A Census Graphic Worth 1,000 Words

A Census Graphic Worth 1,000 Words

My UGA Geography Department colleague Jerry Shannon is doing very interesting research related to the Athens community.

Today he posted a very simple image, based on 2010 U.S. Census data, depicting the population of Athens in terms of self-identified race/ethnic identity.  See above.  He’s looking at elementary school zones; the dots depict people, and the lines are the boundaries of the different school zones.

I think 10 different Athenians could look at this image and come away with 10 different insights about the Classic City.  Data-rich images like Jerry’s really are worth 1,000 words, or more.  I see segregation, and infer the different challenges likely faced by different elementary schools in CCSD.  You may see something entirely different.

I think the important thing is that we see it–that we see each other.  There is much not-seeing in Athens; you have to start somewhere, to understand that your part of Athens is not necessarily the same as someone else’s part of Athens.  That’s the beginning of empathy, which is the starting point for real change.

I’ll post this image on my campaign Facebook page as well.

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CCSD Budget Approval Tonight June 2

CCSD Budget Approval Tonight June 2

The FY17 budget for the Clarke County School District will be voted on at tonight’s board meeting at 6 pm at the H. T. Edwards complex, I am informed.  Normally the first Thursday of each month is a “work session,” but tonight’s work session will be preceded by both a “regular Board meeting” as well as a private executive session.

The summary of the tentative CCSD budget that is found here provides some updates on the salary data I discussed in an earlier blog post.   The board members’ collective salaries are unchanged in FY17.  Principals’ and assistant principals’ salaries are up to $4.21 million collectively, almost $1 million more than all the salaries for aides and parapros put together.

The superintendent’s salary is up to almost a quarter-million dollars (see image above).  Compared to 2015 salaries statewide, this would place the Clarke County superintendent just outside of the top 10 salaries for superintendents statewide.  For comparison with UGA salaries from the same site, the superintendent’s salary is just a few thousand dollars above the median 2015 pay for a dean at UGA.

For comparison, the median salary in 2015 for a high-school teacher in CCSD was in the low fifties range, and the median salary for a middle-school teacher in CCSD was in the upper forties.

See you at the Board meeting tonight.

Shrinking Access to Higher Education: Disappearing Minority Scholarships

Shrinking Access to Higher Education: Disappearing Minority Scholarships

Let’s celebrate Fajr DeLane (above), recent graduate of Clarke Central High School and a winner of the Gates Millennium Scholarship!  One of 89 winners in the state of Georgia and 1,000 nationwide, Fajr will be using her full-tuition scholarship at (May 24 update: Howard University in Washington, DC).

In case readers don’t know about this scholarship, here’s what their website says:  “The Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was established in 1999 to provide outstanding African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic American students with an opportunity to complete an undergraduate college education in any discipline area of interest.”

But if you are a student in the Class of 2017 and beyond, tough luck.  The Gates Foundation has terminated support for this program after the Class of 2016.  Instead, a new program will take its place.  Details are sketchy; speculation abounds.  Perhaps the new program will be smaller and limited to those of Hispanic descent.  The Gates website itself talks about more access to higher education for everyone, but so far it’s not clear how the demise of the Gates Millennium Scholarship will enable that.  The up to 1,000 students per year since 1999 who have benefited from it are at least temporarily the end of the line.

The situation is clearer, but even more dire, over at the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.  The National Achievement Scholarship Program, founded in 1964 at the same time as the passage of the Civil Rights Act, was designed “specifically to encourage Black Americans to continue their education.”  Over 30,000 African-Americans have used this scholarship, part of the larger National Merit Scholarship competition, to go on to great things.  Alumni of this program include the first female African-American astronaut, Mae Jemison, the daughter of a roofer and an elementary school teacher in Decatur, Alabama.  Jemison went to Stanford on this scholarship.  Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is also an alumna of this scholarship program.  And so is former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove.

But after more than a half-century, poof, the National Achievement Scholarship Program disappeared with little notice last fall.  It is being replaced by a scholarship program for graduate school for graduates of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  There is apparently no effort to replace the scholarships that once went to African-American high-school seniors.  That’s gone.  Read more in a Washington Post op-ed I co-authored in early March about the puzzling and troubling termination of this scholarship program.

