Category Archives: education reform

My Experience With Teach for America

This one is for you Alexander Nazaryan.

I am not a Teach for America alum.

A friend of mine texted me the other day: “My friend says he wants to join Teach for America. He wants to be a writer.”

I responded: “If he wants to be a writer he should write and stay out of teaching.”

This has been my usual experience with people coming out of the Teach for America program. I suppose it cannot be helped owing to how the program is designed. TFA “grads” are under contract for a few short years, get 5 weeks of training and then thrown into the classroom jungle. They are set up for failure like the rest of the teaching force.

The turnover rates reflect this. They are atrocious across the board, whether they are TFA alum or accredited from college education programs. But TFA rates are extra-atrocious:

“More than 50 percent of Teach for America teachers leave after two years and more than 80 percent leave after three years. [About half of all teachers nationwide quit after five years, according to the National Education Association.”

Any experienced teacher knows that it takes many years to reach proficiency. You have to learn how to construct lessons and design activities. You have to learn your content area(s). You have to learn how to think on your feet and develop that teacher instinct that only comes with experience. Any one of these aspects alone would take a few years to learn. Having to internalize all of them and integrate them into a teaching style takes many long years.

80% of TFA alum leave after three years. Three years is not enough time to become proficient. This means that TFA is sticking children with a revolving door of sub-par teachers.

This is a curious phenomenon. All we ever hear about are dead wood teachers who are riding their tenure to retirement. Because their jobs are guaranteed (a laughable proposition), they sit at their desks, read the newspapers, drink their coffees and neglect the education of their students. TFA promised to inject life and vitality into the profession.

Throughout my 12 years in the system, I have taught alongside my fair share of TFA alum. The first few years of my career were spent as a dean, one of the school disciplinarians. We were the people that pulled troubled kids out of the classroom, broke up fights, confiscated weapons and suspended kids.

This means I got an inside look of many teachers’ classrooms.

A dean gets used to being called to the same teachers’ classrooms over and over again. When the phone in the office would ring, we could almost predict which teacher was calling to have us remove a student. We had our usual suspects. One or two were older teachers who just did not have the fuse to deal with teenage tomfoolery. The vast majority were the youngsters from Columbia and NYU, the TFA crew:

“Jeremy refuses to take out a pen.”

“Jose keeps whistling while I am trying to teach.”

“Kelly told me to go f**k myself.”

“This entire class is out of control and I need you to yell at them!”

“These two boys keep play fighting.”

I would remove the offending students and they would vegetate in the office until the end of the period. We would speak to the student about the incident and then follow up with the teacher when they became available. The students had their side of the story, obviously, and then the teacher had another side. This would be our routine with literally hundreds of cases. It was a constant stream of he-saids and she-saids.

After the 15th or so such incident I had a revelation: NONE of this stuff was anything more than petty nonsense. Sure, the students were not angels by any means. Some students were repeatedly being kicked out of class by a few different teachers. However, it rarely went beyond the pale of normal teenage behavior in NYC in the 2000s. Many kids were doing the same types of things I did when I was their age.

This was the point. While I saw their behavior as relatively normal because I had grown up with it, many of these young TFA teachers were aghast. There was a cultural barrier here.

There is a certain tone that teenagers in NYC respond to. The teenagers themselves usually refer to it as “respect”. When a teacher talks all slow in a tone of voice one would reserve for toddlers, as in “now class, we’re going to color in our cell diagrams today”, kids shut down. They do not like to be spoken to like babies about things they care very little about as it is. When they start acting up because of it, they certainly will not respond to “now George, if you don’t stop talking I am going to write your name on the naughty list.”

It’s corny, it’s hackneyed and it’s not what the students need. These kids don’t have lawns or friendly neighbors or parents that ask about their day. They come from a rough and broken world and respond to confidence, competence, calmness and understatement. These are usually the missing pieces of their home life that need to be provided to them.

This brings us to another point. Oftentimes I would wonder “where is little Katherine finding the opening to get out of her seat and slap another student?” No matter what motivation level a student has, if it is clear that they are supposed to be engaged in a certain activity, they will be engaged or at least pretend to be so.

So many behavior problems were the products of poor lesson planning. There should be absolutely zero downtime in a lesson. Transitions should be smooth and there should be a clear task at all times. This is what “classroom management” is all about. If you give students, any student, even a small window, they are going to climb right through it.

We all have issues with planning and classroom management when we start our careers. But what I saw year after year were the same young teachers leaving the same openings for bad behavior from their students.  This is why many young teachers work extra hard. They are spending their evenings writing lessons in order to close the gaps.

The school in which I had these experiences was located in a neighborhood full of bars and lounges. It would be a regular thing for some teachers to hit these bars on the weekends in order to vent and unwind. Indeed, Friday evening beers with colleagues is a staple of the teaching profession.

What about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday beers? Many of the older teachers had to get home to their families. Many of the younger teachers, recently graduated from college and TFA, seemed to still be stuck in college life. It would be a regular thing to see many of them leave school together to go get some wings, or take in a movie or just generally gallivant around town. They had money in their pockets from their first real job (teaching) and it would burn a hole in their pockets. Experienced teachers, again with families to worry about, could not blow through money quite as easily.

