Sunday, November 2, 2014

Corporate Public Schools! It's Going to be Great!

Last week I visited the first completely corporate public school system in the country. For years, corporate crusaders have been claiming that breaking the “public school monopoly” and bringing business efficiency to education will only improve results.

So it was that I found myself seated in the office of the superintendent of the Enron City Schools in Enron, Texas.

Glancing out a window, I couldn’t help but notice three oil wells pumping on the front lawn of the administration building.

The superintendent, Henry Clay Frick, explained. “Here in Enron, we believe business principles applied to education will always bring good. So we have a lucrative deal with British Petroleum to pump oil from under the schools.

“Yeah, what could go wrong with that,” I replied, faking a smile.

Frick wondered if I might like a tour and led the way out to the parking lot and we jumped in his Lamborghini. I asked how an administrator could afford such a beautiful automobile. He admitted corporate education was different. First, there were no pesky unions demanding raises or fringe benefits for teachers. “In Enron, we pay for talent,” he explained. “Our top executives earn more because, frankly, they work harder.”

When I asked how much more, Frick said his district copied the K-12 Inc. model, a successful for-profit charter school chain. “Our eight top executives earn a combined $21.37 million,”

I do some quick calculating. If the average Texas teacher earns $50,179, then administrators made as much as 426 classroom teachers.

“It’s not easy running an efficient corporate school system,” Frick claimed as we pulled up in front of the high school. “We need money to lobby politicians, so sometimes we have to cut costs in other ways. Luckily, almost all our money comes from state coffers, so when we pay lobbyists, taxpayers foot the bill.”

“How much do you budget for lobbying?”

“We’re not quite where we need to be,” Frick replied. “We’re competing with for-profit charter operators like David Brennan, who runs White Hat Schools in Ohio, and who hopes to expand into every state. In the last eight years he’s donated $3.8 million to fifty-one politicians.”

Moments later, we enter the building. Admittedly, Enron High is neat and clean. The janitor sweeping the hall is obviously a “special needs” individual.

“We in Enron are committed to helping those who require a hand up, not a handout,” Frick says, following my gaze. “All our janitors are severely handicapped—supplied to us by Henry’s Turkey Service.”

“Aren’t they the guys that shipped disabled workers to Iowa for thirty years to work in meat packing plants?”

“Exactly,” Frick agreed. “And we use their system. We house our janitors in a bunkhouse behind the school. We charge rent, charge for meals….”

“How much do they earn when you subtract for food and lodging?”

“Oh, I would estimate about the same as the Iowa workers,” Frick says. “Around forty cents an hour.”

We head down the hall. Stopping a moment, I listen as an American history class goes over material that is expected to be on the next round of standardized tests. There are probably a hundred students crammed into the room. Frick is happy to explain. “Pack ‘em in, we say here in Enron. It’s the same as the airlines. “We even charge a $50 fee if students want to bring book bags to class.”

I offer a wan smile.

I notice a plaque over the door of the history room. It turns out the school copies the business model of the San Francisco 49ers. That means selling naming rights to everything you might imagine. This class meets in the Axe Body Wash Room. There’s also the Reynolds Tobacco Media Center and the Flo-Max Faculty Men’s Restroom. (Frick says later the school is thinking about requiring students to wear uniforms, and he is working hard on an exclusive contract with the Abercrombie and Fitch people.)

Frick soon asks if I would like to tour any of his other schools, and fifteen minutes later we pull up in front of Lehman Brothers Elementary School, I notice a maintenance worker resting a moment beside a lawn tractor. I stop to ask what he most enjoys about working for Enron Schools. He stares at me blankly.

“Oh, that’s Juan,” Frick nudges me. “We need to make a profit, you know. Don’t say I told you, but we hire all kinds of undocumented workers. Man, if you pay them under the table, those guys work cheap!”

“We’re just like the Gulen chain of charter schools,” Frick adds with a laugh. This time, I don’t even try to fake a smile.

As you tour the Enron Schools, you have to be impressed. A stop in the cafeteria at lunch reveals another truth. Junk food = big money. Students may no longer bring food from home. It’s like going to a movie theater. You can order a large Coke for $4.50. (It looks like they’re handing you a bucket.) Or maybe you’d like the special: hamburgers—only $3.50. Frick winks as we go through the line and advises me to skip the burgers.

