Man chasing money

Always follow the money. Image courtesy of Ambro /

Education “reformers” are as thick as overcooked oatmeal these days. It seems as though there is a never ending supply of experts willing to expound on how to fix all there is that is out of whack with the educational system.

While there are issues with the educational system, from the youngest in Kindergarten to the Universities, there is no one solution to any of it.

Teaching, especially when it comes to children, is a complex mix of skill, art, knowledge, and experience.

When the volume goes up relating to overhauling the system, there are some things to look for, not the least of which is where the money is coming from to front the uproar.

Any group that is publicly funded generally is required to report where the funding comes from and where it goes.

Privately funded groups, with some pretty lofty sounding names that usually include the words “American” “Americans for…”, or “The Educational Reform” something or another, aren’t required to give up the source of their funding, or what they do with it. And, they don’t.

Knowing who is providing the money is critical to understanding whatever agenda is being pushed.

There are plenty of agendas floated towards education that may or may not be in the interest of children, but rather would set up a money making enterprise for business, or a move towards a political marker, or political position that an individual would to have.

Schools are not businesses. Businesses aren’t schools. Running either one as though it was the other would be a tragic mistake.

Finding out who is the head of the “expert” organization, where their funding comes from and where it goes, is difficult at times, but absolutely necessary. Follow the money, always follow the money.


There’s got to be time for this, too.

A recent letter to the editor in the Sacramento Bee proposed that teachers should work a 12 month year, like everyone else.

First, before the chorus begins about the antiquated “agrarian schedule” myth, it is just that, a myth. A popular one to be sure, but it’s wrong. The last agrarian schedule that any school was on was prior to the industrial revolution. Check out an article with that headline on for more information.

Every time that kind of sentiment appears in print, the assumption seems to be that education is like selling cars, making widgets, checking out groceries or taking x-rays down at the clinic. Wrong. It’s a tad bit more refined than the letter writer may be aware of.

The other myth is that teachers get 3 months off for summer break. It’s not true, and never has been. It may be a bit of nit picking, but it’s not true.

It used to be that schools started the day after Labor Day, and got out in mid to late June.

What’s real now is that most schools get out around the first of June and start back up in early August. Some adhere to the start after Labor Day. The days in school add up the same, no matter when the start is.

What is true is that teachers get more time off than most people. The school year contract for teachers in California is somewhere around 184 days. Administrative types work around 200 days per year, with district office and county offices working 12 months.

Considering that the work month generally consists of 20 possible workable days, that equals 240 possible work days per year for “normal” professions (20×12=240), whatever they actually are.

Taking two work weeks off that total, for vacation, equals 230 workable days per year (240-10=230). For more senior workers, that vacation time may be a full 15 to 20 days off, which comes out to either 225 workable days or 220 workable days.

The federal and state holidays are applicable to most everyone, so they don’t do much to differentiate the net total working days.

Outside of minimum wage jobs, teachers get paid better than some, worse than others in professional settings. Teachers pensions are far from luxurious. Check into the California Department of Education for the stats on teachers pensions where you live.

There are several issues with running schools for 12 months. The first is economic.

Paying teachers for the extra time would be very expensive.

Considering the financially choppy waters most districts in most states are in, adding 30 paid days to the pay schedules doesn’t seem very probable. Teachers, like anyone else who has a job, aren’t going to work for free, no matter how much they love their jobs. Just adding the days without compensation won’t work.

The second big point is burnout, of teachers and students.

Intellectual pursuits do best when there is time to absorb the lessons taught. That’s where the school breaks come in. Everything needs time to filter down into the folds of the brain. Children especially need time to daydream and to wonder about the world about them, without the structure imposed by adults and school systems.

Teachers need time to collaborate, same as the students. Without the time to do this, the quality of teaching would tank. For those who think it already has, it would simply tank more.

Putting aside that these kinds of letters to the editor seem to be written by people who chose a career other than teaching and now regret it, there is no evidence that a 12 month school year would benefit anyone.

The only real change would be this: the schools would become the defacto babysitters for the nation. That isn’t what education is about.




Is That You, Winter?


