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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Matthew's Ruminations is Moving!

In order to save time and effort, Matthew's Ruminations will be moving to my personal website effective May 13, 2012. Thank you for your continued readership!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Call to Consciousness

Though the state black entrepreneurship has progressed significantly in the past decade, successful entrepreneurs with businesses in urban environments lock their doors at the end of the day and proudly drive to their suburban homes located miles away. Thus, revitalization fails as monies are rarely ever filtered back into inner city residential districts. There have been some instances where initiatives were set into place to make inner cities more conducive for inciting black businesses - creating jobs in real estate, health, finance, and education – simultaneously building wealth and affluence.
Unfortunately, jealousy, envy and fear are caveats that perpetuate the exhibition of intraracial separation amongst the black population; amongst the poor and the affluent; amongst the scholarly and the unintelligent, the law-abiding and the delinquents. Unlike immigrants from Hispanic, Dominican, Jamaican and Asian backgrounds, we fail to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us and instead linger diligently with outstretched hands, anxiously waiting on the divine showering of reparation checks accompanied by our just due of 40 acres and a mule.
Even prior to the Civil Rights Movement, highly esteemed educators like Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out the lack of support and ambition among the African American collective - the same variables that contribute to the deficiency of success in our community today. Booker T. Washington was an advocate for philosophies fundamentally centered on racial solidarity – developing and depending on our own skills and resources to build communities, housing developments and businesses. He believed that becoming educated in the industrial arts and farming while cultivating virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift would prove to be more fruitful than resistance. The ultimate objective in this notion was to win the respect of whites, which would eventually lead to African Americans acceptance and integration into a higher realm of society.
W.E.B. Du Bois on the other hand, argued that Washington's strategy would serve only to perpetuate white oppression and resistance. He advocated for political action and a civil rights agenda. In addition, he argued that social change could be accomplished by developing a cadre of college-educated blacks he called “the Talented Tenth.” Considering their debate in today’s circumstances, Du Bois’ position would mean that professional athletes, doctors, lawyers, entertainers and politicians who make millions of dollars are responsible for reaching back and helping others (blue collar workers, the poverty stricken and homeless) reach a certain level of achievement.
While Washington’s argument proposes that living and depending on the affluence of those who attained success indeed cripples low-income blacks, rather than encouraging them to prosper through their own labor. However, would placing the responsibility of overcoming as a people onto those who have “arrived” add unnecessary pressure? Most of us stand somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned points, praying for solutions, and pondering ideas that can lead us toward prosperity.
In respect to black intellectualism, we have battled issues with elitism since the nineteenth century. However, today’s “talented tenth” (initially intended to serve as mitigation between underprivileged blacks and white society) seem more socially estranged from disadvantaged blacks than their predecessors were. Practicing Du Bois’s theories; building aristocracy, intellectualism and affluence within our own race may have potentially hurt us and prevented our people from learning and adapting to the ways of a mainstream society.
Even today, elitist attitudes and supreme ideologies are held by affluent blacks who have graduated from Ivy League schools; looking down upon graduates of “ordinary” state colleges and universities. Instead of encouraging and assisting in enlightening our underprivileged brothers and sisters, the upper echelons tend to neglect the masses. While other ethnicities carry out the practice of uplifting their communities as a whole; educating, supporting and funding their deprived, blacks are getting further and further behind in the race to prosperity.
Trudging beyond the stereotypes, obstacles and conspiracies that bind us is the key to triumphing, even in regards to intraracial and intellectual discrimination. The Hip Hop movement is potentially one of the greatest tools we have as a tool to reach urban populations and demographics. Potentially, messages of returning to consciousness, supporting education, promoting legal entrepreneurism, and combating health care disparities, could all be dispersed through this platform.
Contrarily, lackluster content glamorizing spending money on cars, jewelry, clothes and alcohol that the average person cannot afford, perpetuating sexual deviance and anti-intellectualism with poor grammar usage, remains popular among our youth. Why have Hip Hop artists failed to use their mainstream media platforms to deliver strong messages of self-determination, rather than perpetuating gang life, drug dealing, profanity and incarceration? Though part of the “talented tenth” in our community, the lack of initiative and efforts made by many successful music moguls and producers who have made it through the trenches remains disappointing.
If we are to win this race, a new generation of leaders must emerge to create solutions that will eradicate social and economic disparities. Hip Hop artists need to stand up and take advantage of their platform and become the activists that God called them to be. Somehow, the passing of the collective unconscious baton failed to be exchanged in a fashion that would position us to cross the finish line as victors. Elders of the Civil Rights era blame the youth for the extinguishing of our torch; while elongated fingers of today’s youth point back to those who appear to have failed to properly educate, inform and equip them with the ceremonious ignition to carry out the fight. Nonetheless, it is time we learn that America owes us nothing, not even a pair of track shoes to run the course. However, we owe it to ourselves to run harder, faster – by any means necessary. Remember, that which I resist, persists; that which I release, releases me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Remembering the $17 Million Dollar Witch Hunt of Mike Espy

While contemplating writing an article about Johnny Dupree, African American Gubernatorial candidate for the state of Mississippi, I was reminded of the redoubtable Mike Espy. From 1987 to 1993, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He also served as the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1993 to 1994 and was the first African American to hold the post. He was and still is an idol of mine and at that point in time, he was the highest ranking African American politician in the United States.

In 1994 he was pressured to resign his position as U. S. Secretary of Agriculture amid allegations that he inappropriately received gifts from businesses and lobbyists. After months of media inquiry, Espy announced his resignation. The move was made a couple of weeks after Donald Smaltz was chosen to investigate Espy’s acceptance of gifts from companies and lobbyists that were under the jurisdiction of the USDA.

As many of you may remember, back on August 27, 1997, Mike Espy was indicted on charges of receiving inappropriate gifts, specifically from Tyson and Sun Diamond. Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz presented more than 70 witnesses in the trial; spent $17 million dollars on various phases of the case and Espy’s defense rested without calling witnesses, asserting that the prosecution had not established Espy’s guilt. It is also important to note that Espy wholeheartedly snubbed a plea bargain.