(He admits later that the meat came from a company that was perhaps bending a few regulations and selling meat from diseased cows.)

Our last stop for the day takes us to Michael Milken Middle School. Frick is proud of the new system and outlines a few of the ways a profit can be squeezed when it comes to students. Each school has an office set aside for a representative of Pearson, the successful maker of standardized tests. Huge piles of cash are there to be grabbed—so one business scratches the back of another—and Pearson sends state education commissioners and Enron leaders to cool education conferences in places like Rio de Janeiro. And what do you know! Pearson now holds the contract to supply more and more tests to Texas schools.

“There’s some huge money right there,” Frick grins. “The Pearson contract is worth $468 million per year.”

Time is growing short, so we hurry along. I see barrels of toxic chemicals stacked in a corner of the art room. Safety costs money. So Enron cuts corners when it must. To cover their tracks they copy the Massey Energy model, meaning there are two sets of safety books, one for company use and the other to dupe inspectors. True: occasionally a few people get blown to bits, but what’s a corporate school supposed to do? Not make gigantic profits?

“We’ve pretty much monetized everything,” Frick says as we finally head back to his office. “If parents can’t pay fees or afford school supplies, we encourage them to take out payday loans. I’m proud to say we’ve copied First Premier Bank of South Dakota when it comes to lunch charges. We allow families to open accounts but cap charge limits at $300. They pay $95 to create the account and a $75 annual service fee.”

“’d be looking at an APR of…67%?”

“We’ve also adopted the discipline system of the Noble Charter Schools up in Chicago,” Frick says, changing the subject. “We charge students who get into trouble for ‘discipline packets.’ What a corporate business model! Noble pulled down $188,000 in discipline fines and fees in just one school year.

“You probably noticed how few discipline problems we have, too,” Frick continued. “We’ve been following the Jansen Pharmaceutical Model. If our nurse thinks a child has behavioral issues she makes sure that child is given a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs. 

“Man, sales are up!”

“Isn’t there evidence some of these drugs have dangerous side effects and that children may die as a result?”

I think Frick suddenly realizes I may be some sort of commie agitator. “Jansen keeps only the finest doctors (and our school nurse) on its payroll and those doctors issue reports to show that these drugs are completely safe,” he says defensively. “And, naturally, our well-compensated school nurse agrees. Just because some Arkansas court fined Jansen $1.2 billion dollars for lying….”

Frick’s voice trails off. I glance at my watch and see it’s really time to go. I thank him for his time and ask one final question.

“Is there any way you think you can still improve profit margins in the Enron City Schools?”

He puzzles over the matter a moment. “If only we could copy the cost-cutting methods of Apple Inc., which operates a number of factories in China.”

“You mean,” I grimace, “violating overtime rules, child labor, workers penned in behind barbed wire….”

“Child labor...if only,” Frick says wistfully. This time he doesn’t smile. “You want cheaper iPads—or cheaper education—you have to make tough decisions.” He gets a faraway look and I hear him mutter, “There must be a way to outsource jobs in American education….”

I bid a goodbye and soon find myself driving north on Interstate-35, back toward Cincinnati, Ohio. “I have seen the future of corporate education,” I tell myself, paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens. “And it works.”

Really, this is going to be great.

Logo for the Enron Public Schools: Endless possibilities...for profiting!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Time Runs A Incredibly Stupid Story

Gag! Another article blames teachers for all problems in the schools.

If you teach for a living you probably know Time magazine ran a stupid story this week. “Rotten Apples” it’s called. It’s the tragic tale of how tenure is ruining kids lives and how bad teachers plague the land.

I won’t be the only educator to notice the terrible timing, with this issue landing in mailboxes a day after the awful school shooting in Marysville, Washington. And you have to wonder. Do the people cited in this story, who claim they want to fix the problems in our nation’s schools, really believe tenure is the big issue? They say tenure means “employment for life.” Maybe Time could highlight some of the tenured teachers who have died in recent years trying to shield children from catastrophic harm.

I won’t be the first to note that not a single teacher is asked to comment in the story, either. 

