Monthly Archives: February 2012

Rants From The Philosophy Classroom

Today was the weekly philosophy class. It got off to a rough start. The AP came in just as the late bell was ringing to inquire after some paperwork I had failed to hand in. This ate up a good 5 minutes of class time. I did not even get enough time to write the do now on the board, leaving my class to sit there twiddling their thumbs during the course of my conversation.

On top of that, there was a trip that took a whole bunch of kids out of the building. I had a rump of about 15 students who certainly resented being there while their school chums were off gallivanting around the big city. The fact that it was raining did not help matters either. I do not know what it is about rain that depresses the mood of a class. Would they rather be outside?

Once the AP left, I wrote the do now on the board. It took a lot of prodding and cajoling to get the class to work. It is an elective class worth a quarter of a credit. A high grade is usually a fait accompli for anyone that shows up the required once a week. Needless to say, the students did not have much motivation to tackle the thought question I wrote on the board.

One of the great things about teaching is that a class can start off badly and end off fantastic. That is what happened today.

I wrote a series of four phrases on the board that each stated something about human nature. They were required to either agree or disagree with each statement and give their reasoning. We had a discussion about the statement where the students brought up some very good points. Then I asked them the big question:

What do each of these statements have in common?

It was a strange question because these statements did not seem to have anything in common at all. They each related to totally different aspects of human nature.

“They all talk about what people do?”

“Good. Now, how are they similar in the way they do this?”

I cannot remember the exact responses, but a few students said things that almost hit the mark. In order to get them there, I wrote the word “laws” on the board. I explained that we mean laws not as in legislation, but as in natural laws like the laws of physics. I know most of these kids. Many of them are AP students and they can handle this stuff.

So then a student says “they all treat people the same.”

“Exactly”

I wrote the term “existentialism” on the board and then the name Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I explained a little of who he was and then wrote the title of one of his books “Notes from the Underground.”

“In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky talks about treating people like piano keys. What do you think he meant by that?”

Another great round of responses ensued. By this point, I think we had redeemed ourselves from our rough start.

The turning point came when I asked, why do you think people make these laws of human nature? Why do they try to make people into piano keys?

The response of the day is usually the response you do not expect. That is what happened when a student raised her hand and said: “It makes it easier to control people.”

WOW!

Before I go on, let me just point out that my goal in every lesson is to talk as little as possible. I ask questions and then elicit responses. After each response, I will ask follow up questions and the lesson flows seamlessly from there. It does not always happen this smoothly but that is always the goal.

Then again, I am a history teacher. I think it is in the genetic code of a history teacher to go on rants. Sometimes I get into rant mode and it is really tough to stop me. Over the years, some of my rants have become legendary. Even the students that tend to look down the entire period in order to escape notice usually follow me with wide eyes when I go a-ranting. They seem to enjoy the passion, not to mention the momentary break from note-taking.

So that thoughtful response about controlling people started a rant brewing inside of me.

Paraphrase: “This is what some subjects try to do. Look at economics. It boils things down into equations and numbers. It takes human activity and reduces it to calculation.

“You heard about the newspapers printing up the test scores? (I know they were “value added” scores, but I did not want to get bogged down in explaining what that means. There is a difference between a rant and a tangent.) That assumes that you can judge what students learn and what teachers teach by a test.

“What if you were tired on test day? What if you plain did not want to take the test or read through a bunch of questions? Do you think what you know should be judged from a test?”

It was a rhetorical question of course.

“So they just think that test scores are everything?”, someone asked.

“Exactly. And then people open up the newspapers and assume that these numbers have any bearing on reality. In America, that is how things work. The media says something and people believe it. There is no digging deeper or questioning.”

“There was a German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt. She had to leave Germany because Hitler had started mistreating Jews at the time. She settled in America and started writing. A few years later, a Nazi named Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem and she was sent to cover it. Her articles were collected into a book Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

Students started writing the name of the author and book despite the fact that it was an aside, not part of the notes.

“She describes Eichmann as a thoroughly ordinary man. He honestly sat there during the trial and believed he did nothing wrong. (I should have mentioned that he actually thought he was a friend to the Jews, but I forgot.) His defense was that he did not kill anybody or order the killing of anybody. He merely authorized trains to take Jews to the concentration camps.

“It was his job.

“Hannah Arendt described this as the ‘banality of evil’. Banality means ordinary or boring. Evil does not usually take the form of a creature with a pitchfork. Instead, it is found in the ordinary actions of ordinary people.

“Eichmann was inoculated from any moral compunction because it was ‘his job’. As far as he was concerned, he was just following orders and there was nothing he could do. Even though all he did was sign papers authorizing the transfer of Jews to death camps, those actions had dire consequences. His thoughtless, mechanical decisions helped cause the murder of millions of innocent people.

“This is what we have today. Imagine someone who loses their job and cannot pay their mortgage. The bank eventually comes and forecloses on them, throwing a family out into the street. Of course, whoever signed the foreclosure is just doing their ‘job’. After all, if you don’t pay your mortgage, the bank has a ‘right’ to evict you. However, as the result of someone doing their ‘job’, someone’s life is destroyed.

“It is this kind of thoughtless, amoral stuff that happens all of the time in society. Same thing with the banking crisis. Bankers were just doing their ‘job’ pushing crap loans and other financial services that they knew to be bunk. That was not their concern. They were not technically breaking the law, and their job is to make money for the bank. In the end, their actions ended up pushing the economy off of a cliff. That is the banality of evil.”

