Friday, March 30, 2012

"School Crisis?" Maybe it's an "Office Tower Crisis?"

THE NEWS HAS BEEN FULL OF STORIES lately about the “school crisis” in America, about how the terrible public schools are undermining the U. S. economy. And I admit I’m scared. The American Dream is being poisoned, strangled and drowned—and it’s all the work of those evil teachers and their evil unions.

Or so the narrative goes.

Look at the international rankings if you require proof. Students from Finland stand #1 in reading and math. Worse still, America is getting its academic brains beat out by Iceland and Denmark god...Liechtenstein.

So what do we know?  Clearly, we have a “school crisis.” You have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and probably lame, with receding hair, and fifty pounds overweight, not to realize that only business methods introduced in American education can stop the hemorrhaging of jobs to Indonesia and China and Bangladesh...and ...uh...What the hell?

We aren’t losing jobs to Liechtenstein.

Maybe we don’t have a “school crisis;” maybe what we really have is an “office tower crisis.”

Maybe our problem is greedy corporations and not teachers’ unions at all.

But I digress.

Are we really losing jobs to Indonesia because
the schools there are better?
THINK ABOUT THE VERY PHRASE:  “school crisis.” It’s like saying the building is the problem.

In the same vein, then, could we say a terrible sports team has an “arena crisis?” Imagine that you could take two NBA teams, the Charlotte Bobcats (with a 7-41 record) and the Chicago Bulls (41-11) and tell them to switch places where they play.

Would that change of address turn the Bobcats into Bulls?

That’s the same level of shallow thinking we see when critics insist we have a “school crisis” and promise that we will see miraculous results if we remove students from “failing” public schools and send them off to charter institutions.

Especially, business-run charter institutions. 

When U. S. shoe manufacturers lost out to competition
with the Chinese, was that a result of some "school crisis?"
Or was it workers willing to work for a few dollars per day?

It’s surprising, really, that charter schools in general, haven’t been faring better, because they start with real advantages that have nothing to do with superior business methods or acumen.

You open up a charter school and you set certain parameters, which regular public schools cannot. You say, for example, we will take students by lottery, because we only have so many seats. If a hundred kids apply from the regular schools you know right away that those hundred have parents who pay attention and go to the trouble to apply.

You still haven’t addressed the most insoluble problems of our society. The insoluble problem is child #101, who hasn’t seen his father in five years, whose mother is a meth head. Mom isn’t going to apply for anything school-related, because mom isn’t worth a shit. So her child suffers every single night and every single day. That means child #101 remains behind in the regular public school and we continue to hear about the “school crisis” when what we’re dealing with is actually a “house crisis,” to use an equally inapt term.

I READ RECENTLY ABOUT A NEW YORK CHARTER SCHOOL which held a “getting-to-know you” session for parents and children to begin the school year. Attendance was mandatory and rules were clearly explained. If a student caused serious discipline problems, both student and parent would be required to attend Saturday morning sessions to address the matter. At that point, several parents took their children and left the building.

A similar story out of Chicago notes that Noble Schools, a for-profit charter operation, assign students demerits for all rules infractions. Twelve demerits means a child has to go to a special Saturday class to address behavior issues and pay $120 for materials.

If that doesn’t solve the problem and another round of special classes is needed that’s another $120.

What happens to those New York kids whose parents won’t back up the charter school on discipline, or those Chicago kids whose parents can’t pay, or won’t, or when the child, himself, refuses to reform?

At that point, such children trudge back down the street to the regular public schools, and re-enroll. Their problems are still the same.

Critics call this a “school crisis.”


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Blame Teachers for Everything

SOMETIMES, I READ what critics say about U. S. education and feel myself spiraling downward into deep depression. Just look at all the evidence of our failing schools! The best proof yet:  the idiot analysis that seems to pass without questioning. That's right. I blame schools for failing to teach basic logic and reasoning to journalists.

Consider this recent headline in the New York Times:


"Holy @$#%!" I mutter, even before I start reading the story. Bad enough that teachers get blamed for bad reading scores. Now we seem to be putting the U. S. jobs and safety at risk!

What's wrong with this particularly stupid article? To begin with, the report is issued by a panel led by former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and Joel I. Klein, longtime chancellor of the New York City public schools.

If you're like me, you're taken aback from the start. I was a humble history teacher in 2003. I don't remember leading the charge into Iraq that spring. I never said Iraqis had stockpiles of chemical weapons. I never spooked the country with talk about Iraqi nuclear weapons and atomic clouds. Nope, if there are threats to our national security today, that might be on  Ms. Rice and her friends in the Bush administration.

What about Mr. Klein? Why does this millionaire lawyer make me grit my teeth? I think it's because he never taught a day in his life. So asking his opinions about education is like asking me what it's like to serve in combat. True:  I spent two years in the Marines during the Vietnam War. But I did my "tour of duty" behind a supply desk in California. Not exactly "heroic" service.

So I'd be ashamed to brag around combat veterans about what I would have done if I had been in their places.

Sadly, Klein and his type have no shame. Or, as Shakespeare once put it so aptly "he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword."

WELL THEN, how are schools' failings destroying our great nation? Simple:  75% of young adults no longer qualify to serve in the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records, or because their level of education is inadequate.

Read that sentence carefully, though. See if it makes any sense. The United States leads the world in rates of incarcerations--and now crime is the fault of schools? And fat kids? Maybe they're following the diet lead of fat parents, after all.

I blame teachers and schools
for making me eat so much candy!
Sometimes, statistics related to declining SAT scores and rising obesity rates, don't reveal the truths we think they do. America is a changing nation and a wide array of negative changes outside schools are reflected in the hallways every single day.

