Friday, July 18, 2014

Teachers: Are You Part of the Lunatic Fringe?

Teachers: are you part of “the lunatic fringe?” Considering the results of a recent poll you probably are. Only 1 in 4 Americans said they believed standardized testing had made schools better.

To answer this question yourself a little background information first. If you missed the story early this month, the National Education Association approved a resolution calling for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. Why? The resolution faulted Mr. Duncan for a “failed education agenda,” particularly a “toxic testing push.”

Naturally, this attack riled up Duncan’s defenders. Typically, these defenders never bothered to teach. Joe Williams, the no-teaching-ever-director of Democrats for Education Reform, was quick to condemn. The vote made those (at least to him) calling for Mr. Duncan’s head seem like part of “the lunatic fringe.”

Call me one of the lunatics, then.

But I believe teachers have legitimate reasons to despise standardized tests. In fact, I wonder what Williams would say if he tried teaching for a year or two, or twenty-five years. Here’s what I saw during my career in the classroom. In the late 80s I was there when states created their own standardized tests. Ohio implemented what was known as the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test. If students failed they had multiple chances to retake it and try to pass.

Unfortunately, state tests didn’t do much to improve education. The first problem was that the standards these tests set weren’t all that high to begin. Here’s one of my favorite geography questions from the old Ohio exam:

Not exactly a daunting challenge, right? (Wait: is the answer Z?)

At the same time, Ohio lawmakers in their infinite wisdom decreed that third graders would not advance to the fourth grade unless they could pass a reading proficiency test. This was labeled the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

Elementary teachers warned that children mired in poverty might be dramatically impacted. Lawmakers didn’t care. Teachers warned that students new to this country and unfamiliar with English might not fare well. Lawmakers didn’t care.

Educators in middle and upper grades added their own warning. If you held a children back in third grade—and any other year during their academic careers—they were almost guaranteed to drop out of school. That was not the guarantee lawmakers had in mind.

Lawmakers didn’t care.

And yet the Third Grade Reading Guarantee died an early death. When actual children failed the test and parents made it clear they would not vote again for knuckle-headed lawmakers responsible for the mess, suddenly lawmakers cared. 

The guarantee was wiped from the books.

Eventually, leaders in education (people who give advice but never teach) realized that state-level testing was doing no good. So: Congress enacted No Child Left Behind (2002). Now the feds promised by 2014 every child in America would be proficient in reading and math.

Bureaucrats in various state departments of education realized how hard achieving academic perfection might be. And since failure to achieve “adequate yearly progress” involved penalties of all kinds, most states decided the path to success was clear. They lowered standards on their tests for the next few years. Then they raised them gradually to “prove” that great strides were being made—kind of a one step forward, two steps back approach to learning, you might say. This turned out to be a lame approach and teachers who had to scuffle to conform to all the rules understood it was a charade.

No one asked them what they thought.

Meanwhile, real teachers wanted to know what would happen if a young man missed 106 days of class in a single year. (I had one student who did.) Would they be “held accountable” if these kinds of students failed their tests?

Yes, the non-teaching education experts insisted, yes, they would.

School reformers—who never taught a single, solitary soul—insisted that real teachers were making excuses if they couldn’t reach every kid. Real teachers inquired anew: Will we be faulted if homeless boys and girls can’t pass the tests? After all, we find that acute hunger has have a detrimental effect on an eight-year-old’s performance in school?

“Stop making so many excuses,” the non-teaching types said.

What else was NCLB supposed to do? Politicians promised that the law would eliminate racial achievement gaps across this great land. But a decade later gaping racial gaps remained. When children were tested in 2012, 54% of white fourth graders scored “proficient or above” in math. For Asian Americans the figure was 64%.

Blacks (18%), American Indians (23%) and Hispanics (26%) still lagged behind.

Classroom teachers tried to point out to lawmakers that poverty really seemed to matter. In 2012, the biggest “gap” in math scores was seen when students eligible for free/reduced price lunches were compared with those not eligible.

Those eligible passed at a rate of 25%.

Those not eligible passed at a rate of 59%.

Scores on the eighth grade reading test showed the same poverty-related achievement gap.

The experts, who never taught anyone, rich child, or poor, told real teachers to quit with all the whining and save every child.

Here in Ohio, politicians decided that if testing in reading and math was good then testing in science and social studies would be better yet. So sub tests in science and social studies were added to the Eighth Grade Ohio Achievement Test. (This test replaced the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test after passage of NCLB.) The social studies sub test was phased in in 2003 and scores first counted in 2005. By 2009, however, the sub test was dead. Too late, frugal lawmakers (the same ones who came up with the idea in the first place) suddenly realized that it would cost large heaps of money to print, administer and grade the social studies sub test.

Besides, there were complaints from all corners of the state—not necessarily from members of the lunatic fringe—that made it clear the social studies sub test was stupid, almost from question one all the way to the bitter end.

On one occasion I headed for Columbus to testify in front of the education committee of the Ohio Senate about a proposal to tie merit pay to scores on high stakes tests. I asked members of the august panel if any of them could provide a definition of “mercantilism.” That was in fact a question asked of eighth graders on the previous year’s test.

Not one member on the Senate committee could.

