Saturday, August 23, 2014

Is Getting Rid of Tenure the Answer? Or Should Teachers Stop Breathing?

I’m just a typical retired teacher. I probably shouldn’t let the flurry of attacks on public school teachers bother me.

But I do.

For that reason, I would like to pose a question that goes to the heart of school reform thinking: Why do so many experts sound so stupid when they talk about fixing our schools?

This question bothers me like a sharp stone in my shoe. I read about what’s “wrong” with American education and end up scratching my head.

Maybe I’m dumb! That’s a thread in attacks on public school teachers today. Supposedly, we’re not smart enough. Finland! Finland is the model we must follow. In Finland only smart people teach! In fact, according to education experts there’s nothing wrong with American education except all the bad teachers.

A typical editorial in the New York Times this week hammered on that point. According to Mike Johnston, who “spent two years with Teach for America,” bad teachers with tenure are the great stumbling block in the path of every child’s academic success.

After spending two whole years in a classroom, Johnston seems to think he learned everything there is to know about teaching. Then he spent six years working as a principal in a Denver public school. And what do you know! 

His school had amazing standardized test results.

(We will not mention here the numerous cheating scandals involving other “amazing” standardized test results. We will also not mention that all the amazing test results linked to No Child Left Behind have now been tossed out the classroom window onto the schoolhouse lawn. Nope. We will keep our teacher sarcasm in check.)

No Child Left Behind is dead. Long live Common Core, instead.

Frank Bruni, who signed the editorial, noted that Johnston’s mother was a public school teacher. Johnston isn’t a teacher hater. (So Bruni says.) Still, he “expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers.” That’s the first line that makes me choke on my morning toast.

You there! The physics teacher pointing out the solution to a complex problem on the white board. You! The one grading those eighth grade Language Arts essays! You! The one talking to the weeping third grader! YOU are not the best person for the job.

You are the PROBLEM. 

If we could get rid of you all children would excel. We can’t get rid of you though. You have tenure. You rat!

So what must be done? Johnston says we need to implement a tenure system that “means something,” a system based on test results. (Even bogus test results? Or results that no longer matter because NCLB is dead?) We can’t continue the system we have now that rewards teachers “just because you’re breathing.”

That’s the second line in the editorial that makes me choke on my toast. If I read this editorial right, asphyxiation is the cure for what ails U. S. education. We simply convince bad teachers to stop breathing.

Ironically, after trashing teachers in a general way, Bruni ends by exhorting readers to support good teachers everywhere. But this is one of many pieces of a similar kind that hint good teachers are few and far between. Hard to find. Kind of like Sasquatch. Or unicorns. “We need to pay good teachers much more,” Bruni adds. “We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the great from the bad.”

Now a Colorado lawmaker, Johnston has the last word: “Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he says lamely, having already said the reverse. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

That’s the line that finally makes me mumble a curse.

I loved teaching and had tenure most of my career. I knew what I did truly mattered. So I did the absolute best I could. But unlike the non-teaching experts—or the quick teaching quitters who go on to become “leaders” and politicians and critics—I learned that I wasn’t the solution. No teacher has ever been and no teacher ever will.

If every bad teacher in a classroom suddenly stopped breathing next week critical problems in all our schools would absolutely remain. (In Finland, to cite one example, 4% of children live in poverty. In the USA that figure is 23%.) Good teachers put dents in such problems. Good teachers do that every day. 

Nevertheless, our so-called leaders must face up to the truth. Teachers aren’t the solution and tenure isn’t the problem. H. L. Mencken put it plainly seventy-five years ago: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The experts offer up simple solutions to complex problems, simple solutions that all to often prove disastrously wrong in the end. If we wish to improve outcomes in schools we have to rest school reform on a solid foundation of good sense. A society has a right to expect teachers to give their best. A society cannot, however, expect them to perform miracles with every child every day.

Teachers don’t need to be lectured, punished, or vilified by fools. They need aid in addressing terrible problems that seep into schools—problems rooted in neighborhoods and homes, problems not of their making, nor within their ordinary human capacities to resolve.


Problems Beyond Teachers' Control

Problems Beyond Teachers' Control

See if you can figure out which of these problems would be eliminated (or even reduced) if teachers lost all tenure protection:

Approximately 300 American children are murdered annually by parents. Marchella Pierce (as just one example) was tied to a bed, beaten and starved to death by her mother. The four-year-old weighed 19 pounds when she died.

Each day an average of 4.5 U. S. children die as a direct result of neglect.

There are 3,000,000 cases of abuse and neglect reported annually in this country involving nearly six million children.

A "Lousy Parent" Hall of Fame would include but not be limited to:
  • the father who put his infant daughter in the freezer because she was crying 
  • a father who threatened his daughter (over her grades) with an AK-47 
  • a mother who gave her two-year-old marijuana to smoke as a joke
  • a mother who sold her two daughters to a pedophile for $30,000
  • another mother who sold her daughter in return for Beyonce tickets
  • a dad arrested after repeatedly throwing his 23-month-old daughter into the pool to teach her a lesson about safety

At least 1.6 million American kids run away from homes every year. Most are teens. Many are fleeing physical or sexual abuse. Over half of all children and teens living in shelters or on the streets say parents "asked them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn't care."

(We might be able to help them if we spent less on standardized testing and more to hire school psychologists and counselors.)