After class, one student asks me, “so why do you give tests?”

Damn

“Because I have to. But I try to make up for it in other ways. Most importantly, at least I recognize that it is part of my own form of banal evil.”

Will this pedagogically unsound rant show up in my “data”? Who cares.

Will this rant help make a difference in the lives of some students in the long run?

In this data-driven age, it is more important than ever to prevent our kids and teachers from becoming piano keys.

20%: The Difference Between Sucking and Really Sucking

What a difference 20% makes.

So many things being said about our new teacher evaluations here in NYC.

Let us start with what we know:

I. 60% will be based on teacher performance.

A. 31% on principal observations wherein the principal must use a “research-based” rubric like Danielson. Particular rubric to be negotiated in collective bargaining and approved by the State Education Department (SED).

B. 29% will be based on other, non-principal-related evidence of teacher performance. Whatever this will be must be worked out in collective bargaining. Some suggestions that have been floated are peer observations and artifacts of student work.

II. 40% will be based on student learning.

A. 20% will use state-wide standardized exams for every subject and every grade. The teacher will be assigned a grade based upon a value added model.

B. 20% will be based on a local assessment to be worked out in collective bargaining.

A teacher found ineffective on the 40% part will be found ineffective overall.

This has led teachers to wonder what in the world that other 20% will be.

People like me, Arthur Goldstein, Peter Lamphere and others believe it will be a city-wide exam.

Yet, Leo Casey has stated here on this blog that it will not be an exam. Last night on Mind of a Bronx Teacher (which you can still listen to here.), Leo Casey stated unequivocally that it will not be an exam and will not be value-added.

Instead, he was confident that alternative forms of assessment will be used on the local level. Furthermore, he made the claim that, whatever these assessments turn out to be, teachers will be grading it themselves. No outside agency will put a number on it.

Obviously, those of us who fear a citywide exam and Leo Casey who is adamant about having no citywide exam cannot both be correct. Something has to give here.

Everything seems to hinge on this last 20%.

If people on my side are correct, our children will be given over to King Test. The most important part of our evaluations will hinge upon very arbitrary numbers that have proven time and again to be unreliable.

If Leo Casey is correct, it is a whole different ballgame.

Imagine that other 20% being an assessment that we administer and grade ourselves. These assessments would make up an important portion of our evaluations. It could mean the difference between keeping our livelihoods or “selling pencils” as Arthur Goldstein says.

If that is the case, what teacher would ever fail their students? It would institutionalize cheating across the city.

Think about it. The publication of the Teacher Data Reports this past weekend exposed how unreliable and wild value added data is. We know for a fact that this unreliable value-added crap will make up 20% of our evaluations.

If we have so much control over that other 20%, teachers are going to do their darndest to make sure students do not fail it. This includes everything up to and including blatant cheating. After all, if we have no control over the outcome of one 20% chunk (value added), then we will compensate by taking as much control as possible over the other 20% (local assessment).

So we have two visions of what the future of education in NYC will look like. One is all testing all the time. The other is a lot of testing along with incentives to cheat.

I am still inclined to believe that it will be all testing. The only reason we have to believe otherwise is the words of Leo Casey and the UFT. After the 2005 contract debacle (among many other things), rank-and-file teachers have reason to lack faith in what their union leadership tells them.

One thing is for certain: no matter what ends up happening, it is going to suck.

The Myth of Tenure: A Discussion with Education Lawyers

How most people view teacher tenure.

I came across this video a while ago about the 3020a process here in NYC. This is the process that a teacher accused of wrongdoing has to go through that decides whether or not they keep their license.

Among the members of this discussion is Betsy Combier who runs the NYC Rubber Room Reporter blog that can be found on my blogroll.

I found myself paying particular attention to Michael Mazzariello (Judge Mazz of Street Court), who was a former prosecutor for the old Board of Education.

This means he was the guy that went after teacher licenses. Not only that, he did his work back in those days when tenure supposedly meant a job for life. Listen to what this man says and how easy it was for him to remove incompetent teachers. He is rational and makes perfect sense in this discussion.

They all bring up interesting points about the pros and cons about the teacher termination process. Much has changed about 3020a since this discussion took place but it is still relevant.

Tenure means a guaranteed job? No. It means due process. While there were always problems with it, the answer is not to get rid of it.

 

There Is No Compromising On Education

Compromise is not always good.

Only in the United States do people debate evolution v. creation. A few very wealthy and religious people are able to gain access to mainstream media, claim that evolution is “only” a theory, and then float Biblical legend as an alternative viewpoint. To the uninformed, this puts creationism and evolution on an equal footing, as if they inhabit the same intellectual universe. There then opens up a “choice”, as if one really could or should choose one over the other.

All things are equal. All things are up for grabs in the marketplace of ideas. Creationists make it seem as if all one has to do is “choose” the explanation that best suits them.

Scientists have by and large attacked the “science” behind creation as junk for good reason. There is no actual science supporting creation. If scientists were to sit down at the same table with creationists in an effort to compromise, it would be a disaster. It would be a signal that creation is a legitimate scientific idea, the same as evolution. Not only would the idea of evolution take a hit, it would damage the scientific community irrevocably. It would denude the rigor of the scientific method and turn science into mere relativism, allowing pure emotional bias to overrule hard scientific fact.

So America’s scientists do not give creation the time of day and that is how it should be.

