Category Archives: teaching

Everyone is an Expert at Everything

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

There are so many good takedowns of Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece supporting the Common Core that I did not bother to read it for myself until yesterday. I was glad I did. It gave me a bit of masochistic pleasure, like when you pick at a scab or push on an aching tooth. Bruni the food critic demonstrates the same thick assumptions and caricatured impressions of public schooling shared by many Common Core advocates. One only need to read the myriad comments under the article heaping praise upon him for confirming their own uninformed biases about youth, education and parents to get a glimpse of the armchair education expert parade in action.

Bruni introduces the Common Core thusly:

“The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states.”

You can see Bruni contrasting the Common Core to some old, stuffy classroom where students practice mere “rote memorization”. Perhaps Bruni in his youth was forced to memorize state capitals or other such drudgery, so he assumes that most schools in most places today do the same thing. The only problem is, rote memorization is not the stuff of schooling today and has not been for some time. Teachers are being trained to “facilitate” discussion in groups and provide “inquiry-based” projects to their students. If he were to take a walk through any public school hallway in New York City, he would see bulletin boards filled with projects that required anything but rote memorization. We are no longer in the 1970s where students stood up at their desks to recite the state capitals or the elements of the periodic table while their spectacled female teacher sternly looks on brandishing a long wooden pointer. Education has not looked like this for some time.

Then there is the assertion that Common Core emphasizes “analytical thinking”. If one considers a mindless exercise in pulling ideas out of text in order to bubble in the correct answer on some exam “analytical thinking”, then Common Core does plenty of that. What it does not do is encourage kids to inquire, wonder, predict, question, investigate or understand the world around them. It does not link learning to life, past to present or education to citizenship. It is a ham-fisted impression of what some ivy-leaguers who never taught children consider “rigor”. But their version of rigor is not what most of them would recommend for their own children. This is a rigor designed for “those” children. “Those” children do not need actual joy in their learning. They need to stop the playtime and get back to basics. That is what Common Core is all about.

Bruni continues:

“Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?”

The answer, of course, is no. Since when did digging deep into a new topic entail “stress”? I got a degree in history because I love the subject. Never did I consider the papers, research or readings I had to do to learn my subject “stress”. Ever since college, I have been a voracious reader of history, philosophy, literature, economics, science and sundry other topics I never liked in school. Not once did I ever put the book down, wipe my brow and say to myself “wow, this is really stressful”. Learning is a joy. Gaining a deeper understanding of the world is empowering. Education should be about teachers who love learning imparting that joy to their students. How an educator does that is the art, the very essence, of teaching. It is an expression of this joy, and everyone expresses this joy differently. This is what makes teaching and learning an art.

Imagine walking into the classroom of a teacher who knows the activity they are mandated to teach by the Common Core will be “relatively mirthless”. How slow will the time go by? How much drudgery will be involved? The fact that Bruni and many others believe it is ok for learning to be stressful and mirthless speaks to the anti-intellectual mindset that pervades the United States. These are people who never really enjoyed learning. These are people who see education as something separate from the “real world”, as something that one must just “do” for the sake of doing it. What misery it would be if people like this ever became teachers. What misery it is for people like this to be making education policy for teachers and students.

Part of this is because Bruni seems to think the children of today are too “coddled”:

“AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.

So administrators moved to ban the clothing.

They explained, in a letter to parents, that ‘while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,’ the students without it ‘tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.’ What an ordeal.”

Here is the oft-repeated bellyaching of old fogies against the idea of “self esteem”. Old people complaining about this perceived “self-esteem” craze is just the normal complaining all old people do, including even me from time to time, about how the youth of today are spoiled and somehow inferior to the best generation of youth to ever grace the planet, which is always somehow the generation of the person doing the complaining. “Back in my day, we didn’t get trophies for participating in soccer”. “Back in my day, we didn’t have internets and smart phones.” “Back in my day, my parents beat us with the switch and we were better for it.”

If one really spends time with young people, then one begins to see that not all youth have the same experience. Nor do youth have it “easier” than the rough and tumble youth of yesteryear who had to get their information from the library rather than Google. Try telling the youth who come home to an empty house everyday because their mother works 14 of every 24 hours that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a kiss on the cheek and a warm meal on the table waiting for you when you stepped through the door. Try telling the youth who have to walk home through crime-ridden streets everyday that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a car or a bus to shuttle you safely from door to door.

The fact of the matter is the youth of today do not have it any easier than we did growing up. This cult of “self-esteem” has been on the wane for quite some time now. Even when self-esteem was a big thing, youth still had to put up with a world that was in many ways crueler and more unfair than the world in which the old fogies complaining about self-esteem were raised. Try this on for size: childhood poverty has been on the rise for the past 35 years. Children of all colors in all areas have been losing ground, partially due to policies invented by out-of-touch elitists who thought their mommies were being coddled with government “handouts”.

