Monday, October 31, 2011

Bullies in Middle School and Junior High

The famous sign of the weenie.

EVERY YEAR, AT THE MIDDLE AND JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL, I knew I’d have one or two students who couldn’t find their niche. I always did what I could to help.

One year it was Phillip, a seventh grader so immature, when asking permission to go to the bathroom, he said he had “a poo poo problem.”

Another year it was Michelle, a sweet-tempered girl, inept in matters of personal grooming. She’d come to class after lunch with a red ring of Hawaiian Punch round her mouth. I had to make sure to tell her to wipe her face before classmates came flooding in. Sometimes during lunch she asked to sit in my room as I graded papers. She didn’t have many friends and only wanted someone to talk to while she ate her sandwich and drank her Punch.

I remember when the “L” sign (for “loser”) came into vogue in the 90s, and remained popular with students for a number of years. I found it offensive.

When I couldn’t break kids of the habit—forming the “L” with thumb and forefinger and placing it to the forehead—I tried indirection. Now and then, for fun, or depending on what we might be talking about in class (we talked about empathy often) I started raising three fingers to form a “W” for “weenie” and stuck them to my head. It was a stupid “insult” but made it hard for teens to focus on their own disagreements when their teacher was standing there with three fingers stuck to his forehead and telling them, “Yeah, you’re a weenie.”

Almost all teens are kind-hearted if they stop to think about what they’re doing and my kids caught on quickly. We began elaborating. A “weenie,” as I explained, was anyone who zoned out during my class or disparaged my absolutely, positively, fantastic jokes. According to students, I was the biggest “weenie” of all.

I can’t argue with that.

We began inventing new forms. If a kid complained about homework I scratched my head in distracted fashion, using three fingers, giving the “Inadvertent Weenie.” Kids invented the “Armpit Weenie” (three fingers and a tickling motion), the “Quadruple Weenie” (two students at once) and the politically-incorrect “Indian Weenie” (three fingers behind the head). Erin Morrison, one of my strongest students, made everyone laugh by demonstrating with various leg kicks and appropriate sound effects the “Karate Kid Weenie.”

A few days later Erin spoke up: “Mr. Viall, make Chelsea show you the ‘Sammy Sosa Weenie!’”

When I called on her to demonstrate, Chelsea McCarty grinned. At the time steroid use was still unproven and Sosa, the Chicago Cubs slugger, was widely admired. Chelsea tapped her heart three times as Sosa did with his index finger whenever he came to bat, only using the three-fingered “W.” Then she touched her lips with the “W,” just as Sosa touched his with an index finger. Then she pointed to the sky like Sosa, using the “W” instead of an index finger. The class applauded and laughed and so did I.

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE’S NOTHING FUNNY about being victimized by bullies. So I interceded to protect targets any time I could. Near the end of my career I had to step in to shield one of my favorite students. Ross was a thoughtful young man, serious-minded, never a problem. There were times when I could see he was down. We talked. He revealed his problems, but only in part. A group of tough kids, none in my classes, had lined up against him.

I offered the usual advice to young men dealing with tormentors: Keep a poker face. Don’t ever give bullies the pleasure of knowing they’re getting to you. Learn to poke a little fun at yourself, leaving no room for others to deliver a true insult of their own. I told Ross about how I suffered in seventh grade when a group of boys picked on me for being skinny.

This seemed to make him feel better, knowing that there was hope in surviving adolescence.

Most kids liked Ross. But outside my classroom walls the bullying was far worse than I understood. One evening Ross’ father (one of my former students) called me at home. He said his son had great respect for what I said. Would it be possible for dad and I to meet? I said yes and suggested he bring Ross, a tactic that usually proved beneficial in dealing with teens.

The three of us sat down together after school a few days later and the story came pouring out. The problem had started in sixth grade, the year before, when a group of poor students singled Ross out for abuse. They never let up, with summer vacation his only respite. Mr. ----- brought up an incident that left me shocked and angry. One of Ross’s tormentors, who towered over him by a foot, had seen him coming down the hall. Ross was carrying an armload of books, his less-scholarly nemesis none. As they passed the bigger boy spat in his face.

“Nobody deserves that, Ross,” I said with outrage, “I don’t care what you have ever said or done. No one deserves that.”

