Speech- Uncertainty and Opportunity in Education

I gave the following speech at the BTSA End of the Year Seminar.
Thank you. I am honored to speak to you today.

Introduction

I started teaching 12 years ago, before BTSA, I think. If there was BTSA back then, I didn’t go. Was there BTSA? Am I in trouble now?

I was trained and credentialed to be an elementary school teacher, but somehow found myself becoming a junior high science teacher running a robotics engineering program, and working in the U.S. Congress.

One’s life and career path can be difficult to determine. We face obstacles, we have opportunities. We make choices, and the paths of our lives are made. From where I began, I could have in no way predicted that I would be where I am now, in my career. I was sure I’d be teaching upper elementary.

I didn’t even get an interview in the districts I thought I wanted to work in. I went from a long term sub position in a bilingual K-1 combo, and two weeks later, I was a Junior High Teacher, and I have been ever since. I’m happy where I am, but along the way, there have been many factors outside my control.

When I started, I entered a teaching world that was a maelstrom of chaos. My school was busting at the seams. A junior high with over 800 kids. We were on four track year-round. We had 6 periods a day. I taught 2 periods of math, 2 of science, and one of PE. Everything I had was on wheels. I changed classrooms every month for two years. I belonged to three departments. My colleagues were full of great, innovative ideas, and long held traditions about how things should be done. But I had little time for any solid mentoring. I was treading water. And just when I got to know someone, they went off-track.

My BTSA was something of a trial by fire. We didn’t have the Williams Act back then. I got to use whatever math books I could find, whatever everyone else wasn’t using. Same with the science books. My support provider was Rogelio, the night custodian, who would talk to me when I was still at school at 6:00 PM. I had a degree of autonomy that I probably shouldn’t have had. I had the liberty and the obligation to design my own program. I didn’t have much direct guidance, but at the same time, my instruction wasn’t genius-proofed either.

On my first day on the job, the principal came up to me and said “You’d be a great MESA advisor.” “What’s MESA?” I said. It’s an engineering program. You’ll get paid 500 dollars for doing it! 500 dollars, “Wow!” – I thought. Little did I realize that the stipend was equivalent to minimum wage at the time. But I’m still doing MESA to this day. Teaching engineering and working in extracurricular programs became an important part of my career. I said yes to a lot of “opportunities” and I still do, probably more than I should. But each of these activities, workshops, conferences, mentoring and other programs I have done taught me something. Most importantly, by interacting professionally with colleagues outside of my classroom, I have been able to interact with fantastic teachers from throughout the region.

There’s more order to things now. More order in teacher preparation and mentoring. More order in our school district with a conventional calendar and smaller schools. No Child Left Behind has certainly put things in focus; perhaps an extremely narrow, myopic focus. I still teach three different classes, but they’re all science now, and they’re not all on the same day. But there are still many factors outside the control of classroom teachers. California’s budget crunch may undo the progress we’ve made. I may have 38 students in my classes next year, 38 adolescents crammed into a room and expected to learn science- a situation I have never had to face.

The greatest struggles, in our lives, and in our careers, are rarely the ones we expect. But the opportunities can be equally unknown.

Innovative Teaching

From the time I began my career as a teacher, I wanted to be an innovator. I saw education as a broken machine that needed to be fixed. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do them better. But, I also assumed that no matter what experiments I tried, or new methods I developed, I would face conflict and resistance from my colleagues and administration at every step of the way.
As is the way of youth, I was wrong, about many things.

My initial forays into innovative education included teaching kindergartners about astronomy, turning a junior high math class into a stock market, and having my science class spend weeks building insect collections. I was never quite sure of the kind of reaction I would get for my different approaches, so I didn’t always advertise what I was doing.
I was shocked at times by the degree of autonomy I was given, and the latitude I had for experimenting with pedagogy and content. I was strongly supported and encouraged by my colleagues and my administration. I was surprised that people had faith in me.

One day, while my students and I were on an unscheduled field trip to the park across the street, swinging around insect nets, my principal came walking across the street. I was sure I was in trouble. Thoughts ran through my head — Was it the homemade insect nets made with sharp bent metal coat hangers? Was it the poisonous acetone we were using to kill insects? Was it the fact that we were off campus without permission? But then she took out her camera and started taking pictures. She was so excited to see the kids outside, exploring their world. She said this was the kind of thing our students needed more of.