In fact, Bruni’s major justification for the Common Core is that it is high time children stop being coddled. It is quite disturbing that we have reached an age in which thick, stereotypical impressions of what old farts think life is like for children can be used as a basis for major educational change. Bruni even defends Arne Duncan’s remarks about suburban white moms. However, suburban white students, not to mention wealthier white students, have not been losing ground at all. Their test scores and their academic achievement stack up quite well to students in other developed nations. Neither Bruni nor Duncan ever mention this very obvious fact.

One of the main problems is that Bruni, Duncan, David Coleman or Bill Gates have never been educators. One of the main problems is that every Tom, Dick and Harry who went to school believes they are qualified to make education policy. They are supported by other Toms, Dicks and Harries in the general public who also went to school. Bruni specifically is a food critic, yet he gets space in the so-called “paper of record” to wax stupidly about a subject he obviously knows nothing.

Does this mean that because I cook and eat food that I can be a food critic as well? Does this mean that I can be a critic of food critics?  How would Bruni respond if I supported a program to make food criticism more rigorous because these damned food critics get coddled all of the time when they go to restaurants? After all, all of the cooks and wait staff go out of their way to accommodate the high and mighty food critics when they enter a restaurant. Back in my day, the wait staff barely paid attention to me and the cooks left hairs in my soup. How will food ever get better in America if these critics keep getting a skewed version of what food is all about? Our cuisine is falling behind other nations. We must catch up to France!

And, come to think of it, I use computers every day, which makes me an expert in computer policy. Why does my version of Windows start running slow a week after I install it? Those lazy bums at Microsoft refuse to get off their duffs and do their jobs to protect my computer from viruses and adware. Microsoft should be split into smaller companies so designers can give individual attention to each computer. That way, the computers will never get a virus and Microsoft can compete with Apple in the 21st century. And to ensure these lazy designers do their jobs properly, I will fund merit pay schemes to reward the designers who can make the most bug-free operating systems. The ones who cannot can go dance for nickels on the subway for all I care.

See, it is easy to base opinions on thick assumptions and biases. Too bad these are the things on which education “reform” today is based.

What’s in a Test?

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Supporters of the Common Core have to reckon with one immutable truth: testing does not measure everything. Whether or not it measures anything important at all is up for debate. The fact that it does not measure everything is beyond dispute.

Last year I had a student in my 11th grade United States History class. Let us call her Tammy, which is not her real name. Tammy’s grades on homework assignments and exams were not the lowest and not the highest. From September until June she maintained a fairly average grade. I do not recall her bombing any exams or missing an appreciable amount of homework. She was consistently in the middle of the pack.

Tammy is a fairly typical student as well. She is into the same teenaged things that her peers also enjoy: the urban slang, the fashion, the music and everything else right on down the line. She strikes me as a student who, typically, sees school as something that people just do. I would imagine the prospect of going to school every day does not necessarily fill her with joy, nor does it fill her with dread.

In other words, Tammy is what you might call a kid who flies under the radar.

By the end of the year, however, she did break away from the pack in one important respect. Like many other history teachers, I try to infuse some current events into each lesson. Usually, this means shedding light on a particular modern-day problem which is a holdover from the past. This is a way to show students that history, especially American history, is not a neat straight line from barbarism to civilization. Not everything that happens is a step in an enlightened direction. Martin Luther King once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. While this might be true, this arc is made up of small zig-zags and dead ends. These are the things to which I try to draw my students’ attention.

As time went on, Tammy seemed to really start to care about the problems that comprise the zig-zags and dead ends of the moral arc. She would ask questions that demonstrated this. Hers were not questions meant to clarify what was going to be on the next exam. Instead, she asked questions that showed she was starting to plumb the depths of the problems of the world around her. She seemed genuinely interested in injustices like poverty and racism that still dog the United States today, despite the portrayal in most textbooks that we have reached the end of history where these problems really no longer exist. Her mind seemed to be opening up to the world around her, which is always my number one goal for my students.

When it came time to take the United States Regents Exam in June, Tammy passed quite easily with a good grade. The only problem was that she had never passed the Global History Regents Exam from the previous year. She took it at the end of 10th grade, then in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, then in the middle of the 11th grade and then at the end of the 11th grade and she failed each time. In each case she got a grade in the lower 60s, which is to say that she barely failed.