Old Man Winter rolled into town right on schedule. The winter solstice, on December 21, is a wonderful day, transitioning from autumn to winter. The days will now get just a bit longer, the nights just a bit shorter, right through to the Vernal Equinox. On that day, night and day are of equal length. After that, the days are longer, the nights shorter until the summer solstice.

The longest day of the year is on the summer solstice. After that, the days once again start getting just a bit shorter, until the autumnal equinox, when all is equal again.

For children, unless parents jump in and illuminate these dates, not much changes. Their understanding of the tilt of the earth, length of days, growing seasons and so on, just don’t register until they are up into the double digit birthdays.

For those of us who are in snow country, the solstice brought snow this year. We’ve had storms since then that have brought snow up high, and rain in the lower elevations.

For children, especially the younger ones, this is a very wonderful time of year. Christmas and New Years come with winter, and the winter break is always a high point of the school year, or for the not in school yet set, the kid year.

There are so many opportunities to flow a river of learning around children at the change from autumn to winter. Think about it. How come it gets colder? Why are the days different? What’s the reason all the leaves fell off the trees? How come some are still green? Where do all those birds go? What happened to the garden? What happened to the sun? Where does the rain/snow come from, and where does it go?

The library is a spectacular place to visit for winter reading material. There are some of the very best children’s books available, from many different authors, about winter (spring, summer and autumn too). Look up “Is That You, Winter?”, by Stephen Gammell. It’s a spectacular book. “White Snow, Bright Snow”, by Alvin Tresselt, Uri Schulvitz’s richly illustrated “Snow”, “Owl Moon”, by Jane Yolen, all are must reads for little ones.

The wonder children experience from nature can easily be brightened by parents who pay just a bit of attention to what happens outside. If you’ve forgotten how little kids minds work, just watch “A Christmas Story”, based on Jean Shepards book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”. Amazing. True, too.

The whole point here is to get outside, unplugged, with your children and immerse yourselves in the wonders of nature, and reading. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, and it’s free.


picture of heart shaped rocks

Take care with your little ones. photo credit: J Ferris

On a recent television newscast, parents in a California school district were briefly interviewed about their child starting what is known as transitional kindergarten.

A little background is helpful here. California has started pushing back the date when children attending public school have to be 5 years old prior to starting kindergarten.

In 2014, children must be 5 by September 1. For 2013, it is October 1. For this year, 2012, it was November 1. Prior to this, the cut off date was December 1.

The reasoning is that children who were 4 years old prior to December 1 were at a disadvantage in the evolving learning environment. This writer, having taught kindergarten for 24 years prior to retiring, agrees with the new rules.

What California has done, and perhaps other states too, is start something called transitional kindergarten, or pre-kindergarten.

The transitional kindergarten is for those children who would have been eligible under the old rules to attend kindergarten, but due to the new rules, can’t.

Here, paraphrased, is what parents of two different transitional kindergarten children said. First parent: They should go early, early is good right? It can’t be bad, right? Second parent: This will allow me to look for a job, because I don’t have to be home now.

Regarding the first statement: yes, it can be bad. Putting very young children into a very structured environment can stifle their learning ability in the short run, simply by cutting off their natural curiosity.

Very young children learn by interacting with their environment. Anything that interferes with this is simply not a good thing. “Anything” means not only structuring every minute of a transitional kindergarten day, but poverty, family dysfunction, or abuse of any kind.

A good resource regarding young children and education is the Rand Corporation. Their studies are routinely cited, and frequently selectively cited, regarding the long term effects of early childhood programs.

While socialization is an admirable goal that parents have for their children, it can be accomplished outside of an overly rigid and structured environment.

The second parental response would indicate that it is just fine if the public school system functions as a free babysitter, regardless of the name of the program. That may be so, but it is a delicate matter to support, or not support.

Here are some cautions regarding the transitional or pre-kindergarten classes:

  • If the program is in the public school system, standards will be involved, raising the possibility that a child of 4 may not meet the standards. Then what?
  • The standards are aligned with the kindergarten standards. There is still a reasonable debate as to whether or not these standards are too much for very young children.
  • Whose children will benefit from such a program? A family that reads together, goes to the library, takes day trips, and makes a point of getting other like minded families involved with their activities may be a better experience for the very young than an overly structured school day.
  • Families who aren’t able to provide this level of involvement may, or may not, be better off with their children in the program.
  • Considering that transitional or pre-kindergarten, and kindergarten itself aren’t mandatory in California (though certainly, an age appropriate kindergarten is generally a good place for 5 years olds), is the cost sustainable?
  • If the school district has one teacher, no aide, and 30 or more 4 year old’s in the “transitional kindergarten”, and it’s all day, do you really want your child in that environment? Yes, this scenario already exists, right in the greater Sacramento area.


