Monday, May 30, 2016

The Veterans Come to Loveland Middle School

Last week, students at Loveland Middle School spent a day in the company of heroes. It was part of an annual event which brings in an array of veterans to talk to the 450 members of the eighth grade class.

I wasn’t able to get a definitive count, but there were probably twenty veterans this spring, representing all branches of the military.

The school has been hosting this kind of gathering once a year, since 2003, in part in response to the attacks on 9/11. After all, if a nation is going to war, it seems students, teachers, administrators and the people of that nation should have a clear idea what that entails.

Over the years students have heard a number of moving tales. Joe Whitt, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, came every year for a decade until his health failed. Melvin Burdine first visited in 2005, sixty years after a Japanese sniper shot him in the back and nearly killed him at Iwo Jima. Mark Adams has missed only one chance to come and tells listeners too young to remember Saddam Hussein what it was like to fly an F-16 in combat. Last week speakers included Joe Jeffcoat, father of four Loveland students, who was badly wounded in Iraq when a rocket propelled grenade destroyed his position. Chuck Garrett, who did a tour in Iraq, too—and some years earlier a tour of Loveland Middle School as a seventh and eighth grade student—was back again as was Bill Mansfield, who helped mop up the last Nazis in Europe.

Me? I come because I helped set up the first visits and I, too, am a veteran—but no hero. I was a clerk in a Marine supply unit during the Vietnam War and never got closer to the fighting than Camp Pendleton, California. I used to joke with students (I taught at Loveland Middle School for thirty-three years), saying: “Yeah, I defended my country with my trusty staple gun.”

If all I did was fill out paperwork, most veterans who come are real heroes. The way the program is designed, speakers stay in one room and students rotate to hear different vets talk. Garrett was not the only former LMS student to visit in 2016. Phil McDaniel, who served with a Marine artillery unit from 2004-2008, and missed a tour in Iraq only because he broke his collarbone during training, was also present.

“I begged my first sergeant to be allowed to go,” he told an audience of young people during one session. “I said I’d do anything, computer work. Anything! Just let me go.”

His request was denied.

The man who has run the program for eight years is Dave Fletcher, himself a veteran, and a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, now a hard-working teacher. And this year he put together a superb slate of speakers: Garrett, McDaniel, Mark Jacquez, who saw combat in Iraq, and Chris Tobias, who served with the U. S. Army in Afghanistan, all graduates of the Loveland City Schools.

For the day, Dave paired me off with Chris, because this was the first year the young vet had spoken to kids and Dave knows I know how the program is supposed to work and wanted to ensure everything went well.

Thanks to S/Sgt. Tobias it did. By coincidence, Tobias was sitting in my history class on 9/11. So I brought along a yearbook and when I sat down and listened to him speak I passed it round and let this year’s eighth graders see what a hero looked like when he was their age. In his old photo Chris is round-faced and chunky, wearing glasses. “I was a band nerd,” he admits with a laugh.

I’ve been involved with this program ever since it started but every year I come away feeling I’ve just been through one of the most important days I’ve ever spent in the field of American education.

The speakers help students—help all listeners—understand that wars are fought by ordinary men and women. (We’re still trying to convince Kellie, a former U. S. Army nurse and Iraq War veteran, also a Loveland graduate, to visit some year; but she has trouble to this day talking about her experiences.)

In each of four sessions, with groups of 20 or 25 or 30 students, Tobias proved to be an engaging speaker. I talked briefly, to start, telling kids I was an average student when I was their age, happy to finish in the bottom half of my 1967 Revere High School graduating class. I talked about my lack of motivation in the classroom at the time—how I started college—how I dropped out in 1968—and how the Marines shaped me up. I always include one funny story (now; definitely not at the time) about the day my drill instructor at Parris Island choked me.

After that, I take a seat. Students need to hear what real heroes have to say. It turns out Tobias’ unit was responsible for “village stability operations” in Helmand Province, one of the most dangerous corners of a supremely dangerous land. Since he and other members of his platoon were expected to bond with locals they were allowed to grow out their beards and don Afghan clothing. Chris told us he learned Pashtun and spoke of broiling hot days and nights when temperatures dropped to 90°, which, by comparison, left you feeling you were freezing. In an area where indoor plumbing was unknown, he said he and his buddies went six months without showering.

This brought groans from his young listeners.