Consider, for example, our current obesity epidemic. In 1986, less than 10% of adults in states like Ohio and Alabama were obese. Only seven states had rates above 10%, none more than 14%. (Twenty-five states didn't even bother to keep tracking data.)

Unfortunately, the late 80s were good years for Twinkies. (Lord knows, I ate more than my share.) By 1990, states were taking note. Only six failed to track obesity and only ten had rates below 10%. In 1991, four states reported adult obesity rates of 15% or higher.

It wasn't until 1994 that the last holdout, Wyoming, began tracking. By then it was clear that the 90s weren't going to be any better on the diet front. Now, sixteen states had obesity rates of 15-19%. Three more years of Coca-Cola-drinking and Frito-chomping, and the three states crossed the 20% obesity threshold:  Mississippi, Indiana and Kentucky.

By 2001 calories were catching up to all of us:  Mississippi passed the 25% mark. In 2004, nine states had reached that 25% mark. In 2005, another milestone was passed:  Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia reaching the 30% level. By 2009, nine states had a 30% adult obesity rate and only one remained below 20%:  Colorado.

Another twelve months--another season of Halloween candy and Super Bowl parties, and every state had surpassed the 20% mark. A dozen states now topped 30%--led by Mississippi (34%), West Virginia (32.5), Alabama (32.2), South Carolina (31.5), Louisiana (31) and Texas (31).

SO WHAT DO WE KNOW when we read stories like this? You can blame schools if you want. I've been know to pack on the pounds, myself. But I don't recall ever seeing a teacher standing in the candy aisle at Krogers ordering shoppers to grab another bag of Twix bars.

It's the same if too many kids have criminal records. Why don't we blame crappy police and crappy lawyers, (yeah, that's you, Mr. Klein) and judges?

Of course, that doesn't make sense at all, but neither does most of what passes for "reasoned criticism" of America's education system and America's teachers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sometimes A Teacher Can Only Do So Much

WHEN I WAS A YOUNG TEACHER, seventh and eighth graders in my classes often came to me for advice. I helped everyone I could; but no matter how much I cared, I knew there were times I could only do so much.

(By the end of my career, when I was much older I would be having the same feeling, advising concerned young parents.)

One day, Kara stopped by after school to chat. She had told me before, I was her favorite teacher. Now something was obviously bothering her. I assured her she had my support. Kara took a deep breathe and plunged into her story. She was sleeping with one of the high school boys.

Even worse, though she wasn’t speaking directly for Dominique, she hinted that her friend, another student of mine, was also sleeping with an older boy.

I talked to Kara for the next hour, and tried to give any advice I could about how she might straighten out her life.

Finally, I promised to talk to our counselor, who would help in any way she could. But I was worried about the two girls and sad to realize there wasn’t much I could do except listen.

A teacher plays the cards he's dealt.
Those cards aren't necessarily good.
I couldn’t hold back the sexual tides and we had tried and failed to bring parents into the mix already. Teachers had been hearing rumors about drinking, drugs and sex for months; and we had heard that Kara and Dominique collapsed after a recent party. Several of us met with Dominique's mom to express concern. Mom wasn’t prepared to face reality. She said the girls had eaten too much pizza and drunk too much pop. That’s why they were sick. As for Kara, she hadn't seen her father in five years and her single mom didn’t bother to show up for the conference we scheduled.

TOO OFTEN that was my experience. If you called home about students who were hurting most, you found yourself in a box canyon where family was no help and all you could do was back out and search for another path through the treacherous mountains.

It was a sad situation and now all I could do was try to mitigate the damage. Kara had college potential and might save herself eventually. Dominique was less talented but knew how to express her feelings in writing, though she did not “write” particularly well.

 Earlier that year, she wrote about her life in an essay for my class:

My Brother Devin

My brother is 17 and needs a lot of our attention. If we don’t give it to him its just going to mess him up agin. Devin is a real junky, pot head, etc., he’ll really have to work hard on his problem if he wents a normal life. He dosen’t care about his family at all, could care less if we were alive. The only way he would notice that we were dead is he wouldn’t get no money. He dosen’t show his feelings, he’s about 5' 9" or 6' he weights about 145 which he used to weigh about 180 until he got adickted to speed. When I’m around my friend I say I hate him and wish he would die but I know deep inside I love him very much.

My Own Family

When I grow up I went a family that will stay togather not get into fights. I went to have our own house it dosen’t have to be a place, but a good shelter. I went what is best for my family. I went my family to go to parks and got to grill outs and have fun wherever they go.
My children will have disaplin when they need it, but they will be loved all the time.
I went my husband to take me places, but if this is not what he wents we’ll both have to change a little to do what we both went.

You could feel the pain in every word. I know we hear a lot about teaching the “basics,” but this was one time I knew better than to correct Dominique's spelling and syntax. I wanted the ideas to keep coming and told her only that she should not mix “went” for “want.”

Kara  and her mom moved before school year ended and I heard no more from her for several years. Dominique struggled with addiction and barely made it through eighth grade and then went on to high school. Three years later Kara stopped by my room after school to say hello again. She was a junior now, attending  school in a different district, and said she was doing much better. “I don’t do all the drugs,” she explained. She thanked me for listening and trying to help when she was young. Then she said she was going down to see our counselor.

Our counselor had done everything possible to assist both young ladies, at the time, and she filled me in later on her conversation with Kara. Dominique was a mess, according to her old friend. Her mom let her smoke pot at home to avoid getting busted and told her to stay out all night if she had been drinking rather than risk a car accident coming home.