I took this to heart, and continued to develop my teaching skills and acquire resources that would help my students learn things they might not learn anywhere else. Working with technology. Building robots. Learning to program. Camping. Visiting colleges. Making movies. All of these things became a regular part of my work.

I’m not very good at some of the ordinary things about teaching. I can’t stand grading papers. I’m not so good at teaching writing skills. I don’t make very good use of the materials that come with the textbooks. I have a very hard time using anybody else’s lesson plan or science lab. So, I build on my strengths. I’m good at building LEGO’s. I like technology. I have a knack for motivation and discipline. It took me a long time to reconcile the fact that I will not be good at all aspects of teaching. As my 8 year old son says to me, “Get used to the facts, Dad.” But there are many ways of being a great teacher. So, I have taken my strengths, and avoided my shortcomings, and built a teaching style that I am comfortable with, but one that has also earned me accolades.

I didn’t teach to the test. I threw out traditional methods in some cases. I didn’t do things by the book. I invented my own units, my own class even. In 2000, I received a Crystal Apple Award. In 2005, I received the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence.

Faith-Based Education

There’s a Sidney Harris cartoon, where two scientists are facing a blackboard, on which there are two sets of equations. There is a tangled web of mathematics on the left, and another on the right, and in the middle, bridging the two sets of irreconcilable formulae are the words “Then a miracle occurs.”

This is an apt analogy for our system of education. The mess of mathematical expressions on the left side of the board can be imagined to be public education: the courses, curriculum, and structure of schools. The right side of the board and its formulae can represent one’s life and career – the output of our educational system. But the path by which we arrive at the solution to this equation cannot be expressed scientifically. I call this “Faith-Based Education.”

We provide a certain finite set of inputs through the structure in schools, often insufficient resources, funds, staffing, and offerings —and then a miracle occurs, —and then our students are ready for college, their careers, and their lives.

But what is that miracle?

It’s you. It’s us.

Teachers are the Key

In the mess of standards, lesson planning, curriculum materials, and benchmarks, sometimes we lose sight of the simple fact that the the fundamental unit of education is the interaction between the teacher and the student. Teachers and the things they do make everything else possible. Teaching is a human interaction, a social interaction, a personal interaction.  It is magical. It is unique. It is unquantifiable. I used to go to an Indian restaurant where the waiter and I talked often. He told me “Teaching is the Path of God.” I didn’t argue. Culture continues, and evolves through us, and Youtube, and FOX news. There’s a teacher in a public school classroom who has knowledge, skills, and wisdom; and there is a student, who is in dire need of that knowledge, those skills, and that wisdom. In a classroom, we work to impart those things to that child, or 38. Everything else is peripheral.

You are that pivotal piece. You are needed. You are vital. You are the key.

We face impossible odds, all the time. We do the impossible.

But there are some fundamental flaws in a system that relies so heavily on the self-sacrifice of individuals, the altruism of a few. The faith that we will do much more than we are payed to do. The faith that we will make something from nothing. The faith that we can do without some of things and some of the people that budget cuts have taken away.
When we rely solely on faith, that all these wonderful things will continue to happen in schools, sometimes they don’t. In schools where morale is low, where salaries are insufficient, where staff have been cut, where class sizes are unmanageably large, sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen. Volunteerism thrives only in a stable environment. Our faith is not misplaced, there are just limits to what it can do.

NCLB HQT

In 2003, I faced total uncertainty about my future as a teacher, along with many teachers across the country. It was at this time, that we began to implement the No Child Left Behind Highly Qualified Teacher Requirement Nicklby-Cutie. Anxiety spread when the initial information we received implied that most Junior High Teachers in Santa Maria would lose their positions or even their jobs, if they couldn’t quickly acquire new credentials.

I wasn’t satisfied with the information I was receiving at the time. I couldn’t believe that the new regulations would be so draconian. So I began my first experience in researching education policy. I contacted the State Department of Education, began reading documents issued by the Federal Government, and wrote a policy analysis that I presented to district administrators and others. I discovered several alternative routes for teachers to become highly qualified that were not being made available.