Dad spoke of his love for his son. His eyes brimmed. He reached out and patted Ross on the shoulder. I felt a lump in my throat. This was even more serious than usual.

“Don’t tell anyone I said this,” I continued, “but if they’re going to keep picking on you then you might have to fight.” I described my experience in seventh grade when one of the bullies and I tangled after gym—and after that how he and his friends left me alone. “I don’t think your dad would blame you and it might be worth the three-day suspension to win a little respect.” A hint of a smile finally showed on Ross’s face. I added that he might not want to take on the biggest kid; but at some point he might have to defend himself in a confontration with another member of the gang.

Finally, I promised to speak to the biggest boy, the leader of the wolf pack, the following day. And I won’t deny it. I was pissed.

During my conference period next morning I looked the young man up and asked him to step out in the hall. He was tall enough to look me in the eye. So I looked him in the eye. I told him that while I had not been witness to any incidents “other students” informed me that he was bullying classmates. I didn’t mention names. I didn’t bring up spitting.

I said a parent had also called.

Anatole France once said, “The more you talk, the less people remember.” And that’s the best advice I ever heard when it comes to talking with teens. Keep your points simple and be decisive and precise.

So, I didn’t threaten or lecture. “I don’t know you personally, young man,” I noted. “You don’t know me, do you?”

He said he knew who I was, but no, he didn’t know me.

“I’ll tell you what,” I explained, “I hate to see anyone bullied. You’re a big guy. You look like you can take care of yourself. I doubt you get bullied. But if someone told me you were getting picked on by two high school kids, I’d stand up for you, even though I don’t know you.”

He nodded and, I think, saw my point.

“People who bully others pick on the weak. That’s a form of cowardice,” I added with a touch of scorn. I wanted to call his manhood into question. “Cowardice,” I repeated with a hiss.

Before I let him go, I said again: “If I heard you were being picked on I would come to your defense. If I hear that you are picking on others from now on, I will consider it a personal insult. A personal insult. Do you understand?” I leaned in close and gave him the kind of look my drill instructor at Parris Island sometimes gave us.

He had nothing to add and I let him go in peace. After that he left Ross alone.

Dehumanization of entire groups or individuals should never be tolerated.

POSTSCRIPT: We often talked in history class about how similar all individuals really are. We started the first day of each new school year with this quote from Terrance, a Roman playwright:

“Nothing human is alien to me.” 

I suspect that every teacher knows how difficult it can be to stop bullying. In fact, it usually occurs out of sight of any adult.

In my class we often talked about what I called “labeling” and how “dehumanization” then results. Hitler and his followers referred to Jews as “kikes” and “vermin.” The yellow star they required Jews to wear was labeling made law.

One saw a “Jew” not a human being.

The trouble is the same with all labels: “fag,” “nigger,” “gook,” “retard,” “nerd” to name a few. In my school the “preps” and the “grits” were enemies. The “preps” were well-dressed, richer kids. The “grits” were poorer, tougher kids. As part of a discussion about Nazis, I used to tell students every year, “Next time you see someone you don’t like, say, ‘I hate that…human being.’ It just doesn’t work.”

I couldn’t protect every kid from being bullied, and my approach was never foolproof. Still, in this case it seemed to work. Both Ross and his father sent me kind notes at the end of the year. First, his father:
Your positive influence and words of encouragement made all the difference. Ross looked to you for guidance and without a doubt held you in the highest esteem. You took the time to care that he was struggling and offered him the hand of friendship…Ross is a great kid full of potential. He is also going through a very impressionable time in his life, one full of confusion and self-doubt. We took great comfort in knowing he had you watching over him at school…Your kindness and compassion will always hold a special place in our hearts, but more importantly in Ross’s heart! Thank you for helping Ross through a rough time and helping us get him back on the right path.

Then from Ross:
You always seem to find the funnest ways to get kids to participate frequently and still learn. This is the first year I have actually had fun in social studies/history. You also got me back into reading and I appreciate that. You are always calm (except when we get interrupted in seventh bell…) and I have never personally seen you yell at someone, but I’ve heard stories. You are the best teacher I have probably ever had. When I walk into your classroom I know I am going to have fun, but also pick up a little knowledge at the same time. For the first time in my schooling experience I actually found a class I actually look forward to. Your class really made my 7th grade year enjoyable and less stressful, and I truly appreciate your teachings.