Who does get their say? Who are the real “heroes” fighting for the kids? “Silicon business types and billionaires,” people like David Welch and Bill Gates. Gates is working on a plan to change the way history is taught in our schools, because he’s sure there’s a better way, and we have to listen to him because...he’s Bill Gates! Welch is a “Silicon Valley muckety-muck who lives in one of the fanciest ZIP codes in America,” according to TimeNaturally, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is mentioned. He agrees. Tenure is a curse. And Arne knows everything about education, because he went to Harvard and never got around to teaching. Remember? He’s the guy who “fixed” the Chicago Public Schools. Of course, the city still has gang problems and hundreds of school-age children have been shot there in recent years. 

Ignoring such unimportant issues, Time focuses on tenure. The judge’s ruling (which would strike down California tenure law if upheld), rested on complex “value added measurements” (VAM) which showed a bad teacher could “set a student’s educational progress back by 9.54 months.” A second study, again based on complex VAM, and supposedly controlling “for factors like race and poverty rates” found that replacing bad teachers “could increase students’ lifetime earnings by $250,000 per classroom.”

Strangely enough, reporters and editors failed to notice that they blew up the foundation of their story before the last paragraph could sputter to a sorry end. In April the American Statistical Association questioned whether such methodology “adequately measures a teacher’s total value to a student’s education.” The following month the American Educational Research Association took an even stronger stand, saying there was “a ‘surprisingly weak’ correlation between teachers’ VAM scores and their actual skills.”

Leaving complexities aside, let’s imagine we wanted to increase the lifetime earnings of students. Why not start by raising the minimum wage? Next, convince Silicon Valley tech firms, like Apple, run by billionaires like Welch, and the the folks who run Walmart to stop outsourcing millions of jobs to China. Yep. The Waltons appear in the Time story. They’ve tossed around piles of money in an effort to support charter schools. You know, because they care about children. They care so much they pay those children’s parents, who work as cashiers in their stores, a princely sum. Oh yes: $8.48 per hour. 

Michelle Rhee also rears her sour puss. If you don’t know Rhee, teachers, you should. She’s the most obnoxious of all obnoxious school reformers. (As reformers go, Rhee is the rare exception in that she actually taught for three years.) Time once did an idiotic story on her, too. Rhee promised, as chancellor of the Washington, D. C. schools, to sweep out all the bad teachers and cure the problems in education—sweep!—just like that!

Like so many school fixers, Rhee told every reporter who would listen (and write up a glowing story about Michelle Rhee) that using test scores to rate teachers was the key. During her time at the D. C. helm she fired hundreds of veteran educators when scores didn’t measure up. Then she gave bonuses to teachers and principals in cases were scores surged. Unfortunately, as USA Today later discovered, most D. C. educators who posted “improved” results did it mainly by plying erasers to alter student answer sheets.

Time did get at least one story line right when noting that an “outright mutiny” might be brewing among teachers. But no one at the magazine had the good sense to wonder why. Teachers are itching for a fight, I suspect, not because they care only about protecting their jobs. Not at all. They want to do their jobs right. They don’t want to fill out more forms. They don’t want to spend more valuable instruction time charting data. They don’t want to give more and more standardized tests. They want to get back to helping kids. They don’t fear being “exposed” as a result of VAM. They don’t believe VAM is valid to begin.

Let’s imagine that tenure could be eliminated next week. The 10-15% of children who are chronically absent wouldn’t suddenly rise from their beds and start coming to class in regular fashion. The four-year-old girl in Delaware who recently brought hundreds of packets of heroin to nursery school would still be headed for kindergarten next year. And that poor child’s real problem would still be her screwed up mom. If we ended tenure immediately we’d still be the advanced nation with the most school shootings by far, the lowest percentage of children enrolled in early education, the highest percentage (save for Romania) of boys and girls living in poverty, and the highest incidence of teen pregnancy too.

If tenure ended next week, people like Welch and Gates still wouldn’t know what my wife knew, because she taught—that if a third grade student has a prostitute and a drunk for a mother, the kid wont really care if his teacher has tenure. 

They wouldn’t know what I knew, because I taught—that a seventh grade girl might struggle in history class, not because Im tenured but because when she goes home her father is sexually abusing her every night.