In the process, I faced backlash from my superiors. I was disciplined. Ultimately, the information I discovered became, more or less, statewide policy. In our district’s haste to be compliant, we didn’t give the powers-that-be the opportunity to get the policy right. Some teachers did end up changing positions, some unnecessarily because of confusion and misinformation, others jumped through the required hoops. I hit the books, and picked up an Earth Science Credential.

I didn’t exactly change policy, but I did do everything I could to understand policy, and use the information to protect my colleagues. This experience helped pave the way for a new opportunity that I could not have dreamed.

Einstein Fellow

In 2006, I was selected as a finalist to become an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. An Einstein Fellow.

I was flown to D.C., and interviewed at length for several possible positions. About 15 Einstein Fellows work each year in several government agencies and in the Legislative Branch, selected from Math and Science teachers from across the country. Ultimately, I was chosen to become a fellow on Capitol Hill. Ironically, the conflict I had with my district about NCLB was considered a strong feather in my cap by the interviewers, who believed I had the knack for legislative work.

After many interviews, I was fortunate to find a spot working in the office of Congressman Mike Honda, Congressman from Silicon Valley, who was once a science teacher in a school very much like the ones in Santa Maria. I also interviewed for two hours in the Office of Senator Barack Obama, amongst others, and they never turned me down, but I didn’t wait for their reply. I wanted to work in the House. Congressman Honda’s office was a great place to be, and I had the experience of a lifetime.

I moved my family all the way across the County into a little place in Alexandria, Virginia. We changed everything about our lives. I was immersed in a world of policy and politics for an entire year.

During my year in D.C., I was the principal staff member for Congressman Honda handling Education, Environment, and Homeland Security, as well as Appropriations or funding bills in those areas. I felt like I was a teacher undercover.

I got to see education from a very different angle. I also experienced a very different work environment.

(I Shared a few stories from my time in D.C. experience. Including one some reflections on class size. My visits to the cold hearted Bush-era Department of Education. Congressman Honda’s Questioning of Margaret Spellings. “What makes you highly qualified to be Secretary of Education?” And discussion of the difference in fatigue; teaching vs. legislative work.)

Conclusion

Education is in a precarious position that not everyone is aware of. While the housing market soared, and the stock market was riding high, schools saw little or no economic benefit. Teachers weren’t collecting massive bonuses or redecorating their offices (we don’t have offices). In fact, many schools throughout this period were dealing with overwhelming class sizes, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing struggles to provide basic services. Teachers were lucky to get cost of living adjustments, and were even luckier if they managed to keep some health care. Many of us saw real wages fall.

At the policy level, we had to fight tooth and nail to prevent proposed cuts at the State and federal level every year. Unlike the housing market, the stock market, and government revenues, education didn’t benefit from the economic gluttony of the last few years, but when everything came crashing down, the funding for schools went with it.

The current cuts to education are having devastating impacts in schools across the State and in our region.

The Obama administration and the new congress have already begun a massive reinvestment in education at the Federal level, but California’s self imposed cuts may erase any potential benefit from these federal funds. I don’t want to point any fingers, but this is all California’s fault. I don’t want to be partisan, but it’s the Republicans who are forcing the tightening of the budget on education. The 2/3 vote requirement in the State Legislature effectively grants the minority party double voting power on issues of spending and taxation. As teachers we often look at the State and say what are they doing? When I worked in the U.S. Congress, we would say the same thing.

If California cannot find a way to markedly increase investment in education, we may look back on these times and laugh that we were actually trying to improve schools. We might be more likely to reflect on this time as the golden age of education, where every school was labeled as “failing”, but they were all better than what followed. Remember when we only had 35 students in each class? Do you remember art class?

It is worth noting that the administration and board of directors of the Santa Maria-Bonita school district and some other districts have worked very hard to minimize the impacts of these cuts. Santa Maria-Bonita has managed to find ways to save millions of dollars, largely by the administrators altruistically taking on multiple jobs themselves, and by delaying filling vacant positions. They insulated classrooms and students from many of the cuts, and significantly reduced the layoffs of teachers.

We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum is being taught in all public schools. We should not have to take it on faith that a student will learn in a class that is twice the size it should be. We should not take it on faith that one person can do the job that two should be payed to do. We need to invest adequate resources, distribute those resources in an equitable manner, and be careful not to impose draconian policies that will inhibit innovative instruction.

