Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Very Late Review of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way

If I was still teaching I’d give myself an F for late work. (Very late work.) In the fall of 2013 the publisher of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way sent me a copy and asked for comment.

Eighteen months later, I’ll start with the good news. The author, Amanda Ripley, is an excellent writer. This allows her to take what might have been a slog through data and turn it into an interesting story. She also demonstrates a sincere interest in unlocking the secrets of educational success.

For that reason, in 2010-2011, Ms. Ripley set out on a trip around the world to study schools in foreign lands. She spoke with leaders in education in several countries, compared notes with American educators, and followed the stories of three American teens who headed off to high school in foreign lands. Kim grew up in Oklahoma and went to Finland. Eric grew up in Minnesota and headed for South Korea. Tom left Pennsylvania to study in Poland. The author interviewed all three at length and surveyed two hundred foreign exchange students about their experiences—both those coming to this country, and ours, going the other way.

Although I found much of interest in the pages of The Smartest Kids and Ripley’s tale made me think, I had doubts from the start when she claimed that in a small number of countries “something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.”

What about this country? Were we preparing kids to survive in a modern economy? According to the CEO of BAMA, an Oklahoma company that makes apple pies for McDonalds, we were not. The CEO told Ripley it was getting harder and harder to find “people who could read, solve problems, and communicate what happened on their shift, and there weren’t enough of them coming out of Oklahoma high schools and community colleges.”

According to the CEO the only possible solution was to open a factory in Guangzhou, China. So, I am assuming as I read, that China must be chock full of high school graduates ready to solve problems and communicate what happens on their shifts.

Also: these high school graduates will accept one tenth of what American workers expect to be paid.

This thread in Ms. Ripley’s story may be accepted wisdom in school reform circles—and certainly, the corporate types love to talk about it and deflect attention from the fact they like shipping jobs overseas to low wage countries. But was it true? Were America’s schools really failing to prepare students to survive in a global economy? I decided to pull on the loose end and see if the argument unraveled. First, I checked the list from 2009 that Ripley used in writing her book. Which countries were graduating virtually everybody with the skills they needed in a rapidly changing world?

Okay. Good job, Portugal and Slovenia. They graduated 96%.

Finland and Japan were next at 95%. And then we had the laggard United States, with a graduation rate of 76% (since raised).

Pulling on one thread loosened another. So I gave it a tug. If BAMA was having trouble finding skilled apple pie makers and American companies were desperate to find enough educated workers—why weren’t they opening up factories in Portugal or Finland? Only 65% of Chinese students graduate from high school. And yet when I pick up a pack of light bulbs at Lowes, a package of underwear at Target or a copy of Pat the Bunny at Barnes and Noble, I see “Made in China” every time.

I don’t ever see “Made in Finland.”

Despite my skepticism, I believe there’s much in The Smartest Kids for every educator, parent, student and school reformer to ponder. When it comes to the school reformers (who never seem to teach) what Ripley says might temper their arrogance. Studying educational systems around the world, she discovers, “Policies mostly worked in the margins.” So changing policy would be a secondary or tertiary affair. She doesn’t believe in all the high stakes testing we’ve been doing either. She refers to such exercises as “bubble tests our kids had to zombie walk through each spring.”

If there was one area where I most agreed with Ms. Ripley it was in making the case that American education wasn’t as rigorous as it should be. Ripley cites a study which found that four of every ten U. S. fourth graders said math homework was too easy. She notes that seven out of ten eighth graders in this country attended schools that do “not offer algebra courses with the kind of content that was standard in most other countries.” A Finnish exchange student told her she was surprised to get a study guide in U. S. history, with answers provided. She scored an A on the test but several peers had C’s. American kids, she said, didn’t study much because they didn’t need to. “Not much is demanded of U. S. students.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Ripley rarely asked teachers, either here or during her travels, to comment. So there are missing elements in her tapestry. She did interview William Taylor, who first taught in a D. C. school under a principle who did believe in rigor. Taylor explained how he himself set high standards for students and graded accordingly. When he switched schools and began to ask around, however, he was shocked (as Ripley is in her telling) to find “some of his colleagues were basing 60 percent of students’ grades on effort alone.”