A FEW MONTHS later I heard that Dominique was pregnant. The father was another former student, a nice enough fellow, but just about the last young man you would pick to start a family, while you were still a teenager, if you wanted your children to be able to go to parks and have grill outs and fun in your back yard in the years to come. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ergo or Lego? I Hate Teach for America

“…ther is many a man that crieth ‘Werre! werre!
That woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”

Geoffrey Chaucer

LET ME BE THE FIRST TO SAY, at least in this public fashion: I hate Teach for America. And because we all know, if we follow current educational debate, that Teach for America candidates are way smarter—and so are going to save us all—let me try to say what I mean in the most erudite fashion. I don’t hate people in Teach for America.

I hate arrogance.

I don’t hate the concept either. I think we can applaud the idea behind TforA: That is, sign up top graduates from top schools like Harvard, Stanford and Yale and clear a path for them to follow to the front of the American classroom.

I taught for 33 years. So, I know that, all else being equal, smart teachers are better than dumb teachers any school day of the week.

Why, then, do I hate Teach for America?

Personally, I loved teaching and in all my years in a classroom would never have allowed myself to hate any child. I don’t use the word “hate” loosely. The young people I know who are in or have tried to get into the TforA program are wonderful young men and women.

What, then, is wrong? To begin with, we have a serious problem in this country when we start from the premise (now accepted by some of the most obnoxious education reformers in America today) that the big problem in schools is idiot teachers.

I see stories about the shooting at Chardon High, here in Ohio, for instance and wonder, “Does anyone believe that all that blood was spilled because some teacher was stupid? You don’t have to be all that gifted intellectually to notice that most problems in education have nothing to do with the mental capacities of the men and women at the fronts of our nation’s classrooms.

Certainly, it’s a gross oversimplification to argue that smarter people can fix all of society’s ills. One might even point out that sometimes the smartest people, i.e. Wall Street leaders, cause our most serious problems. It’s a gross insult, too, to dedicated “regular” teachers, to hint that we could save every child if these garden-variety educators weren’t so infernally ignorant.

If I were to meet a Teach for America candidate on the street today I would wish him or her happiness and success from the moment they first enter the classroom unto the last, thirty years down the road (if they stick it out that long) and they walk out going the opposite way. I would say, “You enter a noble profession and if you give it all you can, if you strain every nerve and sinew, you can shape lives.”

But I would also caution them to remember that just because their SAT scores were higher than average that they should not assume they’re going to be the best teachers. In fact, if your IQ is 130, and the regular teacher’s IQ is a mere 113, but they’ve been fighting the battle to save children for seven years, or fifteen, or thirty-seven, and you only signed up for two, which is all TforA asks, then, I would say, be humble, be humble.

Don’t talk about what a hero you’re going to be until you prove you’re a hero.

It’s a long war we fight to educate the young and bravery is not the exclusive preserve of the most intelligent.

Perhaps you believe I’m over-reacting—nothing more than a crotchety old fart venting.
I'm not anti-intellectual.
I have a daughter at Yale. (Note the hat).
I know what Chaucer meant, however.
So:  I'm anti-arrogance.

On the contrary, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw a comment in a column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. In an article about the declining economic fortunes of America, which he pinned in part on America’s failing schools (and I say, “ergo,” to highlight my own academic credentials, or maybe “presto” or “pesto,” or would it be “Lego”), he turned to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, for guidance. Kopp told him applications to the program were up in 2009, in part because brilliant young people want to save the day, because “students [are] responding to the call that this is a problem our generation can solve.”

I’m an old history teacher; and that last word, “solve,” reminds me of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, probably the smartest man ever to hold that cabinet position, a man who thought he knew best how to win the Vietnam War, because, though he never spent a minute in combat—well—he went to Harvard.

Today, Teach for America candidates make up roughly .2 percent of all U. S. teachers. And now somehow those two out of 1,000 are the key to salvation?

It reminds me of old Westerns I watched as a kid. In the climactic scene, we find the wagon train surrounded by redskins. (In today’s more enlightened world: Native-Americans). Arrows fly in all directions. There must be a million Native-Americans circling the pinned down travelers. Suddenly, the sound of a bugle is heard. Thank god, the cavalry is riding hard to the rescue! Look, up over that rise they come, the boys in blue.

Wait a minute. What movie is this? There are only two soldiers. One is the bugler.

Still, they break through the swarming Native-Americans. The pioneers are incredulous. Their leader fumes, “God a mercy, we need more than two crappy soldiers to save us.” To put a point to his sentiment an arrow strikes him in the chest and he dies a gruesome celluloid death.

The bugler reassures the settlers, “Don’t worry, we’ll save you. I’m a graduate of Cornell and my comrade here attended Princeton.”

In the final scene the camera pulls back to reveal all the concerned white faces. This is Hollywood, 1960. So, black and Hispanic pioneers are totally absent. You can see though: with all those arrows flying, that the travelers are dubious.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Women of the American Revolution

DID YOU REALIZE it was International Women's Day today? Well, I didn't. So my wife is going to be mad when I don't have a present for her. Maybe I can go out to the store quick and buy her a new broom.

Seriously, I thought it might be fun to post this today. I used to ask students to read this handout and I can think of at least one person running for president who might need to consider the lessons history has to offer. In any case, the ladies were fighting for freedom even before the great Founding Fathers gave "birth" to this nation.

Women of the American Revolution

By February 1775, it seemed clear England and the Thirteen Colonies were drifting toward war.

