Saturday, November 23, 2013

Does Arne Duncan Realize that Teachers and Students Are Dying?

Two education stories captured my attention this week. One that involved U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seemed stupid.

The other turned my stomach.

We now know the accused killer of Colleen Ritzer, a Massachusetts high school teacher, has been charged with aggravated rape. Ritzer, 24, was murdered in a second floor women’s bathroom at Danvers High in October. Apparently she asked the accused killer to stay after school and prepare for a test. The suspect was a 14-year old freshman in one of her math classes.

“The indictments returned today reveal horrific and unspeakable acts,” a district attorney noted. He’s right. The details are awful. Philip Chism, the accused, is said to have planned the crime in detail and left a note behind.

“I hate you all,” it read.

Why does this story touch me? If for no other reason, because I have two daughters about the same age as Colleen Ritzer. I worked with wonderful young female teachers throughout my career. This could have been any of them.

And what do our “leaders” say about these kinds of incidents? They hardly notice. Duncan travels the country talking blithely about Common Core Standards. He thinks a curriculum can fix what’s wrong with schools. Does he ever wonder?

What would Duncan say to Michael Lansberry? Lansberry survived a tour of duty in Afghanistan but was shot down on the playground at Sparks Middle School the same week Ritzer was raped and killed. This time the assailant was a 12-year-old boy. Lansberry was trying to stop him from shooting his classmates. The boy killed Lansberry. Then he killed himself.

I’m sick of such stories.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. The people who want to fix our schools have settled on the idea that the biggest problem is teachers. Like Ritzer should be the focus of all their fixing. These arrogant fools say teachers are too lazy—too unionized—too dumb. Read a typical editorial in the New York Times if you don’t believe me. It’s titled: “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn?” Listen to Mayor Michael Bloomberg talk about education. Watch Waiting for Superman, a truly stupid film produced by Davis Guggenheim, about five good kids and America’s “failing schools.”

I know kids. I taught 33 years. I know there are way, way more good kids than bad. Still, there are young people like Ritzer’s killer. Will we ever learn? That’s the question the New York Times editorial poses.

“We will never learn,” I want to say to our leaders. “Not so long as we listen to you.”

Ms. Ritzer already had more experience in a classroom when she was murdered than Duncan, Bloomberg and Guggenheim combined. You’d think these insufferable asses might notice and be more humble. Instead, they enjoy kicking teachers in the teeth. Consider Bloomberg and his School Chancellor, Joel Klein. Klein never taught either. They said the way to fix U. S. education was to grade schools.

Well, what “grade” do we give Danvers High? Does the school get an “F” if a young teacher was raped and killed in a bathroom?

Is that our focus?

Duncan talks about how we need more charter schools. Real teachers wonder: Would Chism have been less deeply troubled, less violent if he attended a charter school?

There are others who insist you can “fix education” by handing out vouchers and letting parents decide what schools their children attend. Suppose Chism’s parents had had a voucher. Would the same exclusive private school that was happy to enroll Mr. Guggenheim’s children have allowed Philip through the front door? Of course not.

What in god’s name do our leaders ever do to help teachers? What did they ever do to make the job of Ritzer and Lansberry easier? Not one damn thing. They only required them to complete more paperwork—made them try to prove they were really teaching.

It makes me sick.

Which of our leaders was within a hundred miles of Sandy Hook Elementary on the day of the terrible massacre? Which of them jumped in front of the gunman and tried to shield those poor kids? Bloomberg might be rich enough to build a personal fortress out of giant piles of money. But it was a young teacher, Victoria Soto, 27, who gave her life trying to save a classroom of six and seven-year-old children. Soto put her body in the line of fire and died in the attempt. So, how much did it matter what college she attended before she entered the teaching profession? (See Bloomberg comment linked above.)

Will we ever learn? That’s a critical question.

Do our leaders truly believe you can fix schools without fixing society? Most of the worst problems in schools have roots in neighborhoods and homes that surround them. Tell us what education plan you have to address the matter of pregnant mothers who smoke meth. What good is any curriculum if one baby is born in America every hour addicted to opiates? Do you really believe Common Core standards are the key? Well then, read about the father who stuck his newborn in a freezer to stop her from crying. Consider the dad who threatened his daughter with an AK-47 because she got a “B” on an assignment. Or “google” the phrase: “Father kills…”

You may not know, but Duncan rose to fame by “reforming” the Chicago Public School system. One of his brilliant ideas was to close “failing schools” and send students to different buildings. Want to guess what happened? The kids with serious problems brought their serious problems with them to new schools. Nothing was actually fixed. Sure:  I know public schools must do what they can to help every child. But if a young man belongs to a gang, a vexing problem in the Windy City, blaming teachers for low test scores is worse than no solution at all.

You want to “fix the schools?” Explain how all your fixing would have helped Darryl Green. The 16-year-old Chicagoan was gunned down recently because he refused to join a gang.

(Hey, I have a great idea to help him. Why not make it harder for teachers to get tenure?)