What’s going on here?  In my household, we have a saying: “Once is a fluke, but twice is a trend.”  This is a really strange time in American higher education history to end programs that provide the ability for African-Americans, and others of color, to attend college on scholarships.  Speaking as a college professor at a very white university in the not-nearly-so-white state of Georgia, I think we need more of these merit-based scholarships for people of color, not fewer.  But that’s not what’s happening.

Speaking of Georgia, you might think, “Well, at least we’ve still got the HOPE Scholarship.”  

Not so fast.

During my listening tour throughout the district, I learned about changes to the HOPE that will make it harder and harder for students who aren’t in a lot of advanced classes to even obtain HOPE.  As the Savannah Morning-Herald summarized these changes way back in December 2013,

The latest change requires students to take rigorous courses to qualify for both the HOPE and the Zell Miller scholarships. Rigorous courses, according to the state, include advanced high school courses such as calculus, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment college courses.

Beginning next year, the class of 2015 will have to have earned at least two full credits from the state rigorous course list to qualify for HOPE. The class of 2016 will have to complete three rigorous course credits, and the class of 2017 and all subsequent graduating classes will have to complete at least four course credits from the rigor list.

What does this mean?  From here on, if students don’t have four advanced courses on their transcripts, no HOPE.  Nada.  Zilch.

Looking at the list of rigorous courses that count toward this new HOPE regulation, basically they are AP and IB courses.

But what if your high school doesn’t offer IB or a lot of AP courses?  What if, God forbid, you are not cut out for a lot of AP courses?  Then what?

No HOPE.

Simple as that.

Yes, really.

In this era of expensive tuition and fees, that means shrinking access to higher education.

This is a complete upending of the original purpose of the HOPE Scholarship–the whole thing’s turned upside down.  Back in November 1992, the state lottery was approved in a close vote (52% for/48% against).  The concept was to create universal pre-K, instructional technology program, and free tuition for two years (later expanded to four years) for college to anyone with a 3.0 GPA in high school who was admitted to a public college or university and whose annual family income was at or less than $66,000.

In other words, the HOPE was supposed to be for poor and middle-class families.  Yes, really!

But by July 1995, the family income cap was completely removed.  If they’d lived here in Georgia, Donald Trump’s kids could have gotten the HOPE Scholarship from that point forward.

Now, with the requirement of more and more advanced coursework in the pursuit of “rigor,” the final vestige of the HOPE Scholarship as a means for lifting up those from the poorest parts of Georgia will vanish.  From here on, poor people will gamble so that wealthy kids can go to UGA and other universities.  Look around in Athens at all those “luxury living” temples downtown–that’s HOPE money, indirectly, fueling the infinity-edge pool and the private drunk buses and the enormous vehicles that can’t fit into normal parking places.

Athens benefits from this redirection of HOPE in some ways.  But it’s a fundamental shafting of the poor and middle class in this state–many of them people of color.

So, from the Gates Millennium Scholarships to the National Achievement Scholarships to the HOPE Scholarship, there is a consistent theme here.  Access to higher education is getting limited, by the elimination or redirection of historically beneficial programs.

This is a much bigger issue than a single board of education member or even a single board can tackle.  But hell should be raised about what’s going on.  Don’t pull the ladder away from the next generation.  The dream deferred could blow up in our faces.

Money (That’s What I Don’t Want): Unfiltered Friday

Money (That’s What I Don’t Want): Unfiltered Friday

 

It’s the Friday before the election.  And you know what your momma told you never to talk about in public: politics, and religion, but most of all–money.  Because even good people get really weird and defensive when you ask simple questions about money.  It’s almost as if Americans define themselves by their wealth and their sources of wealth!

When I filed paperwork to run for the Clarke County Board of Education, I was honestly surprised to see that the $108 filing fee was based on (3% of) the pay for being a board member.

Pay?

I’ve served on seven different boards of directors of non-profit groups for a total of 34 years, but I’ve never been paid a dime.  If I understand things correctly, the Clarke County Board of Education members get paid $3,600 annually for their service; the president of the board is paid $5400.  It’s not a lot of money, and the board members attend a ton of meetings and do a lot of work, but it was a surprise to me.