Ripley agrees there are individual teachers and schools in this country that believe in rigor. But she misses a number of salient points in trying to explain why they might be rare. First, Taylor is earning bonus pay for raising standardized test scores on the very sort of tests Ripley feels don’t matter, under a system designed my former D. C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee. (Rhee’s plan would soon fall apart when reports of widespread cheating surfaced in USAToday.) And Taylor tells her he started getting complaints from parents because he graded too hard and expected too much.

In fact, one reason I liked Ripley’s book was that her default position isn’t to blame teachers for everything. Teachers don’t get a pass, as we shall see; but she spreads the blame around.

Students in South Korea, she soon discovered, scored near the top in every international testing competition. How was it possible, she wondered? “Korean teenagers spent more time studying than our kids spent awake,” Ripley realized. And she rightly asked about the role played by parents. “No one talked about them. Didn’t parents matter even more than teachers?”

“Yes, often they do,” I found myself muttering.

Unfortunately, I had trouble accepting Ripley’s basic premise—that you could legitimately compare the education system of one country with that of another. I was dubious from the start when results from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) tests formed the warp of her case. First, the PISA tests did not exist until fifteen years ago. The first round of tests was given in 2000, when “a third of a million teenagers in forty-three countries sat down for two hours and took a test unlike any they had ever seen.” Two hours later we supposedly knew which countries were doing the best job of educating roughly a billion kids annually.

Call me dense, I suppose, but I couldn’t see where two hours of anything proved much about entire systems of K-12 education. But simple lists held great allure for school reformers, politicians and bureaucrats, who latched onto PISA results and absolutely flipped. The Germans, for example, were shocked to find their students ranked 21st in math and science and 22nd in reading. One German periodical carried the pointed headline: “Are German Students Stupid?”

Closer to home, Rod Paige, U. S. Secretary of Education when the first results were released in 2001(our kids finished 20th, 15th and 16th), went bug-eyed. “Average is not good enough for American kids,” he fumed to reporters. No Child Left Behind, then in the works, would fix everything.

Paige promised!

So Ripley set out to determine what factors explained the differences in PISA scores (and I kept wondering why scores on this particular test mattered). Why did kids in Finland, South Korea, and Poland score higher than our kids? Studying the evidence, she insisted increased spending did not equate to higher scores. “Beyond a certain baseline level,” she said, “money does not translate into quality in education anywhere.”

“Everything—everything—depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments,” she added.

Her first stop was South Korea. There classrooms were “utilitarian and spare.” The Koreans didn’t go in for a lot of “high tech toys.” On the other hand, she was surprised to see that in a typical classroom a third of the students were asleep. “The teacher,” she noted, “lectured on, unfazed.”

What else did Eric from Minnesota and the author discover? School uniforms were required. Makeup was banned. Students were exhausted. They cleaned the school after classes ended. Kids who had demerits were assigned to bathroom duty. At 4:30 they settled in to prep for the one college entrance exam that almost entirely determined their futures. They even ate dinner at school. At nine p.m. they left the building. Most weren’t done and headed for hagwons, or tutoring mills, for which parents paid extra. The school year was two months longer than in Minnesota.

Sadly, Ms. Ripley mentioned in passing that both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once said they envied the South Koreans their system. This tells us the reader just how much our leaders know about what goes on in schools. But on close examination the author comes away convinced the Korean system could never work in this country. Even the Korean minister of education isn’t thrilled, telling her his nation had “created a monster.”

Nevertheless, Ripley saw what countries like Korea did to raise PISA scores and came away excited. “First countries could change. That was hopeful,” she explained. Second, “rigor mattered.” The Koreans “assumed that performance was mostly a product of hard work—not God-given talent. This attitude meant that all kids tried harder, and it was more valuable to a country than gold or oil.”

I’m a former Marine. So I believe in rigor. But I wasn’t convinced that the Korean system produced cloth of a better quality. The suicide rate for teens was more than double the rate in this country. And you had to wonder why 68,000 Korean high school graduates headed to the United States for college annually if our system was such a terrible mess. As for all those high PISA scores, they seemed to have little benefit in the long term. The Korean economy has remained stagnant for twenty years.

At first glance, Ms. Ripley appeared to weave a stronger case when she turned to comparing high school graduation rates. A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the very same organization which created the PISA tests, placed the United States 21st out of twenty-eight developed nations in terms of high school graduation.

So the author headed for Poland—where the rate was 85%—and where rigor was a big deal. In Poland, Tom, the boy from Pennsylvania, found calculators were not allowed in class. At the end of a test the teacher announced scores. Five was the highest. No one ever got a “5.” In one class the teacher not only announced grades, 22 of 26 students failed.