Although Smaltz proved that Espy received the gifts, he failed to demonstrate that Espy did something in return for them. The law allows officials to accept gifts out of friendship or a yearning to establish friendship, so long as the gifts are not for acts of quid pro quo.

Defense lawyers said many of the gifts came from lifelong friends and others were given as harmless acts of generosity. Day after day, Smaltz's own witnesses described Espy as a superior leader who made all decisions on their merits.

During testimony before the jury, the prosecution's chief witness told Smaltz in front of the jury: "God knows, if I had $30 million, I could find dirt on you, sir." Throughout the trial, Smaltz griped that the defense was infusing race into the trial in what he saw as a plea to the mainly African American jury.

On December 2, 1998, Espy was acquitted of all 30 criminal charges and the jury deliberated for only 9 hours. It was reported that one of the jurors stated "This was the weakest, most bogus thing I ever saw. I can't believe Mr. Smaltz ever brought this to trial." This sentiment was also expressed by several other jurors.

Espy celebrated as the jury forewoman broadcasted the verdicts in U.S. District Court. Thirty times she looked at the verdict form and declared "not guilty" as independent counsel Donald Smaltz and his team of lawyers sat calmly at the prosecution table. Barbara Bisoni, the only Caucasian juror, said Smaltz's case "had holes" and that race by no means entered into the two days of deliberations.

"He's not unlike any other schoolyard bully," Espy said of Smaltz. "You have to stand up to him. You have to let him know you're not going to back down, and sooner or later it's going to be okay."
The moral of the story is; when God is on your side, not even a prosecutor with a $17 million dollar budget can convict you. Espy faced immeasurable odds but at the end of his ordeal, he was still standing. He never compromised his character and refused to negotiate a plea bargain. Mike Espy was and still is the epitome of a transformational leader.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Are African Americans Losing the Race? Part I

Every race, culture and ethnicity has encountered significant struggles in the progression of their people. Where most ethnicities have managed to flourish despite the disadvantages common to minority groups; collectively African Americans have not been able to accomplish the same. I am inclined to believe that somewhere along the way, our voices were silenced and our vitality was diffused in the process of attempting to obtain our piece of the American apple pie. In retrospect, we can follow the trail of African American undertakings and observe how our mission for transcendence became muted and less urgent as each hardship and hindrance to success was surmounted.

Seldom is it ever disputed that our momentum as a race has subsided since the days of the Civil Rights Movement. A select few may debate whether or not we are still contenders in this cultural campaign we set out to win almost a half century ago. The general consensus is that the days of transformational African American leadership have been left behind to smolder in the ashes of the revolution. Silence has replaced the utter cries of “Black Power” heard amongst those gathered at Black Panther rallies or “We Shall Overcome” Civil Rights marches in Alabama and or my home state of Mississippi.

The selfless “by any means necessary” valor that once ignited our passion to unite and conquer – or at least “take back what the devil stole” – of the 60’s and 70’s has seemingly been eradicated by egotistic attempts to acquire a portion of the American “dream.” Thus, by abandoning and sometimes disowning our fellow brothers or sisters while undertaking selfish ambitions, we’ve failed to recognize that the formula for prosperity also includes the gallant deed of “paying it forward.”

These days, I refrain from watching the news as often as possible in an attempt to shun the anti-intellectualism and misrepresented barbarism of our people displayed on CNN and Fox News every morning. Why? Because it angers me that as time progresses, we seem to regress – at least according to the media.  Nevertheless, I can no longer stand up and speak against the media portrayal of our people, being that I can potentially walk the streets of the inner city and encounter those same thugs, and welfare recipients who remain content in living off the system, while Outkast’s “Get up, Get out,” plays in my head.

I find myself asking questions like: At what point will we break free from the clutches of stereotypical perceptions and realize that we keep ourselves imprisoned by remaining targets of ridicule? When will we conduct some deep soul searching and emerge as beings that look nothing like the images portrayed on television screens? When we will make liars out of mainstream media? Where are the positive African American figures that can inspire young sons and daughters to be educated, powerful and influential iconoclasts like Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey?

The courage that once drove Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Andrew Young, Jessie Jackson, and Nikki Giovanni can lead us to the “Promised Land.” True, history proves that many of our Civil Rights leaders were either killed or thrown behind bars for standing up for a divine cause, but they still marched on. We must step up out of the inferno created by our traumatic past in order to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. 

I still marvel at the words of Professor Cornel West when he spoke at Tavis Smiley’s State of Black America panel in 2006. He stated, “If you can control the minds of men, you can control their actions…our mind is the most powerful weapon we have…” Statistically speaking, how many of us are actually using our artillery to our advantage? Most of us will not pick up a book to even begin the process of equipping ourselves with the knowledge and wisdom that it takes to become successful.

Instead of using the agony of our past to obtain the vigor necessary to become something other than what the world expects, African Americans remain oppressed and controlled by our own misrepresented realities. Still today, we organize marches against police brutality and embark upon a revolution for social change. This amazes me, being that we have yet to stop and change our own actions. In fact, statistics of divorce, single parent homes, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, black on black crime, the spreading of AIDS/HIV epidemic, and high school dropouts, rank high among African American communities. As long as we remain angry about the deeds of others – which by the way we cannot control – we can never move on. Anger and force are conduits to frustration and resistance, which ultimately creates disease.

The moment a prominent figure is in legal trouble or an innocent black man is gunned down for no apparent reason, an opportunist emerges to “save the day.” Doesn’t this contribute to the notion that we as a people need to be emancipated instead of being encouraged to become leaders and activists? It is through the empowerment of self that the resilience to avoid crippling mentalities is learned and practiced. Once we begin to change our paradigms and understand that freedom is the state of mind into which we were born, we can then begin to alter our behavior to that of affirmation and rehabilitation. 