Eventually, the army gave each of the men three water bottles, allowed them to stab the tops with their bayonets, and “shower” with those. Chris said afterward he “felt fresh,” then had us laughing when he described going back to quarters, where he and several men had been living for weeks and realized how terrible they must have all smelled. He talked about the boredom of long days spent in backwater Afghan villages. On one occasion he and several buddies got the bright idea of building a “crossbow” out of PVC pipe and firing an “arrow” fashioned from a rifle-cleaning rod. Their design worked perfectly—and away the arrow sailed.

Then they realized: “Hey, we only have one arrow.”

Climbing to the top of a wall surrounding a compound where they were living they scanned the distance to see where the arrow had landed. Finally, they spotted it, by purest bad luck, sticking in the side of a dead goat.

Tobias and the others were deep in Taliban country, but by this point they had survived months of hazardous duty. So he asked his commander for permission to take “five packs” (or five men) out to fetch the arrow—deceased goat attached. By this time, he and the other soldiers had had several close encounters with roadside bombs and dodged plenty of enemy fire. So they were fatalistic. Instead of donning body armor they went traipsing after the arrow wearing flip flops and shorts. Tobias had us all laughing when he described the shorts the army issued, which were very short. “We called them ‘Daisy Dukes of Freedom,’” he added with a smile.

Chris kept his teen listeners interested all day, as so many of these veterans do. But he was crystal clear about the damage war can do to those who serve. Five times he was riding in convoys when they were hit by roadside bombs. One man in his unit lost both legs to such a device. On another occasion, an IED blew up directly under the MRAP in which Tobias was riding—luckily, in a vehicle designed to withstand this kind of blast. Still, the explosion blew off one of the huge tires and sent it flying like a giant hubcap in a stiff breeze. No one inside was injured—but repeated blasts and encounters with rocket-propelled grenades left Tobias, now 29, with severe hearing loss in one ear.

Certainly, there’s no glamor in fighting. Another time a young Afghan boy approached the American’s position. Tobias and others shouted in Pashtun, ordering him to stop. But he kept coming. They called on him again to stop. Something about his clothing looked wrong. So Tobias called his commander and asked permission to shoot. Given a green light he tried to wound the boy, and dropped him with a single shot. Moments later, “his suicide vest detonated and all you saw was pink mist.”

Think about that next time you thank a veteran for his or her service. Think about pink mist and what these people have gone through.

In fact, Chris tells us he can remember everything about that moment—from the color of the boy’s eyes to the “taste of the sand.” He regrets having to take the shot but knows he had no other good option.

And it’s that kind of story that brings reality home to hundreds of Loveland teens every single year.

Eventually, Tobias was badly injured, jumping off a wall when Taliban fire began striking all around. He landed badly, dislocated his right shoulder, tore every muscle you can tear in a shoulder, and ended up being medically retired from the army. Today he attends college on the G.I. Bill.

He also tells us about Angie, his girlfriend, also a former Loveland student, and how much her support means to him today. He admits he has frequent nightmares and says she’s learned there’s only one safe way to wake him—two quick taps to the right foot, a signal used by men in combat units. He admits he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sees a therapist for help. “I had to call her last night because I wasn’t sure I could make it through the day.” He explains how crowds worry him, even crowded halls at our school, and says he’s always studying people around him, looking for signs someone might be wearing a suicide vest.

In fact, the stress Chris feels is a common theme when the veterans come to speak. They are justly proud of what they did, but you’d never hear any of them brag. Mark Jacquez tells us he joined the U. S. Army in 2004, tired of listening to those who had never been to war talk about what the U. S. military should be doing to win the war. He and Chuck and Phil spent part of the morning sitting and talking, and Chuck said at one point, in regard to the Iraqis, “Their commanders are corrupt and you can’t train the soldiers. There’s absolutely nothing you can do.” Mark readily agreed. I asked if they thought we should still be involved in fighting in the Middle East. Mark said he’d “gladly go back, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, it wouldn’t matter.”

I wondered aloud—if the guys we were trying to train weren’t anxious to fight—why would he risk his life again? Why should his younger brother Eric, who did two tours of his own in Afghanistan, going after “high value targets,” have to go again?

“Humanitarian reasons,” Jacquez replied. He’d like to help bring an end to the chaos in that part of the world.

Today, he’s married with his first child due in June.

At any rate, Mr. Fletcher always saves something special for the end of the day. All 450 students gather together in the auditorium for a few final words. Ace Gilbert, a former Marine, has been coming out to LMS every year since 2003 and we all know what a gifted speaker he can be. So Dave Fletcher gives him the last word. This year he tells the eighth graders about a friend of his, Jim Cashman, a Marine from Cleveland, killed in Vietnam in August 1969.

