Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sham Standards: Governor Kasich and the Standardized Testing Fetish Part Two

Someone needs to tell Governor Kasich:
Standardized testing is nuts.
YOU KNOW, you only know what you really know. I think someone needs to tell this to Governor Kasich. 

I don’t know what it’s like to work in the private sector, to work for Lehman Brothers. I don’t know what it’s like to make $600,000 in one year as Mr. Kasich did. 

All I know is teaching and the dedication required to do the job right. And here’s a bit of what I know about standardized testing. In the late 80s Ohio lawmakers came up with the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test and made high school graduation dependent on passing. The social studies section of the test stressed government. So, teachers like increased the time spent on government. 

Unfortunately, geography wasn’t stressed and the “standards” said only that every Ohio student should be able to locate the United States on a world map and Washington, D. C. and Ohio on a map of the country. Until then, I had always given my classes a map test of the fifty states. Now it didn’t matter if 140 out of 150 could locate 40 states or more. It was better if 141 of 150 could locate Ohio, even if they all believed Florida was a foreign country. 

That seemed almost crazy. 

When state tests didn’t seem to make much difference in advancing the quality of education federal lawmakers entered the fray and passed No Child Left Behind.  

Again, teachers adjusted. Now I just had to figure out what one fact should be taught about Islam. In 2005, the only question on the Ohio Achievement Test—the social studies section—was to name the Muslim holy book.

It’s the Koran, if Governor Kasich forgets. 

I found myself suddenly worrying. Did I waste my time when we discussed “jihad” and “polygamy” in class, which seemed pertinent to any discussion of Islam today, but weren’t mentioned in the standardized curriculum? Were my students wasting oxygen and producing nothing but carbon dioxide whenever we focused on current events? On a map, was it wrong to ask students to locate:  IRAN, IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN, SAUDI ARABIA, MECCA, JERUSALEM, ISRAEL and the RED SEA? Was it good to lead classes in a spirited discussion about women’s rights (or lack thereof) in Saudi Arabia? To discuss oil distorted American foreign policy in Middle East region? 

Since I taught Ancient World History my last few years, I decided to do a unit comparing the demands on and successes of the Roman military with America’s military and the demands we make of our brave soldiers today. I spent Christmas vacation in 2006 writing up the story, focusing on Iraq which then dominated the news. Unlike Kasich, I didn’t get any bonus money for time spent preparing new materials. I was willing to put in the extra hours, though, because I wanted students to be interested in learning.  

That, after all, is what I do know about.

WE ENDED THIS UNIT, more or less (see below), with the story of Christopher Dyer. Here’s how I wrote it up and presented it to my classes:
Christopher Dyer enlisted in the Marines after graduation from Princeton High School (Cincinnati, Ohio).  Before heading to Iraq the 19-year-old tried to reassure his father. “Don’t worry, dad,” he insisted.  “I’m coming home.”  But the boy was wrong and the father was right to worry.  L/Cpl. Dyer was one of fifteen men killed when a huge bomb flipped their twenty-five ton vehicle upside down last August.

A teacher who remembered Dyer recalled that he had studied German for five years and played viola in the concert band.  Another teacher described him as a young man “full of potential.”  His dad explained that Christopher’s sense of duty was “incredible.” 
Speaking to reporters after the funeral, the father exclaimed sadly, “What a wonderful son he was.” 

I say to all our interfering politicians and too all who believe that standardized tests are the salvation of U. S. education that they are wrong. I say that in teaching the story of Christopher Dyer still matters.  

I say that the direction in which we are heading now in American education is insane.

Teaching Note: 

ONE FINAL ACTIVITY to wrap up this unit was to ask six students in every class to take on the roles of three Roman soldiers and three modern U. S. soldiers. Then we held a panel discussion for classmates. 

Thirty-six kids put their knowledge to work—had to do all the talking that day—and learned to be comfortable speaking in front of an audience.

You can’t measure that on a standardized test, either.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Governor Kasich and the Business Model in Education Perfected

IF YOU LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS TALK (people who almost never actually teach) about how to “fix” America’s “failing” schools, you notice certain terms are accepted without question. Inner-city schools, where graduation rates are low, are “dropout factories.” 

CNN does a series on education and repeats the phrase “school crisis” so often you think the End Times are coming. 

And if you turn in to Fox News you hear Hannity and O’Reilly and Beck (when he’s not busy weeping) talking sagely about saving public education by following the “business model.”