The Global exam is a little tougher than the U.S. History exam. It tests a two-year curriculum as opposed to the one-year curriculum in U.S. History. It also demands a little bit of knowledge about every place in the world, as opposed to U.S. History that demands knowledge about one country. Students generally receive lower grades on the Global exam than the U.S. exam.

Unfortunately for Tammy, the Global exam is a requirement for graduation. She has completed every other class and Regents test required for graduation except for this one. This past summer, as she was waiting to take the latest version of the exam, I saw her in the lobby of the school with flash cards. It was obvious that she had been studying. It was also obvious that the exam was weighing heavily on her mind. She seemed genuinely concerned that she would not be able to graduate due to this test. She has two more cracks at this exam before she is scheduled to graduate in June. It would be a shame if one silly exam in one subject held her back from moving on.

Tammy’s situation is a perfect example of what is wrong with the obsession over standardized testing. Thanks to the Common Core and the Race to the Top teacher evaluations, students in each grade stand to be tested several times a year. These tests do not exist to help schools or students. They only serve to punish them. Students will be left back and teachers will be fired if kids fail these exams. It is the stick of education reform promising to beat us all over the heads.

How can you test the fact that Tammy started to gain an appreciation for American History? How can you test the fact that she started opening her mind to the world? In 5 or 10 years, Tammy might become deeply involved with some cause or dedicate her life to bettering the human condition in some way, all because of a seed that was planted in high school. There is no way to test that.

The corporate purveyors of standardized exams and the Neoliberal cheerleaders of Common Core do not care about any of these things. One can only surmise that they do not want teachers to plant seeds. Testing will do nothing but turn schools into test-prep centers. It will encourage no other goal than gaming the next exam. Despite their claims of preparing kids for the “21st century”, the Arne Duncans and David Colemans of the world only wish to prepare our kids for the next round of bubbles to be filled in. They only wish to encourage the type of myopic, short-term thinking that led to the Wall Street crash in 2008.

Just like the Common Core encourages kids to do, the Wall Street banksters who tanked the economy never looked beyond the slips of paper that were in front of them. Context and how their actions might be affecting the wider world did not register at all. The types of seeds their greed might have been planting were irrelevant to them. The education reformers, many of whom are straight from the financial world, wish to train the next generation to be exactly like them.

I sincerely hope Tammy is able to eke out a passing grade on the next Global exam. She should know that the fact she has not been able to reach some arbitrary cut-off number on a three-hour exam does not speak to her ability as a student or as a human being. It speaks to the twisted incentives put in place by those who run our education systems. She has done her part by coming to school, studying and waking up to the world around her.

Unfortunately, this testing craze is just beginning to heat up. The reformers are salting the earth to ensure that no seeds will ever be able to grow again.

Exclusive! My Interview with Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down with the Assailed Teacher to answer the questions we all want to ask him.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down with the Assailed Teacher to answer the questions we’ve all wanted to ask him.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is facing some heat for his “white suburban moms” comment. As part of his public relations damage control, Secretary Duncan agreed to an interview with me. Below is a transcript of the interview in its entirety.

AT: Good evening Secretary Duncan and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

AD: Thank you for having me. I must say, you are much more overweight and slovenly than most other public school teachers. Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy.

AT: You know, it is comments like this that have gotten you into hot water lately. This past Friday you claimed that some critics of the Common Core Standards are “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [are discovering] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Would you care to elaborate on this Mr. Secretary?

AD: Certainly. See, some mothers just cannot bear to hear any negative news about their perfect little cherubs. Women, by nature, are irrational creatures with an overly optimistic view of their offspring. It takes someone like me, a man from the masculine financial world who now walks the halls of power in Washington, to tell them the reality. I made sure to look at the scores of the children of every single white mother who opposed the Common Core. Guess what? They are all from the suburbs and all of their scores suck. What I said might have been a bit brash, but it was true.

AT: Whoa! Let’s unpack that statement a little bit. First, I must say that your comments just now came off as incredibly sexist.

AD: So? Sexism is part of life. We want to prepare children for the 21st century. Guess what? Sexism exists in the 21st century. Look at Michael Bloomberg. This is a man who treats the women who work for him as his personal harem. He has been the mayor of the largest city in America for the first 12 years of the 21st century. Children need to learn that sexists can do anything, including become Mayor of New York or Secretary of Education.

AT: But your comments were incredibly racist as well. I mean, are there no minority mothers in the suburbs? Are there no white mothers in the cities? Are there no minority mothers anywhere who oppose the Common Core?