We should turn our cheeks to the provocations imparted by a society that expects us to act antagonistically. We should look within for the peace we seek to obtain from others who don’t have the power to give it in the first place. We should focus on finding answers and solutions to becoming a greater, mightier people. We should focus on gaining respect for ourselves rather than forcing outcomes from people who are less enthused about us rising out of poverty, lowering the percentages of incarceration and black on black crime and combating the AIDS/HIV epidemic. How can we expect others to respect us when we have very little respect for ourselves? Our focus should be education, entrepreneurship and the value of family and life, instead of trying to force America to give us something they obviously have no interest in parting with. In the words of the late great Gil Scott-Heron, “The revolution will not be televised!”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Educating and Nurturing Homeless Students

Homelessness is another step down on the ladder of poverty and it is a very real problem faced by 1.5 million children in the United States.  Many homeless families live in shelters in rural or urban areas.  With one income, high rent and living expenses, many families are just one emergency away from disaster. As a result, even children who still have a home to go to could lose it in a heartbeat.
For instance, a single mother trying to make ends meet cannot go to work because her child gets sick.  She must be with her child, as she has no one to help.  On top of this, she has medical bills piling up.  Even if she has a job to return to, she may not be able to afford her rent.
Homeless children still need to receive an education.  Yet, when they get to school each morning, they are often hungry and tired.  Like many children living in poverty, homeless children move frequently, and are exposed to drugs, violence, crime and more.  Also, transportation might be an issue for some homeless children and they miss a great deal of school.
When they are able to attend school, they may be teased for the clothes they wear and the fact they fall asleep in class. They may have difficulty making friends or a fear of participating in an activity in front of the class. Although many homeless children are with their families, older homeless children may be runaways or may have been kicked out of their homes. Many have been abused sexually and/or physically.
To help homeless families living in homeless shelters or doubling up with another family in an apartment (also considered to be homeless), Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987.  This act was put into place to ensure homeless families will receive food, shelter, adult education, job training and more.  Barriers once keeping children out of school, such as not having a birth certificate, proof of immunization or residency, have been removed by this act. Unfortunately, budget cuts in recent years have caused this program to backslide.
Teachers who have homeless children in their classroom need to know how to help and support children without a permanent home.  Homeless children may be needy emotionally and due to lack of access to bathtubs or showers and little food, they may be unclean and unfed.  Teachers can be an anchor for homeless children by showing them compassion and understanding. 
It may also be a challenge to communicate with parents who don’t have regular access to a phone.  Of course, the most important thing for homeless children is that their families find a home.  Teachers might be able to help by working with local agencies, children, and their families to find a solution to their problem. Homeless children deserve a quality education just like all students. Teachers are the first line of defense but we all have to pitch in and do what we can to ensure that all of our country’s children have the chance to lead happy, healthy lives.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Forget Polls; Here is Why Obama Will Win in 2

A recent poll from McClatchy/Marist shows a loss of confidence in President Barack Obama among the general electorate. According to the September 20, 2011 poll, Obama’s approval rating is at 39% among registered voters nationally, an all-time low for him. For the first time in his presidency, a majority — 52% — disapproves of his job performance, and 9% are undecided.

Polls are snapshot representations of a small group of people. With some proper rules and solid theoretical reasoning, they can yield crude, yet occasionally effective attempts at understanding the general population. Polls are fickle – that is, indecisive. Similar to the people they represent, most polls cannot tell us the whole truth, and the reality they seek to model may change quickly and dramatically.

Some might find that a variety of recent polls show that President Obama’s chances in the coming 2012 Presidential election are in serious jeopardy. However, polls and press like this don’t faze me much at all. I find that when we stop to consider the facts, whether you like it or not, President Obama will almost certainly win the 2012 election.

Unlike liberal pundits, who claim that Obama is sure to win based on a largely subjective election formula, I reached the same conclusion using more conventional, hopefully objective material. Here are some of the major reasons why.

First is the fact that Obama’s financial base remains strong. Obama’s electoral coffers are almost certainly going to be much larger than those of the Republican candidate.

Secondly, the Republican Party has internal divisions. This has proven to be a partial deal-breaker for the Republican Party in the past (George H. W. Bush, among others). Obviously this isn’t the only challenge for Republicans, but the fact remains that party divisions can lead to political disaster.

Third, it will be particularly important that the Republican presidential candidate is sufficiently skilled at unifying, rallying, and leading party supporters, while being charismatic and persuasive enough to keep expanding the Republican base. They must do this while going toe-to-toe with a fully-activated, campaign-charged Obama: a tall order for the current candidate lineup.

Fourth, among blacks, latinos and other ethnic minorities, Obama is still the candidate of choice by far. The voting strength of these groups remains significant, and Republican candidates still have difficulty appealing to them without alienating their base.

Fifth, for the past few years, Republicans have lost some of their political clout and public image by being staunchly ideological and politically unresponsive in the face of important national debates and crises. I’m thinking of the healthcare and debt ceiling debates in particular. These issues revealed a startling sort of stubbornness among the Republican caucus, as well as growing ideological polarization among the American electorate.

As we know, the general population tends to be fairly evenly split between Democratic and Republican supporters at election time. Some see this phenomenon as an American political trademark: we prefer divided government because it facilitates compromise.

While President Obama has been fairly bipartisan – seeking to compromise and broker deals between the Republicans and Democrats – the Republican caucus has shown a major lack of this characteristic “American” political flair.

Finally, as political scientists will tell you, barring political incompetence, incumbents tend to win. Those who hold an office are more likely to keep it, for a variety of good (and bad) reasons.

Obama’s opponents regularly compare his approval ratings (Oh, here come the polls again) to that of previous presidents, and state that they’re dangerously close to a number of one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. The problem here is that present approval ratings have very little bearing on future voting percentages. You don’t have to approve of a medicine to know you’d be better off taking it.

The biggest challenges to Obama’s 2012 bid will be shaping a positive image of his handling of the economy, motivating a disparate and disillusioned Democratic Party base, and building another top-notch political campaign that will motivate the American public and win over independent voters. The presidential election is around 13 months away: more than enough time to energize the Democratic base and launch a strong campaign.