If we’re going to go in this direction, as Governor Kasich here in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey seem to want, it might be important to know what this means. Are we talking business-like efficiency? Or profit above all? Or do you mean that schools should copy business morality?  

Do we copy, for example, British Petroleum?  

True: it would take effort to blow up an entire school and sink it in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven teachers in the process, but cutting corners on safety and spreading toxic waste would be an interesting “business model” in education. 

The possibilities are endless. You might copy the tobacco companies, which insisted for decades that their products weren’t harming anyone. Teachers could pitch product like companies selling male-enhancement pills. School districts could start paying $473 million to lobbyists to get laws and breaks they want from the legislature, just like the finance, insurance and real estate industries did in 2010. 

Oh, wait:  White Hat Management, the largest for-profit charter school operator in Ohio has already been accused of bribing public officials and corrupt financial practices. Probably makes Governor Kasich, an old Lehman Brothers hand, get misty-eyed for the “good old days” when he and his friends were derailing the U. S. economy. 

Cincinnati Bengals Business Model?
If nothing else, there’s always the National Football League, one of the most successful business models in America today. It might be wise to study their play book. Why not, for example, charge students “seat licenses” before they sit down in our classes? Is that what we mean? Why not stop students from bringing their own food into the cafeteria and sell hot dogs in the lunch-room for $4.50. Meanwhile, shut off the water fountains and charge kids for bottled water.


That way you can be like Mike Brown and the Cincinnati Bengals and put out a crappy product and still make a fortune.  

IF SCHOOLS ARE GOING TO FOLLOW THIS PATHWAY how will it work in the end? Schools don’t have a chance of making a profit on handicapped kids. So, do we deny entry based on pre-existing conditions, like health insurance giants? Do we follow the tactics of the banking industry? You issue students debit cards to buy paper, pens, and pencils. Say:  the child needs a mechanical pencil to complete a math exam. His account is short on funds. He uses his debit card, pays 49¢ for the pencil, and the school charges $38 for an overdraft fee.

The airlines are another source of inspiration. We tell kids:  “You want to bring that book bag on this bus? It’s going to cost you $25 extra.” And that’s only one way! Oh: and you want to change your class schedule? We’re going to have to charge a $150 booking fee. 

We want schools to cut administrative costs. Let’s use HMO’s as a guide. We start routing phone calls from parents through press 1, press 7, press 6, press 4, press 1, press 5, get put on hold, get disconnected, and start all over again. Finally, mom or dad reaches someone with a foreign accent. 

Consider the case of Pennsylvania Judge Mark A. Ciaverella, Jr., if you want to know what might go wrong as we privatize schools and run them for profit. Judge Ciavarella was found guilty in February, 2011, on a dozen charges, including money laundering and racketeering in a $2.8 million dollar scheme to funnel juveniles into two privately-owned prisons.  

In what prosecutors labeled a “cash for kids” scam, each young defendant was seen as a unit of profit and the more prisoners the judge “produced” the more prison owners profited.  

Ciavarella received $1 million in kickbacks, and sentenced thousands of youths to jail, including one high school girl who earned three months behind bars after creating a Web page spoofing an assistant principal. Another teen went to jail for stealing a jar of nutmeg. 

A second judge involved took a plea deal, as did the builder of one of the detention facilities, and 6,000 juvenile records had to be expunged. 

In the end, the best example might be for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix—where we can actually study how the business-as-education model works. These kinds of schools enroll 12% of higher education students in the United States. Those students receive nearly a quarter of all federal student aid, which accounts for more than 80% of revenue at for-profit colleges. Unfortunately, many students who attend for-profit colleges graduate with no marketable skills and make up nearly half of all federal student loan defaults.  

If Republicans law makers have their way, perhaps we can go back in time to the good old days. Let companies that run schools make teachers live in company-owned homes in company-run towns. (There won’t be any teachers unions to stand in the way.) When companies perfect the system they can pay teachers in scrip, like coal mining companies used to pay workers in the 20s, and that scrip would only be good at the company store.  

You total up the bill at the end of the month—groceries, rent, utilities—and what do you know? The teacher owes the company money or ends up with only a few pennies. 

IF YOU ASK GOVERNOR KASICH or the shills at Fox News the system at that point is perfected.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Governor Kasich: Clueless on Senate Bill 5

WHY AM I NOT SURPRISED our good Governor Kasich sends his children to a Christian school? Why am I not surprised he doesn’t know what it’s like to work in a public school system that takes every child, not just those who are lucky and rich, or lucky and not handicapped?
Why do I think the Governor doesn't know what it was like for Loveland Middle School teachers when we had the young man in class with the longest criminal record of any juvenile in Hamilton County? 