AD: Don’t be so quick to play the race card, fatty. Remember, I was appointed by the nation’s first black president and play basketball with him every morning. Everyone knows that these Common Core Standards were created to help minority children. In fact, all bold education reformers today care about minority children, unlike you fat, lazy teachers. No, no minorities anywhere oppose the Common Core. They all love and support it. Don’t you understand? With these standards, minority children in urban areas will have to be taught the same thing in the same way as white children in the suburbs. This ensures that all children, no matter their race, get a quality education. We don’t have to worry about ameliorating urban poverty or proving adequate resources to urban schools. It is enough for us to mandate every child get taught the same thing and, voila, equal education for all. It is so simple, I don’t know why we didn’t do it earlier.

"Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy."

“Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy.”

AT: From my understanding, we intend to determine if children are meeting these standards by subjecting them to standardized tests every year. In fact, your “white suburban moms” comment shows that you measure intelligence and the success of schools by test scores. Don’t you think testing only measures a very narrow conception of “intelligence”? Are you not afraid that the obsession with testing will cause teachers, parents and children to do nothing more than test prep for the 13 years they attend public schools?

AD: As I have said many times before, we are competing with the rest of the world. We live in a globalized economy. China is going to be kicking our butts soon if we don’t do something. That means we have to be more like China. Chinese students take many exams. They have a government that treats their people like disposable cogs in a machine. The only civil rights they have are the ones the Communist Party allow to exist. Those who protest or speak out against the government are systematically jailed, beaten, monitored or worse. These are recipes for success. Testing and test prep will ensure that public school students obediently follow orders. Reading informational texts, as the Common Core mandates, will destroy critical thinking and imagination. Why do we need those things in the 21st century? We don’t. Those things only lead the next generation to want to “Occupy Wall Street” or something. We want to prevent more Occupy Wall Streets in the future so we don’t have to have a Tiananmen Square. Do you catch my drift? So, yes, I concede the point that testing and Common Core narrows imagination and civic engagement. So what? Those are not necessary skills for the 21st century. Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don’t let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China.

AT: And yet, by those very same measures you just mentioned, those white suburban children you criticized as being not so smart outperform children in most other nations. Our wealthy and middle class children do quite well on standardized exams when compared with the rest of the world. So what exactly do you mean that these white suburban moms are mistaken about the intelligence of their own children?

AD: Public schools are failing and that is that. I don’t have time to disaggregate test scores according to socioeconomic status. I am a busy man. In a few minutes, I am getting a massage paid for by the good people at Pearson. This weekend, I am going on a vacation funded by the good people at inBloom. Let the eggheads worry about things like statistics and research. I don’t have the time to go into which schools are failing and which schools are not. They are all failing. Everyone knows that. People on the right and left have all bought into the idea that public schools are pathetic failure factories with lazy unionized teachers like yourself. They need to be shut down and given over to the private sector. Pearson and inBloom and Michelle Rhee and the free market know how to run schools better than the government. I know because they told me. They told me with their money. They are all wealthy. You don’t get wealthy by being stupid. People with money are smarter and better than everyone else. Therefore, they should run the school system. If they did, then they could teach everyone to be wealthy and all of our problems would go away… Don’t look at me like that. I know what that look means. You think that my cozy relationship with the privatizers is causing me to say all of this. My response to you is: why do you hate America? Don’t you know the idea that our schools are failing is the one thing we can agree on as a country? Democrats and Republicans have been fighting it out on every single issue from climate change to healthcare to taxation. Are you not happy that we have this one thing that unites us all? Why do you want to cause division by casting doubt on the narrative that public schools are failing? They are failing. End of story. This message was brought to you by Pearson… Sorry, I get $100 bucks from them every time I say that.

"Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don't let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China."

“Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don’t let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China.”

AT: So, you do not believe that cushioning the ill effects of poverty or providing schools in poor communities with more resources before you heap irrational standards upon them is a more humane way to reform education?

AD: What kind of socialist garbage is that? Poor schools, poor communities, poverty in general, those are all excuses. Those are excuses poor people use to blame the system for their own failures rather than themselves. Those are excuses fat teachers like yourself use to explain away your own laziness and failures. This negative attitude and finger-pointing is exactly what is wrong with America. Turn that frown upside down. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Believe in the American Dream.

AT: So, you are saying that the rise in poverty that has taken place over the past 40 years is due to millions of Americans all of the sudden becoming lazy and negative? How about the stagnant wages and disappearing middle class? What about the fact that the average American worker is more productive now than ever before, yet also poorer now than ever before?