Of course, the pay scale goes up from there, within CCSD.  We’ve got parapros taking home maybe $1,000 a month, I hear.  The pay for custodial staff?  Not too much better, and not much respect comes with the position either.  Teachers?  If they are in a conspiracy to bleed our country dry, they are doing a lousy job of it.  You can see the numbers here; I heard at a recent budget hearing that the typical budgeted pay for a teacher was $66,000 a year, including benefits.  So, really, we’re talking about a lot of teacher salaries under $50K–and, no, they don’t have the summers “off.”

The big money comes at the top, as it does throughout American educational institutions today, in an unquestioned and seemingly off-limits-to-discussion concentration of wealth in administration.  If you go to the link that’s supposed to show CCSD administrator salaries for 2014-15, what you get instead is a table of numbers for–2008!  Maybe the numbers haven’t changed since then.  Translating this old information to real numbers, principal pay is, to the best of my determination, not too far off $100,000.  (May 23 update: principals make even more than I thought.  The website open.georgia.gov reveals that CCSD principals made an average salary of $100,178.83 and a median salary of $100,556.68 in FY 2015.  For comparison, these salaries are $23,000 more than tenured associate professors at UGA made on average in 2014.  The highest principal’s salary was $124,950.24 and the lowest was $85,730.24.  Assistant principals in CCSD are paid the same as associate professors at UGA.  The total payout to principals and assistant principals in CCSD in FY 15 was almost $4 million, $3.96 million to be more precise.)

That’s the annual pay that CCSD’s new director overseeing the charter school district transition will get, too: $100,000 plus benefits, I was told by the Superintendent at last Wednesday’s budget hearing at Gaines Elementary.  It’s a good assumption that many central administration positions are also six-figure jobs.  (May 23 update: there are 10 non-principal CCSD employees with six-figure salaries in FY 15 according to open.georgia.gov, amounting to $1.21 million in salaries for central administration types in FY 15.)

At the very top, probably, is the Superintendent.  Dr. Lanoue started in 2009 with an annual salary of $170,000 (upon proof of doctorate), according to his contract as obtained by the Athens Banner-Herald.  Our Superintendent’s annual salary is apparently a little more than $195,000, as reported by the northfulton.com in February.  (May 23 update: Dr. Lanoue’s salary in FY 15 was $198,750, according to open.georgia.gov.)

This is the point at which those good folks I mentioned earlier get all angry.  “How dare you”–but how dare I what, exactly?  Recount publicly available salary information for public servants?  Nothing illegal with that.  My own salary information is publicly available for anyone who wants to look it up on open.georgia.gov.  My 9-month pay (which can be supplemented with more teaching or grants, but isn’t this year) is $20K under the pay that the district’s new charter school district director will get upon arrival, and that’s after being a tenured professor for five years and going up (currently) for promotion to full professor.  At UGA I’m paid better than most CCSD teachers, but (May 23 update: remove “probably”) not as much as (May 23 update: remove “nearly”) all CCSD administrators–and of course less than all UGA administrators.  These are just the numbers, however squeamish they may make some people feel.

Does it have to be this way?  No.  

A sterling example was provided in my hometown, when Birmingham-Southern College took a gamble and hired General Charles Krulak as its 13th president in 2011.  Birmingham-Southern was in a bad way; its prior leadership had driven the small liberal-arts college into a financial ditch.  How deep a ditch?  The school was placed on accreditation probation shortly before Krulak’s arrival.  That’s big trouble.

General Krulak, who retired from the military as the 31st Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, with sterling academic and business credentials, showed up on campus and blew fresh air into the administration and the college, with honesty and transparency.

The General’s first decision as president: not to take a salary.  

What?  He can’t do that!  But he did.  Why?  The chair of the board of trustees of the college said, “He cares about young people.”  As retired military with corporate board connections, he probably didn’t need the money.  The students and the college came first.

Next, Krulak and his wife lived in dormitories alongside students.

What?  They can’t do that!   They’re old retired people!  There’s a big mansion for the President!  But they did it anyway.

And for four years, General Krulak redefined what a college president could be.  I know someone who worked closely with him during his time at Birmingham-Southern, and the General was as good as his word.  He got the college back on a good footing in so many ways.  And he never took a cent from the college.  He didn’t need the money.