Obama’s task will not be an easy one. He has a lot of work ahead of him, and some stiff opposition; but as I see it, his success in the 2012 election is largely secure.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Avoiding School Reform Roadblocks

When initiating reform, an action plan must be developed before the school can determine how the reform will be carried out and how it will be measured. Too often, administrators become anxious and feel the need to change the reform before any data has been collected. More patience is warranted because if a plan is not working, it can be amended. The school team, which consists of educators, administrators, and other stakeholders, must make the necessary amendments without hindering reform efforts. Creating too many changes within one reform plan would be counterproductive and frustrating for all parties involved.

Many new administrators enter the field hell-bent on making a name for themselves and refusing to live in the shadows of their predecessor. Often, they feel as though their only choice is to go in a totally different direction, making the previous reform null and void. This situation creates frustration among the surviving faculty and staff. New administrators often make changes before they fully think about the consequences or repercussions of their actions. Perfectly competent adults massage their egos instead of thinking about what is in the best interests of the school and the children.

It is counterproductive to start one reform and then decide to start another several months later. Once a reform has been implemented, all parties involved must show fidelity to it until there is concrete data or evidence that indicates that it is ineffective. Reform is about creating an environment in which students are the priority and we as their teachers assist them in starting and finishing their journey to becoming educated citizens.

It is hard for many administrators and educators to grasp the fact that frustrations may worsen as the reform is being implemented. Often, issues arise because people do not welcome change. Some educators need to see that change is for the better before they completely support the reform. Once the rebellion to change has subsided and the reform has been implemented correctly, the waiting game begins. During this time, educators and administrators must go about the business of collecting data for analysis. The findings will give them a clear indication of whether or not the reform has served its intended purpose. If students are not progressing under the implemented reform, then it may not be fulfilling the needs of the students or faculty.

Strategic planning and the implementation of school reform sometimes require schools to absorb temporary setbacks in order to reap the benefits of long-term gains. Student progress might dip for a month or two before teachers and administrators see a significant gain in student learning and performance. Teachers and administrators need to allow change to take place and not panic when instant changes are not apparent. In many school reform efforts, educators and administrators must understand that policies and practices that met the needs of the past, do not necessarily address current needs or the needs of the future. They must realize that in order to obtain a great future you must let go of a great past.

Some administrators fall into the trap of emulating model schools. Model schools can be found in every major city, but when trying to recreate their success, many schools fail to achieve the same results. Trying to recreate another school’s success is potentially dangerous, even when schools share similar characteristics. This is because, regardless of the similarities, every district is unique. Often, after a large amount of time, energy, and money has been spent, the school declares the plan a failure and has nothing to show for the efforts.

Strategic planning, which is widely used in the educational arena, can assist districts in setting goals and implementing school reform. You would be hard pressed to find a school district that does not have one or more strategic plans awaiting execution. Strategic plans are a district’s consistent road map, even in the face of adversity. In the end, a strategic plan that reflects the culture and needs of each individual school is a better route than attempts to replicate the success another school.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What is Culturally Responsive Pedagogy?

The growing popularity of culturally responsive instruction is slowly causing traditional trends to be reversed, with the onus to adapt to the demands of the multicultural classroom being increasingly placed on the teacher.   Given the wealth of diversity in our nation’s public schools, it is no wonder that instructional theory is advocating a shift toward a pedagogy that emphasizes a comfortable and academically enriching environment for students of all ethnicities, races, beliefs, and creeds.
Culturally responsive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to teaching in which the students’ unique cultural strengths are identified and nurtured to promote student achievement and a sense of well-being about the student’s cultural place in the world.  Culturally responsive pedagogy is divided into three functional dimensions: the institutional dimension, the personal dimension, and the instructional dimension. 
The institutional dimension of culturally responsive pedagogy emphasizes the need for reform of the cultural factors affecting the organization of schools, school policies and procedures (including allocation of funds and resources), and community involvement.  The personal dimension refers to the process by which teachers learn to become culturally responsive.  The instructional dimension refers to practices and challenges associated with implementing cultural responsiveness in the classroom. 
Given that a majority of teachers hail from a middle class European-American background, the biggest obstacle to successful culturally responsive instruction for most educators is disposing of their own cultural biases and learning about the backgrounds of the students that they will be teaching.  The processes necessary for preparing to teach in a culturally responsive classroom can be broken down into three general categories: exploring one’s own culture, learning about other cultures, and learning about students’ cultures.

Before seeking out knowledge about the cultures of the diverse students that they will be teaching, educators must first investigate their own heritage, upbringing, and potential cultural and racial biases.  A common side effect of being raised in the dominant European-American culture is the self-perception that “I’m an American; I don’t have a culture.”
Of course this is view is thoroughly inaccurate; European-American culture simply dominates social and behavioral norms and policies to such an extent that those who grow up immersed in it can be entirely unaware of the realities of other cultures.  A related misconception that many teachers labor under is that they act in a race-blind fashion; however, most teachers greatly overestimate their knowledge about other cultures, which manifests itself in a lack of cultural sensitivity in classroom management and pedagogical techniques. 
Fortunately, initial cultural biases can be overcome via hard work and reflection.  The necessary element for discarding pre-existing biases is a willingness to go through a process of rigorous self-appraisal in order to learn what needs to be changed to teach in a culturally responsive fashion.  A good way to start this process is by writing down reflections about family history, upbringing, and interpersonal relationship styles and how one’s experience may differ from the experience of a person raised in a different culture.
Eventually the focus of this reflection must turn toward one’s ideas about and racism and bias.  The culturally responsive educator should reflect on the fears, stereotypes, and biases that they have about individuals that are different from them. Once the educator can recognize that their own personal tastes are not objectively better than those favored by other cultures, they can begin to investigate and appreciate the traditions and values of those cultures.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Using Year-Round Schools to Close the Achievement Gap