I inquired next about Songhai trade. That was indeed another question on the social studies sub test of the OAT.

Once more, I was met with uncomprehending stares.

Worse yet, when all the testing was done and students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas, how much had standardized testing done to improve U. S. education? In reading, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, there was zero long-term gain

All that money spent on testing and scores would not budge! 
(Well, not unless you count going down.)

And in math, gains were also thin.

Real teachers grumbled—but not because they hoped to evade accountability. They realized you could have had greater impact on reading scores if you had simply taken all the money wasted on testing ($1.7 billion annually) and used it to buy books—170 million per year, at $10 each. And you could have given two to every child in the U. S. public school system and done it every year.

Each spring the tests were given and taken. Teachers had no choice but to play the lousy hands they were dealt. If tests at the elementary level measured only what children learned in reading and math—well, thenit made sense to focus only on that. Technically, if a subject wasn’t tested in your grade it no longer mattered what you taught.

Art? Not tested. Forget art! Music? Who cares! Even time spent on science and social studies declined (ironically, students would be tested later in those very subjects). As for physical education, it was clear the testing companies weren’t going to ask kids to run a mile.

Who cared if kids got fat!

It took a decade—but gradually it dawned on politicians and bureaucrats and education leaders who never taught that NCLB was a terrible flop. Probably every classroom teacher from Juneau to Miami could have predicted this would be the end result.

Then Secretary Duncan stepped forward with a bold new plan. And his plan was sure to work. (That’s what the last guy said.) NCLB would be killed. All those expensive standardized tests tied to NCLB? Use them for scrap paper, kids.

Mr. Duncan would oversee creation of a brand new battery of standardized tests. His tests would be tied to Common Core and this time testing would work!

State after state fell in line. Everyone seemed to love Common Core. And it did not hurt that Mr. Duncan passed out $4.35 billion to states willing to implement his plan—which another reformer (who never taught) dubbed “Race to the Top.”

In Louisiana the legislature voted in favor of racing to the top. Racing to the top sounded good. Governor Jindal was all for the racing. Then Governor Jindal changed his mind and said he would work to defeat Common Core instead. Oklahoma lawmakers were all for Common Core until they were all against it and repealed their consent. Real teachers sadly shook their heads.

So the years passed and new plans came and went and came and went and came and went. Real teachers who had growing and even profound doubts about the mess school reformers were creating did not feel as if they were part of a lunatic fringe. They watched and wondered. Who were these fools pushing all these tests, changing the rules almost as quickly as those rules were written. Did these people have even the whiff of a clue?

Here in Ohio, the bureaucrats and politicians went back to work. They renamed their test. The OAT was no longer cool. The Ohio Achievement Assessments (OAA). That sounded better! And you know what we really needed, they said?

A new third-grade reading guarantee.

This time, lawmakers promised, everything would turn out great.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Can You Answer Six Simple Questions about the Declaration of Independence?

Today we celebrate the quintessential American holiday with beer and bratwurst and day off from work. Flags wave. People parade. Picnics are held.

Then we blow shit up.

What is this holiday about?

What then is the true meaning of this foundational day? You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to realize that we as a nation have not always lived up to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Yet the ideals are there and central to what makes this nation sometimes great.

Can you answer six questions based on the passage that is heart and soul of this famous document? Do you truly understand what it means to be “American” today?

Here is that passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.
                                                                                                         Thomas Jefferson
                                                                                                         July 4, 1776

And the six questions are:

1. Government gets its power from _____.

2. If government does not work we have the right to _____.

3. Governments are set up to _____.

4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated _____.

5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by _____.

6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy _____.

The Fourth of July isn’t just a day to set off fireworks. It’s a day to consider what this nation stands for at its best. Abraham Lincoln explained it this way:
I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration…I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land, but that something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.

What then does the Declaration mean to us all now? Do Christians, Muslims, and Jews have equal rights on this day? Do all agnostics and atheists too? They do. Let them worship or not worship as they please. (It may be anathema to suggest this to fellow liberals, then, but the recent Hobby Lobby decision by the U. S. Supreme Court might be correct.)

Well, what about gays? Do they have the same rights? Can they marry if they wish, for example? Conservative might not care to admit, but according to the ideals outlined in the Declaration, clearly they may.

What are the answers to the six questions above? How many did you get right?

1. Government gets its power from the people.

2. If government does not work we have the right to alter or abolish it.

3. Governments are set up to protect our rights.

4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated equally/fairly.

5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by anyone.

6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If we keep those ideals in view the answers to many current questions seem clear. Was the Civil Right Act of 1964—fifty years old this week—a great piece of legislation? It was. Does any American accused of any crime, including terrorism, have a right to be treated equally under the law? They do. Can Neo-Nazis do as they please—as long as doing what they please doesn’t infringe on the rights of others? They may.

My kids don’t have to listen to any public school teacher reading from one version of the Bible and your kids don’t have to listen to another teacher reading from the Book of Mormon.

Any attempt to deny voting privileges or make it harder for any citizen to vote is a violation of our ideals.

Even better, no one can curtail my rights or yours. We are free, within the wide limits of wise laws (see #1, #2 and #3 above where laws are unwise). The government cannot take away our rights. Neither can other Americans.

