A former student just provided me some powerful evidence of transfer

Twenty years ago, I sat in a graduate Educational Psychology class, listening with alarm to Dr. Thomas Fetsco talk about “transfer,” which he defined as the application of skills learned in one context to a separate context.  Dr. Festco was a fantastic teacher, and he loved to play devil’s advocate. That particular day he told the class there was not a great deal of evidence that transfer occurred with any regularity. Although Dr. Fetsco didn’t say it, I felt an implicit “So, what are you going to do about it?” in the lesson.

In the ensuing two decades I have spent as a middle school educator, I’ve constantly looked for evidence of transfer.  After all, isn’t that what every teacher really wants–to be sure that their students’ lives are improving as a result of their work, that students are actually taking what we teach them and using it for something important?

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts, and while I take the standards of my subject area very seriously, I also believe deeply in the value of the unwritten curriculum.  I believe educators should do everything we can to teach soft skills, nurture strong character and develop effective life habits in our students. Those are the areas where transfer is needed most.

In my class, my specific hopes for students include that they will learn the importance of developing informed views and engaging with their world, that their opinions matter and their voices have the potential to be powerful if they use them in the right way.  To those ends, I regularly have my students read about and discuss current events, and I try to emphasize the power of the written word. As a rule I keep my personal views to myself, remembering that my role should be to facilitate my students’ own thoughtful development rather than telling them what they should think about everything.

Often those hopes remain just that–hopes–and I have no way of knowing whether anyone’s life is really changing as a result.  The blessed exception occurs when someone takes the time to reach out and tell me.

As this school year wrapped up recently, I got an unexpected email from a former student.  This young man just finished 8th grade and is heading off to high school in the fall. Coming to the end of 9 years at our K-8 Language Immersion magnet school often puts students in a reflective mood, and the student wanted to let me know what my class had meant to him and how he had applied some of the things he learned in his own life.  I share the unedited email here with his permission:

Dear Mr. Parmenter,

I know that you receive many emails but I wanted request that you take a few minutes to read this email because it has truly come from deep in my heart.

To me school is not only a place to learn things but a place to learn life lessons and things about the world. Your class was one of the only places where my “thought about school” was really presented to me. What I mean by this is that your class really taught me not only about ELA but mostly about social and political injustices in the world and about good things that are happening in our world as well. I wanted to thank you for teaching us about all of the good and bad things on this planet. I loved how you taught it to us in a fun way by reading excerpts from different articles and and then having group discussions.

I wanted to let you know that your class really inspired me to do many things in our community one of these things was to email our mayor, our senator and the president about my thoughts on gun control. I think these emails were very successful  because out of all that people I emailed the only person that did not respond was the president.

If you are interested in reading it then all of the red is what I send to our mayor 🙂  :

Hello Mayor Lyles,

     My name is (student name) and I am a 14 year old boy who goes to Waddell Language Academy. The reason that I am emailing you is to inform you of something that I and many others are concerned about in this country. This past Monday we had a lockdown drill. To me it felt different and not just any kind of different it felt like it could be real. I think that this either could be that there was just a shooting in Charlotte or it could be that my teacher was about to barricade the door shut.  If you did not know already in 2018 there were 21 weeks school weeks, and there were 23 school shootings . This means that there was more than one school shooting in every single week of 2018. To me this is unacceptable and is very hard to rap my head around and understand in my 8th grade mind. There have been people in the U.S. with unhealthy obsessions with school shootings which is a mental issue and should be taken care of right away.

     When I think about what could lead to all of these school shootings it leads back to gun control. When I think of gun control it frustrates me and sometimes makes me very angry. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, as I write this email my hands are almost shaking at this idea. It makes me think that the U.S. and our government is betraying the country by hand giving guns to people that should never ever have them. I understand that this is probably not the case and there is probably no intention to do that but what they are doing is parallel to the idea that I stated about betrayal.

     One goal/purpose of writing this email is so that I can make a change in our country. I know that I am a kid and there is not much that I can do but we kids are the future of our nation and I think that I should be able to have the right to help out. I was wondering what I could do, whether it is partnering with you or doing something on my own. In other words, I am asking for guidance on how to help our country on the topic of gun control, as a kid.

Sincerely,

(student name)

Thank you so much Mr. Parmenter for all the things you have done for our school and for me.

Sincerely,

(student name)

I can’t wait to tell Dr. Fetsco about this.

NC lawmakers consider Virtual Pre-K for children of poverty as new state report recommends increased efforts on early childhood learning

As members of the North Carolina House and Senate huddle behind closed doors to hash out a budget compromise which may well include a controversial online Pre-K pilot, a new report by the non-partisan Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly recommends an increased focus on early childhood learning.

Earlier this session, Union County Representative Craig Horn introduced legislation to create a virtual Pre-K pilot program.  The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line and would test the feasibility of expanding access to all preschool-aged children in the state.

The Senate declined to include the pilot in its budget, but Horn has vowed to keep fighting for it–despite the fact that dozens of early childhood education experts have called for an end to such programs, pointing to the dangers of increased screen time and the importance of relational learning opportunities with actual human beings.  Those experts recommend instead expanding access to high-quality Pre-K, which North Carolina has received national attention for not sufficiently funding.

Now the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division has issued a report which falls very much in line with the recommendations of the experts.  

Entitled ‘North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts,’ the report points out that the disadvantaged districts in our state which manage to maintain high levels of achievement are those that focus on early education.  

The Program Evaluation Division concludes that the General Assembly should require low performing schools to add an early childhood learning improvement component to their currently required improvement plans and also that the GA should require the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to comprehensively assess early childhood learning for districts across the state.