Even Time admits that tenure laws developed a century ago, when a teacher “could be fired for holding unorthodox views or attending the wrong church, or for no reason at all if the local party boss wanted to pass on the job to someone else.” Those same dangers remain today. We still have politicians who are scumbags, who might love to get rid of a few good non-tenured teachers just to open up slots for their friends. We still know there are billionaires out there who want to push their particular religious or political agendas in the schools, and we know they might be inclined to throw their money around and make it clear to administrators and school board members they wanted an individual teacher who opposed their positions gone. Tenure still protects good teachers from all kinds of harm.

In fact, getting rid of tenure is just the latest panacea in a long, illustrious parade of panaceas offered up by those who insist they know how to fix the schools, who say they care about saving every child, and who insist they know how to do it, even though theyve never done it at all. They have the great plans

As for you teachers, tenure or not, the leave it to you  to do all the real, hard work of saving every child.

It might be nice if all these idiots stopped offering so much advice, rolled up their sleeves, and tried to help. Bill Gates, David Welch, Arne Duncan, and Haley Sweetland Edwards, who wrote this Time cover story, we humbly invite you, no we dare you, to step into the failing school of your choice and see what its really like to teach.

Something tells me none of you could last.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hiking in Glacier National Park

Part of the trail to Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park.

The question for today: Can you fire students with an interest in the world around them? And if you do, will that show up on a standardized test?

When I was teaching American history, I used a number of slides taken on vacations to illustrate important points. One that never failed:

Sequioa National Park in California.
Click to enlarge.

I always put this slide up first for the day. Then I asked students: “How many of you think that’s a big tree?” 

Almost every member of the class agreed it was.

I explained: “That’s a sequoia tree limb.” I said a ranger told my first wife that the limb was 150 feet long when it snapped and fell to the ground, shattering into giant sections.

This simple trick captured student attention and got us started on an excellent lesson about John Muir and early efforts to protect the environment.

I used a variety of slides over the years: scenes from Custer's Last Stand, pictures of lousy Indian reservations and buffalo in Yellowstone. Pictures from Bodie, California, a ghost town high in the Sierras, helped students do a writing assignment centered on the gold rush era.

Bodie once had a population of almost 10,000. By 1932, the town had been abandoned.

Often, I liked to tell seventh and eighth graders that if they never listened to another word I said (not that I was ever boring), they should drive across the United States once in their lives, to see what a beautiful country we have. 

I remember when Laura B. stopped to see me one day after school. She was probably twenty at the time but I had already left for home before she arrived. So Laura left a note, saying she had followed my advice and visited Yellowstone and other great parks out West. When I read that note, I knew I had done my job as a teacher.

Suppose I was teaching today. 

Lets say: I was teaching health. I’d build a lesson around a trip I took to Glacier National Park. I’d focus on the idea that all of us can get in better shape and focus on the benefits of walking more, or in this case hiking. Maybe I’d throw in a few pictures from my two bicycle rides across the United States. I believe, after all, that you can plant important seeds in the minds of the young. I’d like to plant seeds that might lead kids to develop an interest in getting into shape and staying that way.

After all, I met a 78-year-old women on one of the harder trails in Glacier and she was going strong.

Of course, nothing like this is ever going to be on any standardized test. I’m retired now; but as a former teacher, that makes me profoundly sad. 

Dedicated teachers want to fire the young with passion for learning—and an abiding interest in the world around them.

I’d tell my students today, “If you don’t listen to anything else I say this year, go hiking in Glacier National Park someday.”

If one young person eventually did, I’d have earned my pay.

Buffalo road block in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Click to enlarge.

Hiking the trail down from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park.
My wife is 62; and I'm even older than that!

My two youngest daughters at the top of Piegan Pass.

Mountain goat near the trail to Hidden Lake.

That line you see is Going to the Sun Highway, a spectacular engineering feat.

Grinnell Glacier: by 2030 all glaciers may be gone.
That tells us something about climate change.

Hidden Valley Lake.

The Highline Trail is supposed to be the most spectacular in Glacier.
I didn't have time to do this one myself.

Moose dead ahead on the trail.

Also: bighorn ram on the trail.

If I was still teaching I'd show students this picture of Monticello.
Jefferson's home.
If you want students to know what the people on wagon trains faced
this picture works. Not far from South Pass in Wyoming.

I'd try to convince students they could do more, physically than they think.
I used to try to convince them they could do more mentally, too.
Tioga Pass in California.
Lake at the top of Tioga Pass.