I am not saying all of the TFA teachers I worked with did this. It was really a young teacher thing. It just so happened that most of these young teachers were TFA kids. Indeed, I used to go to clubs every Thursday and Friday evening myself, but it was to go to my night job as a bouncer. The other bouncers would inform me of all the young teachers from my school that had come into the club over the previous few days: “oh, that cute teacher from your school came by here Wednesday.”

Really?

As I got to know many of the TFA alum, and I got to know many of them very well, there was a reason for their seemingly carefree attitude that went beyond just youthful energy. It was the fact that, in the back of their minds, teaching was a temporary gig. There was a lot of “I don’t want to be perfect” talk or “I’m just doing this until I go back to (California, Massachusetts, Michigan) to work in (finance, business, fashion, acting).

This was the part that really irked me. I did want to be perfect. I was not using teaching as some sort of life lesson for myself. I was doing this job because I wanted to help kids love history and maybe even teach them about the world they live in. The job was not about me. So many TFA teachers spoke in terms of “me”: my goals, my dreams, my experience. They did not see teaching as a craft or an art. They did not care enough about their subject areas to read books to broaden their content knowledge. They were decidedly anti-intellectual.

Yes, this is a generalization. There are a few TFA teachers who stayed on and proved themselves to be great at what they did. But those teachers are remarkable because they are the exceptions.

And that is why I shuddered when I received the text message I mentioned at the start of this post. You want to write, so you are going to teach? It shouldn’t work that way. Children are not subjects for your next book or an excuse for you to say “I taught poor kids for a few years”. To be honest, when I was that young, I did not yet realize that there were people in this country that saw poor children as something to be investigated or a problem for dilettantes to tinker with. I assumed that teachers wanted to do their job.

Finally, I realized that all of the stereotypes about old lazy tenured teachers is a just a subterfuge for the actual young lazy untenured teachers. Their jobs are more secure because they are cheaper for the principal to keep on staff. Here is a fact: in my time as teacher, dean and chapter leader, I have never once seen a TFA teacher get rubber roomed.

Teaching is a career. Children are human beings. These are the central tenants for real education reform.

16 Reasons To Fire Mr. Hand

Front page New York Post photo of the evil Mr. Hand.

I’m not much of  a movie buff but I do have my favorites. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of them. Although considered risque for its time due to its portrayal of teenage sex and drug use (not to mention the bare-chested Phoebe Cates scene), it is pretty tame by today’s standards.

My favorite character is Mr. Hand the history teacher, played by Ray Walston. He runs a tight ship.

Imagine if Mr. Hand was teaching in Bloomberg’s DOE.

He is too much of a veteran and too overpaid. His principal, who is half his age with 3 years of teaching experience, needs to trump up some bogus charges in order to terminate his license.

How many things can you twist out of context in order to terminate Mr. Hand?

1) Locked his classroom doors,  fire hazard.

2) Grabbed hat off student’s head, assault.

3) Snatched cigarette out of student’s mouth, assault.

4) Took candy bar from student’s hand, assault.

5) Hovered over young girl’s desk and talked about coming to her house, sexual harassment.

6) Sarcastic towards Sean Penn by saying “I get so lonely when all my students aren’t here.”, verbal abuse.

7) Ripped up Sean Penn’s schedule in order to cause him mental anguish.

8) Revealed students’ test grades in front of class, causing them all mental anguish.

9) Mistakenly said that Platt Amendment was an amendment to “our constitution” when, in fact, it was an amendment to Cuba’s constitution, incompetence. (We know the DOE strives for accuracy in teaching).

10) Lectured class about truancy, verbal abuse.

11) Menacingly waves his finger at Sean Penn saying “food will be eaten on your time.”, assault.

12) Wrote “I don’t know” on the board in order to cause Sean Penn mental anguish.

13) Said Spain had a “disorganized Parliament”, racist speech.

14) Oh my God, did he say “what in the hell is going on here?”

15) Took Sean Penn’s pizza, unlawful confiscation.

16) Encouraged students to eat pizza, promoting bad health. (We know Bloomberg is serious about our health.)

Mr. Hand was called into a meeting with the principal and his chapter leader regarding certain accusations. These accusations were never specified but, for the good of the students, he was reassigned to Tweed pending investigation by OSI.

After Mr. Hand left the office, the principal immediately got on the phone to “legal” and said he wanted Mr. Hand terminated. Legal then coached him in exactly how to write up the accusations to make them sound as horrible as possible.

Both the principal and OSI wrote reports alleging that Mr. Hand “physically and verbally assaulted several students”, “had inappropriate sexual contact with a teenaged girl”, “locked his students in a classroom creating a safety hazard”, “partook in hate speech” and “demonstrated gross incompetence”.

He is awaiting a 3020a hearing that will drag on for several months and years in the hopes that he will just quit. The arbitrator assigned to the case knows that the principal wants him terminated, so he will do his best to oblige.

Meanwhile, the NY Post is set to run a headline tomorrow morning “Worst Teacher in the City”, with a huge picture of Mr. Hand. The tagline will read “racist pedophile harasser collects salary while on suspension.”

The internet version of the story will have 50 comments underneath from readers bemoaning “tenure”, “lazy teachers” and “pedophiles”. There will be lots of righteous outrage, like “why does he still get to collect his big fat salary?!” and “I have to produce in order to keep my job, why do teachers get to have tenure?!”

Sound far-fetched?

There are hundreds if not thousands of teachers in Mr. Hand’s position all over the city.

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.

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.

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.