If your neighbors don’t like the way you talk, or how you worship, or which political party you choose to support, they are free to dislike it as much as they can. They may not control what you do. Nor may you control them. My Tea Party neighbor is as free as I am to vote for representatives of his choice. You may send a donation to the Sierra Club. Your cousin may pay to hear Sarah Palin speak. We can write our representatives and ask for more money for border control—or legislation to address climate change. We can support sending more troops back to Iraq or we can oppose it with equal fervor. (We should, of course, study the issues, ourselves.)

I will leave aside for now the matter of the equality of even those who are not American citizens. Time passes and I have to get ready for the family picnic. But let me add finally that it seems obvious efforts by career politicians to make their seats in power more and more secure are at variance with ideals set down more than two hundred years ago. When various state legislatures gerrymander U. S. Congressional districts into weird shapes to insure that incumbents remain safe that too is a failure to uphold values outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

Enjoy your bratwurst and beer. If you’re committed to freedom for all, then you know the true meaning of this day.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Finland Has Better Teachers, Better Colleges! And Fluffier Kittens!

Do nations like Finland and South Korea really beat us in education? And kittens?

I’m getting sick of hearing about howthis country is lacking compared to the rest of the world when it comes to K-12 education. Ooooooooo, critics moan, “Finland’s schools are way better! Finland has smarter teachers!”

(See: “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn,” New York Times, April 12, 2013).

Today, an article in the Times tries to make the same kind of comparison where colleges and universities are concerned.

One ranking, out of London, credits the United States with having 18 of the top 25 universities in the world. Sounds like we win! A second ranking coming out of Shanghai says we have 19 of the top 25. Sounds like we win!!!

Oh no. We can’t possibly have good teachers in this country, preparing good students for success in the future. That doesn’t jibe with accepted wisdom. According to many critics everything U. S. public school teachers and U. S. public schools do is terribly, terribly wrong.

You see, on “average,” it turns out U. S. colleges don’t do so good.

There’s even a chart to prove it. The chart shows the average “numeracy” score of graduates (ages 16-29) with bachelor’s degrees. It shows you what so many of these stupid charts show. Finland has better teachers! Finland has better colleges! Finland has children who eat all their vegetables. Eat them at every meal, they do!

Finland has fluffier kittens! 

It turns out, compared to young college graduates around the world, ours don’t know beans from Brussels sprouts when the subject turns to math. And Finland beats us again:

1. Austria (average numeracy score: 326)
2. Flanders (a.k.a. Belgium—which makes me really hope we beat them in soccer on Tuesday)
3. Finland (averages core : 322)

4. Czech Republic
5. Japan (average: 318)
6. Sweden

7. Germany (314)
8. Netherlands
9. Estonia

10. France
11. Slovak Republic
12. Denmark

13. Norway
14. Canada (301)
15. South Korea (297)


17. Westeros (296; okay, I made that one up)
18. Australia (296)
19. England/Ireland (296)

20. Ireland
21. Poland (you’ll see why this seems odd in a moment)
22. Cyprus

23. Italy
24. Spain (283)
25. Russian Federation (take that Putin, you scumbag; you finished tied for last; 283)

And how do we get these scores? We study the results of a brand new test, Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, (PIAAC) first administered in 2011 and 2012, to adults ages 16-65 in twenty-four countries.

The article today has a number of different comparisons—math scores for 15-year-olds on the PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment)—average reading scores for left-handed people taller than six feet—even kitten fluffiness, has probably been tested.

In all categories the United States supposedly looks bad. But you have to wonder. In 2012-2013, almost 820,000 foreign students came to this country (more than to any other nation, by far) to attend our colleges and universities. Did these poor devils not know they were wasting their money?

And, by the way, will we get credit if their graduates return home and score higher on the PIAAC tests in the future?

In any case, you have to wonder how accurate all these tests really are. The PISA test, for example, did not exist until 2000. So how did nations of the world survive until then—without the ability to make fun of their dumbbell neighbors? “We might be ignoramuses,” say the Italians, “but at least we’re not as idiotic as the SPANISH!”

We’ve all seen in recent years how tests tied to No Child Left Behind failed to measure anything actually worth knowing. (And at a mere cost of $1.7 billion annually, at that!) Here in Ohio, before I retired, we had a standardized test for social studies in the eighth grade meant to measure proficiency. That test proved so lame the State of Ohio killed it before it turned six. (R.I.P. OAT social studies sub-test, b. 2003, d. 2009). Even the Scholastic Aptitude Test, long used to “measure” the supposed decline and fall of U. S. education has now been found to be fatally flawed and in need of a serious makeover.

Finally, I notice a number of statistical oddities related to the PIAAC results. If you look at PISA scores going back to the year 2000, you notice that South Korea has never ranked lower than third among nations tested—and ranked first in 2009.

Here are comparative math scores (and rankings among nations) for 15-year-olds in the United States and South Korea on all PISA tests:

                              United States                     South Korea

2000                        493 (19th)                            547 (2nd)
2003                        483 (26th)                            542 (2nd)
2006                        474 (33rd)                            547 (3rd)
2009                        487 (28th)                            546 (1st)
2012                        481 (33rd)                            554 (3rd)

Somehow, in some bizarre fashion, South Korea’s huge lead dissipates by the time students move on and get their bachelor’s degrees from college. On one PISA test in 2003, they lead our kids by 73 points. When the very same organization uses the PIAAC test Korean college graduates see their lead in math cut to a single point.