I’m glad I was able to do my part to help.

If your child is being bullied let the adults in his school know; expect them to do whatever they can. Most teachers will help, if they realize what is going on.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Michelle Rhee: Reformer with a Broom

Is the knife more powerful than the broom?
I'm sorry.  But there are times when the sight of Michelle Rhee makes me gag.  She's an attractive young lady.  That's not it.  She probably looks good in a bikini.

It's what she's been saying, and repeating for years now, and the pathetic way pundits and politicians lap up her "wisdom" that makes me reach for the closest wastebasket. 

You probably don't recall, but Rhee first attracted national attention when Time magazine ran a December 8, 2008 story about her “dynamic leadership” of the troubled Washington, D. C. schools. The cover showed her dressed in black, a broom clutched firmly in one hand.  A caption to the left:  “How to Fix America’s Schools.”  And a caption to the right:  “Michelle Rhee is head of Washington, D. C., schools.  Her battle against bad teachers has earned her admirers and enemies—and could transform public education.”

The title of the story inside was: “Can She Save Our Schools?”  

I taught for 33 years--eleven times longer than the Lady with the Broom--and figured I already knew the answer, but I read the article anyway.           

According to reporters, it was an incident involving Allante Rhodes, a junior at Anacostia High, one of the worst schools in Rhee’s district, that typified the bold leadership the chancellor brought to the task of transforming American education. Rhodes discovered one day that more than half the computers in the school lab were broken. Frustrated, he e-mailed Rhee for help and she answered immediately. (Rhee does everything immediately, and claims to respond to 95,000 e-mails a year.) Soon after, the two sat down for a chat. Rhodes came away impressed. A group of Anacostia kids began meeting with the chancellor to discuss ways to improve the school.

And who could possibly doubt that improvements were needed? 

According to Time students in D. C. were less likely to graduate in 2008 than parents a generation ago. “This is an issue that is warping the nation’s economy and security, and the causes are not as mysterious as they seem. The biggest problem with   U. S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research.”  

Rhee promised then (and promises now) to address the problem head on, with a “relentless focus on finding—and rewarding—strong teachers, purging incompetent ones and weakening the tenure system that keeps bad teachers in the classroom.” 

It was bad enough that Rhee believed everything came down to problems at the front of the class. But it was a surprise reporters didn't notice.

First of all, the idea that we had some growing dropout crisis was nonsense. According to the New York Times (October 30, 2009) the high school graduation rate for Americans, ages 18-24, was 80.7% in 1973, and a quarter of 18-24-year-olds were in college. By 2009 the graduation rate was 84.9% and 39.6% were attending college.

The Department of Education broke the dropout rate numbers down like this:

% of Dropouts (16-24 year olds; all students)[1]:   1980  (14.1); 2008  (8.0)

Whites: 1980  (11.4); by 2008  (4.8)
Blacks:  1980  (19.1), dropping in eighteen years to (9.9)
Hispanics:  1980  (35.2), dropping to (18.3)
Asian/Pacific Islanders:  first categorized in 1990 (4. 9), by 2008 (4.4)
American Indian/Alaskan Native:  1990 (16.4); 2008 (14.6)

Look at those numbers carefully. If it’s all teachers, or tenure, what are the chances that all our worst tenured educators end up on Indian reservations?  Isn't it bad enough we stole all their land?
And wait:  Can a teacher MAKE a student drop out? 

Well, no matter. 

The Time article continued:  “In the view of Rhee and reformers like her, the struggle to fix America’s failing school system comes down to a simple question:  How do you get the best teachers and principals to work in the worst schools?” Rhee insisted that the answer was tying teacher pay to test results. The ability to improve test scores is clearly not the only sign of a good teacher,” reporters noted. “But it is a relatively objective measure in an industry with precious few.”

If you were a teacher you read that line and had the sinking feeling that Rhee was deluding herself—that Time was deluding readers—and that experts then, and now, were too arrogant to see they didn't really offer viable solutions. 