I assure you that there are people in this country watching the debate over evolution and creation who believe that a compromise between the two can be worked out. Now, I might be inclined to think that someone can believe fully in evolution and still hold on to a religious narrative of creation, like Pope John Paul II proclaiming that a good Catholic can believe in evolution if they consider it God’s work. But anyone who believes that there can be a give and take between the two sides to the point where evolution loses a little ground and creation loses a little ground would be a complete dunce. Their hearts might be in the right place but their brains would be firmly up their own arse.

A little murkier scenario is the state of politics today. The way the Republican Party has done business over the past 35 years is eerily similar to what creationists have tried to pull. Reagan became president and immediately advanced views that were radical in the context of his (relatively) liberal era. This set the pattern for what Republicans have continuously done since then. They tack hard to the right of whatever “center” happens to be at the moment, setting up an alternative narrative of American history, politics, economics and values. Unlike scientists, Democrats cannot wave off the Republican zeitgeist as the ramblings of self-interested and disingenuous hucksters.

So they compromise.

By compromising, the Democratic Party has whittled away the core values for which they once stood. During Reagan’s time, Democrats could still hang their hats on old-time liberals like Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill. But through the continuing Republican strategy of tacking ever-more to the right, Democrats have had to continuously compromise and continuously erode their own core values in the process. They have compromised so much that they inhabit the same political place now that Reagan inhabited during the 1980s. Democrats today do not have a Ted Kennedy to hang their hats on anymore.

This is because there is a meaty part of the American electorate known as “centrists”. They are perhaps the biggest morons in the entire country. They are born into a world framed by a certain dichotomous political narrative. In some vacuous crusade to be “open-minded”, they take a little from column A and a little from column B, assuming they are doing an enlightened thing. The Republican Party figured this out a long time ago. Through tacking ever-harder right, they continuously reframe the political narrative, sweeping the so-called centrists along with them. The Democrats then play catch-up. By continuously playing catch-up, they have left what used to be their core values in the dust.

Imagine if scientists were politicians who needed to chase down votes. They would need to keep making more and more concessions to creationism to the point where the tenants of science meant nothing anymore. Thank goodness scientists are professionals who are allowed to set the parameters of their own field. There is no need for them to compromise. Because of that, the rigor of their discipline stays largely intact.

And so it is in education reform.

For a very long time, but only gathering steam over the past 10 years, there have been a cadre of people who style themselves education “reformers”. Their program is variegated but boils down to a few core beliefs.

First, that the teacher is the greatest single factor in a child’s learning.

Second, that standardized exams are an accurate measure of that learning.

Third, because standardized exams accurately measure learning, they can be used to judge both students and teachers.

Fourth, getting rid of the teachers whose students show very little evidence of learning on standardized exams will make the education system stronger.

Fifth, in order to facilitate the firing of teachers, schools should subject teachers to the same hiring and firing at will policies found in the private sector.

Sixth, charter schools allow this type of hiring and firing at will. Where no charters yet exist, public school teachers should have their civil servant protections (i.e. “tenure”) revoked.

I am sure one can quibble with this list, but it will have to do for the sake of this discussion.

The education reformers have much in common with creationists and Republicans. They set up a dogma that they disingenuously pass off as being rooted in hard fact. The reformers cherry pick the “research” they say justifies their program. They will never mention that the research they usually cite is funded and/or conducted by themselves. Like many dogmas, it is radically extreme. Think about it, what civilization past or present has ever conducted education in this manner?  It is a program that has never existed before, is not rooted in any educational tradition and so, by definition, is radical.

However, due to their bottomless supply of money and political clout, they can control mainstream media and set their views alongside those of the education system already in place. It is a dichotomy between the “old” stodgy system of dead wood teachers or the “new” system of vim and vigor. People then just automatically accept this as the parameters of the debate over education.

Many of these people are compromisers. They are educational centrists. Like political centrists, they work from some vacuous notion that compromise is good. They choose a little from column A and a little from column B. Just like political centrists, they are dunces and followers.

Unfortunately, educators are not given the same autonomy over their profession as scientists. Rather than the guardians of their own discipline, they are merely low-level workers who occupy the bottom rung of a civil service system. It would be great if educators themselves were as rigorously schooled, as highly paid and as well-respected as scientists. In that case, we would be able to swat away the reformers as the kooks, crackpots and privatizers they really are. There would be no need to compromise with them.

But educators have had to make compromises with the reformers. In so doing, we are being compelled more and more to turn our backs on what we know to be good education. Teachers have had to resemble the Democratic Party in that we have had to continuously bargain away our souls.

That is why I am not a compromiser. It would be nice if I sat here in every post, looked at a reformer idea, looked at education as it is and then presented you with a neat compromise between the two. I could cite Steven Brill or Michelle Rhee or Michael Bloomberg and say “well, they have some good ideas, maybe we should listen to them.” The vast majority of people would find me agreeable. I would be considered “nice” and “tolerant” and “broadminded” and I would get 50 comments on every post.

I could even say that the Khan Academy has some good stuff and that it very well may be the “future of education.” I might get all giddy in the idea that flesh and blood teachers can be a thing of the past. People would congratulate me on being so open-minded and cutting edge and I would float away on my own sense of self-importance.

I could do all those things because those things would be easy to do. It would require exactly zero thought on my part. All it would require is for me to regurgitate a bunch of trite clichés.

The fact of the matter is that I am not a compromiser.

The reformers do not have good ideas. Their ideas do not arise from a place of genuine concern for children. It is a load of self-interested nonsense. Look at how many people have made millions of dollars from reforming education. Look at how many politicians have garnered millions of votes from promising to shake up the education system. There is more money floating around education now than ever before and the lion’s share is going right into a few select pockets.