You almost have to ask. Are South Korea’s schools really better? Or Japanese schools? Or Finland’s, for god sakes?

At this point, I’m not even sure Finland has fluffier kittens.

Now: suppose we DID want to have an education system just like Finland. Could we do that? Well, sure, if we wanted to fundamentally alter our social fabric.

(I can explain that in a separate post tomorrow.)

Postscript: Also interesting to note, Australian 15-year-olds beat ours in math in every PISA test given, by 40 points in 2000 and 23 in 2012. Yet on the PIAAC test, their youngest college graduates could only manage to tie ours.

Same with Canada. Their kids supposedly out-performed ours by 40, 49, 53, 40 and 37 points on the five PISA tests; yet at the end of the line, on the PIAAC test their lead was only 5.

Meanwhile, scores for Finland on the PISA test dropped from a high of 548 in 2006 all the way down to 519 six years later.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Is the Teaching Profession at Risk?

It’s not quite right to say a recent link on the Facebook page of Waiting for Superman surprised me. My reaction was more like: “Holy s---!”

If you’ve seen the movie you know it gives all teachers a black eye and a bloody nose, as a bonus. So I was stunned to see them express a sudden need to support teachers. The link was titled: “The Teaching Profession is at Risk. Here’s How You Can Help!”

It turns out the profession is endangered because half of all teachers quit within five years. That’s not a recent development, of course, but the link offered a chance to pledge support. I think I was supposed to donate money.

Then I noticed one organization I would pledge to support was The New Teacher Project. TNTP, if you don’t know, was founded by Michelle Rhee.

If you don’t know Rhee—and many teachers don’t—you probably should. Rhee taught three years. (It seems to be required—if you want to become a famous school reformer—that you teach briefly, or not at all.) Then she moved up through the bureaucracy and found herself running the Washington, D. C. schools. In that role and in all kinds of ways since, and across all kinds of venues, Rhee has made it clear that teachers are the real problem in U. S. education.

Thus the need for The New Teacher Project...

In her typically tone-deaf fashion, Rhee once explained why she had no choice but to let 266 of her own teachers go. Most had been removed because of poor standardized test results. But Rhee told an audience of entrepreneurs interested in school reform:
“I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”

Why wouldn’t we! Who wouldn’t want to get rid of teachers hitting and/or having sex with children? But for most of the 266 men and women Rhee axed, who were not hitting anyone or having sex with any child (which would be roughly 260 members of this group), it was a terrible way to justify their termination.

Regardless, the basic question remains. Why do so many new teachers quit? Even worse, why do so many veteran teachers seem so disheartened today? 

Is the profession really at risk?

The reaction of teachers to the original post only increases my concern. I loved teaching, myself. I’m not sure it’s easy to love teaching today. Here’s what other educators said:

Renee Blanc: I’m going into my 9th year of teaching & Common Core will be the 3rd set of standards that have come down from the powers to be that I’m required to teach. Movies like this [Waiting for Superman] don’t address the issues, like non-teachers writing these standards. NEWSFLASH—Teachers are told EXACTLY what to teach. How are teachers failing students when we are NOT the ones writing the standards?

Ann Grissom-Wilkins: I don’t need “Superman” or any other super hero. I want a teacher who is allowed to educate the children in order for them to become successful, productive citizens. I want them to be able to think past the answers of these high stakes test. Get rid of all the political mess and educate our children.
Mr. Viall notes: My last year in the classroom was 2008. Members of the social studies department were told we absolutely must prepare kids for the social studies section of the Ohio Achievement Test. The test seemed badly flawed—and I told my principal it seemed like malpractice to teach to such a poorly designed test. 
The following year the State of Ohio came to the same conclusion and killed the social studies test.

I fondly remember state standardized tests in the early 90s, too. Those tests didn’t work either, in part because the “standards” set were so incredibly low. See an example of a “difficult” map proficiency question below:

Not exactly the most challenging question to ask.

Libby Garrett: If society really wants teachers as this post implies, then stop attacking us AND our pensions and pay! Stop making it harder and more costly to retain our licenses. Stop blaming schools and teachers for the ills of society! START taking responsibility for student attendance! START taking responsibility for assignments and studying! START taking responsibility for bringing supplies to class! I was once chewed out over a student who was disrupting my class. The assertion was it was MY fault because I didn’t supply the student with a pencil! And in truth I had a bucket FULL of pencils to loan out but why is it MY responsibility to pay for the basic supplies of my 150 students!?
Viall: The Washington Post recently noted that in Ms. Rhee’s old district 1 of every 5 students had at least twenty days of unexcused absences—and that would not include excused absences in the mix.

Jackie Burns agreed with Libby. Then she added a few other problems to the list:

Also burnout from being harassed, cursed out / threatened by kids, unsupportive admin. Test score focus when most kids only want to make the required grade 70 to pass and don’t want / plan to go to college and lack of parent involvement.
Viall: According to the U. S. Department of Justice more than 145,000 teachers were assaulted at work in one year.