Now, on a cold Sunday morning near winter’s end, Sarah Tarrant stood, looking out the up-stairs window of her house. A British force headed for Salem, Massachusetts was stalled in front of her home. Colonel Alexander Leslie had instructions to look for hidden military supplies and seize them if possible. Yet, when his troops reached a drawbridge near town they had been forced to halt. The bridge was up and the bridge keeper refused to put it down.

An angry crowd of colonists had now gathered. A redcoat pricked one with his bayonet. “Soldiers red-jackets, lobstercoats, cowards,” shouted another American, “damnation to your government!”

Leslie had no orders to shoot. So he had to retreat. Now, as his men turned back for Boston, Sarah let her feelings show. “Go home and tell your master he has sent you on a fool’s errand and broken the peace of our Sabbath!” she shouted from her window. A British redcoat pointed his musket in her direction. Tarrant hardly blinked. “Fire, if you have the courage,” she taunted, “but I doubt it!”

This time, the British held their fire and simply marched away.
From the first real fights at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), all through the long years of war to follow, women like Tarrant always ready to serve the cause of freedom. Ruth Draper, of Connecticut, did her part, baking bread for two days and nights as minutemen rushed north that April. Later she gave up her pewter plates to be melted down and made into bullets. For Esther Reed convinced her friends to sell their jewelry and use the money for supplies for the new American army. Another time Reed organized Philadelphia women to make 2200 shirts for soldiers. Other females spied on the British or nursed the wounded after battles. Like Elizabeth Hagar (“Handy Betty the Blacksmith”), who repaired weapons, others took jobs usually done by men. And often the ladies fought themselves. During the bloody retreat from Concord, the redcoats passed through what one described as a furnace of musket fire. A stunned British soldier reported grimly (and with poor spelling): “Even the weamin had firelocks [guns].” Side by side, minutemen and “minutemaids” blasted the lobstercoats.

Once fighting had begun, thousands of women faced difficult new decisions. If a husband joined the army how could a wife run the farm alone? Who would keep the mill or shop operating? And could a mother watch her young sons march away? Elizabeth Martin, a South Carolina lady, watched seven sons leave home and enlist in the army. “Go, boys, and fight for your country.” she told them all. “Fight till death, if you must; but never let your country be dishonored. Were I a man I would go with you.”

Even newlyweds had to ask: must we separate so soon?

George Washington understood the pain of such decisions. When Congress appointed him to command the Continental Army he sat down and wrote a letter to his wife. He began with an apology for “the uneasiness I know it will give you.” Still, he could not shirk [avoid] his duty, no matter how much he missed her. “I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home,” he assured Martha, “[than] if my stay [in command] were to be seven times seven years.”

Then he added a note of intended to offer comfort: “I shall return safe to you in the fall.”

Mrs. Washington knew her husband was going where the bullets flew. So she prayed that he might be safe. With a bravery all her own, she offered her support. “My mind is made up,” she wrote back. “My heart is in the cause.”

If Mrs. Martin was doomed to watch her loved ones march away other women followed in their footsteps. When an American army pushed north into Canada, Jemina Warner went along with husband James. The march was a disaster. Day after day, the troops hacked their way through heavy forest. Fall weather turned cold and wet. Food ran low. Sickness swept the army, and James fell ill. One day he dropped behind the other troops. Jemina stopped to go back after him, only to find him dying in the woods. Regardless of danger, she remained by his side, holding his hand, till the “King of Terrors” carried him away. Then she covered his body in leaves and marched off to rejoin the army.

At times, so many females traveled with Washington’s army that they interfered with his marches. “The multitude of women...especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement,” he complained. Still, he never forbade them to come. Indeed, many of the ladies provided valuable service. In camp they did the sewing and laundry, cooked and nursed the sick. Martha Washington was by her husband’s side during the terrible winter at Valley Forge. There she made herself useful, knitting socks, keeping records and visiting the soldiers with small presents of food.

Margaret Corbin was one such “camp follower,” as they were called. “Molly” Corbin, however, soon found herself in combat. After her husband was assigned to the defense of a fort near New York City, Margaret refused to go to safety. When British and Hessian units attacked (November 16, 1776) they met heavy fire and fell back. Pressing forward a second time, they came climbing over the rugged ground and defensive obstacles. Inside U. S. lines John Corbin was manning an artillery piece. One of the gunners fell wounded. So his wife leaped to fill the place. Another shot killed her husband. Molly continued firing the cannon till she was also badly wounded.

After the battle ended a doctor found her lying in a pool of blood beside her husband’s body. Hit in the chest and jaw, with one arm shattered, Molly survived but never recovered full use of her injured limb. In 1779 Congress voted to reward her for her service. Molly was voted half-pay, a yearly outfit of new clothing, and a daily issue of rum or whiskey (then typical in most armies).[1]

Two years later, Mary Ludwig Hays found herself in similar circumstances during the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778). Her husband was working a cannon when the British lines advanced. On a blistering hot summer day, Mary won the nickname “Molly Pitcher,” fetching water from a nearby stream for American troops. With temperatures at 98ยบ her greatest efforts were not enough. Dozens of soldiers, including her husband, fell to heat stroke.

Then a general became confused and ordered American lines to fall back.

According to witnesses, Mrs. Hays refused. Perhaps she gave a hearty curse, or spit out her chew of tobacco.[2] We do know she shouted at the men to stand their ground. The gunners stayed and blasted great holes in the advancing redcoat ranks. At one point, Molly placed her legs far apart as she worked her gun. “A cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any damage [other] than carrying away the lower part of her petticoat.” For a moment she surveyed the situation. Then she remarked that it was “lucky it did not pass a little higher... and continued her occupation.” Legend has it that Washington saw her in action. After the battle ended it is said he made Molly Hays a sergeant.