There are quite a few other questions regarding education and the very young. Given that the long term effects are often very difficult to validate, it seems appropriate for reasonable debate to continue.



Aspens in autumn photo credit: J Ferris

Autumn is a fantastic time for schools. From the Kindergartners to the seniors in high school, this season is ripe with possibilities for every classroom.

At the high school level, football is in full swing. The semester is still young but it is full to the brim with fall foliage, the smells of apple pies, pumpkin pies, pep rallies, and new friendships, still developing, excitement all around.

At the elementary level, the change in the seasons is celebrated in classrooms every day. All of the great stories about fall are read, from little lost bears, to kissing hands, to Lois Ehlert’s richly illustrated books about trees, leaves, and critters.

The trees that have begun to show their multi-hued palettes of reds, gold, yellows, and oranges keep young children enthralled. The biggest question they have is how and where did these colors come from?

The simple answer is that the shorter days, which mean less sunlight, trigger the trees to start cutting the leaves off from the food making process. The green color, chlorophyll, gives way to the colors underneath. The trees begin to harden the connection of the leaves to the branches, which ultimately leads to them dropping off. Which leaf will be the last to fall?

In the best of autumn days, the children will be outside and a gentle wind will cause a cascade of falling leaves for them them to romp through. A few piles of leaves, raked up, simply cannot be ignored, and need to be jumped in. It’s beyond fantastic, and a memory that most adults still have.

In the classrooms, leaves that have been gathered up become instant art projects. Leaves are pressed. They’re strung together or hot glued in to thin wreaths.

A blank piece of paper placed over a leaf, with the vein side up, is easily rubbed with a crayon. Doing this with several leaves, with different colors, on one piece of paper produces a fine art piece that deserves a place on the fridge.

Mixing red and yellow acrylic paint on a heavy piece of white paper, and cutting out leaf shapes that are printed on the other side provide an in the classroom, on the bulletin board autumn display of magnificent color.

Pumpkins are painted and displayed. A trip to the pumpkin patch is always good. The lines on the pumpkin are estimated, then counted. The pumpkin’s circumference is guessed at with lengths of yarn. The seeds inside the pumpkin are removed, washed, and roasted.

Thanksgiving is written about and read about. Different family traditions are shared, many different construction paper turkeys are made. Hand turkeys are traced and colorful feathers added. Pilgrims and Indians make appearances. Plays are produced, watched, and applauded.

The Thanksgiving break pulls it all together in homes throughout the country. It just doesn’t get much better.

Offer to help out in the classroom of your young children. Go to the games of your older ones. Participate in whatever way you can. It’s a truly special time of year in school.




It doesn’t add up photo:chodra

It’s difficult to go through a day without hearing something or another regarding pensions and pension spiking. The press in California, especially, is laser locked onto public pensions.

Along with the stories about pensions in general, there’s likely to be a lament or two, or twenty, about pension spiking. For all of you who have been under a rock or living in a bubble somewhere, spiking is the practice of ratcheting up ones yearly pay check not long before retiring, which results in a much better retirement pay check.

Is it real? Can this really happen in the State Teachers Retirement System? Maybe.

In general, teachers really don’t have the ability to do much of anything about their pay checks, other than cash them. As of now, the senior teacher who is retiring simply gets a retirement based on the money made during the last year of teaching, which, in all likelihood, is the highest amount in the career, plus the years of teaching credited. There’s not much to be done to increase that amount.

There is, however, a way to increase the total amount of compensation. It’s something that is more likely to happen in the admin ranks than the teaching ranks, and it’s not because the admin types are either smarter or outright crooks.

First, a brief explanation of employee costs. An educators pay check is one part of that educators cost to the system. The other costs, which can add about 13% or so to the total cost of the educator, are the statutory costs (disability, taxes, retirement, etc) and the cost of benefits, health, dental, and vision. All of that lumped together equals the total cost of an educator in a school system.