In comparison to children from low-income and minority groups, children belonging to middle-class families enjoy more learning opportunities even during school breaks. Thus, extended school days may help low income and minority students achieve more learning throughout the year, and lose less of this new knowledge.
Year-round schools offer a variety of specific advantages in addition to increased learning. Some of the significant advantages include better student performance, reduced absenteeism among students and teachers, better discipline, diminished stress on teachers, and better learning opportunities for students. Schools following multi-track programs also enjoy easing of problems due to overcrowding, proper utilization of resources, and cost savings. The following sections discuss some of these specific advantages in more detail.
Teachers and students experience a closer relationship in year-round schools than they do in traditional, shorter-calendar-year schools. In the absence of any long-term break from school, students do not feel detached from the school environment. Furthermore, the additional time allows teachers to offer students time to achieve better results, creating a sense of excitement and interest in students, and a sense of unified effort between student and teacher. This is likely due to an increased sense of belonging and accomplishment.
Some people have expressed concern that teachers will have problems attending to their own family life if year-round schools are instituted. However, year-round school systems allow shorter but more frequent school breaks, allowing teachers more regular time during which they may concentrate on personal and family needs. As a result, many teachers in year-round schools actually feel less work stress.
Research suggests there is less teacher absenteeism in year-round schools. Teachers feel less of a need to take “mental health” days at year-round schools because they enjoy frequent breaks that gives them a chance to recharge regularly throughout the year. In addition, teachers are able to schedule professional development opportunities during the intersession periods, in order to compensate for missed classes during the summer. Research focused on teacher attitudes in year-round schools revealed that teachers found more satisfaction in the year-round school schedule.
Low income students have opportunities to garner habits for improved learning skills while attending year round schools, which in turn helps to close the achievement gap. The experience of immersion in learning offered by year round schools, with more time spent in classrooms, proves to be beneficial to many students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, including those for whom English is a second language. Many second language learners who have difficulty mastering English are advantaged by the opportunity to be immersed in English during intersession classes. They also develop better relationships with other students, and begin to feel more of a part of the school culture.
In addition to improving their academic standing, students at year-round schools may also have opportunities to develop creative talents they might not otherwise have explored, such as music and art. These classes work as a catalyst to improve personal growth.  Results from research studies conducted on student behavior in year-round schools as compared to traditional schools suggest that there is a significant difference between the two in terms of self-confidence and self-concept. Other studies have found that year-round students have fewer inhibitions, and feel positive about their schooling experience.
Various research studies reveal that students attending year-round schools often perform better than students in traditional, shorter-school-year schools. Differences in performance among traditional and year round calendar students from similar home environments are particularly important to note. Much has been written about the achievement gap between students from middle class backgrounds and those from low income backgrounds. However, low income and middle income students appear to make comparable achievement gains during the school year.
When low income students spend time away from school, the achievement gap widens. In fact, the rate at which the achievement gap widens between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds actually accelerates, when low income students are not in school.  Research shows that performance among students from low income backgrounds improves when they attend schools with modified calendars. It appears, then that modified school calendars should be considered as one of the viable options for reducing the achievement gap. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time to Learn: Revisiting the School Calendar Debate

The nine-month school calendar that emerged over a century and a half ago has proven resistant to change. It remains the predominant organizational structure within which learning takes place today, despite significant social, economic, and cultural changes over the past century that could have resulted in alternate ways to structure time for learning. Still, most school districts continue to organize learning around a 180-day, 6-hour school calendar, with summers as a period of limited or no district-sponsored learning activities. 

One explanation for the present school year is that it follows the 19th-century agrarian calendar, freeing up youth to work on farms during the summer months. Other explanations include the notion that children should not be exposed to the discomfort of early 20th-century, factory-like, non-air-conditioned school buildings in the summer.

Missing from these explanations for a nine-month calendar, however, are discussions that focus directly on student learning and achievement, which should be at the forefront of conversations focused on schooling. The propensity to naysay an alternate or modified school calendar routinely includes an array of non-achievement-based concerns. Issues such as family vacations, costs, use of facilities, extracurricular activities, teacher and administrator stress, and even the summer-recreation industry too often enjoy parallel positions of importance.

Students in the U.S. spend fewer days in school than their counterparts in many industrialized countries. In Japan, for example, students attend school 243 days a year, and academic learning does end not once the school day is over. The school day is extended, as many students attend Juku, which are privately run afterschool services that primarily focus on academic subjects, although some provide tutoring in the arts and sports.

Public schools involved in extended learning time efforts provide a U.S. version of a Juku; albeit one that is public and available to all students. They recognize that the amount and quality of time does influence learning, and their efforts result in improved learning and achievement for a number of children. Even though extended learning programs may primarily focus on low-performing, high-poverty schools, given the international achievement gap, all schools should keep a close eye on the success of these schools.

Extension to the school day is important, but extension to the school year is important as well. Research suggests that not only do achievement gaps develop when children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are away from school, but the rate of these gaps accelerates during the summer months. Comparable achievement occurs during the school year for children from both backgrounds.

During periods away from school, however, skills for children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds continue to grow, while no such advances occur for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Evidence suggests that modified calendars have a positive impact on achievement for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus should remain a viable option for schools seeking to improve achievement for students living in low socioeconomic environments.

Clearly, a structure for learning is needed that restores our stature as a well-educated nation and contributes to our ability to be a major player on the global economic playing field. Just as important, we need to provide enough time for learning so that young people have an education that allows them to grow into competent and confident adults able to choose how to live their lives. Holding on to a rigid traditional school calendar seems imprudent when viewed in light of such goals. Historically, supplemental schooling experiences to the nine-month calendar have existed. The time is ripe to flip the arrangement, so that the traditional calendar becomes supplemental to more effective arrangements of time for learning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Crucial Role of the Parental Involvement

It is beyond any doubt that low-performing schools would benefit from developing strong parent-school partnerships. However, it is not always easy to promote such a culture of shared responsibility. Schools may face difficulty in attaining an efficient collaborative framework among stakeholders, which include teachers, parents, students, the community, and the administration.