Robin Sechrist: After teaching for 35 years, I cannot in good conscience encourage young people to become teachers. The bureaucracy is just too ridiculous! The system SUCKS! It needs serious reform!

Kathy Booth: Robin I just walked away myself! Common Core is turning public education into prisons!

Tamisa Alexandria: Robin, I feel the same way!

Teresa DiStefano Parasole: Teaching is not what it was when I began my career over 30 years ago. Between pressure of standardized testing, micro managing & teacher bashing & blame for everything; it is not a profession I would recommend for anyone anymore. The creativity & joy has died since the politicians ruined education.

Maryruth Williamson: What a shame—my years of teaching were 32 of the best years of my life. I do, however also enjoy being retired.

Brian JC Kneeland: Been there—done that—the paper work killed me!
Viall: Is it possible we’re headed for a future where schools look like they’re run by I.R.S.? Become a teacher! Fill out more forms!

Dennis Clayton Frymoyer: It’s not surprising that teachers are leaving the profession. They are blamed for most of the ills of society.

Rayna Rogerson: I’m in year 26, and am dismayed by the changes that I’ve seen, especially since NCLB…My administration is great, but they’re stuck in between what they know is best for kids and what they’re being told they have to do by school districts, legislature, etc.

Day Cross: I am blessed. I have a principal I greatly respect, many great colleagues, and only a small number who put race, politics, and personal agendas above KIDS. I really am blessed!

Jessica Terese Torres: To my fellow educators... No one knows how much we love our jobs and kids

Notice that the stress above is on the word “KIDS.”

I posted a few comments and asked if anyone could tell me: Were all the recent changes enhancing learning? Were they harming learning? Or were the changes kind of a wash? I’ve asked dozens of teachers this same question. I keep getting the same kinds of answers—and these answers make me sad.

Robin Sechrist responded as most teachers do. She didn’t say she hated doing more work. She didn’t complain about not getting more pay. She didn’t bitch about students. She focused on what absolutely matters:

Sechrist: It has hog tied my ability to teach my Special Needs students. They do not fit the cookie cutters and pacing guides we are forced to use! Administration does not understand their unique needs! Hence the title Special Needs??? Go figure!

And John, the amount of paperwork is obscene!
Viall: Hey, all this testing has been great: it only cost $1.7 billion annually to try to create tests tied to No Child Left Behind. Now that law is dead and so are all the tests tied to it.

Meanwhile, AD W insisted that unions were not the main problem in education—which Waiting for Superman insists they are. A gentleman named Jeff (who I think loved the film) insisted in no uncertain terms they are.

For the sake of brevity, I will ignore the matter of unions. My focus—and the focus of AD W and almost every teacher who responded was on what worked best for kids. 


I’m not surprised by that at all.

I know there are bad teachers out there, collecting pay every day, and would be happy to see more effort devoted to removing them from classrooms. But what troubles me is the growing trend to treat all teachers like criminal scum. Make us all prove we’re doing what we say we’re doing—which is our level best to help the kids. And in the process take time away from all good teachers who devote themselves to that all-important, all-consuming process every single hour of every single day.

Someone once said that this approach to fixing problems in U. S. education was like “using a shotgun to fix the kitchen sink.”

You don’t have to be a real plumber (or a real teacher either) to know that this approach is nuts. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Big Words from School Reformers, Small Deeds: An Aesop Fable

BIG WORDS. Small deeds.
Joel I. Klein, former New York City schools chancellor (left); U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (center), Michelle Rhee, head of Students First (right). 

Okay, teachers. Think back to the end of your first year in the classroom. What did you know? You already knew how hard it was to be a teacher. You also knew you could improve. But you understood that it would be hard every year going forward.

You suspected there would never be a day that would not end without the same nagging question. How could I have done more to help my students? You already suspected that teaching would never be easy.

I taught 33 years, myself, and I always knew what I did mattered in kids’ lives. It just isn’t ever, ever, ever easy.


Since I know how hard it is to help real kids, I get tired of school reformers who offer up big new plans to “fix the schools.” Here’s something impossible not to notice. These reformers are big with words but small in deeds. They almost never bother to teach.

A fable by Aesop sums up the situation.

The Water Snake, the Viper, and the Frogs
There once was a viper that went to a pond to drink. But the water snake who watched the pond didn’t like him trespassing. The two began to argue. Finally they decided to fight. Whoever won would be king of both land and water.
Just before the fight began the frogs of the pond approached the viper. “We hate the water snake,” they assured him. “When the battle begins we will help you defeat him.”
 The viper and the water snake were soon joined in furious combat. They grappled and twisted and rolled about.
All the frogs did was sit there and keep up their useless croaking. In the end, the viper was victorious. But he was furious with the frogs since they had failed to come to his aid.
Why, you useless frogs!” he shouted. “You didn’t help a bit. All you did was sing your stupid songs.” 
“But you should have known that we had nothing else to offer,” replied the frogs. “We have only the sound of our voices.”

Who then are some of the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious frogs in the American education pond?

One annoying croaker is U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He never spent any time in a real classroom. He never did any of the fighting. But he does believe Common Core learning will improve any pond.

Wendy Kopp founded a program to train other frogs and named it Teach for America. Kopp never spent a day at the front of a classroom. She once told a reporter, “[I]f if I had taught, I wouldn’t have started Teach for America.” 