“We were out on an ambush one night,” Gilbert explains. “Something was bothering Cashman and I asked what was wrong. ‘If I die,’ he replied, ‘I’m gonna die this month.’ I got mad,” Ace continues. “‘If you go looking for death in a war zone you’re going to find it,’ I warned.”

That night all was quite; but a few nights later, when Gilbert was off duty and asleep, he awakened to heavy machinegun fire. It was Cashman blasting away at North Vietnamese troops sneaking up on Marine lines. What followed was a three-day firefight against 1200 NVA, the Americans badly outnumbered. One of those who was killed was Cashman, “a big guy, probably 6' 2" and 240 pounds,” Ace recalls. “He suffered a stomach wound, could see his own intestines, went into shock and died.”

Gilbert has never forgotten his friend’s last moments. “‘I want to see my Mom, I want to see my Mom,’” the young Marine kept crying.

For thousands of Loveland students who have heard these brave veterans speak over the last decade plus, that’s the last word on what Memorial Day is actually about. It’s a time to remember those who served—especially those who paid the highest price possible to safeguard all our freedoms.

***

I talked more about the experiences of Adams, Gilbert, Whitt and others who served in a post several years back.

I also included an entire chapter and part of another in my book. You can also read about my experiences in the Marines if you like—and how those experiences shaped my successful teaching career.

Um…I think it was successful, at least.


Remember: When you go to war, somebody has to do all the dirty work.

Somewhere in Afghanistan.


The troops carry the full load; including the full load for our nation.

Somewhere in Iraq.

Not every veteran comes back.



Monday, May 16, 2016

Should Businessmen and Businesswomen Run Everything? (Including Schools?)

We often hear how much better K-12 education could be if only we would introduce business methods in the public schools. 

Whenever I hear that line, I imagine British Petroleum or Henry’s Turkey Service or Lehman Brothers making decisions about children. 

Or even Pearson, the giant test making juggernaut that keeps coming up with new tests after old tests prove useless. 

Or I like to imagine Pfizer and money-mad pharmaceutical companies bringing their methods to public education. 

Who thinks businessmen and businesswomen have a lock on good ideas, good intentions and good methods, anyway? Some of the biggest crooks in history have run businesses. In a recent study, for example, it turns out Medicare and private insurers are wasting almost $3 billion on cancer medicines that end up getting thrown away. And this is happening every year.

Or, as Big Pharma might say, “Hey, we make an extra $3 billion!”

According to cancer researchers, many manufacturers market drugs in vials that hold more medicine than patients need. Nurses inject the required dosage, then, due to safety concerns, throw the remainder away.

Could this problem be fixed? Of course it could.

The companies could market cancer drugs in vials of varying sizes. Nurses could pick the bottles containing appropriate dosages. In fact, if U. S. lawmakers allowed it, we could start ordering vials of the same chemicals from Europe—where, magically, such medicines are sold in vials of varying sizes.

In this country, Takeda Pharmaceuticals sells 3.5 milligram vials of Velcade, to treat melanoma and other forms of cancer. One vial goes for $1,034. Each contains enough to treat a 6' 6" male, weighing 250 pounds. 

By comparison, Lena Haddad, 53, an average-size woman, receives 1.8 milligrams weekly to treat her cancer. That means, if I did the math right, that $502 of Velcade is wasted weekly. Or: $26,104 annually.

For a single patient.

In England—where I might add, they have socialized medicine—you can buy vials of Velcade in 1 milligram bottles. So, I am thinking: Why not put Ms. Haddad on a plane and fly her off to London. She can see the Tower and watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and then bring back a few dozen bottles of Velcade. All of us who pay taxes, all of us who watch our insurance premium soar, will be better off. Plus, Ms. Haddad would enjoy a fun vacation.

Oh, wait: the hitch! The drug companies would see profits decline. Takeda, the study indicates, might easily offer Velcade in vials of three sizes, cutting waste by 84%. But Takeda would lose $261 million in annual sales.

“Drug companies,” says Dr. Peter B. Burch, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering, “are quietly making billions forcing little old ladies to buy enough medicine to treat football players, and regulators have completely missed it. If we’re ever going to start saving money in health care, this is an obvious place to cut.”

As it stands now, $1.8 billion worth of cancer medicines are thrown away every year in this country. Another $1 billion is wasted when doctors and hospitals mark up prices for these drugs they throw away.

Meanwhile, if you do get cancer, good luck. You’re going to need it—and Obamacare—or maybe wait until Republicans repeal Obamacare and you can sell your house. According to The New York Times, the last ten cancer drugs approved for use in this country have an “average annual price of $190,217.”