Generally, education and school leaders try to generate a social framework that will help teachers, administrators, and parents resolve differences in a peaceful and supportive manner. Overall improvement of student performance can be the outcome of improved relationships between teachers and parents.

Education leaders can encourage parental involvement by improving the structural environment of schools that directly affects teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Historically, American culture has tried to promote a locally inspired, community-based school structure; however, most of the calls for decentralization of schools and school district systems have failed to remove the bureaucratic nature of schools. This includes a structural division of responsibilities, a strict set of laws and regulations, and hierarchical control over the functionality and operation of schools.

Bureaucratic systems often create barriers that prevent teachers from developing effective student-teacher relationships and discourage parents from taking part in helping students develop their learning skills. Centralized schooling systems under the burden of stern bureaucracies can also cause alienation of teachers and obstruct student development.
On the other hand, bureaucratic systems help teachers control and use their expertise to guide students effectively. A reduction in bureaucracy would increase administrative tasks among teachers, which would then have a negative impact on their performance.

The bureaucratic system should be based on flexible formulae that will guide the teachers, administrators, and parents in promoting the learning skills of students and help them achieve better results. The centralized or hierarchical authority of schools can be used to implement these supportive regulations and policies to enhance parental involvement. On the other hand, the wrong set of policies or the lack of flexibility may harm the process of teaching and learning.

Schools must be prepared for the fact that one outcome of effective parental involvement programs will be the desire of parents to become partners in the decision-making process existing in schools. Thus, school personnel must possess a genuine belief that shared responsibility for multiple aspects of the educational enterprise will result in improved learning environments for children and youth.

Understanding the deep-rooted importance of family and parental involvement in education and its effect on the academic performance of a child requires recognizing the fact that parents are children’s first teachers. Home is the first school, and as such, it is the place where children learn an abundance of skills, knowledge, and attitudes, some of which supports what is taught in schools.

When parents get involved with their children’s education, they tend to succeed academically, and tend to perform better on exams. They miss fewer school days and tend to be more conscientious about completing school-related work outside of school. Conversely, children whose families are not as involved in their school experiences are often unable to compete academically with peers, their attendance is less regular, and they are less likely to graduate from high school.

Because of the positive impact that parent and family involvement in education has on the performance of children, schools often try to encourage parents and family members to increase their participation in the educational process. In order to increase partnership of parents with schools, schools must create an environment that offers enough incentives and support for parents.

Schools cannot expect that all parents and family members will increase their level of parental involvement on their own. School staff, to include teachers, other school personnel, maintenance staff, and administrators, must work together to develop an environment that encourages parents to ask questions and share their feedback with school personnel. Some parents will need to be invited to schools, and learn to view schools as places where they may seek advice, receive suggestions on any number of school/student related issues, and as well places where their input and thoughts are welcomed.

Some parents may be dissuaded to from getting involved with what they perceive as a group of close-knit educational professionals who engage in language and practices meant to exclude parents from the work of educational systems. School districts must make sure parents understand state standards and assessments, so that parents can be more involved in monitoring the progress of their children. Schools are required to make sure that communications with parents are in language and formats that are understandable to parents. In order for America’s children to succeed academically, the crucial role of parental involvement must be embraced wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Year Later and We Are Still “Waiting for Superman”

Recently I viewed the documentary, Waiting for Superman, for the umpteenth time, and I noted that almost a year after the film’s September 24, 2010 U. S. première, the American educational system is still not living up to its potential. Sure, education reform was the phrase on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but after a year, most of the fervor and commitment to educational change that was initially exhibited has all but subsided.
The comparisons with other developed countries show that the strongest nation in the world is still falling behind academically. The cost per pupil in the U.S. has soared to five times the level in the 1950s, after adjusting for inflation. With this kind of money being pumped into the system, why are many our school systems of such a low caliber, and further falling behind?
Statistics and common sense born of observation tell us that the biggest crisis in our schools is finding ways to educate students in low-income areas. However, as Waiting for Superman illustrates, our educational problems are not limited to poverty-stricken areas alone. As Lesley Chilcott, producer of the Waiting for Superman put it, “the dirty little secret… is that middle- and upper-class communities are suffering as well. When we talk about U.S. students ranking twenty-fifth in math, we’re not just talking about underserved communities, we’re talking overall.” Yet, despite decades of knowing that these problems exist, little improvements are being made to the system itself. Of course, everyone seemingly wants to improve America’s education system; they just do not seem to know or agree on how to do it.
The American public must believe that educational reform is a top priority issue in these times of severe economic troubles. It is understandable that, in today’s economy, people are primarily concerned about their jobs and putting food on the table. Upgrading education, although important to most, can hold a low priority in the mind of the average American, who is mostly concerned with keeping a roof over their heads. The paradox here is that this is precisely the time to make that investment into education. When times are tough in an economy such as ours, workers need to improve their skills to compete effectively in the local (and global) marketplace. The education system is where people turn to acquire these skills.
Furthermore, enhanced skills and technological talents are going to be desperately needed in the future, as America continues to struggle towards sustaining a dynamic 21st century labor force. Production is not getting easier and simpler – in fact, it is just the opposite. Along the same lines, workers down the road will need to be able to adapt to technologies that are just now being developed. If American students and workers find themselves in an educational system that cannot fulfill these necessary, required functions because it is sub-par, not only will these individuals and their families find little success in an economy that has left them behind; it will cripple America’s competitiveness.
Waiting for Superman has been criticized as being against teacher’s unions, placing the blame too squarely on the shoulders of educators, and misrepresenting educational statistics. Nevertheless, the film shined a bright spotlight on the harsh reality of our educational system, showing the exodus of middle and upper class children from our public schools; the sadness of the lottery system; and the general hopelessness that some express about our educational system and its future.
One segment of Waiting for Superman illustrates American self-confidence through an image of kids doing daredevil bike stunts, and then crashing. This scene shows, in a metaphorical sense, that while our students seem to have confidence, many do not have the skills to actually succeed.
A year later, Waiting for Superman still serves as a stark reminder of just how bad our educational system has become, and just how ineffective most of our efforts at improving it have been. The American educational system has reached a turning point, a time when things seem at their most dire, and yet many appear to simply sit idly by “Waiting for Superman.”
America needs to view this film as a public call to action, where each of us is summoned to be a Superman (or Superwoman, as the case may be), or at least to lend a hand in saving our educational system, perhaps without the flashy heroics and cape. Rather than waiting, we should strive towards getting every educator, educational leader, government official, parent, and citizen to educate themselves about the problems that exist in our educational system, and to work together to fix them.
What is most important is that we understand the deficiencies in our educational system, and strictly forbid placing blame – which rarely serves to encourage cooperation. Rather, we must demonstrate accountability for our situation and fulfill our responsibility to our children. Collectively, we must come together with an understanding that “Superman” is not coming to save our children, and it is up to us to work together to find innovative ways to rise to the challenge of fixing our educational system.
The future must be planned for; now. It certainly will not be an overnight process. However, by taking positive, productive steps, one at a time, an enormous amount of ground can be covered in the coming years. If we simply work together, we can restore the U.S. educational system to its former preeminence, and give our children the bright futures they deserve in our great country and aboard. We must become the Super-citizens that we have been waiting for.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