Thanks to Rhee, under a new principal Anacostia High was said to be running smoothly. Kids wore uniforms or ended up getting sent home from school. Reporters noted that halls were clear when classes were in session and now the computers all worked. On closer examination, however, it turned out Rhodes and the rest of the Anacostia student body had to be evacuated only weeks before Time ran the story, after fights erupted in the hall and three young men were stabbed. Rhodes told reporters—bad teachers and broom work aside—that he still didn't use the school restrooms which were filthy and unsafe. He waited until he returned “to his grandmothers’ house, where he lives.”

So, if you were a teacher, you rubbed your eyes and wanted to back up a moment. What was the biggest problem in our schools? Wasn’t it “ineffective teachers?” 

Isn’t that what decades of research show? 

Were “ineffective teachers” vandalizing computers before Rhee stepped in to save the day? 

Were they knifing pupils after she did?

Were bad teachers lurking in bathrooms, making them filthy and unsafe? 

And where were Allante’s parents?

If you’re a teacher you wondered why Rhee didn’t use her broom and whack the knives out of the hands of the criminal element and protect the good kids at Anacostia High. In fact, you wondered how test scores could be “a relatively objective measure” of success when students were spilling their blood in the halls outside the classroom door. 

Some day reformers are going to have to face up to the truth and admit that many problems in American education boil down to the stabber vs. stabbed. It’s never a problem to work with kids like Allante Rhodes. He’s motivated and wants to learn. So, I suspect, are most of his peers. Still, we cannot ignore the truth that students were being stabbed at Anacostia High.

This, then, is one of the unanswered questions in education, a question ignored by Rhee and never addressed by voucher advocates nor in landmark legislation like No Child Left Behind.  You can write all the national standards your little reforming hearts desire.

If the question is REALLY teachers, who's going to educate the stabbers and how? 

[1] This is the “status dropout rate:”   the percentage of young adults, ages 16-24, who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school degree.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street

Back in the day, when I was still teaching American history, I tried to be sure my seventh grade students learned to look for all sides in complex arguments. There are times when I wonder if the Tea Party guys aren't partly right and the Occupy Wall Street folks too.

Colonists protest:
Hanging a dummy
of a British tax collector.
In fact, if you tune in cable news today, the coverage is so biased and ridiculous, it's almost pointless to listen.

I'm a liberal, for example. I'm a union guy, too. So I loathe Fox News, which has been chastizing unions for months.

Now I see a story in the New York Times today about the Long Island Railroad and the corruption of their union. I know Fox will cover this story in great detail and vilify unions in general, as if all are corrupt.

In fact, Gretchen Carlson is going to be so upset she'll probably wet her pants.

So here's the basic story: eleven people have been arrested, including a former union president and two doctors, and a variety of people who are receiving pension and disability benefits. Gregory Noone, 62, for instance, collects $105,000 in retirement and disability payments every year after doctors "found" he suffered from severe pain when bending, crouching or gripping objects.

You have to feel for the guy: especially when he's playing golf or tennis, which is often since his tragic retirement. Investigators have evidence that he plays tennis several times a week and "suffered" through 140 rounds of golf during one recent nine-month period.

You have to admire that man's courage in gripping the golf club, despite the pain.

Total losses to the pension and disability funds are expected to run more than $121 million, possibly much higher.

Can big public sector workers unions be a problem, in other words? Of course, they can. And here we want the government--that is the FBI--to step in and arrest the crooks.

But how does anyone imagine that means we can run to the arms of Big Business for safety? This week the New York Times also reported on drug-maker Amgen's agreement to pay $780 million to settle a variety of state and federal lawsuits, accusing it of illegal sales and marketing tactics.

According to one whistle-blower the company overfilled bottles of Aranesp, an anemia drug. This allowed doctors to use the excess dosage to treat patients, charge Medicare and Medicaid extra, and pump up the bottom line. And it certainly helped convince doctors they should be prescribing Aranesp and not some cheaper generic drug.

Meanwhile, over at Clear Channel News, the very soul of conservative talk radio, the company is  making deep cuts in local programming and going with more nationally syndicated shows, which are cheaper to produce. Several hundred employees, including local DJ's like Tony Lynn and Myles Copeland at KBQI in Albuquerque, are out on their fannies and probably wishing they had union protection or even government-backed health insurance.

Robert W. Pittman, just named this month as Clear Channel's chief executive, insists the move is necessary, for the company to run it's business "like it's 2011, not 1970." 