More photos from Glacier National Park follow:

My wife Anne took a spill on the Loop Trail.

Action shot of goat (second from right) defecating!

Trail to Grinnell Glacier.

Grinnell Lake.

Start of the Highline Trail.

Lake scene near Many Glaciers Lodge.

Mountain meadow near Logan Pass.

Hikers on the trail coming back from Grinnell Glacier.

Swimming in Avalanche Lake: approximate water temperature: 45 degrees.

Above the clouds at Logan Pass.

Bear grass near the summit of the Loop Trail.

Overlook on the Going to the Sun Highway.

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.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Teachers: Are You Part of the Lunatic Fringe?

Teachers: are you part of “the lunatic fringe?” Considering the results of a recent poll you probably are. Only 1 in 4 Americans said they believed standardized testing had made schools better.

To answer this question yourself a little background information first. If you missed the story early this month, the National Education Association approved a resolution calling for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. Why? The resolution faulted Mr. Duncan for a “failed education agenda,” particularly a “toxic testing push.”

Naturally, this attack riled up Duncan’s defenders. Typically, these defenders never bothered to teach. Joe Williams, the no-teaching-ever-director of Democrats for Education Reform, was quick to condemn. The vote made those (at least to him) calling for Mr. Duncan’s head seem like part of “the lunatic fringe.”

Call me one of the lunatics, then.

But I believe teachers have legitimate reasons to despise standardized tests. In fact, I wonder what Williams would say if he tried teaching for a year or two, or twenty-five years. Here’s what I saw during my career in the classroom. In the late 80s I was there when states created their own standardized tests. Ohio implemented what was known as the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test. If students failed they had multiple chances to retake it and try to pass.

Unfortunately, state tests didn’t do much to improve education. The first problem was that the standards these tests set weren’t all that high to begin. Here’s one of my favorite geography questions from the old Ohio exam:

Not exactly a daunting challenge, right? (Wait: is the answer Z?)

At the same time, Ohio lawmakers in their infinite wisdom decreed that third graders would not advance to the fourth grade unless they could pass a reading proficiency test. This was labeled the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

Elementary teachers warned that children mired in poverty might be dramatically impacted. Lawmakers didn’t care. Teachers warned that students new to this country and unfamiliar with English might not fare well. Lawmakers didn’t care.

Educators in middle and upper grades added their own warning. If you held a children back in third grade—and any other year during their academic careers—they were almost guaranteed to drop out of school. That was not the guarantee lawmakers had in mind.

Lawmakers didn’t care.

And yet the Third Grade Reading Guarantee died an early death. When actual children failed the test and parents made it clear they would not vote again for knuckle-headed lawmakers responsible for the mess, suddenly lawmakers cared. 

The guarantee was wiped from the books.

Eventually, leaders in education (people who give advice but never teach) realized that state-level testing was doing no good. So: Congress enacted No Child Left Behind (2002). Now the feds promised by 2014 every child in America would be proficient in reading and math.

Bureaucrats in various state departments of education realized how hard achieving academic perfection might be. And since failure to achieve “adequate yearly progress” involved penalties of all kinds, most states decided the path to success was clear. They lowered standards on their tests for the next few years. Then they raised them gradually to “prove” that great strides were being made—kind of a one step forward, two steps back approach to learning, you might say. This turned out to be a lame approach and teachers who had to scuffle to conform to all the rules understood it was a charade.

No one asked them what they thought.

Meanwhile, real teachers wanted to know what would happen if a young man missed 106 days of class in a single year. (I had one student who did.) Would they be “held accountable” if these kinds of students failed their tests?

Yes, the non-teaching education experts insisted, yes, they would.

School reformers—who never taught a single, solitary soul—insisted that real teachers were making excuses if they couldn’t reach every kid. Real teachers inquired anew: Will we be faulted if homeless boys and girls can’t pass the tests? After all, we find that acute hunger has have a detrimental effect on an eight-year-old’s performance in school?

“Stop making so many excuses,” the non-teaching types said.

What else was NCLB supposed to do? Politicians promised that the law would eliminate racial achievement gaps across this great land. But a decade later gaping racial gaps remained. When children were tested in 2012, 54% of white fourth graders scored “proficient or above” in math. For Asian Americans the figure was 64%.

Blacks (18%), American Indians (23%) and Hispanics (26%) still lagged behind.