Even if our leaders did nothing but shut up it might help. It might help if they tried to be realistic—to stop acting like teachers are the problem. Do that in memory of Colleen Ritzer, Michael Lansberry, and all those slaughtered at Sandy Hook. That would be a start. Then if someone like Mayor Bloomberg still wants to fix everything he can roll up his sleeves and pitch in and help. I suggest he start by working with high-risk kids like Shaaliver Douse. At age 14, Douse was already a member of a violent New York City street gang. He had two gun-related arrests on his record, including one for attempted murder. This past August he was killed by police after he was spotted shooting at another teen and chasing him down the street.

I say let Mr. Duncan step out of his office and march right into a classroom. Let him work one-on-one with the boy who shot up Chardon High School here in Ohio in 2012. There’s a truly terrible story, especially if you consider the shooter’s conduct during his trial. Forget the new Common Core Standards, Secretary Duncan.

This is your chance to make a difference.

Will we ever learn? This can’t be that hard to grasp. Secretary Duncan graduated from Harvard. He can’t be that dumb. But what was the U. S. Secretary of Education talking about this week? He was touting the cure-all powers of a new national curriculum. The dropout rate in America is too high, he told reporters. Is it because of gangs? Does it have anything to do with drug abuse? Crazy parents? Chronic absenteeism? Or endemic violence?

Oh no.

Kids drop out, says Duncan, because school is too easy. Teachers are the problem. They don’t set high enough standards.

That’s like saying it was Colleen Ritzer’s fault. God help me, I wish our leaders would shut up. If they know nothing, let them hold their tongues.

Say a prayer for the teachers and students we've lost.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at and I can probably send you a copy direct, a little more cheaply. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

School Reforms Backfire? SAT and ACT Test Scores Stagnate or Decline

The last decade has been filled with school reform. So, how are these reforms working? Our leaders in education—I mean people who give advice rather than teach—have been pushing standardized tests! Yep, our leaders love them. 

The testing companies love them too.

Thirteen years have passed since Congress enacted No Child Left Behind. Remember that great law! One bold promise wrapped in 1,100 pages of jargon and buried in bureaucratic detail. You know the promise: Every child would be proficient in reading and math by—well—2014. Remember all the tests tied to that law? Okay, those tests are gone. No problem! We now have Common Core and another round of fresh tests coming our way.

By now we might be excused for expecting the ripe fruits of reform to be ready for picking. Let’s see how America’s college-bound kids are doing.

First, consider American College Testing (ACT) scores for the last two decades.

Um…average reading scores for the 2012 graduating class were no higher than scores for the class of 1995. In science the class of 2012 did no better than the class of 1994. The average English score in 1999, three years before passage of No Child Left Behind, was the same as today. Only math scores are up in any statistically significant way.

How about writing? Writing ability seems to be plunging, perhaps because “standardized writing” is hard even to imagine.


Maybe testing helped close the gender gap. Nope it hasn’t. The gender gap has been consistent for years, hovering just around .2 annually. Males had an average composite score of 21.2 in 2012, females 21.0.

What about a secondary promise of No Child Left Behind? That a focus on testing would eliminate the racial gap?

Also not working!

The average score by race in 2012—which correlates almost perfectly with average poverty rates by racial group—is as follows:

African-American:                            17.0
American-Indian:                              18.4
White                                               22.4
Hispanic                                           18.9
Asian                                                23.6
Pacific Islander                                 19.8
Two or More Races                         21.4
No Response                                   21.3


What do the figures for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT’s) show? Huge gains you figure. All these great reforms! Let’s check those gains out.


Well, isn’t that depressing! You almost get the feeling reformers who push standardized testing don’t know what learning is really about.

Math scores for seniors interested in attending colleges and universities are down 9 points since NCLB was made law. Reading scores are down 5. Writing scores again seem to be falling fastest. The writing test was new in 200d and scores are down 9 in six years.

How about the “racial and gender gaps” that No Child Left Behind was supposed to fix? What does the latest evidence show? Good news, I guess.

Male and female students are getting worse scores, but doing it equally. Total scores for both sexes are down 20 points.

With the exception of one racial group, all are performing equally. That is:  scores are in decline.White kids are down (-6 points). So are African-American kids (-13), Mexican American kids (-16), Puerto Rican kids (-9) and Other Hispanic kids (-17).

It’s a debacle.

Only Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander kids (all one category for SAT) are doing better. Oddly enough, their scores have increased, in the three tested areas, by a combined 45 points.


How are all the reforms working? Well, terrible, I think you might say. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing adds this note of warning: “Doubling down on unsuccessful policies with more high-stakes K-12 testing, as Common Core exam proponents propose, is an exercise in futility, not meaningful school improvement.”

See also:

Monday, November 4, 2013

Will Bulletproof Whiteboards Be the Answer to School Shootings?

Worried about school safety in blood-drenched America? Well, we now have the answer. 

Bulletproof whiteboards!