This will allow Clear Channel talk radio hosts to offer a more coordinated message: bashing unions and blaming them for killing jobs and ruining the economy. On WLW in Cincinnati, for example, I recently heard Doc Thompson going on and on about the filthy Occupy Wall Street protestors, "mutants" as he called them again and again.

It reminded me of a Nazi officer who referred to the Jews as "vermin." There was a time when I wouldn't have let one of my seventh graders get by using such language. Nor would I have allowed them to employ such simplistic logic without challenge.

After all, Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay and all the crooks at Lehman Brothers showered regularly and wore $2,000 suits.

This morning, you wonder if a few of those new unemployed DJ's might not be waking up and thinking about joining the Occupy Wall Street protestors.

Its a complex world and we Americans, liberal, conservative and in the middle, are going to have to think seriously about what we really need to do.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why I Loved (Non-Standardized) Teaching: Stefanie's Astute Observation

I'VE BEEN BITCHING too much lately about strange legislation coming out of Columbus, the work of the Ohio General Assembly. So I think I'll do a few posts on why I always loved teaching.

One of the great joys of a life spent in the classroom—at least in a pre-standardized world—is the chance to get kids excited and lead them in a direction (or even follow) that neither they nor you expected to go.

Standardized education anyone?
Try testing this.
Every year, when the time came to look at Native American cultures, I liked to start with a quick discussion of what we called the “TV Indian” stereotype, the idea that all Indians lived the same way. To make the point clear, students listed features of the “TV Indian” lifestyle.

Answers always looked something like this:

Skin clothes
Painted faces
Bow and arrows
Ride horses
Hunt buffalo
Talk funny, say "How," and "Ugh."

I explained that Native American civilizations varied. For example, some natives relied on corn, beans and squash as dietary staples. “How come no one ever does movies about farming Indians?” I'd ask.

“Because it would be boring,” the kids agreed.

I liked to break into a soulful rendition of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and ask students to sing along. No one ever did.

AS PART OF THE UNIT, I always showed a series of slides that I created, including one of a woman with a strange-looking elongated skull (see above). Students gasped when the image filled the screen and I explained that standards of beauty vary. Tribes along the Pacific coast, for example, often used a board-like device to reshape babies’ heads.

The higher forehead was considered attractive.

I liked to ask the kids if they could think of any modern American cultural practices that the natives might have found ridiculous. In one class, a girl named Stefanie King raised her hand a moment, thought better of it, and lowered it again. I called on her anyway. She hesitated, looked down from the high dive, and took the plunge. “Mr. Viall,” she said, “their customs seem dumb to us but it’s no different than American women who pay for boob jobs.”

When the roar of laughter subsided, and after I stopped doubling over myself, I replied, “That’s why I like having you in class, Stefanie. You always know how to think.”

IT'S NOT STANDARDIZED EDUCATION, of course, but in those days, a teacher could still use his best professional judgment.

Emily Cavell, one of my star students,
drew this picture of the TV Indian stereotype.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ohio Issue 2 and "Bernie Madoff Merit Pay"

Yeah:  We can all agree with that.
Yesterday the Viall household got a slick political brochure in the mail, supporting a "yes" vote on Issue 2.  That's the referendum vote related to Senate Bill 5.

It was a pretty cool ad:  all about merit pay and "rewarding good teachers" and even threw in a little bit of cleavage--a bid to appeal to the "horny vote," I suppose.

Supporters of Issue 2 and Senate Bill 5, of course, hope to baboozle you with a little boobage.  They want you to believe the law is designed to REWARD Ohio educators for superior performance. 

What they don't want you to do is look past the attractive model--because the history of "merit pay" hasn't been very good.

A decade ago, for example, the State of Ohio began promising "great teachers" bonuses if they went through an arduous process and won "National Board Certification."  Some of the best and the brightest applied; but only a fraction of those who submitted materials won this prestigous award. 

Then they settled back to collect their $25,000 bonuses, paid over ten years.

Unfortunately, the State soon ran into budget problems.  So?  The boys up in Columbus announced that the money wasn't there and the bonus part of the plan would have to be scrapped.  That's what we call "Bernie Madoff Merit Pay."

Think it can't happen again?  Of course it can. 

