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


  1. My good friend, Jeff Sharpless, also a teacher sent me this email response: I read your blog post about "stupid teachers." It was quite an astute observation....for an idiot! (ha)

  2. When I posted the above entry to the Facebook page of Students for Education Reform Ohio University, I received this reply from Spencer Smith, the chapter leader:

    "You raise a lot off important issues here. A lot of good ones, too. I would challenge you to think about your 'Bean Soup Tautology.' Because new teachers have some decision in where they teach, it makes sense that most teachers would want to teach in affluent, suburban schools for the job security and so they aren't faced with teaching in failing schools. It is not as if all teachers are drafted into an Ohio Teacher Army and then randomly assigned to a school. That being said, while teacher evaluation is important, it's not the only thing holding education back in Ohio and nationally and SFER supports reform in those other areas."

    I appreciate his input, and I think he raises a valid point. I also want to say, we'd be more feared, as a profession, if there WAS an Ohio Teacher Army.

  3. I responded, via Facebook, to Mr. Smith's comment this way: "I know you're correct about young teachers choosing affluent districts. I would assume, however, that an Ohio U. grad working in Loveland, my old affluent district, and an Ohio U. grad working in some failing district would both be...as graduates of the same college program, both competent to teach. In any case, I only mean to bring some awareness to this issue. I wish all of you well in your careers."

    I just can't get past the fear that we're being portrayed, more and more, in the public eye as a sorry assortment of incompetents.

  4. Ahhhhh, I'm a teacher, so I think I got it.

    Seriously, thank you for your insightful comments and for making me feel that I am not alone. I am a teacher in Texas, and I can tell you, things are really bad down here. Between weak unions (right to work state), massive layoffs, and accountability ratings based on standardized tests, it is amazing there are any teachers that even stick around. If the economy was better, I think things would be different.

    Keep the torch lit!