Certainly, women like Abigail Adams understood the issues behind the fighting. Months before the Declaration of Independence was complete, she wrote her husband John, to offer her opinions:

I long to hear that you have declared [independence]...and by the way in the new Code of Laws...I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  

Let men, she added, “give up the harsh title of Master for the more of Friend.”

These were hard years for Abigail. So she made the best of a difficult situation. For months at a time, John was away from home, as a member of Congress. In his absence she ran the farm and cared for four young children. With trade cut off she had trouble finding basic items. Once she wrote her husband asking if he might “purchase me a bundle of pins and put it in your trunk for me.” Another time she heard cannon fire during the night, as American guns pounded British lines round Boston.

“I miss my partner,” she wrote sadly, “and find myself unequal to the cares which fall upon me.”

Even women who stayed at home might find themselves in danger. Sarah Smith, a widow living in New York City,[3] often visited prisons where American soldiers were held. When possible she brought food. One day she told the men to keep their spirits up. The course of the war could change, she said. Victory would come soon. A guard heard her and threw her in a cell, “saying that was the fittest place for such a d----d rebel.” Finally, British authorities kicked her out of the city for good, with “only one bed and her wearing apparel” to take with her. Sarah insisted on making a final visit to her jailed friends. Smith would not complain—explaining to the men that she and they were serving the same cause, only in different ways.

When British forces swept across New Jersey around the same time, Hannah Caldwell lowered family valuables in a bucket into the well. Then she filled hidden pockets in her dress with jewelry. To be safe she ordered her children into a back room, where she began nursing the littlest infant. A redcoat marching past her house saw her, fired his musket through a window, and killed her with a shot through the left breast and lung. Then the soldiers looted [robbed] her home and burned it to the ground.

Tory forces in the Carolinas and Georgia were especially brutal. Eliza Wilkinson had good reason to be frightened when she saw horsemen approaching her plantation one day. They were coming fast, “tear[ing] the earth, and the riders at the same time bellowing out the most horrid curses.” Dismounting quickly, the men stormed inside “with drawn swords and pistols in their hands.” Ripping caps off the heads of Eliza and her sister, they stole what they believed were jeweled hair pins. A stream of ugly abuse poured from their lips and they went room to room, wrecking everything.

Eliza was robbed of silver buckles on her shoes. Her sister lost her wedding ring. When she hesitated to part with the band, the Tory raiders stuck pistols in her face and “swore that if she did not deliver it immediately, they’d fire.”

If Eliza’s family was unable to stop this attack, Nancy Hart had different ideas. Tall and homely [plain; unattractive], the Georgia woman had learned to shoot while still a girl. When the Revolution began Hart spied for the American side, once helping capture several Tories. Finally, Loyalists forces decided to put an end to her activities once and for all. One evening five men headed for Nancy’s house.

Anxious to arrest her (and husband Ben), they managed to capture Nancy without a fight. Mr. Hart was not at home. So they settled in to wait. Ordered to prepare dinner, Nancy went about her business without complaining. She even passed around a jug of whiskey. Her “guests” drank deep. Became stupid. Careless. Suddenly, their hostess grabbed a musket and blasted the Tory leader. A second man lunged in her direction. Nancy picked up another gun and gave him a fatal [killing] wound. Then she held the others at gun-point till her husband came to her “rescue.”

Others put themselves in harm’s way, as scouts, messengers and spies. Deborah Champion was one. Only 22, and so sweet-looking enemy patrols never suspected her, she was called “the female Paul Revere.” Once, Champion rode for two days through dangerous territory to deliver secret reports. Lydia Darragh, married before Deborah was even born, and mother of nine—was “a little poor looking...Old Woman.” One night, when British officers were using her home as headquarters, she pretended she was sleepy and went upstairs “to bed.” There in the dark she listened with her ear to the floor as they discussed their plans. The next day, despite deep snow, Darragh found an excuse to walk five miles into the countryside. Meeting an American patrol, she gave warning that the enemy planned to march out the next morning and catch them unaware. Given plenty of notice, U. S. troops were ready and the redcoats retreated in disgust.

Emily Geiger was famous as a scout for General Nathanael Greene. A “brave girl...not more than eighteen years of age,” she once volunteered to deliver a message when no man dared. Captured by an enemy patrol, she waited till no one was watching. Then she removed her hidden dispatch [message], and “ate up Greene’s letter, piece by piece.” Soon after, she was freed with an apology from her captors.

When Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Sarah Osborn was there. She married a soldier in 1780 and traveled with the American army over the next year, washing, sewing and baking for the men. When Washington’s troops marched south to Virginia in the fall of 1781, she went with them. During the heavy fighting to follow Osborn carried beef, bread and coffee to soldiers in the lines. Once, when British guns were firing on American positions, General Washington stopped to ask if she were not afraid. With surprising calm, Sarah answered simply: “It would not do for the men to fight and starve, too.”

After a French fleet cut off Cornwallis’ escape, Osborn celebrated with the men. She was there on October 19, 1781, when British troops marched out of their fortifications and surrendered. She listened as enemy musicians played a sad tune. She saw drummers with black handkerchiefs tied to drums and fifes decorated with black ribbons. A British general rode by and she noticed that “tears rolled down his cheeks as he passed.”