“Oh, you’re just saying this because you are a teacher and you do not want to lose your job.”

Sure, that might be a motivator. I bet if I put your feet to the fire by saying anyone who surfs the internet in their cubicle at work should be dismissed, you might get a little indignant as well. If I came waltzing into your place of employment and started telling you how you should do your job, you might want to punch me in the face. You might even want to kick me in the sensitive parts if all I had to offer you was a bunch of uninformed clichés I picked up from the television or newspaper.

And now we are starting to get at the point.

I refuse to compromise with the reformers because I know what education is. I have been a student, a teacher and many other things in the education world. Not only that, I have the added advantage of being from the same community that my students come from. I became a teacher because I wanted to serve my own community, like millions of teachers across this land. What makes you think on even your best day that you know what is best for my community, the community of my students, better than I do? Part of serving my community is defending it from interlopers who push ideas that are destroying my community.

So pardon me for being militant, uncompromising, intolerant or whatever you want to call me. Much like scientists do not have to make concessions to creationists, I do not have to make concessions to you. I do not even have to acknowledge your point of view as informed or enlightened.

You think teachers are the single greatest factor in a child’s learning? I say you have never walked through gang territory or seen people get shot and stabbed in the gutter.

You think standardized exams are an accurate measure of student learning? I say you have not ever given the same test to the same kids on different occasions and come out with different scores every time.

You think standardized exams can judge both students and teachers? I bet you never had a student come to you years later to thank you for teaching them about the world.

You think getting rid of teachers whose students fail standardized exams is a good idea? I say you have never seen the new teachers with whom you wish to replace them not know their elbows from their noses when they stand in front of a class, like every other first year teacher, including myself.

You think teachers should have no job protections at all? I say you have never seen a teacher who has had their career destroyed for sticking up to an administrator who was shortchanging their school or their students. I say you have never seen a great teacher totally destroyed by a jealous administrator.

You think charter schools and public schools who work on free market models work better? I say you have never looked at the turnover rate of charter school teachers. I say you have never seen what closing a school in order to make way for a charter does to the children in that school and does to the community as a whole. I say you have never seen teachers who feel as if they have to compete against each other refuse to share their best practices, refuse to help each other’s students, refuse to collaborate or support each other at all.

You think a computer can teach a child? I bet you have never seen a student who does not speak English, or has a severe learning disability, need something explained, modeled, defined and demonstrated to them in five different ways on five different days before they can even begin to process it. I bet you never had to think on your feet and adjust your style, your manner of speaking, even your very movements to the child that sits in front of you. I bet you never had a student whose stomach was growling with hunger or whose heart was swimming with anguish totally tune out any nonsense you had to say to them. I bet you never had to buy a kid a sandwich or put your hand on a kid’s shoulder to reassure them that someone actually cared. I bet you a computer does not see the education value in that.

But teachers do.

No, sorry, I will not compromise with the reformers.

And I will certainly not compromise with people who know nothing about my students, my school or my community who think just because they have read one article or seen one television report that they qualify as informed citizens.

Get some experience, get some perspective, read a book, open your eyes and stop giving yourself over to a dialogue whose parameters have been framed by rich people, computer programmers and media machines who care nothing about you or the children of this country.

Education Reform and Reproductive Rights (via At The Chalk Face)

Shaun Johnson of AtTheChalkFace fame draws a connection between education deform and the battle currently being waged over reproductive rights:

I’m about to make another parallel: certain powers seek to regulate and monitor classrooms as they currently do women’s uteruses. There, I said it. The current struggle for reproductive rights, and the giant cultural leap backwards we are about to take, effectively mirrors the smothering paternal surveillance of teachers and their work. Let me explain.

History tells us that teaching and working with children has not been a chosen profession for a lot of men. Currently, only one out of every four K-12 teachers are men and the ratio drops to only one in 10 at the elementary level. The typical reasons have been low status of the profession, low salary relative to other careers available to men, gender stereotypes, and fear of child abuse accusations. To put it simply, working with kids is not seen as a very manly thing to do.

Men, however, typically dominate the bodies that control what teachers do, such as legislatures, departments of education, school boards, administrative posts, policy-making organizations, and analysts at think tanks. The recent paragon of no-nonsense education reform is the wealthy privateer, perhaps a software billionaire or hedge-fund manager. Be honest, can you think of any philanthropist of education that isn’t a man? I can’t.

A profession dominated by women and populated by children is perfect for paternal powers to exercise their lust for control, surveillance, punishment, and public humiliation, all in the name of the generic umbrella “reform.” This is why Secretary Duncan’s new grant competition RESPECT, which aims to boost teacher preparation and quality, is an embarrassment of Biblical proportions. Greater flexibility through accountability, progress through constant measurement, and collaboration via competition are oxymoronic principles that will continue to undermine the professional status of individual teachers.

Well said.

I would like to add that all of the talk about the teaching force being drawn from the bottom of the intellectual bell curve fits in nicely with this thesis.

Leaders cannot openly berate women for being intellectually inferior like they did back in those days when they said women should not be able to vote because they would make dumb choices. So they take to attacking teachers as “stupid” instead, reflecting not just a little bit of unabashed sexism.

I pride myself on being a teacher, always have. Now the deformers are trying to punish me for it.