Why do I think the private schools, vouchers or not, wouldn’t take that kind of young man? 

Why do I think standardized testing won’t help the nine-year-old boy a friend of mine has in class, whose mother is 24, whose father is long gone and probably sexually abused him, who is supposed to wear a diaper every day to school, but doesn’t, and has “bowel issues?” Why do I think when this boy shits his pants in class and denies it when my friend asks—the poor child who sits stewing in filth—why do I think the private Christian school Kasich’s children attend wouldn’t take him? 

Why do I think, Governor Kasich’s promise of merit pay will turn out to be a bait-and-switch move in the end? Probably because the state promised several years back to give any teacher who could go through a rigorous process and win National Board Certification a $25,000 bonus, paid out in ten annual installments. Does the Governor—do all the senators and representatives who voted for Senate Bill 5—even know this program was canceled due to a shortage of funds and many, many teachers never got paid? 

Why do I think a man who made $600,000 in one year at Lehman Brothers doesn’t care in the end about merit pay for regular workers? 

Why do I think all the poor devils who believe standardized testing will save us are deluded? Is it because we’ve been pushing standardized testing for almost ten years and SAT scores are still in decline?

Check it out at collegeboard.com if you don't believe me:

National average in 2002           2010               Gain/Loss in the Age of the Testing Fix

Reading       504                         501                 -3                                         
Math            516                         516                 even
Writing*      497                         492                 -5

Oh, and why do I think, that Kasich doesn’t know that in 2010, when the national average was 1509, Ohio students averaged 1608? 

Why do I think Senate Bill 5 is a bad idea? These are just a few of my favorite educational things.

*The Writing Subtest was first given in 2006


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sham Standards: Governor Kasich and the Standardized Testing Fetish

A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE and a very fine math teacher, Steve Ball (twice “Educator of the Year” at Loveland Middle School after the award was instituted in 1990), is retiring soon. Last night a few of us got together to talk about where U. S. education is headed. Steve laughed and admitted he had “survivor’s guilt” about getting out of the profession just in time. 

No one at the table, including two other winners of “Educator of the Year,” and none of the teachers I talk to these days, thinks education is headed in the right direction. 

It’s too bad many “experts” have convinced themselves and a lot of obtuse politicians that standardized testing is going to save us—and for anyone that believes this is the way to go in Ohio, I have one word: mercantilism.


CAN YOU DEFINE MERCANTILISM? Probably not. But when the State of Ohio put its bureaucrats to work a few years ago and came up with a list of social studies standards, some knucklehead decided eighth graders needed to know about this 17th century economic theory.

I doubt anyone has cared about mercantilism since the seventeenth century. I don’t and I always loved teaching.  

Unfortunately, most teachers I know, and I speak only for the good ones, believe the fetish for standardized testing is slowly killing what is best in our schools. For me, the last few years I taught, “teaching to the test” seemed almost unethical. 

I found it sickening. 

Here’s my favorite example. I served in the Marines from 1968-70, but sat at a desk in Camp Pendleton, California. So I don’t pretend to be a hero. Still, I know something about learning in its truest forms and I have a lot of connections with veterans. After the 9/11 attacks I started bringing in combat veterans to talk to my classes. The program grew each year, until in May 2008, I was able to line up fourteen men, representing five different wars, and divide them up so that our 700 students heard three different speakers or groups of speakers. Joe Whitt was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Mark Adams dodged missiles in an F-16 over Baghdad in 1991. Seth Judy was badly wounded in Iraq in 2003. That gives you some idea of the quality of the visitors. 

Now consider this a moment:  nothing these veterans would say could show up on a standardized test. Technically, the entire day was wasted. 

Dave Fletcher, a friend of mine at Loveland Middle School, continues the program today. Recently, I went out to speak to students myself, along with a group of real heroes, including a gentleman who served in bloody combat in Vietnam in 1969-70. Here’s a capsule version of what Ace Gilbert, who has spoken to Loveland students for several years, said and if this isn’t learning in the purest and most important sense, I’ll eat the next standardized test I see and won’t ask for ketchup. 

ACE FREELY ADMITS, when he speaks to teens, that he has a hard time dealing with some of what he saw decades ago. He’s not alone in that, either. In 2008 our program would have included fifteen speakers, but the morning of the day presentations were scheduled a young Iraq veteran started having flashbacks and his mother had to call and apologize and say her son wasn’t going to make it. I begged her not to feel a need to explain and asked her to tell the young man I appreciated his service. Three years before, I had an old marine who fought at Iwo Jima come out to school. Marvin Burdine was shot in the back by a Japanese sniper and spent ten months in the hospital; but when he talked to classes sixty years later he said he had nightmares for a month afterwards. 