You might think this is a joke; but considering the recent murders of teachers Colleen Ritzer and Michael Landsberry, there is little cause for humor. Ritzer was allegedly stabbed at school by an attacker wielding a box cutter. Landsberry was gunned down on the school playground. Ironically, Landsberry, an ex-Marine, once survived a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Ritzer’s killer was said to be a 14-year-old freshman in one of her math classes.

Landsberry was struck by a bullet from a gun held in the hand of a 12-year-old middle school kid. In that incident the boy may have planned to shoot several classmates. He did wound two. Landsberry tried to stop the carnage and died in the attempt.

The boy then shot himself.

In the wake of all too many similar incidents schools are hoping to play defense. According to an article in the New York Times, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is doing something about the threat of violence. At a cost of $59,800 the school purchased bulletproof whiteboards for professors. One will hang in every room. According to the campus chief of police the decision was easy. School leaders wanted “one more tool to help us ensure the safety of the campus community.” Even better: “the whiteboards are user-friendly and noninvasive.”

I’m sorry. Here a dose of bitter sarcasm seems the only reaction. One might posit such questions: Does the professor tell students about this possibly live-saving whiteboard? If an attacker enters the room, might not a struggle—with students—for possession of the shield ensue? For god sake, what parts of the body does one protect? The boards are only 18 x 20 inches. Hold the shield low and one’s head is exposed. Hold it high and…well. Let us say only that other delicate areas might be targeted.

Hardwire, the company that makes the shields, is seeing a business boom. In a YouTube video a company spokesmen explains that this innovative new product was “inspired by the Sandy Hook [Elementary School] tragedy.” Public school districts in Minnesota, Maryland and North Dakota have already purchased these special whiteboards. And why not! According to one expert, bulletproof whiteboards are fantastic. “It’s something that a teacher could actually walk around with, teach with it, place a book on it, it’s very lightweight.”

You can write on them too!

Well, I guess you can’t mess with the Second Amendment. So you can’t ban any kinds of weapons or limit the size of ammo clips. You can’t have more background checks or register all guns. You can’t require gun owners to lock up weapons or be held liable for misuse. After all, a “well-armed militia” is the only question to consider in 2013.

You know what the Founding Fathers would say if they were alive today? “Buy some bulletproof whiteboards!”

Besides, you know the N.R.A. argument. Banning guns won’t stop all the killings. “If you ban guns, then criminals will use box cutters.” Hell, what about knitting needles! At this point, who knows how far the N.R.A. will go to win this argument?

I will leave the constitutional argument to others—noting only that all rights are subject to carefully drawn, sensible limits.

And really, who says we have a problem? (Okay, probably Michael Lansberry’s wife and two children.) Others would argue, I suppose, that we already live in the safest nation in the world. Because the more guns we have the safer we are. Ann Coulter said so, days after the Sandy Hook massacre. “I’m on the Hannity show right now,” she tweeted. “More guns,” she added, “less mass shootings.” So, let’s buy more guns! According to FBI figures, 2012 was a great year for gun manufacturers. At least 16.8 million FBI background checks were run during the year.

Today, we must be getting safer by the minute. There were 11.4 million background checks ordered in the first six months of this year.

Do you feel safer?

I just don’t. In America today you can be killed in all kinds of places—or if lucky—maybe just wounded. You can be gunned down by a heavily-armed assailant in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. So what do we need? Bulletproof popcorn containers? You can be killed while screening passengers at the Los Angeles airport as happened just last week. So: Kevlar luggage! You can be killed while at work in the Washington, D. C. Navy Yard. Therefore: we need bulletproof office cubicles. You can be shot by mistake by your husband in Ohio. And you have to worry about incidents of road rage, too. If you missed it, two Michigan drivers (both with concealed-carry permits) recently shot and killed each other. Both men had pulled into a parking lot to argue about one driver’s tailgating the other. Your 5-year-old can accidently kill his 2-year-old sister. Or, one of your children can kill another in an argument over a video game. Or, moms, your son can gun you down, and also his sister, after watching the movie “Halloween.”

You can even pick up a gun and kill yourself, which, on average, 53 Americans do every single day of the year.

Another 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day.

And every day more than 200 are wounded.

Compared to all other advance nations, we lead by far when it comes to gun-related slaughter. So, what do we do? (Double click on chart below to expand it for easy reading.)

We know Congress isn’t doing anything.

Maybe at this point we cast logic aside. We need bulletproof whiteboards, not just in colleges. We need them in all the classrooms all the way down to the kindergarten level. Our kids could also use bulletproof notebooks.

I suppose we will never be safe, if Ann Coulter is right, until every American owns a gun and we finally put an end to the gun-related carnage. In fact, I suppose you could argue that this Christmas, pistols would be perfect stocking stuffers. You can’t have any limits on guns, right, because that would be the end of all freedom? Well, then, it is the duty of every freedom-loving citizen to buy at least one pistol, rifle or shotgun for every family member. Two or three per person, naturally, would be better. Yes, it will take time to reach this state of heavily-armed perfection. But while we wait, let’s not take chances. Clearly, we need some bold company to come out with bulletproof underwear for children. Also: bulletproof Huggies for infants.