For your information, I went to the Bronx High School of Science before I was counseled out in the 9th grade for being a screw-up. I finished up at Brooklyn Technical High School, got ridiculously high marks on my SATs,  graduated magna cum laude from college and then went right into teaching.

While not all of the people that were in the teacher education program with me in college were bright, the ones that are still teaching today are. The others mostly went off into the business world.

Teachers are not invited to shape education policy because they are seen as  a bunch of dumb women. They need daddy Duncan and uncle Gates to tell them what is best. After all, they are from the “real world” (see: business world, which is probably the biggest fantasy world of all) and can make the hard-nosed decisions that the softy feminine teachers would not make.

Like closing inner-city schools and shuffling around all the children for yet the 50th time in their scholastic careers.

Like new evaluation regimes that use cold, hard, masculine data.

Like forcing every student in every grade to take bubble-in tests.

These are tough decisions but someone has to make them. Who better than a bunch of men who cut their teeth in the “real world”?

Even Michelle Rhee is celebrated for being icy and stoic, her more masculine traits.

Despite what some might think, data, numbers and needlessly complex value-added equations are not “real” by any stretch. Much like all the numbers that showed banks were recording record profits on the eve of the financial crisis, they have zero connection to reality.

The problem with education reform is that it seeks to turn children into myopic, short-sighted and amoral automatons. Not coincidentally, these are the same traits possessed by the  banksters (all men) who pushed our economy off the cliff in 2008.

Men from the “real world” should stay out of education, just like they should stay out of policy over what happens in a woman’s uterus.

Education is Political

As this article very nicely points out:

To pretend to be objective, to wave off or deny the politics of teaching and learning, to shrug off our voices because we must do as we are told are all political concessions to those in power who are the ones using their politics to beg for our silence and inaction.

The silent and inactive teacher is molding the silent and inactive student.

These acts are conceding the world to the status quo, conceding our voices and our humanity.

Another irony: That’s not teaching, and that’s not education.

Indoctrination is the result of silent and inactive teachers committed to being compliant.

That does not mean teaching is partisan:

I will concede and even argue that classrooms, teachers, and education in general should avoid being partisan—in that teachers and their classrooms should not be reduced to mere campaigning for a specific political party or candidate. And this, in fact, is what I believe most people mean (especially teachers) when they argue for education not to be political.

Every year in U.S. History there will be that first moment of the year when I mention that Reagan transferred wealth upward or deemed that ketchup was a vegetable, then tie it in with the general screw-the-poor platform of the Republican Party.

I see it in my students’ faces. The moment they think they have figured me out. “Yup, he is a Democrat.”

Then a week later I’ll talk about Clinton making it easier for jobs and money to flow overseas and tie it into the Democratic Party’s same screw-the-poor platform.

Then my students sit there like “double-u, tee, eff?”

By the end of the year my students know not to peg me as anything other than a semi-informed citizen.

It is a little harder to do with my 9th grade Global History class. We will study Judaism and I will say that the Jews gave us all of this great stuff like written legends of their history and values.

They will ask me the insensitive question “are you a Jew?”

Then we will discuss Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and I will mention all the “great” things each of them contributed to history.

Then my students sit there like “double-u, tee, eff?”

Teaching certainly is a political act. Part of that means modeling for your students what it means to be informed and caring about what goes on in the world.

One of my 9th graders summed it up recently when she told me: “Mister, I can’t put a label on you.”

Kids have a way of getting it.

Students for Education Reform and the War on Teachers

Pawns for billionaires.

The origins of this organization called Students for Education Reform:

Frustrated with the pace of educational change, Bellinger and Morin started Students for Education Reform (SFER) while they were undergraduates at Princeton in 2009. They set out to mobilize college students and get them to advocate for education reform in the voting booth and in state capitols. SFER has obviously tapped into something potent because the organization has grown to 71 chapters in 28 states.

Yes, I am sure they did this all on their own. This has nothing to do with all the hedge fund and Gates money pouring into every nook and cranny of the education system: school districts, political campaigns, unions, think tanks and teacher colleges. This has nothing to do with their professors who get generous grants with this money prodding them into creating astroturf organizations like SFER.

The last sentence of the article says it all:

SFER is growing so fast that Bellinger and Morin have, ironically, put their own education on hold so they can work full-time on it heading into 2012.

Yes, because normal college students from working families who are not being funded by a a billionaire apparatus have the luxury of “putting their education on hold” to go on political crusades.

Columbia University has a chapter of SFER as well and here are some videos they made thanking Governor Cuomo (What? No kudos to the union?) for the new teacher evaluations:

These students want to be teachers after they graduate. That is too bad for them, since they are pushing a system that will assure that neither they, nor anyone else, will be able to stay in the profession for very long.

On they other hand, I doubt they will have anything to worry about. These Ivy Leaguers will not stay in teaching for more than a few years. They will go on to work for think tanks and media outlets who seek more education “reform”. Their futures are being determined by their Wall Street masters.

The truth is, there is plenty of money for education in this country. All of these statistics that show how much we spend per student in the United States are nonsense because the students never see that money in the form of better materials or highly paid teachers.

First, when that money does manage to funnel down to the student level, it is grossly maldistributed between school districts. Those areas with higher property taxes get much more money than inner city areas. Second, most of the money in education today is bound up with an exploding number of six-figured “consultants” who work at district levels far removed from classrooms. Or the money is being funneled through no-bid contracts that go to testing companies and data companies who produce things not to help students, but strictly to evaluate teachers. Or that money is going to charter schools, namely the six-figured CEOs of those schools who spend most of the rest of that money on marketing and glossy fliers. There are billions of education dollars out there and a pittance of that goes to actual education.