Big Pharma complains any time we accused them of gouging customers. “Oh, we need to spend all that money on research and development!” Yet Pfizer and Merck devote only 17% of revenues to developing new treatments and spend more on marketing expensive drugs they already sell. 

Also: lobbying Congress is expensive! The biggest lobbying organization for the drug companies spent $208 million in 2014, alone.

You know: buying lawmakers can be expensive.

Speaking of Merck, in February 2015, the company stopped selling vials of Keytruda, a drug to treat lung cancer, in 50 milligram bottles. Yes, it might be true: a 150-pound woman might need only 136 milligrams for treatment. But why offer three 50s when you can sell two 100 milligram bottles instead? And, Merck now has an even better idea—if only they can foist it off on the Food and Drug Administration. (Again: send in the lobbyists!) Why don’t regulators set a fixed dosage of 200 milligrams for patients? Then let Merck sell Keytruda only in 200 milligram bottles, enough to treat any jumbo-sized patient. That way, none of the drug will, technically, be wasted—even though doctors say there is no evidence the higher dosage would help most patients.

Then again, who cares about patients!

Merck is in business to make money! And in the next five years, even if the F.D.A. says no to the 200 milligram scam, it is estimated the company will collect $2.4 billion for Keytruda that gets thrown away.


P. S.: Teva Pharmaceuticals sells Treanda (used to treat leukemia) in four different vial sizes. In other words, it can be done.

Even in America.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Opening Pages of Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching.

Here are the opening pages to Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching. Chaucer is quoted on war (werre). I believe the school reformers who talk about fixing schools know almost nothing about the real war to save children. 

Woot = knows.

Grunts = foot soldiers in the Vietnam War; in education, men and women who do all the fighting.




1.

Talk to the Grunts

“Ther is many a man that creith ‘Werre!  werre!
that woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”
Geoffrey Chaucer


I don’t drink much. Besides, it’s seven a.m. and I’m hardly awake.

“Not again,” I mutter, rubbing my eyes and adding a string of pungent expletives.

I hold in my hands another stinging editorial directed at teachers. This one, from The New York Times, carries the headline:

TEACHERS: WILL WE EVER LEARN?

The author is assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. So you might assume he knows what he’s talking about.

            (You’d be wrong.)

He starts by outlining a “tidal wave” of school reforms since 1983. I taught for decades. So I remember them all. The professor lists vouchers, charter schools, state standardized tests, No Child Left Behind and “Race to the Top.” With implementation of Common Core in the offing a fresh round of reforms is about to commence.

He leaves out a laundry list of changes veteran educators might include but sums up results. U. S. K-12 education remains “stubbornly mediocre.”

I feel myself wavering. Is it too early for bourbon?

***

What is it we keep failing to learn? Apparently, the problem with education in this country is teachers.

According to the professor we have too many dumb ones manning the classrooms. Only 23% come from the top third of their college classes. What about Finland, a country whose schools are almost too good to be true? Finland has smart teachers. America needs to find smart teachers, under some rocks or something, and pronto.

As a former teacher, suddenly I feel like such a dolt.

“Well,” I wonder, “will we ever learn?” 

I set the editorial aside and gather my wits. I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I was a good teacher. I don’t think I’m hallucinating when I say I worked with a number of excellent educators and all kinds of good ones during my career. Call me stupid, I guess, but I would argue that teachers come in the same varieties, excellent, good, fair, and poor, as lumberjacks, car mechanics, Congress persons and Harvard professors.

I tell myself: “You can do your bit to answer the professor’s question if you do it right.”

The dilemma is how? How write a book about education that might offer useful insights? How capture the interest of some fraction of the general reading public? And is there some way to poke all the self-styled “education experts” where it hurts most?

I mean—in the ego.

Perhaps some sleazy sex and the right title might help: Fifty Shades of Grade Book? Nope. No way that’s going to sell.

All I did was spend my career in a large rectangular room in close company with teens. All I offer is a memoir about life in the classroom, a love story about working with thousands of kids.
Still, I’m compelled to try.

First, I mean this book as a defense of good educators—an explanation of what they do—and a look at the daunting problems they confront. There are plenty of bad books to choose from if you want to read about what teachers do wrong.

I also believe my book has value because of what it’s not. I won’t be offering the latest plan to fix the schools. I’m not an authority in the fixing field. I’m not Steven Brill or Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee. U. S. Secretary of Education Duncan and former Washington, D. C. School Chancellor Rhee we shall meet again. Brill is the prototypical critic and school fixer—a lawyer—who wrote a book about education, lambasting teachers: Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill never bothered to teach. He studied “war” at a safe remove and didn’t have to worry about getting killed or maimed.