And I don’t need the money, either.  Maybe others do, but–despite being a salary-compressed associate professor at UGA–my family and I are doing just fine.  There’s no way I’d take even a slice of $3,600 for overseeing a school district with as much poverty as Clarke County has, with as many hungry students, as many dirt-poor employees, and as many well-paid administrators as we have.  I have no knowledge of others’ financial obligations.  All I know is, just like General Krulak, I don’t need the money.  And I want to put students first, just like he did.

From the moment I found out about the salary for board members, I’ve thought, if they won’t let me refuse the salary, I’ll just give $1,200 to Gaines Elementary, $1,200 to Hilsman Middle, and $1,200 to Cedar Shoals High.  The Eastside and its schools deserve that kind of tangible vote of confidence.  It’s a tiny drop in the bucket, compared to the $137 million in projected expenditures by CCSD in FY17.  But we have to start somewhere, to close the gaps.

We hear a lot about the “achievement gap”–but the gaps in this district are large and have a whole lot to do with finances, and geography, and respect.  As a board member, I would start by not making any money from my service, just as I have not profited from my service on any other board.  (In fact, I have contributed money to most of the organizations I’ve served as a board member; but that’s for another time.)  That gesture would close one gap: the gap of trust, the suspicion that someone’s just in the job for the money.  That’s not me, just as it is not the vast majority of the CCSD teachers and staff I’ve met during my son’s 13 years in CCSD schools and while knocking doors during this campaign. We’re not in it for the money.

And if this doesn’t sound like the status quo, you’re right.  If you like the status quo in CCSD, don’t vote for me.  It’s time for questions to be asked and some changes to be made, in order to make our public schools even better.  That’s what I want to do, as a member of the Clarke County Board of Education.

The Decline of CCSD in UGA Fall Freshman Classes, 1985-2015

The Decline of CCSD in UGA Fall Freshman Classes, 1985-2015

It’s Friday the 13th, and Graduation Day at UGA to boot, so you should expect a scary “Unfiltered Friday” blog from me that relates CCSD to UGA.  Here it is:

As I talk to people around the district, and as I ponder my own classes at UGA, questions arise:

  • Why does it seem like all the UGA students are from the Atlanta area?
  • Didn’t more local students used to go to UGA?
  • Why is the UGA student body so white?
  • Why are there so few teachers of color in CCSD?

These questions are all tied together.  Many CCSD teachers come out of UGA.  The whiter UGA is, the whiter that teaching pool is.  The Clarke County schools contain a whole lot more diversity than many suburban Atlanta schools.  But it seems like for every one CCSD student in my classes, there are dozens from suburban Atlanta.  So, let’s start with UGA enrollment data.

As a scientist and as a descendant of journalists, I approach these questions from the perspective of, “Let’s get some data and look at it.”  But not in the bureaucratic, obfuscatory way of “Let’s drown you in numbers and charts until you quit asking questions.”  No, I mean, let’s crunch the data and see if we the people can figure out what’s going on.  Then maybe we can do something about it.

So Wednesday night I stayed up until 4 am slowly gathering together data from the UGA Fact Books, the official source of data on UGA (most other public universities publish equivalent documents).  The Fact Books are located at http://www.oir.uga.edu/fact_book and if you are as dogged as I am, you can replicate my analysis.

The data I gathered from the Fact Books were “Georgia High Schools of Entering Freshmen” for the fall term, going all the way from 2015 backward to 1985, UGA’s bicentennial year.  1985 was long before HOPE, before UGA went to a semester system, Vince Dooley was still the Bulldogs’ football coach and Herschel Walker won the USFL rushing title that year!  In climate research, 30-year periods (ok, 31 years in this case) are often examined because it’s long enough to get a feel for trends and allows you to overlook one-year blips.  You get a sense of the broad sweep of history.

And the history of CCSD at UGA was a fine one in 1985.  In that year, Cedar Shoals High School in District 8 was the 4th-highest feeder school for UGA in the entire state, with a whopping 60 Jaguar seniors enrolling in UGA that fall.  Clarke Central wasn’t far behind, the 10th -best feeder school in the state for UGA, with 48 Gladiator graduates enrolling in UGA that same fall.  Overall, 1 out of every 31 UGA freshman in the fall of 1985 was from CCSD.  This continued through about 1991–Cedar Shoals and Clarke Central were both top-10 feeder schools for UGA each and every year from 1985 through 1991.  