So Ace isn’t alone—and he wants students to know there isn’t much glory in combat. He tells them the Marine Corps trains you to take orders, to be able to kill, but you “never trained for the fact that your best friend could die in your arms.” On November 11, 1969, his unit launched an assault against dug-in North Vietnamese troops holding a high hill that the Marines wanted. Sometime during the day, Bobby Hamel, his buddy, was wounded, but fell into a deep shell crater in a position too exposed to reach. 

That night, Ace finally helped carry Bobby back down the hill, but it was clear the young marine might not make it. Ace told him to hang on, that medevac helicopters were coming. His friend grimaced and said, “If you really like me, get some help.” Around 6:30 a. m. on the 12th the sound of choppers gave them both a moment of hope and Bobby turned his head to see “and his soul left his body.” That’s how Ace tells it and his audience is silent. And now they know something about war and the sacrifices that patriotism may require. 

I’ve seen Ace talk to hundreds of students over the years and he never loses an audience. Never. He’s funny at times, sad at others, even angry. He uses a little strong wording; but when he’s done the kids sense what it means to fight for your country. Ace talks about nights spent in the jungle, posted for ambushes, senses so attuned to noise “you could hear a mosquito fart.” Naturally, 13 and 14-year-olds appreciate that line. 

Mr. Gilbert was a machine gunner. On his first nighttime ambush cut down nine enemy soldiers at close range with one burst of fire. So he knows what it’s like to see men die and thinks about some of the enemy soldiers he killed even now. He speaks of dead friends as “forever nineteen” in his mind and you know it isn’t easy. Again, teenagers relate. Ace has to be prodded to admit he won two Purple Hearts. One came when he stepped on a land mine. “It felt like I got kicked by a supersonic mule in the ass,” is how he puts it and again he has the rapt attention of students. 

IT’S JUST TOO DAMN BAD he doesn’t talk about mercantilism. In a world where Governor Kasich wants more testing in more subjects and teachers’ pay based on test results, Ace is just moving his lips for no reason. 

He’s a fantastic speaker and makes students laugh and cry and sometimes wince. He makes them see what it means to be truly patriotic. 

Unfortunately, you can’t put that on a standardized test. 

If you’re a teacher who cares about real learning, like Mr. Ball and Mr. Fletcher, and me, you think, “This is nuts.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Fairy Tale Called "Waiting for Superman" (Part II)

1, 2, 3, numbers don’t lie, 6, 9, 8, 2 x 7 = 11.

I’M A RETIRED TEACHER. If you’ve read many of my entries you know my purpose is to offer a defense of good public school teachers. And don’t get me wrong. There are bad ones. I know that.

Unfortunately, the idea that schools are failing—and that teachers are entirely to blame—now seems pundit gospel.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I hated Waiting for Superman. If you haven’t seen the documentary let me save you the time.

Davis Guggenheim, who attended an elite private school and sends his kids to an elite private school, styles himself an expert on public education. As a crusading film maker (though not so much of a crusader that he would actually allow his children to rub shoulders with the common folk) he is at pains to point out that in an international ranking in 2006 U. S. students finished 25th in math and 21st in science literacy out of 30 countries.

With all the criticism teachers are taking lately, you can expect to see a story soon that says our students rank 23rd in knitting.

It scares me how “terrible” our schools must be. So I’ve been looking for other signs of America’s impending demise. After all, if Japan beats us in life expectancy and education then our teachers and doctors must be abominable.

Well, here’s the next list to prove we’re screwed. It’s not just crappy teachers. It’s not just horrible doctors. Our police are miserable. I mean: it can’t be complex differences in society, right, dear pundits?

What do we discover if we study the chart below? This time we rate countries on the basis of murder? Here are results—lowest (best) to highest (worst)—for thirty-two member-countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:


1. Iceland
2. Japan
3. Austria
4. Slovenia
5. Norway
6. Switzerland
7. Germany
8. Spain
9. Sweden

10. Netherlands
11. Greece
12. Italy
13. Poland
14. Portugal
15. England/Wales
16. Australia
17. New Zealand
18. Northern Ireland
19. France
20. Denmark

21. Hungary
22. Luxembourg
23. Canada
24. Slovakia
25. Belgium
26. Czech Republic
27. Ireland
28. Scotland
29. South Korea
30. Israel

31. Finland

NOT ONLY DO U. S. law enforcement officers rank last in protecting the citizenry, they rank last by six feet and a mile. The Netherlands falls to tenth place with one murder per 100,000 in population. The Czech Republic and Ireland rank near the bottom with two murders. Finland may be strong in math and reading, but they need better cops, pronto. Or maybe help counting corpses. They land in 31st place with 2.5 murders.