President Obama, NCLB and the School Reform Blame Game

On Friday, September 23, President Barack Obama announced that his administration's amendments to the No Child Left Behind Act would curtail the need for educators to "teach to the test." He also opined that although NCLB was well intentioned, it has not lived up to its hype. "Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far," The President said in his remarks. "I've urged Congress for a while now, let's get a bipartisan effort, let's fix this. Congress hasn't been able to do it. So I will."  In the eyes of many, NCLB has actually contributed to our educational system becoming even worse. With skyrocketing costs, budget crises, inconsistent curricula, poor standardized test scores, and poor morale among teachers, administrators, and students, the need for sustainable and pervasive educational change is greater now than ever before.

The numbers of questions related to the quality of the U.S. educational system from multiple sectors of society is at an all-time high. Many American parents have seen reports that American schools rank well below schools in countries such as China and Japan, or have heard President Obama declare a “dropout crisis” in the USA. An abundance of news reports and discouraging case studies has created panic among education stakeholders, who want to know why the American K-12 school system is failing. However, many insist on playing the “blame game,” which in most cases is counterproductive.

Many Americans believe that only a small percentage of leaders understand the complexities of the school system, and that individuals who do understand the intricacies of the system use their knowledge to justify the mediocre performance of our teachers and students. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are often educated in dilapidated schools where too many educators lack the credentials and skills necessary to perform their duties adequately. High student-to-teacher ratios are found in most urban schools, and these schools often lack the resources to deal with the diverse challenges they face, including unruly student behavior. Education has been called the great equalizer, but for students living in poverty-stricken urban areas, it is little more than a babysitting service and a place to get a hot meal.

If American educators and school personnel do not make a concerted effort to develop effective measures to hold schools accountable for the education of all of our children, then the education crisis will continue. There is an exception to every rule, as some urban school systems are providing their students with a quality education. Unfortunately, however, only a small number of school systems meet the state and federal government student performance requirements. For underperforming urban school systems, the problem usually lies with the inability to sustain existing reform efforts and initiatives.

Mayors and school superintendents in these areas often concoct grandiose reform plans that are merely political devices meant to beguile voters into believing they genuinely care about educational reform. The idea that politicians create school reform to gain popularity and votes is sad and sobering. It is discouraging to realize that our children’s futures might be used as a political device to win elections.

Politicians are not the only people at fault for the shoddy education American children are receiving, but no one is willing to share the blame for subpar educational environments. If administrators were asked who was at fault, they might point to a lack of parental involvement and too few quality teachers. If teachers were asked who was at fault they might also cite a lack of parental involvement and ineffective administration. If parents were asked who was at fault they might blame teachers and school administrators.

Society in general needs to understand that the lack of quality teachers, effective administration, and parental involvement are all factors that contribute to the current state of our educational system. The country must unite and work together to carry the responsibility of enriching and continuing America’s future via educational excellence without playing the “blame game.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Creating and Sustaining Educational Change 101