Responding the PED’s recommendations, State Superintendent Mark Johnson suggested that ‘personalized learning,’ a catch phrase for students learning on their own using computer software, is a great way to improve early learning results.  

I bet I can find dozens of early childhood education experts who disagree.

Superintendent’s new effort to market teaching in NC is playing fast and loose with the facts

In February, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson held a controversial, invitation-only dinner to reveal what he termed ‘major announcements for our education system.’

At that event, Johnson told attendees about a new marketing campaign to improve the image of teaching in our state.  The charge would be led by his Department of Public Instruction and Best NC, a pro-business education reform lobbying organization whose board of directors is made up of wealthy, influential executives from businesses like Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Allen Tate Real Estate.  

The goal of marketing is to increase sales, sometimes by convincing the customer they are getting something which they actually aren’t. That appears to be the strategy in use by Teach North Carolina, whose website recently launched.

Teach NC let it be known from the beginning that they aimed to set the record straight on how well North Carolina teachers are compensated:

Unfortunately, the information Teach NC provides to the public on their Salary & Benefits page is riddled with the following misleading claims and outright falsehoods.  

NC teachers make $53,975 on average

Fact:  While technically true, a recent analysis by NC Public School Forum found that this misleading figure includes $4580 in local salary supplement.  But 87% of NC’s districts offer salary supplements that are less than that amount–and some offer none at all.  The number also includes compensation for certifications/advanced degrees that many teachers don’t have and bonuses that many teachers aren’t eligible for.

Teachers can earn bonuses for teaching Advanced Placement, Reading or Math

Fact:  The only Reading and Math teachers eligible for bonuses are those in narrowly defined grade levels whose students’ standardized test scores place them in the top 25% in their school district.  AP teachers get a $50 bonus for each student who passes their AP exam.  Teachers absolutely do not earn bonuses simply for teaching those classes.

In North Carolina, teachers receive secure retirement plans

Fact:  In 2017, state legislators stripped retiree health benefits for any state employee hired after January 1, 2021.  Teachers who come to North Carolina before that date will still get those benefits unless legislators take further action, but it’s important to be aware of the whole story.

At most schools, you’ll have about two months to earn extra income

Fact:  Ok, that one is actually true.  According to the most recently available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of North Carolina’s teachers have at least one additional job.  I’d argue that’s not a particularly strong selling point if you’re trying to attract teachers to our state.

When the website initially launched, Teach NC also claimed that teachers in NC can increase their pay by earning a master’s degree.  As any North Carolina teacher can tell you, compensation for advanced degrees was eliminated by the legislature in 2013.

The organization deleted that falsehood after being publicly called out for it on social media:

What North Carolina’s public schools need is not the appearance of being great places to work, they need to actually become great places to work.  They need to become places with roofs that don’t leak, where educators are respected and empowered, where students are safe and supported, and where we have all of the resources that we need to get the job done.  Those are the changes that will really improve recruitment and retention of teachers in our state.

NC virtual Pre-K pilot driven by stereotypes, not data

*note: This post was published by WRAL

North Carolina Representative Craig Horn is promising to “redouble” his efforts to bring virtual Pre-K to impoverished four year olds, despite the fact that the pilot program was not included in the Senate budget which was rolled out last week.  

The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line.  

Horn emphasized that virtual Pre-K is “not a replacement for, or an alternative to, face-to-face, high quality pre-K” in a recent interview with NC Policy Watch.  He has yet to publicly explain why the legislation includes the following language:  “(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum  in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.”

In an impassioned April speech to the House K-12 Education Committee, the Union County representative identified the target demographic for his proposed online preschool program:

“We are targeting our most underserved children, four year olds that for whatever reason don’t have access to a Pre-K or just can’t get to one.  Transportation issues, health issues, socio-economic issues, issues that we can’t even imagine…I’m not willing to leave these kids that are not on that list for any reason, I’m not willing to leave them behind.”

“Socio-economic issues”?  What does that even mean?

It should not be too much to expect that our lawmakers take a thoughtful, measured approach to public policy.  Responsible governance on solving Pre-K access problems would involve collecting data on which families are not taking advantage high quality Pre-K, identifying barriers to access, and working in good faith to address those barriers well before turning to an electronic screen to teach four year olds.  

In this case exactly none of that due diligence has been done.  In fact, no data currently exists on the reasons families have for turning down an NC Pre-K slot.  The whole idea behind this bill is built on Representative Horn’s stereotypes of poor families and their “socio-economic issues.”

Horn has also repeatedly claimed that he is fully committed to expanding legitimate Pre-K, telling the K-12 Education Committee he believes “We may, and I think we will, continue to expand access for Pre-K.”  However the National Institute for Early Education Research recently called on North Carolina lawmakers to do a better job of providing young children with the foundation they need to be successful in school.  They seem to think Horn and his colleagues are leaving far too many of them behind:

NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.

While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.

This year’s House budget calls for no additional funding for NC Pre-K beyond what was already passed into law during previous sessions.  

The estimated cost of providing real Pre-K to all four year olds in North Carolina stands at just over $300m.  It would be a lot more likely we could move toward universal access if Horn and his fellow legislators hadn’t voted to cut income taxes to benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals, the most recent round of cuts depriving our state of $900m in annual revenue.

All of our children deserve access to a Pre-K program where they can work with qualified human teachers and peers to develop communication and collaboration skills that will make for a smooth transition to kindergarten.  Our budget priorities should reflect our belief that they deserve it. And if there are indeed families who are not able to take advantage of those opportunities, our legislators should care enough to identify and help them overcome the obstacles they face.

As Winston Churchill put it, “It is no use saying: ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”