Texas just gutted it's entire merit pay plan, citing deficit issues.  Funds for "rewarding" the great teachers were slashed from $392 million to $40 million, headed for zero soon.  New York City had a $56 million dollar merit pay plan; but when no one could offer proof that merit pay actually improved schools, that plan was scrapped.  Atlanta and Washington, D. C. public schools bet heavily on merit pay to "improve" test scores and ended up with rampant cheating, instead.

If you vote "yes" on Issue 2, because you don't want to pay higher taxes, that makes sense and if that's your sole focus you have every right.

Don't be a boob.
Vote "No" on Issue 2.
 That still doesn't change the real focus and intent of Senate Bill 5:  to deny bargaining power to every public school teacher in the state--including the very best--and every cop, fireman and social worker, too.

It's not a law Republican legislators passed to help the average worker--and if you vote "yes" because you think it is, you've been badly fooled.  You've been mesmerized by the two boobs and now you've voted like a boob.

Governor Kasich is NO friend to teachers--or probation officers--or highway workers--or any other working stiff in the state.  He might keep taxes low and he's a friend to powerful business interests, for sure.  He's a former former Lehman Brothers executive, after all.

That doesn't mean you can believe him when he promises, "The check is in the mail."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Key to Better Education: It's Not Just Teachers

The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides
Two days ago I posted this brief item from a book I'm trying to write about education.  If you follow the news at all, you probably notice that teachers are taking serious heat for the "school crisis" we have in the United States today. 

Let's leave aside the question of whether we really have a school crisis or not.

Let's try to identify the MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR if we want to improve education.  If we want students to get a good education what is the key???

Below you have the short chapter again (until I find a publisher I call what I'm doing "typing for no pay"):

Aesop’s Gym

“Not much is ever gained simply by wishing for it.”

Here’s the first clue, maybe the only clue that matters in the end:  If you hope to improve education you must understand that schools function, in fundamental ways, just like workout facilities for adults. 


Imagine that you have a gym filled with state-of-the-art equipment, a mile from your home. Membership fees are reasonable and you can readily afford to join. The gym opens early, stays open late, and closes only once a year on Christmas Day. Machines are available to work every muscle group and free weights in racks stand reflected in mirrored walls. Treadmills, stair-climbers and stationary bikes are all aligned in perfect mechanical rows.
Still, something is missing.
And in education—as in exercise—identifying that missing “something” is the real key. 

So?  Is the key to improving American education building better facilities. Some people think education can be saved if we give kids computers.  If equipment was the key then everyone who owns a stair-climber at home would already be in shape.  What about creating new national standards?  We already have food labels on all our packaging, telling us how many calories we're eating; and the U. S. government just changed the Food Pyramid into a Food Plate. 

Still, Americans are fat and getting fatter.  That's because writing new "standards" is an exercise in futility, if the real key is missing.

How about teachers?  Are they then the real key?

Well, they're one of many. And every kid is another equally important key.  Parents are keys, as well. 

It's fairly simple, really.  You don't get in shape because the GYM is better or the machines are newer.  The trainer at the gym can certainly help--but YOU have to get to the gym, yourself.  You get in shape when YOU are motivated.

YOU have to head for the gym.  YOU have to work hard on the machines.  If you're a student YOU have to be willing to work to get a good education and your parents have to instill that kind of drive in you; and if we keep ignoring this simple concept, school reform in America is going nowhere, going nowhere fast, and at great cost.

Motivation...that's the real key.  You have to be motivated to get out of your lounge chair and head for the gym.  Otherwise, machines (school computers, smart boards, fancy new textbooks) and trainers (teachers) cannot have an affect.

In the end, good education comes down to hard work and it's really a matter of who wants to get to the gym and sweat. 

A number of readers responded to my post.  Here are a few of the best answers:

LORI CHISMAN BARBER:  My answer would be: Well, a trainer cannot will people to come in and work out so it has to be the people with the will to get in shape (or stay in shape) that have the desire to go to the gym. So, school related--it would be the desire to get an education; the desire to learn.

CHRISTINA VOGELSANG:  "The willingness to learn."

SCOTT ZEILMAN said "initiative to use the tools available to them."

DWAYNE SHELLY had a whole list of good ideas; you have to like his passion.