What do I know? Part of what I know I know because I sat in class as if in a coma during my own misspent youth. Another chunk I know because I dropped out of college in 1968 and joined the Marines. I know what I know, in part, because I’ve pedaled a bike across the United States.

Most of what I know I learned by teaching: American and Ancient World History, for thirty-three years, at the seventh and eighth grade levels, for Loveland City Schools, near Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s not an especially long tenure in the classroom. Nevertheless, it represents more time spent working with kids than Rhee and Brill and all nine U. S. Secretaries of Education combined. That fact alone ought to tell us something.

***

Naturally, training in history informs my thinking. More than two thousand years ago, when ancient Greeks named their Seven Wise Men, they placed Thales, scientist and philosopher, at the top of their list. Thales was once asked, “What is hard?” 

“To know thyself,” he replied.
 
“What is easy?”

“To give advice.”
 
America’s teachers know what Thales meant. Since passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, the focus of school reform has been almost entirely on those at the front of the classroom. Will we ever learn, the Harvard professor wonders? I’m not sure. But I suspect you might have asked any of four million U. S. educators and they could have told you the utopian law was flawed from the start.

But the promises of politicians and pronouncements of policy makers were unequivocal. By 2014 every child was going to be proficient in reading and math. Not 88%. Not 96%. Every single one.

In the thirteen years since NCLB was enacted into law, countless editorials and TV reports have bolstered one theme. Google: “education crisis in America” and 300,000,000 results pile up. Don’t have time to do all that reading? Here’s the capsule version: America’s schools are failing. Teachers are at fault.

Ms. Rhee became a brand name in school reform, turning up on television during one stretch as frequently as Law and Order reruns. In 2008 she graced the cover of Time, broom in hand, promising to clean out all the lousy teachers in Washington, D. C. and fix the biggest problem in education. Sweep! Just like that! Even Oprah gave Rhee, who taught for only three years, some televised love.

Meanwhile, “Fox News and Friends” did an interview with John Legend, the singer, and asked him to comment on school-related issues. The segment, titled “America’s Education Crisis,” was accompanied by tags like: “The Trouble with Schools,” “A Broken System” and “Teachers Behaving Badly,” lest viewers miss the point.

On CNN Campbell Brown hosted a series called “America’s Schools in Crisis,” leading off with talk about “broken” and “failing” schools. When Geoffrey Canada, who runs a charter school in Harlem, insisted that “the people who produce the children are the teachers,” Brown let that stand without batting either of her lovely green eyes. I remember scratching my head, trying to figure out how my teachers produced me or how they produced my four kids.

Well, good job, teachers! All my children turned out fine.

And so it came to pass.

The “heroes” of school reform sounded the charge, stood back, and let educators storm enemy lines. Tens of billions were spent to implement NCLB. Hundreds of millions of hours were devoted by teachers to preparing for, and by students to taking, standardized tests.

Standards didn’t rise. 

They fell.

President Obama rode into office in 2009, promising to fix flaws in how NCLB was implemented. A “race to the bottom,” he said, had been touched off when states lowered standards to avoid punishment under complex provisions of the law.

Mr. Obama would task Arne Duncan, ninth Secretary of Education, with leading a “Race to the Top.” Fresh billions would be offered to states if they created more charter schools and linked teacher pay to scores on standardized tests.

“It’s all about the talent,” Duncan assured any who would listen. It’s all about teachers.

In 2010 Davis Guggenheim set out to discover what was wrong with U. S. public education. (His view may have been impaired because he sent his children to elite private institutions.) In a critically-acclaimed documentary, Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim put a finger on what he saw as the issue. Rhee featured prominently, sneering at the efforts of      D. C. teachers. While viewers watched in disbelief the film seemed to strip away the last fig leaf of doubt, “revealing” teachers in all their sloth and shame. The message of the movie, focusing narrowly on five children trying to escape “awful” public schools and get into charters, boiled down to this: If families could pick their schools problems in education would fade away.

I remember watching with disgust as Guggenheim painted a simplistic picture.

Yet, Brent Staples, critiquing the film for The New York Times, could come away from a viewing stunned and impressed. Readers who planned to see the movie, he warned, should take along handkerchiefs. Staples left no doubt who filled the villain’s role: “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

(Hmm…maybe I should title my book: 98.6°. Or: I Was a Teacher! I Had a Pulse!)

If assessments in the Times were harsh, educators had to take two steps back to avoid fire and brimstone from the right. Ann Coulter, in Godless, slammed teachers’ unions, labeled public schools “the Left’s madrassas,” and compared the U. S. education system to Soviet era factories, staying open even though products were hopelessly defective.