When considering school reform, it may be advantageous for administrators to think of their schools as businesses. If the structure of the school were to reflect the business model, we would work from the assumption that students in the school system are customers, schools are the businesses, teachers are the employees/supervisors, and the administrators are the CEO’s.  
In any business, the customers needs always come first. The reputation for customer service is the best advertising a business can receive. Keeping this savvy business strategy in mind, the business of the school should be to create learning opportunities that lead to greater academic achievement. If educators make lessons fun while adhering to the curriculum, the graduation rate will increase dramatically. If children feel safe and entertained, they will want to come to school. It is the educator’s task to make sure students learn to love to learn, while it is the administration’s task to support their efforts. 
The most critical question administrators must confront is: where do we begin? Beginning reform by tackling several goals at once is noble, but not recommended. When trying to start reform in a complex environment such as a school, administrators need to focus on one task at a time. When making decisions, the administration needs to be sure to complete all steps of the reform in sequential order, using a strategic way of thinking.
In some cases goals can be independently accomplished. Departments will be able to achieve short-term goals while accomplishing the larger goals. In education, the improvements that matter the most are those that directly concern children. In order to create the necessary improvements, school districts must be reformed in ways that will sustain change. The ability of a school district to sustain reform should be of the utmost importance to the superintendent and the board of education.
Three conditions must be present in order to sustain reform. First, administrators must come to an agreement concerning the issues that have made it necessary for school reform to take place. They must be open and honest and refrain from blaming others for the issues that exist. All individuals directly and indirectly involved in the school reform must share a common vision.
Administrators should try to come to a consensus regarding the purpose of education and the roles of the faculty and staff.  They also need to agree on the rules and guidelines that will support the implementation of the reform, while respecting cultural beliefs of the faculty, staff, and students. Finally, administrators must communicate the current issues of the school and the vision for the future to stakeholders. Those who support and participate in reform need a clear vision of the common goal. Administrators must paint a reform picture that alleviates fears, and entice all to buy into the vision.
Communication is the key to running and sustaining a successful school when creating concrete reform. All participants and key administrators must agree to communicate with each other their understanding of the school reform, including their concerns. The administrators and participants must have a shared understanding of the issues the district faces, as they must learn to articulate, analyze, and explain the issues in a similar way.
There needs to be a common vision concerning students, schools, and the allocation of resources. Administrators must also anticipate new trends and issues preventing reform. Once the obstacles have been identified, it is the duty of the administrator to articulate these trends and issues to the powers that be, i.e., superintendents and school board members. Finally, the most important communication between administrators and staff is how to create reform that provides a quality education for all students.
Communication must also take place among the school district, superintendents, and the board of education in an intentional and ongoing manner. They must continuously reflect in an open and honest way on the effectiveness of the reform, and successfully communicate between departments in the case of promotions, retirements, or sudden resignation.
When creating school reform, administrators should consider communicating with community members. Community members and parents have a lot to contribute when it comes to school reform and they should be encouraged and allowed to do so. Parents and educators undoubtedly have a genuine concern for the needs of students. Why not place the important decisions concerning our students in the hands of the people that have the children’s best interests at heart?
Administrators should also consider teachers as a major part of school reform. Reform is considered a success or a failure based on the students’ performance, but teacher performance is inextricably linked to student performance. Through positive teacher-student relationships, genuine learning can take place in the classroom. Teachers know their students and the educational practices that work best in their classroom.
In schools across the nation, the people in the best positions to create positive outcomes have little to no control over the changes that are made and how they are implemented. Too often, the most critical decisions concerning the educational system are made by people without the capacity to understand the inner workings of the individual school and what it takes to ensure no child is left behind.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Allocating Resources to Improve Student Learning

Providing every child with an equal opportunity to learn has been a central challenge in public education. In fact, at its inception, universal public education in the United States was viewed as the “great equalizer.” Education was perceived by some as the vehicle through which individuals could rise above the social and economic circumstances which may have created longstanding barriers to reaching their potential as individuals and contributing citizens.
As the test of time has proven, education alone cannot address entrenched social problems; multiple institutions, policies and support systems are necessary to level the social and economic playing field. However, education is and will continue to be one of the primary means by which inequity can be addressed. Public funds will continue to be allocated in support of educational programs, and the rationale for these investments will likely continue to be that education creates social equity. 
The purposeful and practical allocation of resources to support equitable access to high-quality learning opportunities is a major component of education policy at the federal, state, and local levels. Leaders at all levels of the education are charged with making decisions about how to effectively distribute and leverage resources to support teaching and learning.
Resource allocation consists of more than assigning dollar amounts to particular schools or programs. Equally, if not more important, is the examination of the ways in which those dollars are translated into actions that address expressed educational goals at various educational levels. In this respect, leaders are concerned not only with the level of resources and how they are distributed across districts, schools, and classrooms, but also with how these investments translate into improved learning.
 It is critical for resource allocation practices to reflect an understanding of the imperative to eliminate existing inequities and close the achievement gap. All too often, children who are most in need of support and assistance attend schools that have higher staff turnover, less challenging curricula, less access to appropriate materials and technology, and poorer facilities.
Allocating and developing resources to support improvement in teaching and learning is critical to school reform efforts. Education policymakers must be informed about emerging resource practices and cognizant of the ways incentives can be used to create conditions that support teaching and learning.
Resource allocation in education does not take place in a vacuum. Instead, it often reflects policy conditions that form a context in which opportunities for effective leadership can be created. For example, effective leaders know how to use data strategically to inform resource allocation decisions and to provide insights about how productivity, efficiency, and equity are impacted by allocated resources.
The roles, responsibilities, and authority of leaders at each level of education also impacts whether and how they are able to allocate resources to particular districts, schools, programs, teachers, and students. Further, the type of governance structure that is in place also affects decisions about resources and incentives. Governance issues arise as leaders become involved in raising revenue and distributing educational resources. These activities involve multiple entities, including the voting public, state legislatures, local school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers’ associations. Each of these connections can provide insights into how best to allocate resources and provide incentives that powerfully and equitably support learning, for both students and education professionals.
Resources necessary to operate a successful school or school district cannot be confined to dollars alone, however. Indeed, the resources needed to actively and fully support education are inherently complex and require an understanding that goes far beyond assessing the level of spending or how the dollars are distributed. Educational leaders must be able to examine the ways in which those dollars are translated into action by allocating time and people, developing human capital, and providing incentives and supports in productive ways.
Principals, district officials who oversee the allocation of resources, and state policymakers whose actions affect the resources the principal has to work with, are all concerned with three basic categories of resources:
1.  Money. Activities at several levels of the system, typically occurring in annual cycles, determine both the amount of money that is available to support education and the purposes to which money can be allocated. No one level of the educational system has complete control over the flow, distribution, and expenditure of funds.
2.  Human capital. People “purchased” with the allocated funds do the work of the educational system and bring differing levels of motivation and expertise developed over time through training and experience.
3.  Time. People’s work happens within an agreed-upon structure of time (and assignment of people to tasks within time blocks) that allocates hours within the day and across the year to different functions, thereby creating more or less opportunity to accomplish goals.
These resources are thus intimately linked to one another. Each affects the other and even depends on the other to achieve its intended purpose. An abundance of money and time, for example, without the knowledge, motivation, and expertise of teachers (human capital) does little to maximize desired learning opportunities created for students.
Furthermore, an abundance of human capital without money or time to distribute it does little to alter practice in classrooms or to share expertise with others. From their position of influence over the acquisition, flow, and (intended) use of resources, educational leaders thereby undertake a massive attempt to coordinate and render coherent the relationships of the various resources to the goals they set out to achieve.