AD: See, this is an example of Americans being spoiled. Look at all of those fast food and Walmart workers who are trying to unionize. They don’t know how good they have it. I have traveled the world. I have seen people in other continents who live in houses without roofs, cities without sewage and countries without governments. All of these poor people in America who are complaining have roofs over their heads. They have access to public transportation. They can go to a hospital for healthcare. They urinate and excrete into toilet bowls. The fact that many of them excrete at all demonstrates that they all have food in their bellies, especially you fat boy. How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets. For absolutely free of charge, you can sit like royalty on one of their toilets and read the newspaper while doing your business. Heck, 99% of the time, it has free toilet paper, soap and water so you can clean up. You want to complain about poverty in America? You don’t know how good we have it here. You don’t know how good all of us have it here.

"How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets."

“How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets.”

AT: Should that really be the standard? The fact that people here don’t live in mud brick huts and use a hole in the ground as a bathroom seems like an awfully low standard. I thought you were all about raising standards? Why does that only apply to students, parents and teachers in public schools? Why does it not apply to the American way of life in general?

AD: You don’t get it. We are competing with the rest of the world. There are countries out there where people live like absolute paupers their entire lives. Americans should expect to do the same. You don’t see people in those countries complaining about their living conditions? They get by with what they have. We must imitate their model. That is what Common Core will do. It will train Americans to keep the “what ifs” out of their minds. It will prevent them from asking pesky questions. Don’t you know that most of the nations of the world have horrendous poverty and inequality caused by a greedy ruling class who only want more for themselves? We have the same thing here, only that there are people who want to unionize and “Occupy Wall Street”. We will never be able to compete with the rest of the world if the people in this country don’t accept their miserable lot. That is what Common Core is about. That is what Race to the Top is about. America will only race to the top once Americans accept the fact that they will always be at the bottom.

 

How the Common Core Closes Minds

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History does not repeat itself. Those who forget the mistakes of the past might not be doomed to repeat them.

Each historical era is its own world. It is fertile soil out of which the next historical era will grow. What one means by “era” wholly depends on what one is investigating. History is valuable not because it teaches sobering lessons, but because it explains the world in which we live today. In doing so, it might help point us to the future.

This means that every word that has ever been uttered, every action ever taken and every thought ever written cannot be properly understood without understanding the world out of which they grew. Some people might call this “context”. Certain philosophers might call this “structure”. Whatever one calls it, it is necessary to at least try to understand it in order to appreciate the events of the past.

That is why literalist interpretations of any historical text is the stuff of folly. Biblical literalists worship words written down during the 2nd century Roman Empire, and translated during Elizabethan England, without bothering to understand either of those worlds. Inevitably, they invest in these words meanings that only someone from 21st century America could comprehend. Another way of putting it is that Biblical literalists tend to plunder scripture in order to justify some previously arrived at bias.

It is probably even worse for people who fancy themselves Constitutional literalists. Typically, people who claim to only follow the letter of the Constitution keep some shadowy notion of 18th century America in the back of their minds. It is ironic that, whenever these literalists reveal their impressions of the Founding Fathers, the Fathers seem to hold the same exact biases as the literalists. Constitutional literalists plunder the Constitution and American history to justify positions conjured up in their 21st century American gut.

The historian Jack Rakove warned against literalist interpretations of the founding documents in his book Original Meanings. In his depiction of the Founding Fathers, he demonstrates that many of them said and meant different things at different times. Sometimes this was due to changes in their opinions. Most of the time, it was due to altering their message to gain approbation with whatever audience they were addressing at the moment. In terms of the Constitution, they realized they did not have everything figured out about how a republic such as the one they were making was supposed to work. For example, Article III, which deals with the federal court system, was vaguely short because they did not have a solid idea about how it would function or what its powers were. They left plenty of grey area in the Constitution in the faith that future generations would figure it out.

The Founding Fathers knew they did not have all of the answers. Unfortunately, many of us alive today are not smart enough to know that. They assume the Founders carefully placed in their words some definite and eternal meaning for ensuing generations to discover. The fact that the Founders wanted to leave enough room in the Constitution so their progeny could apply it to the unforeseen circumstances of the future is a sinful idea in literalist circles. To them, every word in the Constitution has a definite meaning by which those of us who live in the present must abide.

If the designers of the Common Core get their way, the next generation will be nothing but literalists. Take these standards from 11th and 12th grade social studies:

1) ” Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”

2) ” Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.”

3) “Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

And it goes on like that. To the Common Core-istas, the text is everything. The audience for whom the text was written, the historical circumstances out of which the text arose, training the reader to recognize their own biases when reading the text, does not play a role whatsoever. As a teacher of history (not social studies), I know this is a myopic and plodding way to analyze any historical text. It is one of the most low-level exercises in which students can be engaged. Sure, we want students to be able to understand the meaning and structure of text. However, this understanding is just a preliminary point on the way to explaining why a particular text made sense within a particular historical moment. After this comes the questioning of the text. Not only do we wish to question the veracity of the text, we wish to question its place in history.