A second woman who claimed she was there that day was Deborah Sampson (or we should say: “Robert Shurtliffe”). Disguised as a man, Deborah had enlisted in the army. She served bravely and was wounded twice, once suffering a sword cut to the side of her head. (Other sources claim Sampson enlisted in 1782, to avoid an undesirable marriage.) She herself would say that her mother was fond of a certain young man—and expected them to wed. Indeed, Mrs. Sampson “seemed struck with wonder” when her daughter seemed reluctant. When this poor “lump of a man,” as Deborah described him, proposed anyway, after drinking too much rum, the young woman made up her mind to run away.

She would explain later how she disguised her sex, tightly wrapping her chest, and using a variety of tricks. The first time she enlisted, under the name “Timothy Thayer,” she became drunk and revealed her secret. She tried again, as “Robert Shurtliffe,” and managed to sign up with a regiment from Massachusetts. On one occasion she volunteered with thirty men to flush out a group of Tories operating nearby. In the night fight which followed several of the enemy were killed. Deborah was wounded in the leg. “I considered this as a death wound, or as being equivalent to it,” she explained, “as it must, I thought, lead to the discovery of my sex.”

Carried to a hospital next morning, Sampson feared for her secret more than her life. A French doctor gave her wine to dull the pain. Then he looked her over, asking with a smile: “How you lose so much blood at this early hour? Be any bone broken?” He treated one wound, where a bullet had cut through Deborah’s boot and plowed into her leg. She did not admit that a second shot had hit her higher up and buried itself in her thigh. After the doctor left it required several attempts before she could pry this second bullet loose by herself. The young woman never lost courage. “The wine had revived me,” she said, “and God by his care, watched over me. At the third attempt I extracted [removed] the ball.”

When the youthful soldier recovered “he” fought against the Indians, taking part in one battle where fifteen natives were killed. “Shurtliffe” herself chased an escaping native and caught him. “My first impulse,” she said, “was to bayonet him; but an instant sympathy turned away the pointed steel.” A good thing: the prisoner turned out to be a white child captured and raised by the Indians.

Eventually Deborah fell ill from fever. As she would tell the story, a doctor came to check her heart, discovered her sex, and revealed the truth.[4] She was dressed and made up in proper fashion and escorted through the camp. Not a single one of her comrades recognized the young lady as “Robert Shurtliffe,” their missing friend. Discharged on October 23, 1783, Deborah soon married, and had three children. In years after she earned money by putting on her uniform and giving talks about her experience. As she liked to tell audiences, the only time she was scared was during her first bayonet attack.

Oddly enough, the final “fight” of the war involved a British officer and a tough patriot female. Under terms of a treaty of peace the last British soldiers were set to leave New York City on November 25, 1783. By right, however, they could claim control till noon. One proud officer went about town, cutting down American flags he spied before that time.

That morning, Mrs. Day, “a large, stout woman,” ran up the U. S. colors [flag] a bit too soon. A young witness described what happened next:

a burly red-faced British officer, in full uniform, [was] coming down Murray street in great haste.  Mrs. Day was sweeping in front of her door when the officer came up to her...and in loud and angry tones ordered her to haul down the flag.  She refused, [and] the officer seized the halyards [ropes] to pull it down himself.  Mrs. Day flew at him with her broomstick, and beat him so furiously over his head, that she made the powder fly from his wig.

For a few moments the poor man kept tugging at the ropes. But they tangled beyond hope. In the meantime, “Mrs. Day applied her weapon so vigorously that he was soon compelled [forced] to retreat, and leave the flag...floating triumphantly in the keen morning breeze.” So it was—for the last time—that the British learned to “Remember the Ladies.”


[1] Mrs. Corbin was “man enough” to complain when her alcohol ration was later denied. 
[2] Joseph Martin, who saw Hays in action, described her as a lady “who smoked, chewed [tobacco] and swore like a trooper.”
[3] For most of the war the city was occupied by British forces.
[4] At first he kept her secret, and sent Sampson to his house in Philadelphia to be nursed back to health.  Legend has it his niece cared for the “soldier” and fell in love with the young “man” in the process.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Stupid, Stupid Ohio Teachers and Struggling Schools

Look!  I actually own a few books.

WELL, WHO KNEW? I certainly didn't. But then again, that's no surprise. I'm just a retired teacher and a stupid one to boot.

Yep, that's right. Ohio lawmakers have zeroed in on the one big problem they must address when it comes to education--and that problem is stupid teachers.

I'm so dense, so dumb, so clueless, I never knew during my 33 years in a classroom that my colleagues and I were the problem. And if you don't know today, well, you know what that means. Yeah. Sad but true.

You're probably stupid, too.

If you're an Ohio teacher and you can read, which our lawmakers apparently doubt, perhaps you saw the recent article in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Starting September 1, Ohio bureaucrats will rank all schools according to standardized test scores. Teachers in the lowest performing schools, the bottom 10%, will be required to take tests to prove they're not morons. Or as Governor John Kasich (a staunch friend of public education, who sends his own children to private schools), explains it:  “Struggling schools need to be sure teachers are competent and fully capable of teaching their assigned curriculum.”

I know I'm feeling pretty much as dumb as a turnip right now; but maybe we need to start by asking Governor Kasich a few questions. What, for example, does a struggling school struggle against? Is the building being choked by teachers? Is it locked in a brick-and-mortar wrestling match of some kind?

Is a school struggling--and are test scores low--because teachers don't know how to teach? Or do many students have severe problems with absenteeism? Are some Ohio kids growing up homeless or nearly so? Are we seeing teens in the upper grades who are regular drug users?