Michelle Rhee is the loudest bullfrog in the land. She taught for three entire years! She then told the other frogs that she knew everything there ever was to know about teaching. She headed for Washington, D.C. to straighten out the schools. She croaked and croaked and croaked and fired hundreds of “bad” teachers. Then she gave bonuses to “good” teachers who raised standardized test scores. It was a frog miracle! Well, it was until USA Today uncovered a huge cheating scandal involving many of the “good” schools and teachers Rhee had rewarded.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sat by the pond and promised he was going to fix New York City education. He said what we needed were smarter vipers. And everyone listened to Bloomberg—because he was rich and went to Harvard. Bloomberg never taught one measly hour. He had no desire to help fight the water snake.

None at all.

Joel I. Klein, Bloomberg’s school chancellor, did tutor briefly! Once, back in the summer of 1969! That made him an “expert” among frogs and he decided the viper wasn’t fighting hard enough. He said the way to make the pond better was to grade the viper. Klein got tired after sitting eight years by the side of the water and went back to giving legal advice for $2 million per year (plus bonuses!). Klein is a frog lawyer not a frog hero.

Bill Gates. Get serious! He won’t help fight the water snake. But he might open his checkbook. One time he donated $892,000 to help fund an “expert panel” to give advice to the New York Board of Regents in shaping education policy. Eleven frogs filled the places on the panel. Each frog was paid $189,000. Six frogs never taught a day in their lives. The five other frogs had a total of ten years in teaching, with one additional year spent as a principal. Again, these frogs learned everything about fixing schools quickly and so when they sung all the other frogs listened.

Ronald J. Packard built his own pond and named it K-12, Inc. His pond offers online education and Mr. Packard makes a frog profit. He never teaches. That goes without saying. Before he started his pond he was a hedge fund manager. Now he is paid handsomely for his melodious croaking. In five years (2009 to 2013) he earned $19.4 million in compensation.

William Bennett was the first chairman of the board at K-12, Inc. Bennett was head frog and Secretary of Education when Ronald Reagan was president. Bennett never taught. Don’t be absurd. He learned how to croak by working in a think tank with other bold frogs. In fact, he spent more time swimming in fountains at Las Vegas than he ever did in a classroom. In 2003 it was reported that he had lost $8 million at the gaming tables.

The current chairman of K-12 is Steven Tisch. This is almost funny—but he never taught either. He did hop about and run a tobacco company, however. In 1994 he told Congress he didn’t believe smoking caused cancer.

Margaret Spellings is a frog that loves high-stakes testing. She was also a big fan of No Child Left Behind—which all the frogs agreed in chorus was going to fix the problems in U. S. education. Remember all that loud singing beside the pond! Even the toads and the tree frogs said NCLB was going to work great! Spellings never gave students any tests in a classroom. She’s you’re your typical frog that never did any teaching. She did work on an education reform committee in Texas, however, before taking over the U. S. Department of Education.

Rod Paige is a toad of the Bufo houstonensis variety. (You can look it up.) He preceded Spelling as U. S. Secretary of Education. Paige taught at the college level but never in grades K-12. Later he performed his own toad miracles as superintendent of the Houston City Schools. During his tenure several high schools reported reducing dropout rates to ZERO. All the other frogs croaked happily in appreciation. Sadly, it was later shown that one school reporting no dropouts had, um, 463. An audit turned up a few more dropouts. Okay, get picky—there were at least 3,000 unreported in the old pond down in Texas.

There are many other worthy frogs we could mention; but let us finish with a frog author: Steven Brill wrote a book called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill hopped about like a frog in a frying pan and blamed all the problems in education on teachers’ unions. But when it came to fighting the water snake he stayed on the sidelines. His teaching experience: 0 years, 0 days, 0 hours. In his book he focused on the success of one charter pond in New York City—and Jessica Reid, one dedicated non-union teacher. Even working at a charter pond turned out to be surprisingly hard—surprising to Brill, at least. Reid, the heroine of Brill’s tale quit teaching before Brill's book even saw print.

Reid was a real teacher—not a frog sitting safely beside the pond. And like all teachers she learned teaching can be hard.

Real hard.

So there you have it, teachers. An Aesop fable about school reformers. Enjoy your summer break. You’ll have plenty of fighting to do next August when you get back to your classrooms.

Just don’t expect any real help from the frogs on the sidelines.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Another School Shooting in America: The Blood is always the Same

When will the gunfire end?

There was another school shooting yesterday. This time the blood spilled out on the floor of a high school in Troutdale, Oregon. We have now had so many school shootings—74 since the Sandy Hook massacre—that it can be hard to keep track. And that doesn’t count planned shootings that were thwarted. According to authorities a San Antonio teen recently managed to sneak an AK-47 into his high school with “intent to commit a violent act.” His plan was foiled when parents noticed the weapon was missing and notified police.

Certain aspects of all these stories are the same. The blood is the same. The sorrow of families who lose loved ones is the same. The shock of survivors who can’t believe it happened is the same.

The reaction of the N.R.A. is also the same. “Guns don’t kill people,” Wayne LaPierre will insist. That’s true. They just help people kill people.