Ms. Ripley set out to dig down and find the roots of Poland’s phenomenal “success,” in terms of graduation rates and increased PISA scores. From 2000 to 2006, she noted, reading scores for Polish kids taking PISA soared 29 points. (By 2012 they were up ten more points.)

Here in America, we were busy preparing students for those infernal “bubble tests.” We listened to people like Secretary Paige and Secretary Duncan, who assured everyone if we followed their lead, results would follow. PISA scores in reading for America’s kids dropped six points instead.

 “Poland’s poorest kids outscored the poorest kids in the United States,” Ripley continued. “That was a remarkable feat, given that they were worse off, socioeconomically, than the poorest American kids.” “The results,” she said, “suggested a radical possibility for the rest of the world: perhaps the poor kids could learn more than they were learning. Perhaps all was not lost.”

I taught for decades, myself, and don’t doubt for a moment that poor kids can learn. But I decided to check another OECD report on childhood poverty. Ripley’s statement was true, to a point. Poland did have a higher percentage of children living in poverty (21.5% to 20.6% in the U. S.). Still, we ranked 27th out of 30 OECD countries reporting and two of the three countries with more children in poverty, Turkey and Mexico, graduated only 45% of their students.

So, poverty did seem to matter.

I wasn’t just picking and choosing statistics. I was using OECD charts and data, the same organization that provides PISA data every three years. Looking closely at OECD numbers, you started seeing more loose threads in the woof of Ms. Ripley telling. In terms of poverty, we finished 25th out of 30 developed nations for number of low birth-weight children. We finished 27th out of 29 nations reporting on infant mortality. We had a far higher rate of births to adolescent mothers, coming in 29th out of 30 developed countries.

In fact, it appeared that you might be able to reduce the U. S. dropout rate simply by ensuring every teen had access to birth control and knew how to use it. After all, half of teen girls who get pregnant end up dropping out. And if we were going to compare PISA scores, we might need to compare fertility rates per 1,000 females, ages 15-19. The United States had 31 live births per 1,000 in 2012. Poland had 12. Finland had 9. South Korea had 2. Multiply those numbers by four, as in four years of high school, and you see were part of the problem may lie.

Ripley suggests—and here I believe her argument breaks down entirely—that one big problem is American educators’ attitudes in regard to poverty. “What did it mean, then,” she asks at one point, “that respected U. S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything?”

First, I didn’t believe young teachers were being “indoctrinated” to believe that poverty trumped everything. Secondly, I knew from experience what it was like to try to reach a student who lived in squalor at home—with a dead dog in the family bathtub. Every frontline educator who ever walked through the door of a classroom knows teaching kids from impoverished backgrounds is harder. Ripley misses the point badly, probably because she never tried to teach.

Sometimes she even missed points she herself had made. All around the world, she admits, it has been shown parents who read to their young children produce kids who do much better at reading at age fifteen. “Read to your kids. Could it be that simple?” she asks at one point. “Yes, it could.”

Yes. It could. But one problem (of many) for poor kids is that their families don’t always have extra money for books. So money might not matter, beyond a “certain baseline” in schools.

Money surely matters at home.

I picked at a few more loose ends and discovered that the United States wasn’t just bad when infant mortality rates were tabulated. Young people of all ages were more likely to die early than in all but two nations of 26 reporting. The pattern seemed clear and a UNICEF study of 29 developed nations in 2013 (below) confirmed it. In America we did a lousy job of protecting children.


Ripley’s final stop was in Finland—a nation whose education system sounded too good to be true—a Lake Woebegone, academically.

The question Ripley hoped to answer was simple. How did Finland finish near the top in PISA scores every three years? What did Finland do that we might emulate?

Before we look at how Ripley answers the question, however, allow me to note: Finland has a population equal to Minnesota. So comparing Finland to our entire country is like comparing apples to clam chowder.

In any case, when Kim left Oklahoma to study in Finland she noticed all kinds of differences. There were no “high-tech, interactive white boards in her classroom. There was no police officer in the hallway.”

I read that line and find myself thinking that the missing police officer tells us something very important about differences in “educational systems.” It says volumes about how unhealthy life in the United States has become for young people, particularly when we remember that an estimated 17,000 school resource officers currently patrol the hallways of America’s schools.