Does this mean the school is struggling?

Call me obtuse, but was the school struggling, up in Chardon, a few days ago, when one misguided teen shot and killed three peers? Or was society or the family struggling and were the "stupid" teachers left to try to pick up the bloody pieces?

Certainly, we can have a healthy debate about the impact poverty has on children in schools. Let's be honest, though. Almost every "struggling school" is going to turn out to be in a poorer neighborhood and that's true across the nation too.

I was very fortunate to teach in an affluent suburban district. So a law like this would not have touched me. That doesn't mean this law isn't an insult to every member of the profession. I may be dumb, I suppose, but never once did I say to myself, while I was working, "Wow, those teachers in those poor inner-city schools? They must be dimwits. That has to be the main reason student test scores are low."

I've been working on a book about education for three years and I find some tendencies impossible to ignore.

Not long ago, I came across a study of high school graduation rates (based on 2005 data), showing huge discrepancies between inner-city schools and surrounding suburbs. Only 38% of Cleveland Public School students graduated in four years. Yet, suburban districts around Cleveland averaged 80%. Baltimore was second worst in the nation with a 41% four-year graduation rate. Surrounding suburbs graduated 81%. The difference between Columbus, Ohio city schools and Columbus, Ohio suburban schools was 38 percentage points. For Milwaukee it was 35 points, Nashville 33. For New York City the spread was 29. For Chicago the difference was 28.

So:  Let me try to explain in simple terms (because I must be a simpleton) that teachers are not the only factor, and not even the primary factor, impacting standardized testing scores. Let me explain this all to our brilliant governor and all the geniuses in the Ohio General Assembly. I will call it the "Bean Soup Tautology."

Let's say we want to figure out what's wrong with Ohio or even U. S. public schools. Suppose Ohio University graduates 200 teacher candidates in 2012. Akron University does the same. Ohio State sends out 300. Miami University adds 150. The University of Cincinnati rounds it out, so that we have 1,000 job candidates. We mix up all the young men and women who want to teach, like beans in a pot. We cook them up and serve them out to districts across the Buckeye State. In some fashion the soup we serve the poor districts tastes terrible and the students who eat it get food poisoning and almost die.

STRANGER STILL, THE SOUP SERVED out of the same pot to surrounding, affluent suburban districts tastes fine and students who eat it feel great, go on to college, get good jobs, and settle down in affluent neighborhoods themselves.

How is this possible? Oh great, good, and glorious Governor Kasich, can you explain? Is there some cosmic force at work, some power I don't have the mental capacity to grasp? Are smart teachers magnetized, so that they are drawn to some districts and repelled by others?

I know Ohio doesn't have any Indian reservations, but I've been reading in the New York Times about widespread problems with alcoholism, crime and unemployment on reservations out West. And what do you know!

Native-Americans have the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group in America.

If the problems in schools, in Ohio, or anywhere else for that matter, comes down to a few stupid teachers, what are the mathematical probabilities that all the stupidest educators ended up on Indian reservations?

You don't see differences just between one district in Ohio and another. You see differences between states. If problems boil down to teachers, and their lack of mental capacities, how explain that smart teachers migrate to states like Vermont where the public high school graduation rate was 86.6% (students finishing in four years) and Minnesota (85.6%) and dumb educators head south to places like South Carolina (53.9%) and Nevada (47.6%)?

Beating up on public school teachers today seems to be education reformers' sport; but if we ever want to make significant improvements in U. S. education we need to avoid this sort of one-legged analysis. We need to stop pointing every finger at the people at the front of the classrooms. We need to remember something chimpanzee expert Roger Fouts once said: “Good science is parsimonious—it seeks the simplest explanation.”

So what is the simplest explanation? Magnetized teachers? Not likely. The simplest explanation is that most problems in education are still poverty related, in the inner-cities, on reservations, and stratified in rich suburban districts.

THIS DOESN'T MEAN A CHILD IS DOOMED if he or she is born poor. It does mean the child's problems are not all related to teachers.

Even a stupid, retired teacher like me can grasp this simple concept. Family dysfunction often causes families to fall into poverty. So the problem is not poverty, as such, but the dysfunction that caused the family to fall to that condition. Dysfunctional families tend to end up in poorer neighborhoods in larger concentrations, because--well--Governor Kasich--because they're poor.

If mom and dad are both alcoholics, you, the child, are much more likely to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome, as 1 in 4 children on some reservations are. You are far more likely to struggle in school and end up in poverty, too. If dad abandoned the family and won’t pay child support and mom uses drugs, you, the child, are much more likely to end up in poverty, living in a poor neighborhood, with no one at home you can count on to help every afternoon after school. If you, the impressionable teen, live in a gang-ridden inner-city area where streets are unsafe, you will have a far harder time focusing on studies, not to mention a harder time staying out of harm's bloody way. That's why cities have higher murder rates than suburbs. It's not because of stupid cops. Poverty, in and of itself is never disabling. That doesn't mean that problems related to poverty don't make a child's life much harder and complicate everything teachers try to do. Even life expectancy is significantly reduced for people who are poor.

Are they going to stupid doctors, too?

When you start with the premise that schools are struggling because teachers are stupid, every teacher in Ohio ought to be insulted.

SEE ALSO: I Hate Teach for America

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Michelle Rhee's Perfect Ponzi Scheme

THE BIG BUZZ—or is it the big pile of BS—in education reform today is “accountability.” We are going to hold teachers accountable. We are going to hold their feet to the flames and maybe their grading hands and make them raise standards.