History teachers do these things with texts because we know it helps students recreate the past. We help students recreate the past because we want them to understand the present. We want them to understand the present because we want them to be engaged citizens. Revealingly, the word citizen does not appear once in the Common Core. There is much talk about primary and secondary sources and analyzing structure and providing evidence. There is nothing about civic values or engagement with the wider world. If we were to teach these things to students, they might start understanding their own places within our society. Heck, they might start writing texts of their own.

This seems to be the biggest fear of the Common Core crowd. This endless consumption of text is aimed at killing imagination. David Coleman, the man assumed to be the granddaddy of the CCSS, is notoriously repulsed by children using such squishy things as imagination and emotion. Apparently, there is no room for these things in the 21st century for which we are preparing our children. We want to train our children to be locked into the text. We want to train our children to be consumers of text.

But who will be writing the texts that our kids will read when they grow to be 21st century adults? What will be the veracity of these texts? Whose purposes do these texts serve? Why are these texts being produced at this particular historical moment?

The Common Core is silent on these questions. It is silent because they want our children to remain silent. The Common Core is designed to make silent consumers out of future generations. Only those who come from families with the wealth to avoid a Common Core education will be encouraged to innovate.

Danger: The Common Core Conspiracy

conspiracy-theories

The internet has enabled a whole new generation of kooky conspiracy theories.

As a student of history, I enjoy a good conspiracy. If we take the elastic definition of a conspiracy being a plan hatched between two or more people, then history is filled with them. However, modern-day conspiracy theory is the stuff of fantasy. The Illuminati, 9/11 “Truth” and practically every theory uttered by Alex Jones is part of this fantasy world. Conspiracy theories serve a valuable purpose for the power structure. They take people’s righteous anger against injustice and redirect it towards dead ends. In this way, they serve to deflect real challenges to the system.

Last year, I was reminded of another valuable purpose of conspiracy theories. I made a comment on a friend’s Facebook page about 9/11 being used as an excuse to attack Iraq. This, I assumed, was more or less an established fact. Yet, someone I did not know retorted that I was one of “those” crazy conspiracy nuts. Rather than try to explain myself out of a corner, I dismissed the person’s comment for the drivel it was. However, it was a reminder that conspiracies serve to delegitimize substantive criticisms of the existing order.

Part of the reason why people like Alex Jones are so appealing, and so dangerous, is that there is a certain amount of truth to what they say. There are many facts interlaced within Alex Jones’ phantasmagorical rants. The problem lies in the way he arranges and interprets those facts. If Congress starts debating gun control in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, then it must mean that Newtown was a “false flag” operation designed to give the government an excuse to infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. Furthermore, the sweep of what people like Alex Jones say is more or less true. Our rights are being eroded. Our democracy is getting weaker. The Average Joe is losing ground. The future for many of us does look bleak. People have a visceral sense that something is wrong with our country. Alex Jones and others prey upon that general feeling to paint a simplified version of a much more complex reality, while enriching themselves in the process.

Existing on another conspiracy plane are the Glen Beck types. Instead of an all-powerful Illuminati controlling everything, he believes there is some vast liberal conspiracy to take over the world. In this version, Obama is the leading edge of a Marxist intellectual elitist liberal socialist Muslim radical plot to destroy the United States. There is a pronounced streak of conspiratorial thinking in the entire Tea Party movement.

Unfortunately, the Glen Becks and Tea Partiers of America are making it difficult to oppose the Common Core State Standards. Featured in the Huffington Post’s Education section is the story of Janet Wilson. Janet Wilson is a mother from Upstate New York who helped start a protest where parents will keep their kids home on November 18 to show their disapproval of the Common Core. The Huffington Post makes much of the fact that the woman is a Christian who sees it as her God-given duty to stop the Common Core. The piece goes on to point out some other critics of the CCSS:

Wilson is part of what she sees as a growing movement of parents speaking out against the Common Core Standards. Groups like Americans For Prosperity have sponsored previous anti-Common Core efforts, but Wilson is operating on the grassroots level.

Later in the article is quoted a supporter of the Common Core:

Petrilli, who has come out in favor of the standards, said that in his experience some of the most vocal Common Core opponents do not have their children in public schools. Notably, Wilson said that she is going to home-school her child, who is not yet school-aged.

The inference that the Huffington Post makes in this article is undeniable: critics of the Common Core are fringe right-wing kooks and idiots. Reasonable people on the right and left support it.