These are tough times. There is uncertainty. But there is also hope. The infusion of Federal Stimulus Funds is yet to arrive, and Federal Government is likely to continue to increase funding for Title 1 and Special Education. We need to continue to fight, and continue to seek creative solutions for the sake of our children. Some are worried about the debt we will leave them. I would argue that there are far worse things we could leave our children than debt, and the worst of them is an inadequate education.

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There are Worse Things to Leave Our Children than Debt

walkinginrainThe economic downturn, coupled with the changing of the guard in Washington, has led to increasing political polarization in economic views. America is more liberal than it has been for many years, and we’ve been voting that way. It is the belief of a majority of Americans that liberal economic policies are what our nation needs to survive. But there is far from a consensus about how we should go about recovering from this precipitous economic decline.

We are at a crossroads, where few would suggest that inaction is the most prudent course. Our children and subsequent generations are frequently dragged into this debate. Giving the appearance of the ultimate highest moral ground, conservatives argue that the worst thing we could possibly do in these times, is increase the Federal deficit.

On it’s face it is a compelling approach. No one wants to make things harder on the next generation. But are there things worse than debt that we could leave our children? Absolutely. Is the price of ongoing debt maintenance, at pennies on the dollar, really so significant that we should ignore the issues before us?  Should we endanger the health of our children, their future job prospects, or possibly even the survival of the human species, just to entertain a fantasy of fiscal responsibility?

Leaving our children and future generations with a burden of debt is a small price to pay compared with the what could result from political inaction or insufficient investment in the present. History has shown this to be true.

Worse than Debt:

Global Warming: Without dramatic changes in the types of fuels we use, our processes for producing electricity, and means of transportation, we will continue to increase the rate at which we are polluting the atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. An increase in debt may be necessary to create the infrastructure, incentives, and innovations required to make the technological improvements required worldwide to prevent rising ocean levels, drought, mass starvation, as well as uncertain climatic, biological, and agricultural changes.

Inadequate Education: The challenges we face today are pushing the limits of our science, technology, and ingenuity. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of responding to a changing world, is that in a democracy, the will to change must be the will of the people. But inadequate education leaves the electorate ill prepared for facing complex scientific, medical, or economic issues. In order to bring about enlightened policy, we need an enlightened electorate that has education and experiences to understand the reasons what changes and innovations are necessary.

We can reflect on how we might have dealt with current problems, if only we had been better educated in the past. Investments in education decades ago might have imporved the scientific knowledge that could have enabled swifter changes in energy policy to curtail global warming. Better knowledge of economics and finance might have enabled us to prevent the recent real estate collapse and derivatives improprieties. Better media awareness might have prevented the Bush administrations manipulation of the news and facts in the run up to the attack on Iraq. Better consumer knowledge might have made us less susceptible to manipulation by corporate advertising.

Undoubtedly, increasing our investment in education is the best national defense America could hope for, because it will prepare America for the uncertain challenges we will face in the years and decades to come.

Archaic Energy: Prior to the massive sequestration of Carbon Dioxide and production of Oxygen that was performed by plants in the Paleozoic, the surface of the Earth outside of the oceans was mostly uninhabitable by non-plants. Now humanity is attempting to reverse this process, by pumping up oil from the Carboniferous, burning it to release the CO2, and decreasing the habitability of the Earth’s surface. What a stupid way to power any kind of progress. Our number two energy option consists of smashing neutrons together to make highly radioactive juice that must be stored in vats FOREVER, with no permanent safe storage facility. There are other ways.

Insufficient Health Care: We have, in America, supposedly, the finest health care ‘system’ in the world. That is, if you own stock. Somehow, however, when something’s really wrong with you, you can choose to get treatment, and lose any and all assets you possess, or suffer. Health insurance is becoming a luxury item. Employer-based health care is dissolving. A system that is for-profit will always economize. In business, some things are acceptable losses. You or I might be one.

No Access to the Means of Production: A key aspect to America’s growth and development was the wholesale giveaway of America’s natural and economic resources to a privileged few. But the endowed wealthy have never had enough. Economic downturns have consistently resulted from mass redistribution from the many to the few. After all, if most people don’t have sufficient economic resources to expend on goods and services, the economy must slow while the wealthy stow the assets and collect capital gains, which result in minimal economic stimulus. Hard work and creativity are not always sufficient for balancing unbalanced systems of economic stratification. The real way to create a wealthy society is to enable wider access to the means of production, thereby enabling economic opportunities not just for those lucky enough to be from regal bloodlines, but for all Americans.

