Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Another Teacher Killed in Danvers, Massachusetts


Monday, I picked up the New York Times and read again about how dumb America’s teachers supposedly are.

I’m a retired teacher myself, and a liberal, too, and love to read the Times. So, maybe that does make me dumb.

More on that in a moment; but a few hours later I turned on the TV and heard about the school shooting in Sparks, Nevada.

Depending on how you count such incidents the shooting at Sparks Middle School was the fifteenth in or near a school this year. (That includes a number of episodes involving gunfire on college campuses.) In Sparks, the shooter, 12, wounded two classmates, killed Michael Lansberry, a teacher and ex-Marine who served in Afghanistan, then took his own life.

Today we have terrible news again.

The body of Colleen Ritzer, 24-year-old math teacher at Danvers High School in Danvers, Massachusetts, has been discovered behind her school. Blood was found in a second-floor school bathroom and a 14-year-old has been charged with murder.

It’s bad enough, then, that American students and teachers are killed with such sanguine regularity. The Sandy Hook Elementary massacre briefly focused attention on the problem. But the deaths of one or two or three individuals, here and there, are no less horrifying. Here in Ohio, last April, a La Salle High School student shot himself in the head and ended up in critical condition. In February 2012, gunfire erupted at Chardon High, not far from Cleveland. That incident left three teens dead, a fourth paralyzed, and one “slightly” wounded.

(Imagine that you are the parent and find that your son or daughter was “slightly” wounded at school that day.)

Worse yet—if there can be a “worse” when it comes to such matters—the Chardon shooter showed no remorse in court. At his sentencing, T. J. Lane, 18, wore a plain white tee shirt on which the word “KILLER” was scrawled in magic marker. “This hand that pulled the trigger that killed your sons,” he told stunned families in court, “now masturbates to the memory. F--- all of you.”

With that he flipped everyone the bird.

So here I sit in my safe retirement. I read these stories of mayhem in the schools and find myself sickened. I read of the father who stuck his infant daughter in a freezer to stop her from crying. I read—in the Times, of all places—that 10% of babies born in Scioto County (again, here in Ohio) are addicted to drugs. I read in the Times, again, that 15% of parents let their sons and daughters stay home from school twenty times or more every year.

Then I read the editorial on Monday: “An Industry of Mediocrity.” I know my disgust is as nothing in the face of very real tragedy in Sparks or Danvers. A stupid article is nothing compared to the loss of a loved one. Still, this article is all too typical in its lame attempt to come to grips with “what’s wrong with America’s schools.”

I think to myself: “Maybe part of the trouble involves ‘gunfire.’”

Well, what industry is producing all this “mediocrity?” Colleges of education, naturally! What is the mediocre product? Why, it’s you and me, a nation’s public school teachers.

Here’s the gist of the article:

  • America’s teachers aren’t all that bright. According to “one respected study” only 23% come from the top third of college graduates. That sounds bad, till you stop to realize, statistically speaking, that only 33% should come from the top third—the same as bankers, bakers, butchers and editorial writers.
  • Worse yet, only 14% of teachers in high-poverty schools come from the top third of their college classes. 
  • People who run charter schools are quoted, insisting that, yes, it’s true! Charter schools are way better than regular public schools. That’s because they have freedom to pick teachers and don’t pick dimwits. (I admit I’m paraphrasing.)
  • The article quotes individuals who run various foundations interested in reforming education (but much too smart to go into the high-poverty schools and do any teaching). These theorists promise that, sure, they know exactly how to fix education.
  • Some college professor who did a study grumbles about how we train teachers. There are a few good training programs. Sadly, most don’t require middle school math teachers to study calculus before entering the classroom. Therefore, “Some of our education programs are putting out math teachers at the level of Botswana.” (Damn! Botswana!) Worse, yet, according to Bill Keller, who penned the column, “the Botswana-level teacher programs produce about 60% of America’s future middle school math teachers.”
  • Finland has better teachers—all chosen from the top third of their classes. We need to copy this system. Keller quotes Amanda Ripley (who also did not choose to go into a high-povertry school), who wrote an entire book about Finland’s smarter teachers. (I admit I liked a large part of what Ripley had to say in The Smartest Kids in the World, but I’m not buying this happy myth about how we could solve all our problems if only we had smarter teachers.)

Finally, Keller notes that there are already 3.3 million public school teachers in America today. They can’t all be trained (retrained?) by new methods or start-up programs. So, hell, we’re temporarily screwed, at best, and there’s still a lot of “widespread mediocrity.”

What I notice, very sadly, is that there’s a lot of gunfire. And I don’t think you have to graduate in the top third of any class, not even kindergarten, to realize most of the problems “in” our schools have deep roots in a society outside their walls.

I don’t think the main problems in education have anything to do with where Michael Landsberry or Colleen Ritzer or any of the rest of us finished in the college rankings.

I’m surprised editorial writers continue to miss the point. 

Say a prayer for all the students and teachers.

T. J. Lane gunned down several classmates.

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