make them do anything new to earn it, which was a mistake), how many teachers are professional or standard? These should be public so Erica Green and Liz Bowie can analyze and report them. As it is, we don't have any real idea what specifically led to the budget shortfall and, instead, we will be forced to confront the brunt of what it takes to fix it.

If the history of 2003/2004 is any indicator, it's going to be a stressful and scary few months in the BCPSS. Best of luck to Dr. Thornton and legislators to try to make this work as humanely as possible for all involved. My memories float to poor Bonnie Copeland, Russo's successor, seemingly a good person who seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders as she was forced to lay off hundreds of educators in her tenure. May Dr. Thornton's path have less opportunities for despair...

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Maddening Paradox of Success in Funding for Baltimore City Schools (and Governor Hogan's Doubling Down on these Budget Cuts)

Has Baltimore City sold its soul to sacrifice at the altar of big business? Or is the formula for state education funding one that ridiculously punishes growth? And is Larry Hogan making it worse by changing the other funding formulas for City Schools?

I think the answer to all three is yes, although the crazy reasons would be fascinating if it weren't so heart-wrenching.

Luke Broadwater's piece in The Baltimore Sun is a revelation of the paradoxes caused by tax breaks to big companies. Based upon tax breaks to rich companies -- such as those who just created all those shops at Canton Crossing and Waterfront Marriot -- Baltimore's city property wealth grew by $1.3 billion last year. But that perceived wealth is being built on the backs of our city kids, who are facing a $35 million budget cut based partially upon a formula that takes into account property tax as a huge portion of its formula for school aid. The thing is, this is only a perceived property tax wealth, since tax cuts have prevented the city from getting much, if any, tax money from these new business deals.

Tax breaks to Marriot are costing City Schools $1.4 million.
For example, Broadwater outlines that the Marriot Waterfront in Harbor East, which is valued at $155 million, pays only $1/year in property taxes for 25 years, under a deal with the city that was signed in 2000. This is costing Baltimore City Schools $1.4 million in the formula for school funding from the state.There are other examples cited of tax breaks given to big companies that helped produce, for the first time ever, the most growth by Baltimore City this past year compared to other districts in the state. However, this growth has caused deep cuts to city schools and our city's poorest residents.

 City Councilman Carl Stokes lays it out well: "Yes, we have the greatest wealth growth. But because we've given away so much money, we're not actually collecting the taxes. We have a false wealth rise. It has boomeranged on us this year with the loss of school aid."

Gov. Hogan added two cuts to City Schools funding beyond property tax formula.
But, according to WYPR, 40 percent of the cuts are according to this funding formula that punishes for growth, meaning 60 percent of the cuts are by new Republican governor Larry Hogan himself, who ran on the platform of cutting taxes. He has doubled down on the effect of this deep cut by freezing "an inflation adjustment for school aid and cutting half of a funding stream based on the geographic cost of education." In other words, Hogan's budget makes these formula cuts worse.

The result of all this is fears rippling through Baltimore City School of 393 teacher layoffs, the number superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton estimated in a letter to all teachers a couple of weeks ago. The result is also the loss of such programs as the dynamic and engaging Summer AP Summer Academy, a program unique in Maryland and, indeed, in urban schools around the country. My colleague taught in the program, so I know about it and its results well; it took kids from all around the city, and brought them together for a 6-week summer course to help prepare them for rigorous high school classes. I've taught kids from this program every year, and can attest to the results of the program, which are more than just anecdotal: this program increases scores on AP exams as well. Thus, this is a significant loss to city schools, and I'm sure this, representing just $100,000 of the $35,000,000 of cuts, is just the tip of the iceberg.

These maddening paradoxes are worthy of a Wire plot.
This is all the results of a bewildering and saddening paradox which punishes Baltimore City for success and links such tax breaks to entities such as inner harbor hotels and waterfront businesses (re: largely serving to upper class white citizens, gentrification, and tourists) to crippling budget cuts to our poorest and most vulnerable in Baltimore City Schools. It's maddening and insane, and I hope, for the sake of our children, Governor Larry Hogan and lawmakers get it fixed soon.