TIMMIERA LAWRENCE put it simply:  "A willing participant."  But she's a teacher, and so is her husband, Dale, so she had a slight advantage.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Say "Wabbit:" The Inherent Limits of Merit Pay and Standardized Testing

Coming to a school near you.
THANKS TO EVERYONE who responded to yesterday's post, "Aesop's Gym." I'll provide the answer, if you're interested, tomorrow. In other words, it's not too late to try to solve the essential riddle in education.

For now, let's take up the question of merit pay, based on test scores, an idea beloved by many of the biggest names in education reform, a panacea offered by fast-talking politicians across the land. 

It's a key feature of Senate Bill 5, as lawmakers set out to "improve" Ohio schools.

Sunday, I actually met two teachers who favor merit pay, although I don't think they're fans of SB5, by any means.

Then, Monday,  I talked to a friend, a speech therapist in the local schools. She's a twelve-year veteran, still filled with first-year-out-of-college idealism, and worried about where we're headed in American education.

If you went back thirty years ago, when my friend was in grade school, many of the students she now sees in therapy would not have been allowed in public schools. But the field for speech therapy is changing. It's not just the kindergartner who says "wabbit," any more. My friend serves Downs Syndrome kids and severe behavior kids and one autistic child who, until this year, has been totally non-verbal. 

At age nine, "Martha," as I'll call her, had never spoken a word in her life; and at home mom had no idea what to do. 

Naturally, a little girl with no effective way to communicate is going to be frustrated. So, until recently, she simply snatched at any food she saw in reach. And she's "a biter," too.

AT FIRST, NEITHER THE SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHER my friend works with, nor my friend, nor the classroom aide could figure out what Martha wanted. So Martha reacted the only way she knew. "Look out," the special ed. teacher said in warning to the therapist one afternoon, "she's going to bite." With that, my friend drew back in her seat, and Martha jerked forward in hers, and sank teeth in her blazer. 

She missed flesh but did leave a hole in one sleeve.

The special education teacher has bite marks up and down her arms these days. But like my friend, she and the aide keep plugging away, and I don't think their dedication has anything to do with merit pay, even if you could measure what they're doing. 

They've been doing a lot of behavior modification exercises, for example, and using a combination of signs, and cards, and verbalization techniques, and they've been breaking through. Recently, Martha wanted apple slices to eat. First, she took the card that says, "I want," and placed it on the table before her. Then she took a card with a picture of an apple and placed it next to the first card. She didn't snatch at slices. And she didn't snap at the therapist's arm, either. Instead, she said in a faltering way, "I want apple."

Over a cup of coffee this weekend, my friend mentioned that she was "excited to go in Monday and try again" to help Martha. It's a sentiment hundreds of thousands of teachers express in different ways, each and every day. And I don't think this kind of motivation comes down to money.

I don't believe for one minute that you can ever "measure" education, with all its variables, and what scares me most about plans that say we can, and then draw direct links from test scores to merit pay, is that you'll bog down teachers in paperwork and spend hundreds of millions on statistical analysis and won't be helping kids like Martha in the slightest.

The more we focus on testing, testing, testing and measuring, measuring, measuring, and the more lawmakers and bureaucrats stick their noses into the process, the more real teachers will become like accountants trying to figure out the U. S. tax code.

IT'S THE I. R. S. MODEL FOR OUR SCHOOLS.  And it's coming to a classroom near you.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What's Really Missing in Our Schools? Thucydides Knows.

As some people know, I'm trying to write a book about education.  Here's the shortest chapter I have so far.  See if you can determine what might be missing.

Trust me on this.  We can give all the standardized tests we want and even tie teacher merit pay to results.  But we're not ever going to improve education until we understand what it is.

Aesop’s Gym

“Not much is ever gained simply by wishing for it.”

Here’s the first clue, maybe the only clue that matters in the end:  If you hope to improve education you must understand that schools function, in fundamental ways, just like workout facilities for adults. 

Imagine that you have a gym filled with state-of-the-art equipment, a mile from your home. Membership fees are reasonable and you can readily afford to join. The gym opens early, stays open late, and closes only once a year on Christmas Day. Machines are available to work every muscle group and free weights in racks stand reflected in mirrored walls. Treadmills, stair-climbers and stationary bikes are all aligned in perfect mechanical rows.
Still, something is missing.
And in education—as in exercise—identifying that missing “something” is the real key.