We are going to test students until they’re dizzy. And we are going to fire the bad teachers if pupils score low for any reason whatsoever. Then everything wrong in the schools and the lives of the children will miraculously go away.

That may sound simplistic; but that’s pretty much the message of school reform today. Arne Duncan is for standardized testing and tying teacher pay to test results. Michelle Rhee is for it. President George W. Bush was for it. President Obama thinks it’s sure to help. Governor John Kasich, here in Ohio, is emphatically for testing and merit pay based on high scores.

In fact, everyone seems to think it’s time to hold teachers accountable. Low test scores? It’s the teachers. The increase in teen pregnancy? Yeah, teachers. And don’t forget the sinking of the Titanic. That was no iceberg.

It was teachers.

If you ask me, I think it’s time to start holding reformers accountable. Start with Rhee, the woman who has made herself a brand name in reform circles. There are times when it seems she’s all show and no substance, a fraud really, like an announcer pushing male-enhancement pills on late-night TV. Rhee has made grandiose claims about her success in the classroom but abandoned teaching after three years to climb the bureaucratic ladder.

Eventually, she rose high enough to run the Washington, D. C. schools.

WHAT HAPPENED DURING her three years as chancellor of D. C. city schools? Well, she fired a lot of teachers. Hundreds, actually. Unfortunately, getting rid of those “rejects” at the front of the room proved no magic fix. Student attendance fell from 91% in 2006-07 to 88% by 2008-09. Or, to put it another way: the average D. C. student stayed home from school 21.6 days per year.

Maybe when kids miss that much school we shouldn’t blame teachers if test scores are low. I don’t know, maybe I’m stupid. But try missing 21.6 days at work and see who your boss blames. I’m betting he blames you.

Well, good news for Rhee: Graduation rates rose in her district while she ran the show. And bad news, too: SAT scores for those graduates fell from 1217 (the D. C. web page has a mistake and says 1271) to 1196 in those years. It was decline across the boards: down 9 points in reading to 405, down 7 in math to 392, down 5 in writing to 399.

Apparently, the male-enhancement pills weren’t working.

Then again: maybe they were. While Rhee ran the schools standardized test scores, so beloved by reformers, soared. Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from 10% of students “proficient” or “advanced” in math in 2006 to 58% in two years. Amazing success!!! Way to go, Michelle Rhee!!! In 2009, Noyes was one of 264 schools across the country to win a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School award.

Rhee was thrilled and made the school Exhibit A in her campaign for reform. Twice, in 2008 and 2010, she awarded teachers at Noyes (which serves preschoolers through eighth grade) $8,000 bonuses. Wayne Ryan, the principal was awarded $10,000 both times.

Recent investigative reporting by USA Today, however, reveals that many high performing schools in Rhee’s district had “extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.” The pattern showed up in 103 schools, more than half of all buildings in the district. In 2009, for instance, seventh-graders in one class at Noyes averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test.

The average, citywide, was less than 1.

That’s HUGE male-enhancement-type success, and while teachers who were fired for low test scores went looking for new careers, Rhee was busy looking for TV cameras, touting her success, calling for greater reforming zeal.

So what has transpired in the meantime? The D. C. schools won another $75 million in the “Race to the Top” program run by Arne Duncan, because Duncan loves testing. Ryan has been featured in recruitment advertisements by Rhee’s old district, calling him “one of the shining stars of DCPS” and a man known for his “unapologetic focus on instruction.” In fact, applicants for administrative posts are asked, “Are you the next Wayne Ryan?”

Maybe they should be asking, “Are you the next Marvin Webster?” Webster was a shot-blocking NBA star in the late 70s, known in his day as “The Human Eraser.”

EVENTUALLY, THE OFFICE OF STATE SUPERINTENDENT OF EDUCATION began to catch whiffs of fishy smells in D. C. and recommended investigation. Top city school officials balked and dragged their feet. The State Superintendent’s office asked McGraw-Hill to examine test results at 96 schools, including 8 of 10 buildings which won TEAM awards from Rhee “to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff.” Based on rising scores in 2007 and 2008, more than $1.5 million in bonuses were paid out. Now McGraw-Hill found that three award-winning schools had wrong-to-right erasure rates that raised red flags in 85% of classrooms. After 2009, the district hired an outside investigator to examine eight schools, including Noyes. Just like that, test scores plunged in 2010. A second investigation, after tests were completed that year, found 41 schools, including Noyes again, had at least one classroom with unusually high numbers of erasures. Even parents were growing suspicious.

The head of the teachers’ union called Rhee’s push for testing and linking scores to teacher pay an academic Ponzi scheme. Mary Lord, a member of the board which has power to advise the D. C. schools, puts it succinctly: “You’ve handed out these big bonuses. What are you going to do? Take them back? It’s a bombshell. It’s embarrassing.”

Ryan, himself, declined to speak with USA Today for the story, but has since been promoted to instructional superintendent in the D. C. schools.

When Rhee was reached by phone she told reporters she was no longer chancellor of the D. C. schools and passed on a chance to comment. If you follow Rhee’s career you know what a rarity that is. Usually, she loves to talk.

Her favorite topic: “Michelle Rhee and All Her Great Ideas.”

D. C. officials also refused to comment—to let reporters visit the schools—or talk to principals, including Adell Cothorne, the new leader at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus.

As for Rhee, she’s still leading the charge in education reform. She’s still an unflinching advocate of testing. She still believes teachers should be held accountable and fired if student test scores are low.

She’s still selling those male-enhancement pills.

Fools believe the road to knowledge is filled with bubble-in tests.