Ripley doesn’t see it. The key, she insists—and here the anvil finally gets dropped on American educators’ heads—is the way Finland selects and trains teachers. There are only eight prestigious training universities in the entire country and only 20% of applicants are accepted. Finnish teachers are smart.

Ours?

Well, they’re dumb. “At most U. S. colleges,” Ripley argues, “education was known as one of the easiest majors. Education departments usually welcomed almost anyone who claimed to love children. Once they got there, they were rewarded with high grades and relatively easy work.” “In other words, to educate our children, we invited anyone—no matter how poorly educated they were—to give it a try.”

(I feel, hear, lik i shud mispel som werds ar something.)

At this point, Ripley began to question the whole idea of using standardized tests and holding teachers accountable. She no longer believed it would work.

“I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards.” “What if the main problem was not motivation? Was it possible to hammer 3.6 million American teachers into becoming master educators if their SAT scores were below average?”

Nope. We were too dumb.

America needed smarter teachers—that’s why kids in Finland did well. They had smarter teachers. But I remained unconvinced. Korean students outscored Finnish kids on every PISA test given, even though they often slept through class. Ripley didn’t notice the dichotomy. Instead, she called on U. S. colleges to limit admittance to teacher training programs to those whose SAT scores placed them in the top 1/3rd of their class. Kind of like Teach for America on steroids.

At this point, I started muttering darkly. Perhaps teachers in Finland simply had an easier time in class every day. Only 3% of students in Finland had immigrant parents. The figure here was 20%, and language barriers often created an extra layer of problems. Finland was a socialist country. So every child received quality health care. There were no Indian reservations, as in this country, where test scores are consistently low and unemployment rates and alcoholism consistently high. Finland had almost no racial minorities—no lingering effects related to a history of virulent prejudice.

Even Ms. Ripley has to admit that African American students in the United States score 84 points lower than white students on the reading section of the PISA test. Their graduation rates and SAT scores were lower—and she recognizes that “up to half the gap could be explained by economics.”

At that point, I wondered. Were teachers “indoctrinated” to believe poverty mattered—or were they realistic?

I suppose at this point I should sum up as best I can. So let me say, despite my doubts, I’m glad I read The Smartest Kids. It made me think about the keys to success in education, which I believe are the same in every country.

I think rigor matters. I think parents, students, educators and our nation’s leaders need to face that fact.

Are there ideas we might copy from other countries? Sure: we could copy Finland and pay college tuition for everyone. We could require student teachers to spend a year in the classroom as they do in Finland. We could fund schools equally the way Finland does, so every school gets the same money per pupil. We could eliminate almost all private schools, scrap vouchers, close down charter schools and eliminate interscholastic sports (Finland, like Poland, has none).

Is there reason to hope that we can improve American education? There always is and always will be. And I believe Ripley sees the clearest path to that goal. “The most important difference I’d seen so far,” she says of her travels, “was the drive of students and their families. It was viral, and it mattered more than I’d expected.”

With that, I believe, almost all educators would agree.

The dilemma for even the most dedicated teachers, and there are many more of these teachers than Ripley will ever know, is how to get students and parents to buy in to this idea.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What an NFL Star Says about Education


Richard Sherman: Stanford graduate 2011.

In all the talk about Super Bowl XLIX, one critical story was mostly overlooked. In days leading up to the contest, sportscasters, former stars and scientists weighed in on Deflategate. Later, players, pundits and even psychologists talked about the decision by the Seattle Seahawks to pass on 2-and-1, from the one yard line.

(You can watch a distraught Seattle fan head butt his television set after his team blows the win, below.) 



The story that I believe matters had nothing to do with an interception that sealed the Seahawks’ and New England Patriots’ fates. True, almost 1 in 3 Americans watched Super Bowl XLIX, included my son and I, an audience of 114.4 million, the largest in television history. I wonder how many read the story on Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman in Sports Illustrated earlier that week?

Most of the article focused on football, of course. At the end, however, Sherman turned to a subject of real importance: 
I got some news nine months ago that helped me reach a conclusion. My girlfriend, Ashley, and I are expecting our first child, a boy, any day now [born February 5].I’ve realized in the last year that I can evoke change by being a great role model: a man who respects women and police officers, who graduated from college and does everything in his power to be successful within the rules.
Circumstances dictate where you start—a single mother raised Kam Chancellor [a teammate] to become the man he is today—but each individual determines his course. Where I came from, in Compton, kids were brainwashed into thinking that if they weren’t athletes or rappers or drug dealers they were nothing. My son will understand that he’s in control of his own destiny and that education, work ethic and discipline will guide him to an even better life than I’ve enjoyed. He’ll be the man who makes the world a better place through positive actions and influence. 