But during the 1990s things changed.  CSHS and CCHS became only top-20-ish feeder schools during that decade, no longer up there with the Waltons, Brookwoods and Lassiters who have been consistently near the top for the entire period of 1985 through 2015.  Those schools have been viewed by UGA admissions as consistently excellent.  But our CCSD schools started falling off that list, it seems, starting in the 1990s and muddling along through the 2000s.

But the past five years have been the hardest for CCSD in terms of getting graduates into UGA’s fall classes.  Clarke Central has ranked no higher than 30th among UGA feeder schools from 2011 through 2015.  Cedar Shoals has fallen at times completely off the lists.  In 2015, both Cedar and Clarke Central tied for 62nd on the list of UGA feeder schools, providing just 19 graduates apiece to UGA’s freshman class in Fall 2015.

Remember how, in 1985, 1 out of every 31 UGA freshmen in the fall class was from CCSD?  In 2015,  1 out of every 121 UGA fall freshmen was from Cedar Shoals or Clarke Central.  That is a huge change in 30 years, especially compared to the near-constancy of the suburban-Atlanta feeder schools pumping 50-100 seniors into UGA every year, year in and year out.  And the trend is clear, over a period of 31 years:

CCSD graduates are disappearing from UGA’s fall freshman classes.

Or, to recap the scary statistics in a slightly different way:

  • As a percentage of the fall freshman class at UGA, CCSD graduates are down by a factor of 4 since the late 1980s, and down by a factor of 2.5 since the late 1990s
  • Even including Oconee County high schools and Athens Academy, Athens-area representation in the fall freshman classes has apparently dropped by roughly a factor of 2 since the mid-2000s.

Them’s the data.  As with all scary things, people will rush in trying to explain it–or, more likely, trying to explain it away.  Here are some of my questions:

  • For example, are these trends because of white/upper-level socioeconomic flight to Oconee County?  Not entirely; Oconee County HS was actually the #1 feeder school in the entire state for UGA from 2004 through 2006, but the Oconee schools are not doing so well as feeder schools of late, either.  Neither is Athens Academy.  It appears to me that all of the Athens-area high schools are supplying fewer and fewer students to UGA, even at the higher socioeconomic levels.  But this “access gap” is most obvious with CCSD high schools.
  • Or is it because students just don’t want to go to UGA in the fall?  There may well be “Athens fatigue” among some populations, but if this is the explanation then we need to understand why it has intensified during the past 30 years, and ratcheted up in the past five years in particular.
  • Is it because of increasing competition with richer suburban-Atlanta schools whose students have the ability/coaching/grade inflation to get into UGA preferentially, now that UGA is fixated on ever-rising test scores and ever-rising high-school GPAs (unlike in 1985)?
  • Is it because UGA Admissions just doesn’t have a very high opinion of our CCSD schools, despite the number of Foundation Fellows and Ramsey Scholars our local schools produce?  If so, is that an unfair perception?
  • Is it because UGA Admissions is deferring admission of Athens-area applicants until the spring semester, assuming that they’ll accept anyway and just stick around Athens in the fall and take classes somewhere else?  Isn’t that a slap in the face to CCSD seniors?

 

I think the situation I describe here is known privately in some CCSD and UGA circles, but not discussed publicly.  This blog aims to end that silence.  Why?  Because the data attest to a scenario in which we are headed for a situation in which our own local students, regardless of their education and ability, will be unable to attend the university that sits right here in our city and county.  This is nuts.  It smacks of Jim Crow, but based on class as well as race.  And there are changes on the immediate horizon regarding the HOPE Scholarship that will impact students in the middle–those who are already not getting the best experience from CCSD–and prevent them from ever obtaining HOPE.  (More on that another time; it’s too scary for even this blog post.)

Athens-Clarke County should not end up being on the outside looking in at UGA.  The University of Georgia badly needs the kind of diversity that CCSD represents, whether or not those fixated on U.S. News rankings realize it.  Its lily-white student body (far fewer than 10% of the freshman class is African-American, in a state that is 30% African-American) is just plain wrong; whatever UGA is doing to recruit people of color, it has not worked and it’s time to be more proactive right here in UGA’s backyard while there is still a chance to get CCSD students admitted to UGA!  And that last part is just mind-boggling; UGA will strangle itself as a university if even potential faculty members realize that their own kids won’t have a shot at getting into UGA.