We rank at the bottom with 5.2 murders for every 100,000 people.

Or, to put it another way, Davis Guggenheim’s next movie should probably be called Waiting for Dirty Harry.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Fairy Tale called "Waiting for Superman"

Corrected 4-7-15

ONE OF MY FAVORITE FORMER STUDENTS asked me recently what I thought of the documentary, Waiting for Superman. It was some time before I had a chance to watch it. When I did, it made me mad. Parts of the film are good. Geoffrey Canada, creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, features prominently and Canada seems like a dedicated educator.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie creates a flat and one-dimensional impression.

Producer Davis Guggenheim starts with five youngsters whose parents or guardians want them to get a better education than the nearest public schools can apparently provide. We follow five wonderful children and their families through the lottery process to get into “better” charter schools.

If they don’t, of course, their dreams are crushed.

A lot of people who saw the film came away with this impression: the people doing the crushing were sack-of-crap unionized teachers.

Brent Staples, writing for The New York Times, warned readers who planned to see the film to take along a handkerchief. Who exactly plays the role of villain? Staples makes that crystal clear: Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

My reaction to that statement? Apparently the Times does a poor job of screening writers and lets idiots pen editorials.

Guggenheim focuses on the famous “rubber rooms” in the New York City Public Schools, where 700 teachers are pigeonholed. These 700 face termination for various reasons, but the union makes it hard to fire them. So they wait out the time till their hearings, often months, in some cases years, collecting their pay—and oh-those-damn-unions!

SEVEN HUNDRED TERRIBLE TEACHERS sucking up tax dollars. God, if only we could get rid of teachers’ unions!

Here’s what real teachers know (or at least this real retired teacher who had time to check it out):

First: The New York City Public Schools employ 80,000 teachers. To focus on 700 is an insult to the other 99.125%.

(Just because Guggenheim made a terrible movie, for example, that doesn’t mean we need to criticize John Ford or Orson Welles.)

Second:  A recent article in the Times noted that in one year 140,000 students in the system missed more than a month of classes. If you’re a teacher, you think: that’s a lot of parents shirking their responsibility.

In fact, if I do the math that’s 200 bad parents for every single bad teacher tucked away in the rubber room.

Third: Not all children have good parents. If you want to form a clear understanding of education you have to look at dysfunctional families, too. That’s where most of the intractable problems begin. At my wife’s old school, for example, a mother stopped by the main office one afternoon and told the secretary she wanted to see the principal.

Exactly the kind of parent Guggenheim had in mind when he made his film. The concerned mother! Only this mother was more than concerned. She informed the office secretary she was “tired of being followed.” The secretary did a double take when she noticed the woman was carrying a butcher knife. When the principal overheard their conversation she stepped out of her office and mom lunged at her with the knife, missed, but chased her down the hall and out across the parking lot.

Fear made the principal fleet and she got away. But the question none of the “experts” ever ask—or even know they should ask—is how do we help the child in a case such as thhis? With a lottery system to get him into a better school?

Really? Does anyone believe this mom was going to have her wits about her to enter her child in a lottery to begin with?

For two years, I’ve been working on a book about what it’s like to be a teacher. I assure you: I loved teaching. I’m just sick of all the criticism being laid at the feet of America’s teachers. At a New Years’ Eve party a few months ago I asked a probation officer for Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, how many cases of child abuse and neglect Children’s Services handled every year.

He said about 8,500.

So, yes, there are bad teachers. (I even knew a few.) You should try being a teacher, though, and see how many bad parents you run into.

Maybe some of my former students will read this and comment: I think they’ll say I gave every kid a lot of chances to pass. Unfortunately, even a good teacher can only do so much if problems at home are severe. One year, I had a boy named Mike in my history class.

Mike stayed home “sick” 106 days.

Two weeks after the school year ended, mom called me at home (I gave my number to parents and students). She wanted to know if Mike could still pass seventh grade. I told her, sorry, he had failed my history class and every other class, including gym, and it was too late.

That’s the kind of parent, a minority in every community, maybe 10%, that makes problems for every public school and every public school teacher in America.