Sherman may well be the best defensive back in the NFL today. But in the end nothing that happens on a football field ever really changes the world. What happens inside classrooms every day does.

Mr. Sherman knows this himself. He finished second in his high school class with a 4.2 GPA. He had offers from college football powerhouses, but chose his own path. “Ultimately,” he explains, “I chose Stanford University to make a statement about the importance of education.” He wanted to be more than a football star. 

He wanted to learn.

When he graduated in 2011 with a 3.9 GPA and a communications degree, Sherman could not know for sure that NFL stardom awaited. He was a fifth round pick. Many players taken that low end up getting cut or spend two or three years riding the bench.

Richard Sherman, though, had his degree just in case. He knew how important education is, how important it is might be even for those who hope to make a career in sports.

Today, he makes his mark in ways far more important than can be measured in “passes defensed” or interceptions. Sherman is an true example for kids. His charity, Blanket Coverage, provides “students in low-income communities with school supplies and clothing so they can more adequately achieve their goals.

His mission is clear. “Off the field,” Mr. Sherman explains, “I am a man of integrity and community. My passion is my foundation, Blanket Coverage, which gives back to the children in the community to provide all the necessary tools to get an education. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of where I come from and where I could be right now if not for the support given to me.

His own family was “adamant” about his getting the best possible education—and now he tries to pass on lessons he learned as a young man.

I suppose, I should add a brief disclaimer here, before continuing with my story. Yes, I’m a Cincinnati Bengals fan. So I have no idea what it feels likes to see your team win the big game. (And I admit I have been tempted to head butt my television set several times in recent years. But my son stops me and calms me down.) Still, I know in ten years most fans will forget which teams played in Super Bowl XLIX. Lives will not have been changed by a 28-24 score. We’ll all go on living in our usual ways.

What happens in schools, what one NFL star can do to help kids succeed in the classroom today—that will matter far more.

Sure. I’d be happy to see Richard Sherman in a Bengals uniform. 

In the end, football hardly matters. What he tries to do, stressing the value of education, trumps any Super Bowl win.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Teachers Anonymous: A Twelve Step Program for Frontline Educators


This student thinks you're a good teacher. But Arne Duncan and his crew
know you're not.
The new 12 Step Program for teachers may help.

Last week, I searched my soul and finally faced a harsh truth: I was a bad teacher. I admit: that was hard to admit.

True, listening to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bash our profession for the last six years made it easier. Reading articles and books by leading school reformers also helped. They pretty much believe all teachers are stupid, lazy or doing a terrible job. In fact, when their plans to fix the schools don’t work they blame us for their failed plans too.

(A neat trick, don’t you think!)

When I posted my confession a few days ago, I was heartened to learn I was not alone. Thousands of other bad teachers felt a similar need to confess their crimes. Many have spent years in a classroom working with all types of kids. Like me, they loved teaching (and retired) or still do.

Like me, they thought they were good.

All that delusion—it hit me like a punch in the nose. Teachers needed a Twelve Step Program, just like AA. If I could come up with proper language, perhaps I could help others face their demons too.

Here, then, are the Twelve Steps of Teachers Anonymous. If you would like to offer suggestions or modifications send me an email or comment on this blog. Together we can recover.

I’m sure.

(NOTE: Participants in AA place their faith and fates in the hands of God. For our purposes the higher powers—capitalized accordingly—are School Reformers, Authors of Books, and so forth.)


THE TWELVE STEPS

STEP ONE: Admit that you are powerless in the face of the Testing Companies, like Pearson. Your life has become an unmanageable mess due to paperwork.

This isn’t AA, so if at any time you feel the need, pour yourself a stiff drink. Make it a double.

STEP TWO: Admit that only a Greater Power can restore you to sanity and health.

Place your fate and the fate of your students, in the hands of Politicians and Bureaucrats in state capitals and Washington, D. C.

(What could possibly go wrong with that?)

STEP THREE: Make the decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of the Testing Companies because tests rule over you and your students. Not to mention that Testing Companies donate millions to Politicians.

STEP FOUR. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of your faults.