In 1950 only 6% of American children grew up in single-parent homes. Today the figure is 35%. For African American kids the figure is 67%; for Native Americans: 53%; for Hispanics and Latinos: 42%; for Non-Hispanic Whites: 25%; for Asian Americans: 17%. It won't surprise any teacher to know that graduation rates are inversely related to the figures above.

Children raised in single-parent homes are twice as likely to drop out of school.

Nearly three million children in this country live with neither parent.

High school graduation rates for Native Americans, to cite one of a thousand examples, fell to 51% in 2010. You could argue this has much to do with crushing poverty on reservations. (Or you could make some absurd case that bad teachers with tenure gravitate toward reservations.) On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota 61% of children live below the poverty line.

A study by Johns Hopkins reveals that 15% of students miss at least one school day in every ten. Forget ending tenure as a solution. Give teachers telepathic powers so they can reach students sick, and faking sick, at home.)


There are 2.7 million children in this country who have one (or both) parents behind bars.

In 2011 roughly 35% of all gang members in this country were 17 years of age or younger. An estimated 1.4 million individuals belonged to gangs in 2009. That means 490,000 gang members were still in schools or roaming the streets.

In 2007-2008, the U. S. Department of Education estimated that 145,100 U. S. teachers were attacked by students.

Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre there have been 74 school shootings in this country, including twenty involving one fatality or more.

This would not include 22 students and staff injured in a stabbing attack at a Murrysville, Pennsylvania high school (April 2014).

Nor would it include Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old Massachusetts teacher, raped, stabbed and killed in a bathroom at her school after classes ended for the day. A 14-year-old student in her math class has been charged with the crimes.

According to FBI statistics there were 2,852 attacks in U. S. schools involving knives or other "cutting instruments" in one year (2004).

It might also be difficult for any teacher, with tenure or without, to reach a confused 11-year-old who brought knives, a loaded pistol and 400 rounds of ammunition to a Vancouver, Washington middle school intending to kill classmates. (This attack was thwarted before he could do any harm.)


In 2009 alone more than 13,500 infants were born suffering "from a type of drug withdrawal commonly seen in the babies of pregnant women who abuse narcotic pain medications." The rate of such births has tripled in a decade.

Deaths from opiod overdoses in the United States now number 16,000 per year. (One statistical oddity: doctors in Tennessee wrote opiod prescriptions at a rate 22 times higher than doctors in Minnesota.) Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control, explained recently: "Prescription drug overdose is epidemic in the United States. All too often, and in far too many communities, the treatment is becoming the problem.”

Meanwhile, 6.4 million American kids have been diagnosed with ADHD and treated with drugs like Ritalin. Frieden recently "likened the rising rates of stimulant prescriptions among children to the overuse of pain medications and antibiotics in adults." (Again, rates of diagnosis vary: 23% of children in Tennessee--only 10% in Colorado. Sorry, we're not really picking on Tennessee.) Even Dr. NeHallowell, who once called such drugs "as harmless as aspirin" and wrote a book about ADHD now calls this situation "dangerous" and admits, "I hate to think I have a hand in creating that problem."

Roughly 23.5 million Americans, many of them teens still in school, or parents of kids, are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

One in fifteen high school students (6.5%) admits smoking marijuana every day. No way of telling whether or not this helped when they took their standardized tests.


Finally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, for health and educational reasons, that children be limited to watching two hours of television per day. Many moms and dads aren't getting the message. The average American child watches 35 hours per week.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Best Seating Chart Ever

I adopted this arrangement after I read it helped with discipline.
I taught seventh and eighth grades.

Like any young teacher, I found keeping good order in a classroom to be one of my biggest challenges. I had been in the Marines, too.

And that kind of helped.

At the start of my third or fourth year in the classroom, I came across a story about a teacher who did away with typical rows. Instead, he arranged student desks in a horseshoe formation. There were two rows of chairs on each wing, teens facing inward and two rows at the base of the “shoe.” His position was at the open end near the blackboard (in those days). 

This allowed him to roam the center of the classroom at will.

This seating chart proved to be a huge improvement over old-fashioned rows. First, it was popular with students (nearly always a virtue, I think). It allowed them to see each other instead of the backs of their classmates’ heads. This fostered a more intimate atmosphere, especially during discussions.

Equally important, this setup allowed for greatly improved discipline from my end. Suppose, with old-fashioned rows, a child in the back was thinking about poking a neighbor. Or he was writing a note. Under the old arrangement you found yourself far away at the front of the room while the young man studied the distance.

To him it looked safe. He knew you wouldn’t see him poke the cute girl in the back. Or he knew by the time you came down the row he’d have his half-finished love note tucked safely away.

The horseshoe altered this calculation. If you roamed the center in random fashion, it was hard for anyone in the “back” to zone out. If you thought the young man in Seat A was doodling, you strolled in his direction, casually, since no rows impeded. And you stood next to his seat. You just happened to stop by—and asked the girl to his right to answer a question. The boy in Seat A is now alert. 

If a girl in Seat C was being a little disruptive you walked over and without a word gave her your “teacher look” or simply tapped her desk.

Seat B (or its twin on the other side of the room) was a good place to locate any particularly loquacious youth. You surrounded them with quiet or studious types in adjacent seats. It was also easy to stand by them during lectures and tamp down any disruptive impulse.

Proximity sufficed—and cutting down minor problems helped avoid festering sores that could lead to serious discipline problems in the end.