The only way to garner more pay for retirement purposes, at least for now, is to up the pay of the individual. This can be done by taking the yearly cost to the district of the districts portion of health benefits and putting that onto the salary schedule. That could add a few thousand dollars to the yearly pay check.

Now, out of that increased amount, taxes have to be paid, but in general, it would work out well for most educators. It’s not that simple for the classroom teachers though.

Salary schedules are for the entire group of teachers. Steps and columns add up through the years, along with increased educational credits, so that more experienced teachers make more money.

Since the schedule is for the entire group, and not for each individual independent of the others, it’s not easily manipulated. It is for this reason that the benefits don’t often get added to the rank and file schedules, as the change has to be accepted by the group. Those just starting out take a bit of hit, while those at the other end do OK.

For the admin ranks though, especially in the principal  through assistant superintendents and superintendents, this tactic is much easier. There are fewer principals than teachers and far fewer assistant superintendents and superintendents. This is especially true in the various county offices of education.

Since the group is smaller, it’s easier to come to agreement about the salary schedules.

The long and short of it is that a higher ending salary equals a higher retirement pay check.

According to an editorial in the Sacramento Bee newspaper, school administrators, specifically the superintendents et al,¬† are at the head of the list of possible pension spiker’s.

It’s not a mystery. In addition to making the most money in the system, they are generally a group of 1 when it comes to salary schedules. Adding something to the schedule to enhance retirement doesn’t take much of a vote, except by the elected school board.

The cost to the retirement system for such shenanigans is pretty heavy, especially when factored out over the lifetime of the retired recipient.

Should all those loopholes that allow any kind of spiking be closed? Yes. If someone is determined to be the beneficiary of spiking, their retirement should be re-calculated to what it should have been, and any money paid over that amount should be returned to the system.

What is most disturbing here is that it can, and does, happen at all. Most likely, with an “I deserve it” grin.

As always, assume nothing, verify everything.


Check the label photo:cohdra morgueFile

A busy place in any school, the cafeteria bursts into full chaos at lunch time. A few hundred children cycle through in an hour or so, and then things quiet down.

At the high school level, it takes a bit longer. The teenagers in high school are bigger, more hungry, and there’s more of them on campus. It is still the same thing though. From a calm, empty room to full food chaos in a very short period of time.

The other bit of chaos is on the adult level. School lunches have hit the big time. The national obesity issue fuels the debate about what is served in school cafeteria’s across the nation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% or more of young children in the United States are overweight. The resulting problems are long term and the solutions are complex.

The school cafeteria becomes a natural place to put into a national spotlight. The thinking is this: If the food service staff insist on lower fat, more nutritious food for the children, the percentage of obese children will shrink. Maybe.

The schools, at least in California, have revamped menus and, in theory, are serving less fat and sugar filled plates of food. While there is still a day that is pizza day, the calories in the pizza aren’t over the top, and donuts have disappeared.

The breakfast menus typically include milk, juice, cereal, and a muffin, with lunch running the gamut from pizza to chicken to hot dogs, tacos, and fish of some sort, with a good salad bar thrown in. Soda’s are mostly a thing of the past.

While San Juan Unified is simply typical of large districts, smaller districts are doing the same thing. The districts have to offer choices that are not only good for children, but choices that the children will actually eat. Federal guidelines are part of the food formula.

What is better, the school food, or what you send from home? Parents who are able to put together a thoughtful and nutritious snack and lunch for their children are probably able to put together something that is better than the cafeteria fare.

Thoughtful and nutritious are the stumbling points. Pre-packaged items from the store could be much higher in fat, sugar, and calories that home made or school cafeteria food. Actually reading the ingredients is critical.

Sending children to school with what amounts to junk food simply defeats any schools attempt at good nutrition.

Eating in the school cafeteria isn’t a de facto bad thing to do, just as sending in food from home isn’t always in the good column.

What is important is that whatever food your child eats, at school or at home, is nutritious and healthy. The debate about childhood obesity should continue, and parents across the nation need to be fully involved in it.

Students enrolling in universities around the nation, or who are returning for the fall season, are finding three things in common: there are fewer class offerings, class sizes are larger, and it is costing more.