In an emotional speech yesterday, President Obama said, “We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens.”

That’s also true. You can pick from dozens of stories. In April an Indiana man shot and killed his wife in the parking lot at a Catholic school in Griffith, Indiana. The couple’s two children watched. The blood was the same—although you could argue that this shooting doesn’t “count” because it happened outside a school and not inside.

But the blood was the same.

Only the details differ. Remenard Castro, the husband, had a history of violence. He once threatened to beat his wife with a crowbar.

In Oregon yesterday, the assailant carried a rifle into the school. Once inside he gunned down a 14-year-old student. A gym teacher was also wounded in the hip. Then the shooter retreated to a bathroom where he committed suicide.

The blood was the same.

The sentiment of the Police Chief, Scott Anderson, was the same. Anderson told reporters later: "I'm very, very sorry for the family and for all the students and everyone who will be impacted by this tragic incident."

The story was the same. It happened in America. It didn’t happen in Japan or Germany or Canada. It happened here.

The blood was the same last October in Sparks, Nevada. There a middle school student shot and killed one teacher and wounded two classmates. Michael Landsberry, the teacher, “probably saved lives” when he approached the shooter on the playground. Landsberry had served a tour of duty in Afghanistan. So he knew the power of guns in this situation. Guns don’t kill people. That’s true. But a 12-year-old doesn’t kill Landsberry either.

Not without a gun.

The blood was the same. Only the details differ. In an interview with CNN, one of the wounded saw his classmate—the shooter—approaching. “Please don't shoot me,” the boy begged, “please don't shoot me. I looked at him. I saw [the gun], and he braced it and shot me in the stomach me.” 

The blood is always the same. It’s thick and red and dries fast in the halls and classrooms and on the clothes of the dead and wounded. Only the details differ. We know twenty-six teachers and children were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary. But did you realize in one classroom where fourteen children and one teacher died there was one survivor? A six-year-old girl rose from among the bodies when police arrived. The blood was the same. Only the trauma of that child was different. Think of the nightmares to come for that first grader.

Guns don’t kill people. That’s true. But without his mother’s Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook doesn’t kill 26 people either. He doesn’t have the chance to spray a classroom with a semi-automatic weapon.

Guns only make it easy for people to kill people.

In the wake of yesterday’s shooting, the reaction of the N.R.A will be the same. Wayne LaPierre will insist: you can kill people with crowbars and knives. You can kill them with cars. You can kill them with a frozen loaf of zucchini bread it you want to. That’s true. But it gets harder.

The blood is the same. It was the same when Colleen Ritzer was murdered in a women’s bathroom at her school in Danvers, Massachusetts this past January. In that case the 14-year-old accused in the crime was armed with a knife. First he raped the 24-year-old math teacher. Then he cut her throat and went to the movies.

The blood was the same. And sure: knives don’t kill people. People with knives kill people. But for mass slaughter guns are way better.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook there have been 74 incidents involving gunfire in our schools. You can read about the LaSalle High School (Cincinnati, Ohio) student who brought a gun from home, carried it into a classroom and committed suicide. You can study up on the Arapahoe High School shooting in Colorado. There the 17-year-old killer shot Claire Davis, a classmate, in the head. 

Davis died later.

Claire Davis: the sorrow is the same.

The sorrow is always the same. The shock is always the same. The blood always dries the same. And it seems it is quickly forgotten.

You can take your pick. You can read about the killer who kept a journal and expressed admiration for the murderers at Columbine High and Virginia Tech. He killed or wounded three students at a Seattle college just last week. Don’t get confused, though. Don’t get mixed up trying to remember if this was different from the shootings at other colleges—other high schools—other elementary schools. You can check out the list if you want to. It makes for sad reading.

The blood is always the same.

What else is the same? Members of Congress, says President Obama, “are terrified of the N.R.A.” That’s true. The N.R.A. will claim again that any attempt to register guns—or do anything about the problem is a direct assault on the Second Amendment. The crazy people will say President Obama is planning to take away all their guns. It hasn’t happened yet. It’s just going to happen. And soon! Last year 21.1 million guns were sold in this country. That topped the record of 19.6 million set the year before. (Records have been falling annually. See chart below.)

Meanwhile, the story is always the same. The blood is the same. The shootings happen in America. Guns don’t kill people. They don’t.

In this country, however, they make it ridiculously easy. And any attempt to do anything about it will be met with fury by “gun absolutists” on the right.

Next week or next fall when schools reopen the story will be the same. There will be more school shootings in America.

The blood will be the same. Thick. Red. Drying quickly.

Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sixty Years Ago: Brown v. Board of Education

Sixty years ago tomorrow the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. What was America then like?

Donald Sterling would have been mainstream.

At the heart of the court case was Linda Brown, an eight-year-old Negro. (You were lucky to be called a “Negro” sixty years ago. In 1954 the “N word” was usually “nigger.”)

What was the question before the court? Could Miss Brown attend school with white children? Most Americans forget today: but this case was brought against the school board of Topeka, Kansas. This wasn’t about the virulent racism of the Deep South. This was the habitual kind, as American as apple pie during that era.

Linda was too young to understand how the 9-0 decision of the high court would change the nation.