THAT’S JUST PART of what you don’t see in Waiting for Superman.

If I had to grade the film, I’d give it an F.

Guggenheim, pictured with Courtney Love.
You figure he spends most of his time with celebrities
and not much time rubbing elbows with the regular folk.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sham Standards: Teaching to the Test

I JUST READ THIS MORNING in the New York Times that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions to push for “common core academic standards.” Education reformers like Chester E. Finn, Jr. praise the effort. At last count, forty-five states had adopted these new guidelines.

 The other five are probably run by incompetent governors. 

I, for one, have serious doubts about the efficacy of standards. I’ll keep my blog sweet and simple for today. “Standardized testing” means what you get in the end is “standardized teaching.” 

For many years, I was able to bring amazing speakers into school to talk to classes. We had a Holocaust survivor, a Quaker woman, a man who survived ten years in a Siberian prison camp and several Vietnam War veterans.  

Call me stupid, but bringing in speakers seemed to me to be a good but “non-standardized” method of teaching. 

In May, 2008, three weeks before I retired, I organized a program that brought fourteen veterans in to speak to 700 students at Loveland Middle School. We set up a schedule that allowed every student to hear three speakers or groups: and those speakers were tremendous. Joe Whitt survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ace Gilbert, a former Marine, saw heavy fighting in Vietnam. Mark Adams was an F-16 pilot who dodged missiles in the sky over Baghdad in 1991. Seth Judy had been badly wounded in Iraq in 2003 and Dave Volkman, a Loveland High School teacher, was just back from a tour in Afghanistan.

 THE QUESTION THAT BOTHERED ME at the time—and still scares me today—was this: “Was this really education?” 

Joe wasn't going to stick to a script nor would any of the other speakers. So, if we’re going to tie teacher pay to standardized test results, technically, this entire day was wasted. I hate to tell a billionaire like Bill Gates—or break the news to Finn, who never taught a day in his life—but this is nuts. 

Left to right: John Neal, Milt Rooms and Tom Thomas, all combat veterans in the Pacific Islands in 1944 and 1945. 

If Mr. Neal talks about dodging bullets and bombs on Iwo Jima, which he did, will students be “learning” if the standardized test doesn’t include a question about Iwo Jima? 

What if the standardized test focuses on Songhai trade instead? Don’t tell me you don’t know about Songhai trade! 

THE OHIO ACHIEVEMENT TEST included questions on Songhai two years in a row, in 2006 and 2007.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Heroes Who Don't Fight: America's Education Reformers

I TAUGHT FOR 33 YEARS, SO I INTEND TO USE MY BLOG to defend good public school teachers whenever possible. 

Still, you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to know there are bad teachers. We used to joke of a colleague at my school that you could have replaced him with a cardboard cutout with his picture and students wouldn’t have noticed the difference for months. 

So, yeah, we need to do more to weed the dandelions in the classroom. 

When I started doing research for a book about education, however, I was stunned to find out how little time our nation’s “leading” education reformers have spent in the classroom. On November 30, 1979, for example, President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler first United States Secretary of Education.                                                           

It marked the start of a bizarre trend.  

Hufstedler was charged with leading the battle to save U. S. education; but in 1979, at the start of my fifth year in a classroom, I already had more teaching experience than the new Secretary of Education. In fact, I had her beat by four years and two months. Hufstedler never taught a day in her life. She probably knew no more about teaching than I did about driving a car at the Indianapolis Speedway, playing concert piano with the London Symphony, or performing brain surgery. 

Mr. Carter simply plucked her from the federal bench. 

Terrel Bell, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, came next in 1981. Bell was originally tasked with dismantling the whole Department, an idea most teachers might now support, but he was, at least, a man who had at tried his hand at teaching for a living. 

William Bennett, Reagan’s second appointee and third to hold the coveted position as Education Czar was another teaching virgin. Big Bill didn’t come out of a classroom. He came striding out of a think tank and immediately started lecturing teachers about their failings.

Later he wrote a thick book about “virtue.”  

Later still, he admitted having a serious gambling addiction and blowing eight million dollars in Las Vegas casinos. 

Lauro Cavazos Jr. was fourth in line, coming to the Department of Education straight from the university level, having never spent a day in his life working with elementary or secondary level students. He didn’t last long in office, either.

Cavasos was forced to resign after an investigation into misuse of frequent flier miles. 