California leads the pack when it comes to these changes. At the community college level, the State Universities, and the University of California, the trend is clear.

The schools are short of cash. The reasons that are batted about center on the financial debacle brought on by Wall Street and the real estate industry. The hyper-inflated housing fantasy pushed the economy over the cliff.

The result is the staggering loss of the economic ability of the state to continue funding higher education at a pre-debacle rate.

With Governor Brown calling for more funds, via a tax increase, it remains unclear whether his, or any other, tax increase will pass in the November elections, in California or anywhere else in the nation.

What upper division students are very concerned about is how long it is taking to earn a degree. The four year path is steadily extending to more than four years.

The extra semester, or entire school year, comes with the added costs of extra time. The costs are not limited to simply paying the tuition, books, and fees that are required. Housing, food, and insurance are added to the tab. There is also a delay in getting into the job market, and the ability to start paying on those student loans.

The delay is costly. The amount of student debt related to a University degree can easily top $40,000. With the job market less than robust, recent graduates are finding it difficult to keep up with the payments on student loans.

With both political parties putting education, from Kindergarten through graduate degrees, in the spot light as a priority for the nation, not much is being done to actually fund the entire process.

Until the rhetoric turns into real policies to actually value education, as opposed to using it as a political slogan, students will likely continue to find a four year degree is five years long.

Really? We start when?

Is it really true? School is starting again? Where did the summer go? Over the next 3 weeks or so, schools all over our region will be flinging open the doors for another round of learning.

The roll out of the 2012-2013 school year will take about a month, start to finish. Some schools will fire up next week, around August 14. Others will follow, week to week, until that magical day after Labor Day, when school should start.

Panic may be setting in. Perhaps there is still time to get to the park or library, or lake, at least one more time. Back yard camp outs for the little ones, a day or two in the forest, s’mores on the stick, for the whole family sounds just about right.

Of course, since schools let out for the summer recess in late May, starting in mid-August, or there abouts, is what follows. The temperatures will go up next week too, just in time for school to start. It’s time for the annual testing of the air conditioners, with the hope that they still work.

Shopping for new school clothes, back packs, and assorted other goodies will reach a fever pitch over the next couple of weeks. The rituals continue.

Really, where did the summer go?


There has been quite a lot of press recently regarding testing (still and always, apparently) and the reasons our educational system stinks. I don’t think it does actually.

One of the ever present debates is the one between what constitutes a test and what real learning is.

The state and federal governments have insisted on a testing system that relies on filling in a Scantron sheet. On this type of answer sheet, there is one correct answer, and the corresponding bubble has to be filled in with a number 2 pencil.

Generally, there are 4 to 5 answers to choose from. Some things actually lend themselves to this type of test. Others definitely do not.

In the early years, testing to see if a child has learned how to multiply, subtract, add and divide can be tested this way. 2+2 is going to equal 4 no matter what the format for the answer is.

The same thing is appropriate for early spelling tests. There is just one way, after all, to spell “it”.

While filling in a bubble that identifies a certain date, quantity, or correct spelling is useful, especially in compiling data on such simple endeavours, it’s less certain that this constitutes real learning.

Actually doing the math or spelling on paper with a pencil may have advantages to learning, but not for quickly compiling data. Someone, after all, has to check all those papers for correctness. This is a time consuming process, the results of which then must be recorded in order to retrieve useful data.

If the goal of education is learning, then the testing for learning has to align with that goal. For many endeavors the critical thinking that goes into solving a problem is paramount. How one arrives at the answer is often just as important as the answer.

Perhaps Bob Dylan said it most elegantly, and most simply: there is no success like failure, and failure is no success at all.

Without the ability to figure out how to get to the answer, any thing that deviates from a set path becomes a roadblock. Rote memory works right up until something that doesn’t quite fit pops up.

Getting around the roadblock comes only with the learned ability to ponder and experiment, with the full knowledge that every step toward solving a problem adds to the thinking and learning part of the problem.

What our system excels at, and is in danger of losing, is critical thinking. Other nations have sent university level students here to get a good dose of what some call flinging mud at the wall to see what sticks.

The freedom and permission to do so, and the knowledge that there are many ways to solve most problems, is extremely important in the quickly changing technological, interconnected world we live in.

As always, assume nothing, verify everything.




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