This is a tough one. If you claim poverty harms kids, making it harder for them to learn, go back to Step One. If you dare hint that some really terrible parents are the main problem in many kids’ lives, go back to Step One. If you believe a child who misses fifty-two days of class in one year may be damaging his or her own education, and still refuse to accept blame, write a one page essay about what a bad teacher you are. Then mail it to Time magazine. (The editors at Time love any story that focuses on bad teachers.)

STEP FIVE: Admit to all Politicians and School Reformers Who Don’t Teach, and most of all to yourself, the exact nature of your wrongs.

You think you’re really helping kids in your class succeed? Come on! You’re terrible. Members of Congress and Lobbyists and Highly Paid Executives heading for-profit charter school chains, now those people care about kids!  

STEP SIX: You must put your fate in the hands of Authors of Books about how to fix education, for they will show you the defects in your character and your classroom techniques.

Suggested readings include:

1.    The Bee Eater by Richard Whitmire: a biography of Michelle Rhee, who taught for three years and then made a career out of bashing teachers.

2.    Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools by Joel I. Klein: who basically says, yes, we can fix the schools by firing all the teachers.

3.    Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Steven Brill. Same message as #2 (above).

4.    The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They got that Way by Amanda Ripley: the story of how kids in Finland kick ass in school because teachers in Finland aren’t dumb, as are teachers in America.


STEP SEVEN: Humbly support all current and future Secretaries of Education no matter what policy they choose to implement. Ask only that they help you overcome your professional shortcomings.

STEP EIGHT: Make a list of all the persons you have harmed and be willing to make amends.

Stand on your school lawn. Shout: “If any child has not succeeded in school it has to be my fault. I am sorry that the promise of No Child Left Behind was not fulfilled. I am sorry for pretty much anything that goes wrong with the U. S. economy, because I have failed to prepare kids to compete in a global economy. Plus, it’s my fault giant corporations are shifting production to places like China and Bangladesh. I also admit fault in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, in the spread of Ebola and for the inability of the Cubs to even make it to the World Series.

STEP NINE: Make direct amends to all those you harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Buy a former student who ended up working at Walmart for crappy pay a new car, or maybe a pony.

STEP TEN: Continue to take personal inventory and when you are wrong (which is always, according to the School Reformers), promptly admit it.

STEP ELEVEN: Seek through prayer or meditation to improve your conscious contact with Secretary Duncan and all School Reformers, praying for knowledge of their will and the power to carry it out.

If they say we must have tests tied to No Child Left Behind then you must love those tests! If they say we must have new tests tied to Common Core, you must love those tests instead. If various states revoke their decision to participate in Common Core and go back to state standardized tests—yes, love those tests too!

STEP TWELVE: Having experienced a spiritual awakening, carry this message to other teachers, all who think they are doing good work in the schools. Practice these twelve principles in all your affairs.

And remember. This isn’t AA. So feel free at any point to have another drink.

                                                                                                Yours truly,
                                                                                                A Bad Teacher

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Confessions of a "Bad Teacher:" I Loved Teaching like a Crack Addict Loves Crack.

I thought I was a good teacher. 
(I also thought the Bengals would win.)


My name is John and I have a problem. For thirty-three years I was a bad teacher. And I thought was good

Denial. That’s all it was.

Then, Sunday, I stumbled across an excellent article by Dr. Michael Flanagan and his words gave me strength. You see he’s a bad teacher too.

Dr. Flanagan had to battle through the same agonizing process I must now endure, although he does admit there were sometimes “free bagels and donuts involved.” And I am a complete sucker for donuts.

(I’m sorry. When I salivate I digress.)

For nineteen years he taught, successfully, or so he thought. Oh, sure, he heard school reformers say that the big problems in education boiled down to bad teachers at the front of too many rooms. Still, he refused to face the truth. Like me, he kept pretending he was good. He’d get awards for excellence…and he’d believe those awards meant something too.

As for me, I’d be grading papers at 11:30 on a Wednesday night and I’d tell myself, “John, you’re doing a good job.” I had an addiction you see. Grading papers was a crutch, like a bottle of booze to a drunk.

I’d go to work on Monday and students would tell me they loved my class, and I’d delude myself and think they were telling the truth. I would arrive at school early and let kids come in for extra work and I’d skip lunch to help and stay late too. I was hooked. 

I thought I was good.