Yet, we want to squeeze teachers and drive them out of the system. A comment left by someone on this blog today says everything you need to know about what education reform is all about:

I actually long for that day when today’s teachers get so frustrated they leave the profession. It happens in nursing all the time and that dynamic makes way for innovative nurses who can handle the stress and still provide quality care. The fact that teachers are a protected class and that their unions are characterized by constant hysteria that keep teachers excepted from routine administrative measures that everyone in the private work force has to deal with–evaluations being one example–is helping stir growing resentment even against good teachers. Maybe with a mass exodus, we can accomplish things like the realization that education degrees are not the only degrees that make good teachers, and help restore subject competency, which is sorely lacking with today’s “education” graduates.

I would hate to tell this person that, as far as NYC, D.C. and many other major urban  school districts are concerned, that day has come and gone. Most teachers in Bloomberg’s Department of Education were hired on his watch that started 10 years ago. Guess what? Schools are no better.

At the end of the day, it is about taking pennies out of the pockets of teachers by attempting to deprive us of our livelihoods just so it can be transferred into the pockets of charters and the hedge-fundies that run them.

What kind of country is this when working people claim public sector workers like teachers, police and firefighters (but they only mention teachers) should be relegated to the same insecure lifestyle of private sector workers? There was a day when many private sector workers had similar protections like due process
that prevented them from being tossed out of a job simply because their bosses did not like their face.

And that is what tenure is by the way. It is not a guaranteed job for life as so many misinformed people claim it to be. It means that you must go through a process before being terminated. What’s so hard to understand? These people do not get that the protections that public sector workers get sets the tone, the baseline, for the rest of the workforce. Calling for the wholesale slaughter of teachers is to call for your own slaughter.

As the rapacious railroad magnate Jay Gould once said: “I can always get one half of the poor to kill the other half.”

Wake up.

Bill Clinton’s Legacy?

He feels your pain.

PBS recently showed a 3 ½ documentary on Bill Clinton, which you can see in full here. Afterwards they asked what the legacy of Bill Clinton was. I do not know the answer to the question. Evaluating someone’s legacy takes a little more distance than 11 years (Clinton left office in 2001). Mao Tse-Tung summarized this sentiment nicely when someone asked him what the impacts of the French Revolution were and he replied:  “it’s too early to tell.”

My biggest issue with this documentary was the ridiculous amount of time they spent on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which echoed the obsession the mainstream media had with the scandal back when it was breaking. I know it resulted in the impeachment of a president, only the second time in U.S. history that has happened. Despite that, most Americans saw it for the witch hunt it was. For God’s sake, he left office with sky-high approval ratings. The other impeached president, Andrew Johnson, slinked out of office in disgrace without even getting his party’s nomination.

What they did a half-assed job on, and what really should have been the focus of the documentary, was the whole idea of the New Democrat that Clinton crafted. For his first two years in office, Clinton overplayed his “liberal” (try not to laugh) hand, culminating in the healthcare reform disaster spearheaded by Hillary. He paid the price in the 1994 midterm elections when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, not to mention losing 8 seats in the Senate. This caused Clinton to focus on what was “possible”. With a Republican-controlled Congress, the only things that were possible were very Republican things like the 1996 welfare reform law.

Shades of Barack Obama?

Bill Clinton’s New Democrat looked much like an Old Republican. Even before 1994 he had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, a treaty that had begun under George H.W. Bush. This allowed companies to easily move jobs into Mexico. Then there was “ending welfare as we know it.” There is a lot of revisionism about how welfare reform was a great success for the millions of people, mostly women, who were thrown off the welfare rolls. Here is a hint: the percentage of children living in poverty increased since that law and has seen no signs of slowing down. It turns out that forcing single mothers into minimum wage Wal-Mart jobs was not their path to financial freedom.

In his second term, Clinton did things like repeal the Glass-Stegall Act, tearing down the firewalls between savings and investment banks. This turned the entire banking industry into a giant casino and was a major cause of the current Great Recession in which we are still mired. How about privatization? Under Clinton, the idea that “markets work best” led to a tremendous outsourcing of public functions to private companies. Even parts of the CIA were privatized. All this did was accelerate the development of the “shadow government” that began under Reagan, wherein private companies do things like disburse welfare and public sector checks and mop the hallways of federal buildings.

Yet, for most of us who lived through the Clinton years, they provide a bright contrast to the dark 2000s marked by the Bush/Obama era. It was a decade of technological innovation. The internet breathed new life into the economy, sparking an entire information revolution that changed the face of the planet. Materially speaking, most Americans were better off in 2001, after Clinton left office, than in 1993 when he had assumed it. This, along with leaving behind a budget surplus, is what will probably mark Clinton as one of the best presidents of the 20th century.

And that is just a shame.

First, it is not clear at all that the booming economy had anything to do with Clinton. The internet that was the hub of the entire boom came out of heavy military spending during the Reagan years. In fact, most of the nifty technologies of the 1990s, like cell phones and ever-larger, gas-guzzling jeeps, were the fruits of government investment well before Clinton was anywhere near Washington. Much like Calvin Coolidge, he was the right president at the right time.