If nothing’s done about the increasing access gap the data above describe, what will Athens turn into?  As I was concluding a conversation with an expert in university admissions, it hit me: Jamaica.  Athens will turn into–is already turning into–a kind of “luxury living” resort destination for the wealthy, for four years at the University instead of a weekend on the beach.  And those wealthy will look very different from the locals who eke out an existence from the leavings of the luxury-livers.  We’re already there in many ways.  Without action, we’ll be all the way there soon.

I think there should be a strong desire to find ways to reverse this trend, now, and to prevent the Arch from being a closed gate to the community around it.  As a UGA faculty member and as a candidate for the Clarke County Board of Education, I promise to investigate the problems and push for real solutions, not rhetoric.  I might annoy some people, and I might even stay up until 4 am crunching numbers in a spreadsheet!  But, as the data here demonstrate, and is true in so many other cases regarding our schools, the status quo is not acceptable.

 

 

 

 

Unfiltered Updates, and Respectful Questions about “Striving Readers”

The campaign trail has pushed “Unfiltered Fridays” to Saturday again, but the filter’s still off.

Some very quick updates relating to previous blog posts:

Proud to be CCSD, and District 8: Cedar Shoals had its first “Decision Day” this spring.  But it was Clarke Central that got the splashy coverage in the Athens Banner-Herald.  The display in the lobby of the McLure Building at CSHS shows that Cedar graduates are going to be attending Stanford, Dartmouth, and Princeton, among other universities.  The ABH story focuses on a fabulous scholarship student going off to Agnes Scott.  And that is wonderful; I know alums and even the president of Agnes Scott, it’s a great school.  But I would also claim that the students’ stories out of Cedar are probably roughly equivalent to her story.  But, no coverage of Cedar’s Decision Day, no community knowledge of the good things going on out here in District 8.  That’s how it is in Clarke County.  But I am trying and will continue to try to tell the good stories from “way out here” on the eastside, the assumed hinterlands of Athens.

…Standardized Tests: The Georgia Milestones complete debacle came just in time to confirm for the world my statement that “I hate standardized tests. Hate hate hate hate hate standardized tests. Hate them.”  For those who don’t know, the computer technology used for some administrations of the test failed, causing a whole lot of serious grief and anguish and crying in our schools on top of all the major stress these stupid tests already cause for our kids.  It was such a statewide disaster that GEMA should have been called in for help.  The state superintendent had to announce that the entire Milestones test administration, the whole thing, will be thrown out and won’t count for grades 3, 5, and 8.   What an embarrassment.  Maureen Downey at the AJC wrote a pitch-perfect essay nailing the utter stupidity of what’s going on what these standardized tests in our public schools.

And now for a more detailed discussion relating to my last “Unfiltered” post, on:

Textbooks and Tech in the Classroom: I know from attending Board meetings that the grant for the Striving Readers program is ending and that there is a big pot of money to be spent quickly–anyone familiar with grants administration, like me as a sometimes externally funded scientist, knows how this scenario goes.

One might reasonably assume that money from a program called “Striving Readers” would be spent on, you know, reading.

But we live in an era and a district that are obsessed with tech.  I am hearing stories from people so scared for their jobs that they won’t let me publish edited excerpts from their letters to me.

As a tenured professor at UGA, I’m not scared.  I would ask the following tough-but-respectful questions of the Board and Superintendent regarding Striving Readers:

  • Is it true that the Striving Readers money is being repurposed to “refresh” or purchase laptops for the 1:1 program?
    • If so, is this repurposing the highest and best use of funds designated for a reading program?
  • Is it true that faculty et al. voices in the local schools were ignored in the process of this repurposing, and that faculty et al. were unaware of the decision of repurposing until after the decision was already made?
    • If so, why?
  • More generally, how did the Striving Readers program perform in our schools?
    • Was it a success?
    • How well was it managed?
    • Were the dollars spent appropriately and for their original purpose?  (As an externally funded scientist and a friend of scientists who bring in millions of dollars in grants yearly, I know a thing or two about how money meant for Purpose A gets shunted to Purpose B.  It’s called, in an offensive gendered phrase, “grantsmanship.”)
    • What as-yet-unaddressed needs should CCSD focus on in the aftermath of the grant’s cancellation?
  • Is the 1:1 program so successful that it deserved the repurposing of so much grant money?
    • How do we know that it is successful?
    • Does this success directly relate to reading?