At best public schools were:

…nothing but expensive babysitting arrangements, helpfully keeping hoodlums off the streets during daylight hours. At worst, they are criminal training labs, where teachers sexually abuse the children between drinking binges and acts of grand larceny.


Neil Boortz, in Somebody’s Gotta Say It, argued that the danger went deeper. Teachers weren’t just incompetent. They were a threat to the Republic.

“Our government schools are killing the spirit of our children and, in the process, our country,” he groaned. “Our wonderful government educational system produces graduating classes of young Neanderthals with no sense of individuality, no sense of self-worth, and no understanding of what it means to live in a truly free society.”

Somebody had to say it—even if what Boortz had to say was incredibly stupid. So he spewed. “Teachers’ unions pose a graver long-term threat to freedom, prosperity and the future of this country than do Islamic terrorists.”
 
(If he was right it would indicate a need to scan teachers’ baggage more carefully at airports.)


Now Available on Amazon.com.



Sample Reviews for Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching

When I set out to write a book about education, I was driven by three purposes. First, I wanted to explain what it is all good teachers try to do and explain some of the challenges that make it hard to save every child. Second, I wanted to pinpoint the one best way to improve schools—an obvious path everyone can follow, but a path that is hard and steep. Finally, I wanted to make it clear that standardized testing was a growing cancer in our schools.

(As a bonus, I wanted to reveal the arrogance of the school reformers who never teach.)

Check out the opening pages of the book.

***



A sampling of reviews follows:

Avery Foster, retired teacher, Loveland High School, Loveland, Ohio


Ms. Foster continued: Should be required reading for all teachers, students, administrators and citizens. 

Carla Conti Leach, teacher, Greensburg High School, Indiana: This is a great book. Mr. Viall totally understands the problems we face today in teaching.

Lori Chisman Barber, former Loveland student and mother: Near the end I was in tears over one sad story about a boy and then a half hour later I was laughing so hard at the ending paragraph that I was in tears again. I think every parent of school age children should read this book.

Julie Huddleston, former teacher, Fulton County, Georgia: Incredibly inspiring and spot-on when it comes to the issues teachers face today.

 Brad Henderson, former Loveland student, Rhodes Scholar: Just finished a memoir by one of the best teachers I ever had—John Viall (my middle school history teacher). I recommend it for anyone passionate about education. What a great read.

Sharon Hammond Nordstrom, teacher, Stockton City Schools: Author John Viall is direct and to the point in his assessment of what’s wrong with education in America. I found his knowledge coupled with wit, humor and sarcasm an enjoyable read…Everyone working with and for students should read this book. (For those who don’t have a clue what is going on in today’s classroom, this book will definitely enlighten beyond belief.)

 Ray Bailey, U. S. Army, Vietnam War veteran: I got the book last night and read half-through non-stop. I’ll finish tonight. It’s great! Your write up of me is right on and just enough. Last night I finished the book. I alternated between laughter and tears through the second half. You did a great job.

Alisha Taul, LEARN—Loveland Education Action Right Now, anti- testing group: I love your book! It should be required reading for politicians and local school boards. 

Martin Garneret, former Loveland student and businessman: I’ve burned through it in four sittings. Incredibly good book.

Vicky Leroy Busby, former Loveland student and mother: Two Legs Suffice made me laugh, cry, shake my head, cry some more, and laugh again. 

Emily Viall, daughter of the author: (Okay, you kind of figure my daughter would give me a good review; but I think her reactions say a great deal about the book): I gasped and laughed and cried out loud, multiple times. 

Monty Lobb (thirty-seven years, mostly with the Princeton City Schools): Upon reading John’s captivating story it became apparent to me, having been an administrator in education for over three decades, that John’s highly evolved communication skills serve as a bridge of rapport that engage not only his readers but I’m sure all of his students who have walked through the doors of his classroom as well. A highly enjoyable, informative, intriguing read as well.

 Terri Woods, retired school psychologist, Princeton City Schools: Current teachers and administrators will recognize the rhythm of typical school days in Viall’s book. It should be required reading for all legislators voting on “school reform” and unfunded mandates. Viall describes the issues teachers face daily and begs the question: “Why aren’t teachers at the table discussing school reform with lawmakers?” 

Karen Streng Tiffany, Cedarburg High School, Wisconsin: I just finished reading and I’m already debating when I will start to re-read it. I know, without a doubt, that I will keep it out on my desk this year. It will be a security blanket, a touchstone, to help me hold my head up, take a deep breath, and fearlessly (OK—maybe not so fearlessly) immerse myself in this calling I hold so dear. It is read, some passages two or three times, and sitting on my desk at school so it will continue to inspire me on a daily basis.