Judging from the comments, the article had its desired effect. Here are just some of the reactions of Huff Po’s left-leaning readership to Janet Wilson:

“the US is currently ranked in the mid 20s in education globally the common core curriculum is a necessity at this point …and these ppl are def part of the reason for are terrible educational ranking”

“No wonder why they remain uneducated…”

“Without a doubt, this lady has not once looked at the Standards themselves. She is simply following the hysteria from the talking heads.

Anyone who 1) Is rational and 2) is honest would look at those standards and say they are good and reasonable. They may be tough to teach at some grade levels, but one needs to start somewhere!

Being able to read in context, express ideas, accurately describe the way an idea is communicated — those are very good things.

But the Fundamentalist community hates and fears education. For them, education which teaches children to think, to question, to analyze, and to investigate is dangerous. They want to teach children to memorize, to accept rules blindly because they are the rules, and to never investigate otherwise. To do so is to question authority.

Education teaches us that our parents — and even our teachers — can be wrong and often are wrong. As parents and teachers, we should want our children and students to understand what we are teaching them, but also to go beyond, to create knowledge and understanding in better ways. Those who do not want that have missed the point altogether.

The more I look at the Common Core, the more I like it. It is not perfect, but it is an improvement over the chaos that rules state curricula.”

“Rational” folk all support the Common Core. Being against the CCSS means being against “high standards”. It means being anti-intellectual. It means being a wing nut, Christian fundamentalist, homeschooling, evolution-denying troglodyte.

Glen Beck himself has contributed to this impression that people have of CCSS’s opponents. Beck began one of his criticisms of the Common Core by saying “it is how every Marxist utopia begins.” In his mind, Common Core is “indoctrination”. Of course, the implication is that it is indoctrination into a Godless Marxist frame of mind that will brainwash the next generation with sinister values.

At one point I believed that it would be useful for educators to make common cause with Tea Partiers against the Common Core. However, the twisted logic of people like Glen Beck can only serve to hamper our efforts. Like most conspiracy theories, their ideas can only delegitimize our own very real and very substantial fears about the Common Core.

Sometimes all that matters is that two groups who otherwise disagree on most other things can make common cause against a perceived evil. In this case, the reasons why many people on the right oppose the Common Core can be toxic. They run the risk of making any criticism a laughing stock. Educators need to distance themselves from these people immediately. We need to expressly say that we are not with those people over there who believe that the CCSS is some evil Marxist plot.

That is not to say we cannot make common cause with people on the right. I am sure there are plenty of conservatives who oppose CCSS on the grounds that it violates some sacred wall of federalism. While we do not have to agree with their reasoning, at least this line of thinking is not totally guano insane that it will make anyone associated with them look like members of the tin foil hat club.

Not only are these kooky fears about the Common Core dangerous in and of themselves, they are dangerous when contrasted with those who support the Common Core. President Obama, Republican governors and leaders in business and government are all on board. Anyone not familiar with education policy can look around and draw the conclusion that all of the reasonable people are for it. Hearing the likes of Glen Beck would only confirm their suspicions that it is nut jobs who oppose such a common sense thing as “raising standards” for students.

I see a real danger in the Tea Party opposition to Common Core. They are the axle grease on public opinion preventing educators from gaining any real traction with building widespread opposition to CCSS. We need to point out how CCSS is developmentally inappropriate for young children. We need to point out how CCSS exalts a very narrow interpretation of “understanding”. We need to point out how the CCSS is married to standardized testing. These will differentiate us from the Glen Becks of the world.

Most importantly, we need to tell the history of national standards. In the 1990s, the movement for national standards was tied to the movement for equitable school funding. It was a way to improve education in states that suffered from the legacy of Jim Crow, as well as de facto segregation. In short, national standards used to be a movement for social justice. However, we have discarded the prospect of equitable funding to the point that it is not even part of the discourse anymore. All we are left with are a bunch of poorly thought out, developmentally inappropriate “standards” that will do nothing but narrow the curriculum and institutionalize a two-tiered education system: the wealthy get a broad curriculum and the rest get Common Core.

We must hammer this point home every chance we get. More than anything else, it will differentiate us from the Tea Party conspiracies. It will put us back on the right side of the debate. It will win over so-called “liberals” and people associated with the “reasonable center” (the gooey center, in reality).

Sometimes it is not productive to take on strange bedfellows. We might wake up the next morning with regrets.

What the New UFT Contract SHOULD Look Like

Michael Mulgrew attentively listens to my suggestions for a new UFT contract while also plotting how to kill me in my sleep.

Michael Mulgrew attentively listens to my suggestions for a new UFT contract while also plotting how to kill me in my sleep.

Talk of what a new UFT contract negotiated with Bill de Blasio will look like is rampant. Teachers have a sense that, finally, we can deal with a mayor who negotiates in good faith. At the last Delegate Assembly our fearful leader, Michael Mulgrew, alluded to a contract filled with dollar signs. My advice to New York City teachers is: DON’T FALL FOR IT.