These are tough-but-respectful questions.  The answers might allay some concerns that have been expressed, very privately, to me.  If so, that’s great.  Let’s move on.  If, however, these questions are dodged, deflected, ignored, belittled, and/or lead to even more questions, then let’s set a spell and not move on, and find out more.

Some might want to characterize such questions as “dissent” and “personal attacks.”  But that perception would be a biased one, biased in favor of the current Board-Superintendent situation in which questions are apparently discouraged and unanimous votes are publicly encouraged–even on a tentative budget!  Our Supreme Court judges “respectfully dissent” in decisions, and this is not seen as a threat to our democracy.  Instead, it is seen as a strength; those with knowledge of the SCOTUS know that dissents can have a longer and more lasting impact than the majority decisions.

It should be the same with our local Board of Education.  Respectful questions should be asked.  The voice of the rank-and-file workers of CCSD should be heard, not silenced.  And if those voices are heard and are translated into the right questions to ask the Board and Superintendent, then I think we’d be even prouder of CCSD than we are today.

Finally, anyone with any knowledge of, or service on, a non-profit board would recognize these questions to be precisely the kinds of questions that engaged and energetic board members should be asking.  Those who hide behind the defense that asking respectful questions equates with personal attacks–well, they are usually hiding a whole lot more stuff they don’t want you to see.

If you want to know what I would do as a member of the Clarke County Board of Education, then see above.  It would be different, but different isn’t necessarily worse–unless you are scared of change.  My public-school education taught me to embrace positive constructive change.

Unfiltered Fridays, Pt. 2: Textbooks and Tech in the Classroom

Unfiltered Fridays, Pt. 2: Textbooks and Tech in the Classroom

I was up and working for over 50 of the last 60 hours up till midnight last night, so this week’s “Unfiltered Fridays” comes to you on Saturday.  It’s about a subject close to my heart: textbooks, and their progressive disappearance from pre-college classrooms.

I’m the co-author of an introductory college-level textbook on meteorology, now in its fourth edition. (Its cost as a new book has been driven up so high by the publisher that I tell students to buy it used; that way I also do not derive a cent in royalties from my students, which I think is ethically responsible.)  So I have end-to-end knowledge of educational books, from their creation to their use in the classroom.

Over the years, in my experience, college students as a whole have gotten away from reading–and not just reading from old-fashioned books.  One UGA student a few years ago told me, to my astonishment, that he’d quit reading as soon as high school was over.  Since college students are customers these days, the nation’s universities have implicitly responded to the market demand for less reading.  A much-discussed book on higher education a few years ago revealed that 32 percent of undergraduate students do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week.

I think this is nuts.  When I was growing up, the phrase was “Reading Is Fundamental.”  It still is, if you want to succeed in life, or just be an informed citizen.  But do our institutions still believe this?

As electronic devices have gained market share on paper books, educational institutions have tried to keep up–and perhaps encourage more reading?–by going high-tech.  Move everything online, it’s just the same only newer and better… that’s the mantra.  And because the future is all-electronic, this isn’t just good marketing–it is being proactive and futuristic.  What’s not to like?  If you oppose it, you are a Luddite, we are told.  You’re exactly like those who opposed whiteboards or TV or lantern slides.  You. Are. Wrong.

Well, hang on.  I’m a scientist.  I do educational research, in fact, as well as research in my specialty of the physics of wind.  Did anyone do large controlled studies to see what would happen to reading comprehension with a shift from the venerable technology known as the book, to a computer screen?  Not to my knowledge.  There’s no educational equivalent of the FDA, to make sure that we don’t create the modern educational equivalent of thalidomide babies.  Educational institutions jumped in feet-first, hang the consequences.

Problem: there is now a research literature documenting the differences between reading a book and reading online.  And, more generally, there are several books by prominent authors, as well as much research literature, which outline the impact of immersion in a digital world on our brains.  In the presence of our digital devices, the indications are that we are getting more distracted, our conversations are getting shallower and rarer (especially more free-form conversations), and we are comprehending less when we do read from them.