Second, and most importantly, the fruits of this economic boom were maldistributed. Maybe everyone’s standard of living went up, but the standard of living for the wealthiest Americans went up much more. Again, just like Coolidge, he presided over one of the most uneven economic growths in American history. This was not the recipe for sustained economic prosperity. (A very underrated book on this issue is Joe Stiglitz’s The Roaring Nineties). The documentary makes the false claim that Clinton oversaw the longest boom of the 20th century. In fact, the longest boom lasted from 1941 until 1973 and it lasted so long because the New Deal ensured that the fruits of that boom were more evenly distributed than at any point, ever.

In reality, what Clinton oversaw was a bubble, one with dire consequences. Much like the 1920s, the uneven distribution of wealth would doom the country down the line. When the economy tanked in 2008, it started with people who could not repay their mortgages. We can replay all of the reasons why they could not repay, like predatory lending in the shady subprime market, that were results of Bush’s policies. However, at the very core, people could not repay because they were broke and they were broke because they represented a class of Americans who were receiving less and less of a piece of that great big American economic pie.

This is really Clinton’s legacy. The horrid gap between rich and poor began in earnest during the Reagan era, of which President Bush 41 was a part. Clinton came into office and merely held the line on that gap. It did not increase as fast as it did under Reagan, but it increased nonetheless. Then Bush 43 came to Washington and picked up from where Reagan left off, furiously transferring the nation’s wealth upwards. This is what the New Democrats represent. They are a more subtle, more cushioned continuation of what the Republican Party has always aimed to do throughout the 20th century.

Clinton was the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term. (Truman and LBJ do not count because their first terms were not their own.) He was Nixon in reverse. Nixon won a second term largely because he presided over a liberal era and gave himself over to liberal policies in order to gain support. He expanded the welfare state, made peace with communist nations and helped pass meaningful environmental legislation. Clinton won a second term in a conservative era by giving himself over to conservative policies. This was cold political calculation on Clinton’s part and Clinton was not anything if not a masterful politician.

This is what the New Democrats represent. In order to maintain power for themselves, they will agree to policies that end up screwing the weakest people in society. Obama is a New Democrat on steroids. The fact that Obama is willing to bargain on Social Security, accelerate the privatization of education and keep taxes low on the wealthy (which Clinton did not do, I might mention), is a sign of how far we have fallen as a nation. Since the 1994 midterm elections, if not since Ted Kennedy’s defeat in the 1980 Democratic primaries, real progressives have been relegated to the political wilderness.

Nobody has done more to relegate progressives, not to mention the poorest among us,  to oblivion than the New Democrats. Will this end up being Bill Clinton’s legacy when all is said and done?

These Could Be Your Students

If you’re offended by vulgarity, criminality and degrading language towards women, then you probably should not watch the videos below. There is much here that one can take offense to, but that is not the point of me posting them.

This is part of a series that features ghettos all over the country. Here is their venture into Harlem. There are at least 2 high-school-age boys featured here, one claims to be 18 and another one who is 16. Many of the other guys here seem like they are in the same age range. Very easily, they could be or have been students in our classrooms.

They go out of their way to show how thuggish they are. For kids who are so young, they have a certain street wisdom that very few people ever attain. One gets the sense that their entire life is bound up in that little project in which this was filmed.

For all of their flashing of their street cred, they manage to touch on issues like gentrification and poverty. Their perspectives on these things are so honest that it is scary; an unwitting indictment of Bloomberg’s whitening policy for New York City.

With the release of value added data today, one wonders what the teachers of these boys could have done. Should we be held responsible and publicly shamed because our students do poorly on a test or because people find themselves locked in obscene poverty? What does a test matter to any of the boys in this video?

One wonders if the education reformers know how the urban poor live and how incredibly stupid and out of touch they sound when they talk of education fixing all the problems of the country.

I have had many students like the boys in these videos. I have also grown up with many boys that remind me of these youngsters. It is amazing how the most hardened kids, the ones steeped in criminality, have a charisma and intelligence that could be used for so much good in the world if they were just given a chance.

I think it was Sista Souljah who said that the drug dealers and gangsters of the inner cities represented the best and brightest of the black community. The fact that they can find no other outlets for their talents other than criminality is an indictment of a system that preordains their doom.

Put your judgments on hold and watch this as a learning experience. Even if they do not remind you of your students, they make up part of the environment of our students.

Warning: turn your speakers down because it comes in very loud.

Value Add This

The New York Times beat everyone else to the punch by releasing the teacher data reports last night. The rest of the news outlets are sure to release them throughout the course of the rest of today.

No, I am not linking to them.

I have taught United States History for as long as I remember. My students generally do well on the U.S. History  Regents. Since I have been at my current school, my  students have had well above a 90%  pass rate every year. Two years ago 100% of my students passed the Regents with over 60% of them scoring 85 or higher.

Teachers like me who generally have students with high pass rates should be  just as outraged over what the DOE and the media are doing with this “value added” garbage as anyone else.

First, the U.S. History Regents is cake. The scoring rubric is so generous that an average  student has to literally try to fail it. Second, the test is usually given to 11th graders, who are more serious and mature than underclassmen. The ones at risk of dropping out have usually done so before the 11th grade.

The scores of my students do not reflect my quality as a teacher. When I used to teach 10th grade Global History, the Regents pass rates of my students were lower. Take me out of 11th grade and put me in front of a 10th grade class and my stats would take a hit.

It reminds me of the famous Casey Stengel line after he went from managing the championship-addicted New York Yankees to the hapless Mets, essentially moving him from first place to worst place. He said “I guess I got dumb in a hurry.”