Bruce Maegly, retired teacher, Loveland Middle School: Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is incredibly well written…a fabulous read for parents, teachers, administrators and students alike.

Cheri King, teacher, Loveland, Ohio: I just finished an outstanding book in support of schools, teachers, and especially students…August is not a great month for a teacher to start a new book as any spare time is spent preparing for the new school year. It turns out reading this book was the best preparation possible…I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about education.

 Lauren Turley, former Loveland student and current Texan: Hello Mr. Viall, I hope you are well! I was chatting with Sarah Mosby yesterday on the phone and she told me that you recently wrote a book on teaching and it is available for purchase. I am quite excited to read it, especially after her recommendation. I am a special education resource teacher to some brilliant third graders in San Antonio, Texas…You were always one of my favorite teachers, which is especially significant as your teaching graced my middle school years! I remember absolutely loving reading all about history in your packets and happily pouring over any and all writing assignments. This attitude has served me well in college and beyond. Thank you and take care.

Steven (former student, appears in book, didn’t know it):  Thank you very much John for helping me through history with my reading you made an impression in my life I’m very thankful how good of a man you are. With my schooling much better thank you; you made me feel much better about taking tests in your class when I should not of been there. I’m just thankful for having a real man at the right time in a classroom if you need any help on your house on your car leave it to me...I know too much I can fix too much and I’ll take care you because you were very good to me.

Calvin Schmieg, teacher, Montgomery County Schools, Kentucky: Such a great story of one teacher’s journey through a career as a middle school teacher. 

Melissa Popham, former Loveland student and legal assistant: I just wanted to let you know that I am really enjoying your book. I didn’t have the pleasure of having you for history, my brother Gary did, but as I read your book I really wish I had gotten to sit through your class. I never had a good attitude about history, I had the attitude it happened I couldn’t change it so why do I need to know it. I got by in school, but reading how you taught and how you strived to change kids with an attitude such as mine I wish I could of had that. (Facebook; 9-23-2015)

Tess Elking, former Loveland student and lab technician: I just finished reading your book. I must say it was highly addictive. I finished it in less than two days. I thought it was well-balanced with humor and information, very reminiscent of your classes!

Joe Bischoff, former Loveland student and businessman: I purchased you book, and read it over four days. Fantastic! ...I am a fan of the book and will be forwarding it on to others who may also find value in it. If you decide to bike across the U. S. again, and find yourself coming through/around NYC, you are most welcome to stay with us…And here's to hoping that you do end up as the Secretary of Education, and can accomplish progress.

Lisa Sullivan, former Loveland student and photographer: This book is informative, charming, intelligent, entertaining, thought provoking, an important and necessary look at the shambles of education in the United States today. A must read for parents and educators.

Deana Callahan Wilisch, former Loveland student and mother: In my opinion, this book should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking about a career in teaching, and for any bureaucrat who has a say in education policies. 
Now available on Amazon.com








Friday, April 29, 2016

The Scores Are In: School Reformers Earn F's

Test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the Nation’s Report Card,” are out again this month. And now we know. Now we know what happens when arrogant reformers set out to improve the nation’s schools, contributing only hot air—their opinions—their plans—their pontificating—but not their deeds. (These people don’t teach. They talk. They talk and talk and talk.)

Now we know what happens when people who feel they’re too important to actually work with children bulldoze millions of front line educators who do. We know what happens when they insist on spending billions on standardized testing, because they believe the key to improving learning outcomes is piling up data.

Well, the data is in and reformers score a big red “F.”

More on the damning data later. First, the background: We are now deep into the second decade of misguided education reform. And the basic premise of all this reform has never changed. Men and women like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp of Teach for America decided if front line teachers and administrators could be punished enough then student test scores would soar. These reformers and their political allies were positive. If teacher pay was tied to test results, if unions were crushed, if tenure could be denied to every man, woman and beast, scores would surge!

In fact, the fundamental premise of all this reforming could be reduced to one balloon filled with hot air. It wasn’t quite as blunt as Shakespeare—to paraphrase: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the teachers.” Still, it was close.

First, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, offering up a promise that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Congress did nothing to help children achieve these goals, but made sure, if children didn’t, educator’s heads would roll. The states followed suit, passing hundreds of laws designed to hold teachers “accountable.” (More educators’ heads were meant to roll.) Secretary Duncan put it simply. “It’s all about the talent,” he said. It was all about teachers. Everything would be great—if only we had better teachers and administrators in our schools.