A Dangerous World: Foreign policy that alienates allies and creates enemies can only make the future more uncertain for our children. We cannot afford to make problems that they must solve. A compassionate and tolerant approach to world affairs that fosters peace and encourages cooperation will benefit the children of all nations.

Debt? A small price to pay.

Education Cuts in California- Abel Maldonado Responds!

Abel Maldonado, my highly responsive State Senator responded promptly to my letter concerning the cuts to valuable education programs in California, in particular the plight of former Santa Barbara Teacher of the Year, Ron Zell.

In spite of my carefully articulated letter about my concerns and my position as Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year, and in spite of the fact that I teach at El Camino Junior High, the very school that educated Mr. Maldonado and other local community leaders, I was sent a lousy form letter response that dealt with none of my concerns. I was a witness at one of your Education hearings! You gave me a certificate that’s on my wall!

Response from Abel Maldonado is Junk

C’mon Abel. I’ve written constituent mail and this one is junk. I wrote you an individualized letter, about a particular circumstance, and your staff responded with a form letter that only vaguely approaches my concerns. I am Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year, don’t I deserve a personalized response like I get from members of the U.S. House of Representatives? This letter was so bad that my junk mail filter, which never flags anything, flagged this one as JUNK.

I have taken the liberty of editing Mr. Maldonado’s response:

Dear Luke:

Thank you for writing to express your support for funding our university, community college and K-12 education programs (or something like that).  I understand and appreciate your concern (whatever it may be) regarding the recent budget cuts the state of California was forced to make (that I made certain it would make).

Education is a high priority (what isn’t) for me.  As a father with children in public schools, I too am deeply concerned with the state of our education system.  I personally know the great opportunities education can bring, which is why I will always support education (at least as a cheerleader, but not with money).  Long-term funding (doled out in small, rationed amounts) for our education system is not only essential; it is a legal and moral obligation to our growing student population (that’s why we change the laws to be able to make education cuts).

There would never be enough money to satisfy all the deserving interests in this state (So why try?) .  However, I do not feel that the state’s budget problems should be placed on the backs of students (That’s why we’re firing teachers, and keeping all the students).

Thank you for contacting me.  Please do not hesitate to contact me again on any state-related issues of importance to you.  It is an honor to be your representative of the 15th District.

Sincerely,

ABEL MALDONADO
Senator, District 15

Education Cuts – Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year gets Pink Slip

A victim of California’s deep education cuts in the Spring of 2009, the Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year for 2006-2007, Mr. Ron Zell, received a pink slip and was informed that his services were no longer needed, in spite of his award-winning programs and amazing contributions to the community of Buellton, California.

When people hear that teachers like Mr. Zell are receiving pink slips, all across California, they express shock and indignation, that is somewhat different from the way that these cuts are discussed abstractly. It’s one thing to say California is cutting 11 billion in education and that 30,000 teachers are receiving layoff notices. It’s another thing entirely for people to learn that their community schools are ending the programs that they’ve had for decades, and that some of their most prized educators may soon be unemployed, with little opportunity to teach elsewhere.

THIS IS WHAT EDUCATION CUTS MEAN.

About 85% of education funds are used to pay for staff. When cuts occur, it is inevitable that teachers and other education employees will lose their jobs.

Some people don’t understand that this 85% ratio is a result of education spending being HIGHLY EFFICIENT. True, we spend a lot of money on testing, some on transportation, some on facilities, etc. But when it comes right down to it, almost every penny of education funds is used to pay for people who work with students. We don’t have enough money to waste. Cuts to education, therefore, directly cut services to kids, reduce course offerings, and make class sizes larger. Conversely, education increases, like those proposed by the Obama Administration, directly increase offerings to students, decrease class size, and make jobs for teachers and other education professionals. California cannot continue to hold onto any hope of maintaining or improving its economy without providing the public services needed by its citizens and demanded by the companies that make or would make their home here.