Linda Brown (foreground).
Segregated schools were then common even in places like Loveland, Ohio
where I long worked.

But it wouldn’t be easy. Four years earlier the University of Oklahoma lost a long-drawn legal battle. The school was ordered to admit G. W. McLaurin to its graduate program. McLaurin was a Negro. So university officials had to be creative. McLaurin was allowed to enroll but still segregated in classrooms, lunchroom and library.

“RESERVED FOR COLORED” signs helped him decide where to sit.

How bad was it in those days? Many doors to employment were barred to Negro workers. In 1950 they earned 52¢ for every $1 white workers made.

How bad? South Carolina voters sent Strom Thurmond to the U. S. Senate in 1954. Segregation was the foundation of his career. Thurmond once assured an audience:
“I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

For some reason he failed to mention that Negroes had already “invaded” his bedroom. Three decades earlier, Thurmond had fathered a child by the black maid in his family.

Housing discrimination was then commonly accepted. From Los Angeles to Levittown, New York home buyers routinely signed racial covenants. This was a promise never to rent or sell to Negroes.

Fred Morrow was a special assistant in the White House under President Eisenhower. As a Negro, he had trouble finding an apartment in Washington. One landlord agreed to rent to Morrow. But he must agree never to linger in the main lobby. And would he mind riding the freight elevator?

Morrow passed on this offer.

Racists everywhere defended the “color line” with fervor. You could never be too careful about this “race-mixing” idea. So: blood banks stored white and black and blood separately.

The University of Kentucky was a basketball powerhouse in the 50s. But the school wanted no part of minority players. Big Blue teams remained lily-white for another decade.

How bad? Alabama outlawed interracial checker playing in public.

How bad? How ridiculously bad? In Richmond, Virginia a high school tennis player named Arthur Ashe was unable to schedule matches against white opponents. When a judge ordered integration of city parks Ashe showed up ready to play. Park officials turned him away. Then, to ensure good order, they cut down the nets to put an end to this foolishness.

Even Southern libraries were segregated. One Negro was arrested—for disorderly reading, possibly. Entering a segregated library he had the nerve to ask to check out a biography of Robert E. Lee.

How bad? There were no Negro head coaches in the NFL. And, of course, there were no Negro quarterbacks. Most whites, even rabid football fans, assumed blacks weren’t smart enough to be leaders.

The Washington Redskins (o, irony!) were the last NFL team to integrate. George Marshall, the team owner, held out eight years longer.

No major U. S. city had ever elected a black mayor in those days. 

No black had ever served on the U. S. Supreme Court. (Today we’re stuck with Clarence Thomas.)

Thomas was five years old in 1954. His marriage to a white woman years later would have been illegal in Georgia at the time. A number of states, including Virginia, banned interracial marriage. Alabama banned it between a white and anyone with Negro blood down to the third generation.

Many states avidly suppressed Negro voting. The poll tax was still legal. (At Fox News they refer to this era fondly as “The Good Old Days.”) Literacy test were enforced selectively. Negroes never passed. If Negroes insisted on registering and voting gunfire and bombings often followed.

It wasn’t just bad. It was terrible.

Panola County, Mississippi had one Negro registered in 1954. This: out of 7,250 old enough to be eligible. (At least sixteen majority-black counties in the South had no registered Negro voters.)

With almost no black voters there were almost no black jurors. The first great trial of the civil rights era revolved around the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Till, only 14, had come South from Chicago to visit relatives. Unfortunately, the young man made the mistake of whistling at a white Mississippi woman.

He was grabbed by two white men, beaten savagely, and shot in the head. His mangled remains ended up in the Tallahatchie River.

How bad was it for Negroes? Sickeningly bad. Sheriff Clarence Strider was in charge of the “investigation.” Strider’s sentiments in the matter could not have been clearer. He was furious when Northern reporters—including Negroes—showed up to cover the trial. “There ain’t going to be no niggers in my courthouse,” he told listeners.

(Courtrooms in Mississippi and all across the South still had separate seating areas for “Whites” and “Coloreds.”)

Was a fair trial then even possible? The prosecutor insisted that the two suspects in the case had simply gone too far. “The most [Till] needed was a whipping if he and done anything wrong,” he explained to the all-white jury. The defense lawyer was blunt about the key legal issue to be decided. “Your ancestors will turn over in their graves if [these defendants] are found guilty,” he warned jurors. “And I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [Northern] pressure.”

The jury quickly returned a “not guilty” verdict. It took sixty-seven minutes, including time for a pop break.

In Montgomery, Alabama blacks were still sitting in the back of the bus, as the law required. If the “Whites Only” section filled the driver could order black passengers to give up their seats. If the “Colored” section filled and seats in the “White” section remained Negroes could not fill them.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress, was arrested. After a long day at work she refused to relinquish her seat. Martin Luther King Jr. soon decided to help organize a bus boycott. His father begged him not to get involved. The whites would kill him. “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion,” he argued. When Martin Jr. could not be dissuaded the elder King wept.

At a mass meeting a few days later, the 26-year-old King delivered the first great speech of his career. The church where he spoke was packed to overflowing with listeners. “As you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he told them, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

The battle for equality was about to begin.

The battle would not be easy.
It would take federal marshalls and troops in some cases to integrate schools.