Of course, he was making the point that a manager is not the deciding factor in the success of his team. He was also acknowledging that the media was going to blame him for the Mets’ failure regardless of that fact.

Fast forward 50 years and teachers have joined the Casey Stengel club. They are being publicly blamed for things over which they have little control.

This means that when value added data gets released for us high school teachers (and we know it will), my name will be there, probably with a favorable number next to it.

And that angers me.

I do not want people thinking I am a “good” teacher because some arbitrary number stands next to my name. It gives absolutely no indication of the type of teacher I am and what goes on in my classroom.

Sure, I cover the material that will be covered on the Regents. Admittedly, part of me does it out of fear for my own hide. More importantly, I do it because I acknowledge that I am in a system that requires students to pass this test in order to graduate. I feel it is my duty to help prepare them for the test so they can go on to get their diplomas. It is vital for their futures that I do this.

I could take a stand and say “screw this, I am going to teach the higher order stuff that I want to teach.” I can imagine doing that if it was part of a larger rebellion of teachers, students, parents and administrators aimed at bringing down the entire standardized testing regime. But if I were to make a unilateral decision to thumb my nose at the test and teach whatever the hell I wanted to teach, would I be doing this for the good of the students or to massage my own rebellious ego?

So I make my pact with the devil and try to help my students walk into that testing room with the knowledge to get through the test. But that does not mean that I do not exact a price for selling my soul in this way.

I take my pound of flesh and I do that by teaching whatever the hell I want to teach anyway. Once I felt confident enough in my craft, I have always tried to strike a balance between teaching to the test and teaching the good stuff. There is a way to do both at the same time. This way, I do not feel quite so dirty.

My students know me as the teacher that never uses the textbook. On day one I tell my students that they will receive a textbook but I doubt that we will ever use it (gotta keep your options open). Instead, I explain to them that they will get handouts , notes and homework  everyday. None of these things are particularly difficult. I was never one to load my students down with tons of work anyway. But if they keep all of these things in order (and I punch holes in everything I give them to help them stay organized), they will see that they are compiling their own textbooks over the course of the year. They can thumb through their history section and see maps, graphs, charts, pictures, readings, notes and homework. They will have a treasure trove of information by the end of the year to which they can always refer.

The best part is that most of the information comes from them. Their notes are points of class discussion that they bring up and that I write on the board. Sometimes they get to write it all on the board themselves. Their homework assignments are a series of thought questions that requires them to go through the day’s notes and handouts in order to synthesize different chunks of information and draw their own conclusions. This precludes them from having to read walls of boring paragraphs in textbooks that tend to kill any love they might have for history. For the average student, it should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. Students have come to me and said that they actually find the homework fun.

None of this is easy. All of the handouts ( I literally have hundreds) contain visuals or passages that I have chosen off of the internet, usually from a simple Google image search. I then write my own questions underneath them. My lesson plans have all the meaty information, including dates and vocabulary, that I wish to pull out of class discussions. What ends up going on the board as their notes is a compromise between what they say and what is in the lesson plan. They get a homework sheet at the start of every unit with all the assignments for the next two weeks or so. Again, I make all of the questions myself. If there are days when we do not cover some of the questions, my students know not to worry about it. We will get to it another time.

This does not even count the research papers or extra projects we do, which vary from year to year.

By doing things in this way, I do not feel quite as dirty. I can help my students prepare for the Regents while also turning them on to higher level historical analysis. The historical content they get is fuller and more accurate than the one-dimensional (and sometimes plain wrong) drivel that is found in history textbooks.  I am still trying to find the right balance between teaching to the test and teaching for actual historical appreciation, which is part of what makes teaching an art and not a science.

And this is the entire point. Teaching is an art. But the people who worship at the altar of value added and testing think everything can be broken down to a science. Like all sciences, real sciences that is, they think it can all be expressed in numbers.

At the core, this is what makes value added invalid. People keep talking about the wild “margins of error” for all the data the media is set to release today. This assumes that there is a model expressible in numbers that can have lower margins of error.

There will never be a value added formula without huge margins of error. It is a fool’s pursuit to try to find one. You simply cannot measure an art form in scientific terms.

The margin of error is so vast because value added is an error in and of itself.

This is the same problem with the new teacher evaluations. People are crowing about it, or at least saying it is not so bad, because it measures teachers in multiple ways. That is not the point. The point is that it promises to stuff all of these measures into a sausage of numbers.

You simply cannot put a number on an art form. This goes for the learning process as well. The whole concept of putting numbers on students in the form of grades is asinine, but that is another discussion entirely.

The value added craze and the teacher evaluation debacle merely reflect the true goal of education deformers, which is to take all of the art out of teaching. They do not care about the “achievement gap” or “failing schools” at all. They care about reducing teachers to automatons and piano keys.

This is why idiotic teachers like those over at Educators4Excellence applaud the new evaluation system. None of them ever saw teaching as an art. None of them stay in the profession long enough to get an appreciation for teaching as an art. There is nothing excellent about them aside from their own sense of self-importance.

None of the numbers that the newspapers published mean a damn thing. You cannot put a number on what teachers do, ever. The vast majority of teachers in NYC, whether with high value added or low value added stats, do what I described for myself. They stay up late making lessons. They reflect on their craft. They take the success of their students personally. They somehow find a balance between actual teaching and teaching to a test. They may not all do it in the same way, but that is what makes teaching such a great profession and such an art form.

But now, in New York City at least, the deformers have taken a giant step towards taking the art out of teaching.

This is what makes every teacher in New York City an assailed teacher.