Ron Zell has written the following letter about his plight, and I would like to share it with you:

Thank you students, parents, teachers, and involved citizens.  Thank-you for being here, for turning out to support teachers and students in this statewide Day of Awareness and support for our schools, Pink Day.


Let me introduce myself, – My name is Ron Zell.  I am the music teacher for the Buellton Union School district.  I teach over 500 students per week in classes from Kindergarten to 8th grade.  I am the 2006 Jonata School Teacher of the Year. I am the 2007 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year and a nominee for California State Teacher of the year.  In 2008, I was selected  to speak at State Education Conferences in Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Central Coast.  My topics were “Quality in the arts and in Education”, “Technology in the arts and in education”, and the importance of Community in the Arts and in Education.


In  2009, I have a new distinction. I have received this years token of appreciation from the State of California for my years of service to my students and my community. I have received my pink slip.   This is the way that California shows its gratitude and also its farsightedness in planning  for education   I have been laid  off,  pink-slipped in Buellton.

Myself, and nearly 30,000 or so of my colleagues services are no longer required, says the state.  Colleagues who like myself, give of themselves daily, are over-worked, underpaid, and directly influence the future of millions of young people in this state.  Thank-you very much says California.  You’ve done a great job, but we have mismanaged the finances of this state so badly that we need your help.  Would you just walk away from a career where you are desperately needed, and we’ll ignore the sacrifices that you, and every teacher like you have made daily to bring quality and excellence in education to the students you teach.


We get paid, says the state of California, to govern, and to plan and prepare for the future. We just never thought that there would be an economic downturn.  We thought we could keep spending, and  borrowing, raising taxes and selling lottery tickets, and everything would be okay.  We didn’t think that we would ever be called to account for the billions of dollars we waste each year.  We just kind of forgot about planning ahead for education. After all, – its only kids, and they can’t vote.   Now we HAVE to cut the education budget.  How else do you expect us to pay for our mismanagement.  And you teachers, – You know all of those years of schooling, and training, and experience, and sacrifice and caring and giving, that everyone of you do.  – Sorry about that.  Maybe students won’t notice the over-crowded classrooms that they’ll be forced to be in next year. Maybe parents won’t notice the wider achievement gaps, the loss of programs, the lower test scores, or the unsafe campuses that will result from overcrowding, and too-few teachers.


I can’t conceive of what this state will be like with the undervalued, underfunded and understaffed education system that will result from these budget cuts.  I do however fear that the state will need more money in the very near future for new projects, like the new prisons that it will need to hold these kids who will be dropping out of our failed educational system.  Hey, – Maybe we can even afford to put arts programs in the prisons, because the arts are one of the few interventions that has been proven to mediate violent behavior in abused children.  Too bad  we can’t afford the Arts in our schools now, but then, that’s another part of our state’s not planning ahead.


I am furious that billions of tax dollars go to investors and banks, and insurance companies because they are “too important to our economy to let fail”.  Yet our state can justify taking billions of dollars away from children to pay for their irresponsible handling  of our state finances.  I am not at all politically correct on any of this.   I’m a teacher, and I believe that the only investment that we can’t afford to let fail is the investment in our kids.  Only that investment will  result in positive change for our country, growth in science, space exploration, technology, energy conservation, creativity, the arts, culture and a better future for the next generation.   Without quality education, we are looking at a spiraling  decline in our culture, and in our way of life.


Did you hear my Band earlier.  They’re pretty good, They’re not real good yet of course, because they’re young, they’re learning. They haven’t had the time necessary to fully learn or develop their skills, but they’re working on it.  Some of them have only been playing their instruments a few months, some for 3 years.  Oh they’re getting better, but in this current budget crises, they may never get the opportunity to develop their full potential in music or the arts, or in their creativity.  It takes years of dedication and instruction and practice to become proficient on an instrument, or at writing, or to become a great artist, actor, or dancer.  Of course, now there will be no music program next year, because the state and my district have determined that “my services are no longer required”.


Of all the damage that this new budget will do to education, it is in the arts that it has delivered a mortal blow.  My pink slip is one testimony to that, but right now, around the state as I speak, hundreds of arts programs are being eliminated.  The director of the High School Program here in the Valley has also been given his pink slip.  Building a program takes years.  It has taken me 10 years to develop the program in Buellton to be as effective as it is.  But the state and my district have determined that my “services are no longer required”.  Without  some sort of miracle, the arts in Buellton, or Solvang, or College school district, or the High school or any of the other districts in this Valley will not survive.