And this is true for adults.  Imagine the impact on children, who did not have the decades of pre-electronic immersion that people my age did before the Internet hit.

So, to emphasize the main point: there are good reasons to think that the transition from book-reading to electronic media is a major shift with major educational consequences that are not all good.  I can list several advantages for the e-book movement myself (faster updates; ability to incorporate moving images, etc.), but I have not been a first adopter of these technologies in my classroom at UGA for a simple reason: my students themselves aren’t big fans of tech in education.  Now, some are; you’ll see a few students who maximize the possibilities and minimize the downsides.  But the others?  They know that a lot of the software is junk created by corporations to make money.  Some of them realize that they really aren’t paying attention as well online… they get distracted too easily.  They didn’t come to school to stare at a screen and not learn from the person, the teacher, in front of them.  When the tech breaks down, they see me using a marker instead of an animation, and it makes more sense to them.  And when they read and make notes in the margins and write things out in class instead of typing notes furiously into a laptop, they find that they learn better.

So, at the college level in 2016 I still use hard-copy textbooks and I promote face-to-face communication as a means of learning, and carefully manage my use of tech for those instances where it is clearly superior to older forms of delivery.  That’s not being a Luddite.  That’s adopting what I call a “highest and best use” strategy of technology stemming from experience, feedback and the research literature, instead of swallowing the marketing hype of the corporations.  Perhaps If I have done a disservice to my students in this way, they aren’t saying so to the college, university, state and national organizations that have given me awards.  And some of my former students have done quite well, in meteorology and in other pursuits.

This brings us back to the Clarke County School District. Since 2014 our district has been committed to a “one-to-one” program, putting a computer in the hands of each student starting in the third grade.  Millions of dollars are being spent on obtaining, repairing, “refreshing,” etc. etc. the computers.

I’ve seen first-hand how effective this technology can be in the hands of a self-motivated, older student–my high-school mentee, the meteorology whiz.  He’s visualizing and learning weather concepts in ninth grade that I didn’t know about until at least college.  Awesome.

But then there are all the other stories I am hearing as I talk to educators, mentors, students, and parents in CCSD.  Stories of how the tech has taken over the classroom.  Teachers ‘teaching’ to entire classes of middle schoolers who are “tuned out,” surfing the Web and disappearing into chatrooms they have no business being in.  And electronic devices are addictive like drugs: there is a reason that the phrase “Crackberry” became popular well over a decade ago to describe early adopters of tech who could not break away from it.  Here are the concerns of a noted educational innovator that echo our community’s concerns.

I’m troubled by this. I personally know many of the top educators in my discipline at the college level, and we generally don’t go all-in for tech.  Even with college students.  If you asked us, “Would you do it with third graders or sixth graders with limited supervision and easily breached firewalls?” you would get incredulous laughter.  Many of us have gotten rid of laptops in our own college classrooms, because of the documented negative effects of laptop use on comprehension.

This is not a popular view.  I don’t care.  Maybe it takes an award-winning teacher to stand up to the power of large corporations, to contest the knee-jerk belief that tech is our savior, and to resist the lure of sexy-sounding initiatives to say something obvious.  And what is that obvious statement?  That humans learn best from each other, and worst from remote automation designed to turn a profit.

Maybe my hunch is wrong, but I would sure like to see an independent study of the impact of tech in our local classrooms.  After the investment of so many millions of dollars, aren’t the taxpayers (including parents) owed an analysis of how well this experiment is going?  Will we get that kind of transparency out of CCSD?  Will we find out that the money could have been better spent on more teachers and parapros–especially parapros at the earlier grades?  Has our all-in on tech risked the creation of the educational equivalent of thalidomide babies, students who will emerge from our schools with deformities caused by years lost on the Web and chatrooms while the teachers taught in vain?  If so, it won’t show up until ‘birth,’ after these students depart CCSD.  They will have been in the classroom, showing up, getting grades, getting promoted, the works.  But will they be educated?  If so, wonderful.  If not, it’s trouble for our community.

I’m a scientist and a teacher.  I ask questions and seek answers, especially when what I see is at odds with what I know from decades in the classroom.  This is what I would do on the Clarke County Board of Education.

Thanks to retired educator Tommie Farmer of the Athens NAACP for inspiring this blog post with her own penetrating questions on this general subject.

 

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