Sure. There were times I wondered. I’d pick up the New York Times and read what the latest school reformers had to say. These reformers didn’t have the same problem I did because they always avoided trying to teach. But I wouldn’t listen, not even when Brent Staples said schools did a terrible job of screening and evaluating teachers, so that they hired “any warm body that comes along.” I heard what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told an audience at M.I.T., that the big problem in schools was too many teachers were plain dumb and still I refused to face the demons.

I’d go right back to my phone. I’d call Vicki’s parents and say, “I love having your daughter in class.” Too late now, I see that call was a cry for help. I loved teaching like a crack addict loves crack.

Again and again, reformers tried to show me how wrong I was. Michelle Rhee bashed teachers every time she opened her mouth. Campbell Brown hinted that teachers were sexual deviants, protected by powerful unions. Arne Duncan, Steven Brill and Joel I. Klein all agreed that tenure and unions must go. Yet, I kept going back into my classroom day after day. I had to have that fix. I had to keep helping kids.

I know one step toward recovery is admitting a problem and trying to make amends to anyone you hurt. So let me say I’m sorry. I apologize for spending most of my adult life working with 5,000 kids.

I’m sorry, Steven Brill, that I called your book, Class Warfare: The Fight to Save America’s Schools, a steaming pile of dung. I should have known you were fighting harder than I did—just not in an actual classroom—or with actual kids. I should have known that you and Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America but never taught, were going to fix the lives of children with bold words.

I’m sorry for so much. 

I’m sorry for doubting politicians when they passed No Child Left Behind more than a decade ago. Now I see that lawmakers in Washington knew exactly what they’re doing all along. I’m sorry I said that law was flawed from the start. 

I’m also sorry that No Child Left Behind is totally dead.

I’m sorry I don’t believe Common Core will work. I’m an addict, as I’ve said. I’m sorriest of all because I doubted politicians in 2010 when they said they supported Common Core and doubted them again in 2014 when they said, never mind, we’re not for Common Core after all. In fact,
Governor Jindal I apologize particularly to you.

I’m sorry I didn’t face my problem when it might have meant something to all the wonderful young people I taught. I’m sorry for saying the standardized tests I saw during my long career were weak. I’m sorry I thought the social studies portion of the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT), implemented in 2004, and the last standardized test I saw before retiring, was a farce. I was wrong to think you couldn’t prove anything with a single fifty-question test if it covered three years of material (grades 6, 7 and 8).

I’m not just sorry. I’m sad. I’m sad the State of Ohio spent millions designing that social studies subtest as part of the OAT—and then dumped it in 2009—and will soon dump the whole sorry OAT and have to start from scratch again. Common Core is coming you know, or maybe it’s not. I’m sorry I said when I heard this kind of news that lawmakers in Columbus had absolutely no clue.

I’m sorry I once brought in fourteen veterans (from five wars) to talk to 700 Loveland Middle School kids. I realize now—too late!—that nothing they said could help any of those teens when it came to a standardized test. Especially now, since all those old tests are kaput. 

Today I understand it wasn’t just me. I hung out with other junkies who thought they were good. We had an outstanding band director at Loveland Middle School who thought it mattered if he turned teens into musicians. We had great art teachers who imagined that if they taught kids to sketch beautifully they were passing on something of value. We had a great drama teacher, who for some reason felt drama was worthwhile, and a French teacher who expected kids to speak French with skill, and we had fine coaches, who were all in denial too. Those coaches thought that teaching young men and women to work hard, to strive to improve, to win with character, might help them in life.

Poor souls—trying to help kids who were bullied—counseling pregnant teens about choices they’d have to make—wondering how to help a boy who lived with an abusive father at home. Who were my colleagues trying to kid?

Now I know we were all addicts, kidding ourselves, and I look back on my career and theirs and think, “How sad!”

But I do feel better today. I’m getting this off my chest and see I’m not alone. I can finally admit I was a “bad teacher” all along. 

I imagined that learning could be enhanced in ten thousand ways. And I was wrong. If it can’t be tested, can’t be reduced to A, B, C or D, it’s not learning at all. I have looked in a mirror at long last and have seen reflected an image I cannot like. Still, I can hope my colleagues and millions of public school teachers will get the help they need. As Dr. Flanagan has shown it’s never too late. We can all be “good teachers” if we choose.

The politicians with all the bold plans—those zealous reformers with their millions of words—they’ll show us the way.

They’ll show us all how to teach.


By way of Maria Montessori (and Bruce Maegly) on Facebook.