Today, it’s time to consider what fruits the reformers produced. We know Congress was forced to rewrite No Child Left Behind, which failed in epic fashion. We know giant testing companies walked away with billions of dollars. Even the boldest reformers were obliged to admit that tests tied to No Child Left Behind produced slim results. Yet, they never blinked. They blamed front line educators for the failure of their great plans. They insisted grandiose schemes would work if only testing companies tried again. The companies should start over, come up with new tests, gather new data, and yet more heads would roll.

True. Here and there, reformers could point to gains, however spurious they proved to be. Yes. Reading and math scores at the third and eighth grade levels rose. (That’s pretty much what any real teacher would expect if you pummeled school children with test prep lessons for weeks on end every year.) Also true: high school graduation rates improved. Yet, as we will see, the new graduates seemed to know less than the old graduates did, in days when educators were free to do as they saw fit.

Meanwhile, years of abuse served to demoralize the men and women who were truly devoting their lives to helping children. Instead of more resources, they got paperwork to complete. Every teacher, every counselor, psychologist and principal knew the added paperwork ate away at the time they had to help children. In many schools, particularly low-income communities, teachers were required to read scripts—a joyless approach—to prove they were actually teaching.

Reformers and politicians claimed it would help if state and federal bureaucrats had more data. This data would then confirm what they believed: Most teachers were terrible. The data would prove America’s educators deserved to be shot, broken on racks, or run over by school buses. What really happened, of course, was that millions of teachers and administrators, all the excellent ones, and all the good ones—the kind who predominate in every school—ended up wasting days and weeks filling out forms and checking boxes.

Unfortunately, real learning, which is like chess, was stunted or curtailed. The “game” of learning was reduced to tic-tac-toe.



Now we learn that only sour fruit can grow in sour soil. Educators were admonished and threatened. You had better play tic-tac-toe. If you know what’s good for you, you had best forgo any thought of chess. Within narrow limits, then, test scores did improve. In a broader sense, reform failed completely. If anyone cared to look, they might have seen that ACT scores, which measure readiness of high school graduates to do college-level work, didn’t budge at all. SAT scores, proof of what fruits reform had grown, declined slowly but steadily every year.

Now we have fresh data from NAEP. We have the data we need to measure the reformers’ success. It is now possible to say, conclusively, that these egotistical fools have earned an “F” for meddling in the schools.

Scores from NAEP are out again for 2015. Did they soar? Did they surge? Were the latest NAEP scores swell?

Not at all! Averages in both reading and math declined, compared to 2013, the last time NAEP gave its tests. Worse, the percentage of students ready for college-level work dropped. In 2013, 39 percent were ready for college-level math, 38 percent for college-level reading. Last year scores dipped to 37 percent in both areas. Worst of all, students at the bottom, clustered in low-income schools, the kind of young people that reformers swore they knew how to save, suffered most from being force fed years of test preparation. The number of students scoring below “basic” in both reading and math increased from 2013.

In other words, tens of billions of dollars had been devoted to massive school reform. Most of the money went to testing companies, company executives, or passed through lobbyist’s hands to self-serving politicians, or to school reform experts who gave high-priced speeches, and to pay bureaucrats to gather, tally and study all the data.

What happened in real classrooms across the land? Hundreds of millions of hours of teachers’ and students’ time was totally wasted on test preparation. More hundreds of millions of hours had to be devoted to bubbling in answers or filling out forms.

Yet, scores didn’t surge.

Scores were stagnant. Or worse. On the NAEP tests, seniors scored an average of 152 in math (out of 300) in 2015. In 2005, the average was 150. All those insults hurled at educators, all those heads that rolled, all those bold plans, all those big words from people who only talked, never taught, all those hours of testing crammed down the throats of children, and all we had to show for it was an improvement of two measly points.

Ah, but it was far worse!

In 2015 the average American high school senior scored 287 (out of 500) on the reading portion of the NAEP tests. That was down five points, from 287 in 1992.

Fifteen years wasted—and almost nothing has been done to help children who suffer most outside of school, those, in turn, who struggle most in any classroom. In fact, reformers have argued that what happens outside of schools doesn’t matter—have insisted educators who claim it does (because it does) are making “excuses.” Certainly, the politicians failed miserably, as they often do. Rather than help the youth of the nation, they passed legislation which served to stifle the joys of learning. The reformers and the politicians made the jobs of educators harder and made the school days of children much, much worse.

Today, the grades are in: “F’s” across the board for the reformers and their pals.



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