Lamar Alexander was next. His first taste of Washington, D. C. life had not come in a public school—of course not—but as a legislative assistant to Senator Howard Baker. Alexander did meet his wife during a softball game for Senate staffers. So that was kind of cool. Later he was governor of Tennessee, where he won fame and got his face on a Time magazine cover for “reforming” his state’s schools.

Naturally, none of the reforming was done by his hand. Lamar was another virgin. Based on “his” success in Tennessee, however, Alexander was elevated to the cabinet post by President George H. W. Bush.  

President Clinton had the next crack at the problem and reached deep down into the classroom …no, no, no, we’re joking! He chose Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina as his U. S. Secretary of Education. Riley’s time in a classroom: 0 years, 0 months, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes. 


George W. Bush had two chances to get it right and blew them both, turning first to Rod Paige and later Margaret Spellings. Paige, at least, taught and coached at the college level; but his claim to fame was the “Houston Miracle” which supposedly occurred while he was in charge of that city’s schools. (This is not to be confused with the “Texas Miracle” performed by Governor Bush, which supposedly turned Texas schools into some of the nation’s finest.) In no time at all, Paige had inner-city high schools whipped into shape and principals were reporting zero dropouts. Clearly, Mr. Paige was a genius and President Bush tapped him to be Secretary of Education. 

Unfortunately, real teachers know that in the classroom miracles are in short supply; and the “Houston Miracle” turned out to be bogus. Reporters discovered that one Houston high school had reduced dropouts to zero simply by classifying all 462 students who left school during the year as “transfers.” 

Where they might have “transferred” to, whether another high school, or a nunnery, or even another planet, was a mystery. 

Meanwhile, Secretary Paige huffed and puffed and couldn’t make No Child Left Behind work. True: states initially reported stunning test-score gains. On closer examination almost all of the gains proved to have been achieved through sleight of hand. States simply made standardized tests easier to insure higher passing rates and avoid penalties under new federal legislation. 

Paige eventually gave way to Margaret Spellings, who came to understand the processes of education not by working in a classroom but by serving on an education reform commission down in Texas. Spellings did her fighting for children from the safe distance of the rear.

She fought for kids in spirit, you could say. 

Think I ever taught real students?
Think again, suckers.
(Arne Duncan)

By 2009, if you were a real teacher—and by that, I mean a good one—it seemed hard to imagine that education policy could get worse. And when President Obama took office you could only hope that wisdom might prevail. Instead, we soon found ourselves saddled with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan, you might recall, was the hero who “reformed” the Chicago Public Schools, a man who once taught...no, ha, ha, just joking again…who got his start in education in administration and kept on climbing the administrative ladder.

So you figure he learned everything there was to possibly know about the challenges faced by real teachers.

How about some of our other leading education reformers? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is a big name in reform. Never taught a day in his life did that pompous billionaire. His school chancellor for eight years, Joel I. Klein? He never taught, either. Bloomberg took it a step farther when Klein left his post and went back to earning millions annually as a corporate lawyer. The mayor appointed Kathleen Black to run the New York Public Schools. Not only had Black never taught, she had never attended the public schools, nor had she sent her own children to the public schools.

And don’t get me started on that banshee Michelle Rhee. Ms. Rhee did serve three years in the classroom but says she considered quitting after one. 

Three years, though—she lasted three years—which was plenty for her. Now she tours the nation giving talks about how much she knows about teaching.

IN ANY CASE, HERE’S HOW I SEE IT. I served two years in the United States Marines during the Vietnam War. That might sound impressive if you stopped right there. But I was a supply clerk and never once left the safety of Camp Pendleton, California.

For obvious reasons, then, I don’t pretend to know about combat.

That’s exactly the problem with most of our leading education reformers. They think they’re John Wayne; but just because Wayne died in a movie about Iwo Jima that doesn’t mean he knew anything about bloody combat.

Don’t get me wrong.

I spent three decades in the classroom and loved being a teacher. What I mean to say is this: You could find one kindergarten teacher, with six years of experience, or one seventh grade art teacher with eleven, or one high school physics instructor with twenty years in the classroom, and all would be more likely to understand the challenges of teaching than Rhee or Duncan or any of these other reforming ladies and gentlemen.

We need to start asking teachers what they think we need to do to reform American education. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Numbers Don't Lie: Our Teachers (and Doctors) Are Failing

I RETIRED FROM TEACHING three years ago. So I finally have time to do a little writing. If you follow education news these days you have to know public school teachers are being fed a steady diet of abuse by critics. When U. S. students are compared and ranked, internationally, based on test scores the results are depressing.