I don’t believe that everything is hopeless however.  I’m an optimist like my dad.  I believe in miracles, and miracles was even my topic at one of those state conferences that I spoke at last year.   I entitled it. – “Community, the heart of the Arts”.  If you look around, and walk around the park today, you will find tables, and volunteers already in the business of making miracles.  They’re called volunteers, and donors, and concerned parents and citizens. They support the arts education that occurs in many of the schools in this valley already.


Fourteen years ago I started a non-profit organization called “The Joyful Note Music Education Foundation”.  Its purpose was to provide music in schools in Santa Barbara county that had none. Joyful Note brought the only music that there was  to hundreds of kids in dozens of schools around this county for several years.  After moving to Buellton, I relaxed my efforts with Joyful Note, partly because the importance of the arts was again being discovered by our educational system, and partly because of the strong support for the arts Buellton.  Little did I know that one day, Joyful Note Music would be again be needed to save the music, only this time it would be at my own school.  I never thought that it would be necessary to do the same thing in Buellton that Arts Outreach, and the Solvang Education Foundation, and the High School supporters, and the Valley foundation and dozens of other organizations in this valley have so wisely done for theirs.  That is to keep the arts alive by private funding, and to save yet another generation of children from being impoverished in the visual and performing arts.  Stop by the table over there with material from Joyful Note, and the other organizations that are represented.  Take some information, give them your name, volunteer, donate. Find out how you can help out.  Next year, Joyful Note Music may be the only music program in Buellton, because “my services are not required” by this state

This is ‘Pink Day’, and you are all wearing Pink to protest the idiocy of this annual ritualistic sacrifice of teachers.  I thought it might be good to conclude my talk today by letting you all hear what a pink slip actually sounds like.  This is mine.

“Notice of Recommendation Not to Re-Employ – March 12, 2009.
Dear Mr. Zell, – “Please take note that I have recommend(ed) to the Board of Trustees of Buellton Union School district that notice be given to you that your services will not be required by this school district for the ensuing 2009-2010 school year.  At the regularly scheduled board meeting held on March 11, 2009 the Board of Trustees voted in favor of this decision.


I regret that I am constrained to give you this notice.  My reason for such action is as follows;
The following particular kinds of service will be discontinued or reduced for the 2009-2010 school year: 1. Elementary Teaching – 2.0 FTE,  2. Music – 1.0 FTE.

Because of the foregoing reasons, it is necessary to decrease the number of certificated employees of the District.  You are further notified that there is no probationary or permanent certificated employee with less seniority retained who is rendering service which you are credentialed and competent to render.

Enclosed is a copy of Sections 44949 and 44955 of the California Education Code for your information.  Please take notice that I am recommending that you not be re-employed in this school district…..Very truly yours.  – Tom Cooper, Superintendent.”

I can’t tell you how devastating the emotional effects of a note like this are. Anger, frustration, humiliation, helplessness, hopelessness.  When I received this letter, it was like someone reaching inside and taking my heart out, because my heart is in the music program.   My heart, my passion is teaching these kids, but my State and my district say that “my services are no longer required”.

You know something people, That is a lie.  My services are required, desperately, and so are the services of every teacher in this state who got one of these  pink slips this month. Stop this madness. Fund education and invest in our children.

Oh, – and one other thing.  This Pink-Slip. I intend to send it to  Governor Schwarzenegger, and a copy to my state Representatives, and the Senate and Assembly Education Committees.  What if all 30,000 teachers in the state that got pink-slipped did that.  Maybe that would help them to see the irreparable damage they are doing to our kids. You can help too, write your state representatives and the governor.  Let them know that you think that education is too important to let fail.     Thank-you.

(Ron Zell is also the President of the Buellton Education Association.  You may contact Ron at buellteach@gmail.com or through Joyful Note Music at joyfulnote2@gmail.com)

Pink Friday- Teacher Cuts in California

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Teachers and Community Members Rallying in Santa Maria

On Friday, March 14, I joined the thousands of teachers, educators, students, and other citizens in the statewide rally “Pink Friday” to protest the California budget cuts that are adversely affecting education. While the new Obama Administration has committed billions in education funding increases as part of the national economic stimulus package, the State of California has committed to undoing any good that may come from these stimulus funds. Tens of thousands of teachers across California have received pink slips, ending their employment in public schools, perhaps permanently, or at least leaving them in limbo for a few months before they find out if they will be hired back for the coming school year.