Classroom teachers tried to point out to lawmakers that poverty really seemed to matter. In 2012, the biggest “gap” in math scores was seen when students eligible for free/reduced price lunches were compared with those not eligible.

Those eligible passed at a rate of 25%.

Those not eligible passed at a rate of 59%.

Scores on the eighth grade reading test showed the same poverty-related achievement gap.

The experts, who never taught anyone, rich child, or poor, told real teachers to quit with all the whining and save every child.

Here in Ohio, politicians decided that if testing in reading and math was good then testing in science and social studies would be better yet. So sub tests in science and social studies were added to the Eighth Grade Ohio Achievement Test. (This test replaced the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test after passage of NCLB.) The social studies sub test was phased in in 2003 and scores first counted in 2005. By 2009, however, the sub test was dead. Too late, frugal lawmakers (the same ones who came up with the idea in the first place) suddenly realized that it would cost large heaps of money to print, administer and grade the social studies sub test.

Besides, there were complaints from all corners of the state—not necessarily from members of the lunatic fringe—that made it clear the social studies sub test was stupid, almost from question one all the way to the bitter end.

On one occasion I headed for Columbus to testify in front of the education committee of the Ohio Senate about a proposal to tie merit pay to scores on high stakes tests. I asked members of the august panel if any of them could provide a definition of “mercantilism.” That was in fact a question asked of eighth graders on the previous year’s test.

Not one member on the Senate committee could.

I inquired next about Songhai trade. That was indeed another question on the social studies sub test of the OAT.

Once more, I was met with uncomprehending stares.

Worse yet, when all the testing was done and students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas, how much had standardized testing done to improve U. S. education? In reading, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, there was zero long-term gain

All that money spent on testing and scores would not budge! 
(Well, not unless you count going down.)

And in math, gains were also thin.

Real teachers grumbled—but not because they hoped to evade accountability. They realized you could have had greater impact on reading scores if you had simply taken all the money wasted on testing ($1.7 billion annually) and used it to buy books—170 million per year, at $10 each. And you could have given two to every child in the U. S. public school system and done it every year.

Each spring the tests were given and taken. Teachers had no choice but to play the lousy hands they were dealt. If tests at the elementary level measured only what children learned in reading and math—well, thenit made sense to focus only on that. Technically, if a subject wasn’t tested in your grade it no longer mattered what you taught.

Art? Not tested. Forget art! Music? Who cares! Even time spent on science and social studies declined (ironically, students would be tested later in those very subjects). As for physical education, it was clear the testing companies weren’t going to ask kids to run a mile.

Who cared if kids got fat!

It took a decade—but gradually it dawned on politicians and bureaucrats and education leaders who never taught that NCLB was a terrible flop. Probably every classroom teacher from Juneau to Miami could have predicted this would be the end result.

Then Secretary Duncan stepped forward with a bold new plan. And his plan was sure to work. (That’s what the last guy said.) NCLB would be killed. All those expensive standardized tests tied to NCLB? Use them for scrap paper, kids.

Mr. Duncan would oversee creation of a brand new battery of standardized tests. His tests would be tied to Common Core and this time testing would work!

State after state fell in line. Everyone seemed to love Common Core. And it did not hurt that Mr. Duncan passed out $4.35 billion to states willing to implement his plan—which another reformer (who never taught) dubbed “Race to the Top.”

In Louisiana the legislature voted in favor of racing to the top. Racing to the top sounded good. Governor Jindal was all for the racing. Then Governor Jindal changed his mind and said he would work to defeat Common Core instead. Oklahoma lawmakers were all for Common Core until they were all against it and repealed their consent. Real teachers sadly shook their heads.

So the years passed and new plans came and went and came and went and came and went. Real teachers who had growing and even profound doubts about the mess school reformers were creating did not feel as if they were part of a lunatic fringe. They watched and wondered. Who were these fools pushing all these tests, changing the rules almost as quickly as those rules were written. Did these people have even the whiff of a clue?

Here in Ohio, the bureaucrats and politicians went back to work. They renamed their test. The OAT was no longer cool. The Ohio Achievement Assessments (OAA). That sounded better! And you know what we really needed, they said?

A new third-grade reading guarantee.

This time, lawmakers promised, everything would turn out great.