It has to be teachers, right? Not long ago, Glenn Beck lumped teachers’ unions in with Islamic terrorists. Seriously. The movie Waiting for Superman made it look like teachers were a bunch of slugs. Here in Ohio Governor Kasich acts like we’re Vikings intent on ransacking the State Treasury.

I talk to teachers these days and find them more discouraged than at any time since I first became interested in a career in education. So my blog will always be a defense of good teachers—but never bad ones. 

There’s a difference, which most of our leaders and almost all of the critics seem to forget. Take Arne Duncan. He says education reform is “all about the talent.”

He means it’s all about teachers.

Trust me:  I’m a liberal. I voted for President Obama and always knew he had a valid birth certificate. But I’d like to sock Mr. Duncan, his Secretary of Education in the jaw. (Same goes for Davis Guggenheim, producer of Waiting for Superman, by the way.)

If you listen to critics this is what you hear:  We have a “school crisis” on our hands. How do we know? We know because our students finished 25th in math in 2006, when students from thirty nations were tested. Worse, we spend more on education than almost all the countries that beat us. See:  America’s teachers are lazy and overpaid.

Here were the bleak math results in 2006:
  1. Finland
  2. South Korea
  3. Netherlands
  4. Switzerland
  5. Canada
  6. Japan
  7. New Zealand
  8. Belgium
  9. Australia
  10. Denmark
  11. Czech Republic
  12. Iceland
  13. Austria
  14. Germany
  15. Sweden
  16. Ireland
  17. France
  18. United Kingdom
  19. Poland
  20. Slovak Republic
  21. Hungary
  22. Luxembourg
  23. Norway
  24. Spain 
  26. Portugal
  27. Italy
  28. Greece
  29. Turkey
  30. Mexico
Study that list a bit and it can seem depressing. Our poor students were just baffled when it came to multiplying decimals and transforming common fractions into percentages. Who else could you blame? It had to be teachers.

In my case, I looked at that list for a long time and wondered. Was America going to math hell in a hand basket?

WHAT OTHER PROBLEMS WERE CRITICS MISSING? Was it just America’s teachers who were failing? Or was there a broader cultural failure to concern us?

What about doctors?

Time magazine provided the first hint of danger in a brief comparison (December 12, 2008) of health care systems round the world. After that, I was on the story like Woodward and Bernstein, or maybe just Woodward, since it’s just me.

Health care costs in the United States ate up 16% of GDP, the highest figure in the world, a per capita cost of $7,026. Life expectancy was 77.8 years.

Japan spent 7.9% of GDP, or $2,690 per capita. Yet the Japanese lived an average of 83 years.

Numbers don’t lie and the more numbers you study the more lying you don’t see. School reformers like Secretary Duncan assure us that if we collect enough data and tie test results to teacher pay we can save American education. Maybe we can collect enough data to save hospitals, too. In southern Minnesota people live into their 80’s. People in eastern Kentucky live a mere 72.6 years.

What’s needed, clearly, is a system to rate doctors and nurses in Minnesota “excellent” and medical people in Kentucky “failing” or under “academic watch” or some category of that nature. Or we could fire all the Kentucky medical people and get some real professionals in there to clean up the mess.

In fact, to get a picture of how our oncologists and proctologists are doing, let’s gather some data. Compare life expectancy in the same countries that beat out our brains in math.

Here were the dismal “health care” rankings for 2009:

1.    Japan                          
2.    Australia                     
3.    Canada                                   
4.    France                        
5.    Sweden                      
6.    Switzerland                
7.    Iceland                                   
8.    Israel                          
9.    New Zealand             
10.  Italy                            
11.  Norway                      
12.  Spain                          
13.  Austria                                   
14.  Greece                        
15.  Netherlands                
16.  Luxembourg               
17.  Germany                    
18.  Belgium                      
19.  Finland           
20.  United Kingdom        
21.  Denmark                    
22.  Ireland                        
23.  Portugal                      
25.  Czech Republic          
26.  Mexico                       
27.  South Korea               
28.  Poland                        
29.  Slovakia                     
30.  Turkey                     

So, what do simple lists prove? If America’s teachers are failing, a truth the media universally accept, then this chart proves that U. S. doctors are lazy and overpaid idiots—and they aren’t even unionized.

(Thank god they don't have tenure!!!)

So, Mr. Duncan, if you ever do get punched in the nose by an angry, retired teacher, head for Canada if you want good affordable health care.

And don’t mention our terrible doctors to Glenn Beck.

He’ll only start crying.

(For even MORE chilling statistical evidence go to:  “America's Teachers Stink Up the Place Again.