The reasons for the cuts to education are far from simple. While blame of the minority party in the State Legislature is in order,conservative politics are hardly the only force at work that is bleeding education. California’s system for funding education and other public services, its mechanism for levying taxes, and its process for modifying the state laws governing taxation and expenditures are all contributing factors in this budget crisis. It is a great irony that one of the strongest economies in the world has chained itself to funding mechanisms that sink rapidly in the economic downturn, through over-reliance on real estate appreciation and capital gains taxes.

So, the money’s gone now, but when we did have the cash, we didn’t invest in schools anyway. Modest improvements and increases occurred during the early class-size reduction period and the early NCLB period, and some districts benefitted from State modernization and new construction funds, but schools were hardly high on the hog during the last several periods of economic growth or stability.

California’s per pupil spending is somewhere near the bottom of all the states in the union, in spite of the high cost of living and high costs for providing services such as transportation. I believe the debate now is whether we are in the bottom 5. The U.S. Census data clearly shows California spending far less than many other states, as a tradition, in good times and bad. This spending looks even smaller when compared to the capacity of California’s economy; it’s ability to pay, so to speak.

I’m committed to learning more about the intricacies of this funding and expenditure snafu. The old “third rail” of California’s politics, Proposition 13, has to be looked at as part of this problem. Perhaps touching the charged rail won’t be as hazardous as people believe, a long as we’re careful. In addition, we’ll have to reassess the value of the 2/3 vote in the State legislature on issues of taxation and spending that maintains the tyranny of the minority over California’s resource allocations.

We can’t continue a political system which works against the will of the majority of the state’s citizens, it’s time to return to a democracy.

Using Psychology to Solve Education Woes

Richard Nisbett authored an opinion piece in the New York Times on February 7, discussing what he saw as common sense approaches to improving education. The piece is not without merits, and is worth reading, but also requires a response:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08nisbett.html?scp=2&sq=education&st=cse

While I agreed with some of the discussion of psychological effects on testing data and student performance, there were two main issues about this piece that were particularly bothersome to me.

1) Assessment is not learning. The piece discusses “very small influences” that can have “very large effects.” But the majority of the discussion is about psyching kids up to perform on tests. It’s not about instruction, or improving conditions in schools, or protecting student safety. While you don’t want to psychologically harm students through your instructional practices, there are limits to the degree of achievement that can be achieved through changes of perspective and attitude. I’m not opposed to maximizing the benefits of good psychology, I just don’t believe it’s an adequate replacement for fundamental educational improvements.

So now you psyched up all the kids in America to take the tests, they believe that they will succeed. Now, can you convince students that their class is smaller, so they can benefit from that? Can you talk them into believing that their school is safe and well-maintained when it’s not. Can you convince them that their inequitable access to education resources is fair and just? Undoubtedly, techniques such as this will have a negligibly limited effect, like other attempts at gaming the system in the long run,because in time, all schools tend to implement the measures that work to manipulate test data. Once all students are equally persuaded of their test-taking acumen, we need a new way to bridge the achievement gap.

2) Efficiency. We talk a lot about the efficiency of our education dollars, getting the most bang for our buck. But most social services are not effective when optimized for efficiency that is strictly financial. We are not efficient in many other aspects of Federal and State spending, but when it comes to K-12, hairs are split over the tiniest of details. In higher education, they might have to decide between marble and granite for the facade on fitness center. In K-12, we may have to decide that we can only afford one hour a day of instructional assistants in kindergarten classes of 35.

Any discussion of efficiency in education spending needs to occur AFTER a discussion of adequacy and minimums. I believe in many schools, in many districts, we have never provided adequacy, and any talk of being more efficient is premature.

Let’s talk about efficiency. Let’s end waste. Let’s stop wasting the potential in youth that could be achieved with proper investment, and proper attention. The limited resources allocated to some students in this nation, especially the poor, is wasteful and irresponsible.