I know we are all poorer than we were three years ago thanks to stagnant salaries and a skyrocketing cost of living. It is easy to salivate over the prospect of a wage increase that can keep up with the rent. For my part, having to move several times in the past few years and family issues have put me squarely in the pauper’s house. I will gladly remain a pauper and forgo loads of money in exchange for a contract that restores some form of dignity to the teaching profession. Below are just some of the things for which the UFT should fight in the next contract.

1. Anti-Bullying Clause

Every school now seems to have signs warning people against bullying behavior. At the same time, many of these schools have seen systematic harassment of teachers at the hands of administrators. It is not just that administrators face no repercussions for bullying teachers. It is that there are some administrators who believe that the more teacher heads they deliver on platters, the more brownie points they win with Tweed. Any anti-bullying campaign is meaningless without a clause in our contract that protects us from the bullying behavior of administrators. The UFT should make their vast legal department available to teachers who wish to file lawsuits against administrators who discriminate based upon age or race, or who sexually harass members of their staff with impunity. Schools should no longer be fiefdoms where petty bureaucrats wield absolute power.

2. Complete Opting Out of Race to the Top

Some school districts have already started opting out of New York State’s involvement in the Race to the Top debacle. We should look to these school districts as examples. First, opting out will protect sensitive data about our students from being the plaything of private corporations. Second, it will get rid of the ridiculous evaluation system that requires administrators to check off boxes, students to fill in bubbles and teachers to be rated by test scores of students they never taught. Third, it will prevent the horror that is Common Core from overtaking our schools. Kindergarteners will not have to learn fractions, teachers will not have to worry over whether or not they are using enough “informational texts” and some semblance of joy can be preserved in teaching and learning. Finally, opting out of RTTT will help stem the charter school craze that was a hallmark of the Bloomberg Administration. If Bill de Blasio wants to solidify his credentials as a true progressive, opting out of Race to the Top is the easiest way for him to do it. The only question is: will the UFT even push for this at the negotiating table?

3. No More Circular 6

Circular 6 has been the bane of many-a-teacher’s existence for some time now. This is the provision that requires teachers to do meaningless make work during certain times of the day instead of grading or preparing lessons. Cafeteria duty, hallway patrol, bus duty and the rest have enabled administrators to cut back on deans and other support staff. This might be good for slashing budgets but it has helped erode discipline and school tone. Circular 6 is one of the largest morale-crushers in the DOE and it will not be missed by anyone aside from administrators who enjoy making their staffs jump through meaningless hoops.

4. Restore the right to grieve letters in the file

The “letter in the file” is one of the most popular disciplinary tools administrators have at their disposal. There was a time when administrators reserved letters in the file for rather serious infractions. This was partially due to the fact that teachers had the right to grieve them, which could end in getting the letter removed. Ever since Randi Weingarten negotiated away the right to grieve letters in the file, administrators have seen fit to write teachers up for things like talking at staff meetings, smoking near (not within) the 100 feet from school grounds required by Chancellor’s Regulations or any other silly “infraction” dreamed up in the minds of petty bureaucrats. It is important to note that Randi negotiated this right away in exchange for more money. This contract should totally reverse Randi’s blunder: sacrifice the money for the protection.

5. Restore the integrity of the 3020a and investigation process

One of the dirty big secrets of Bloomberg’s DOE has been the exponential growth of the teacher trials unit. There are more lawyers, arbitrators and investigators employed by the DOE than ever before. All of these people have one job: to destroy the careers of teachers. The stories of Christine Rubino and David Suker should be proof enough for the union that the 3020a process needs serious reform. First, Richard Condon must be fired. He is the Special Commissioner of Investigation and is responsible for sending the goon squads over to the houses of teachers to rummage through their garbage and stalk their teenaged daughters (both of which have happened). SCI’s staff needs to be cut at least in half, if not more. Second, the rule that any teacher under investigation must be taken out of the classroom and reassigned needs to go. That rule was originally put in place for teachers who were accused of things that potentially made them dangerous to children. Now, as the case of Francesco Portelos proves, teachers can be reassigned for any infraction, even if none of them have to do with children. This is one of the most lethal weapons at the disposal of administrators and SCI and has ruined the careers of too many good educators. Finally, the arbitrators need to be properly vetted and qualified. DOE arbitrators used to have reputations of solid gold. Now, many arbitrators do the bidding of the DOE knowing that they run the risk of not getting paid if they do not. Arbitrator salaries need to be reduced and guaranteed so they cannot be cowed to do the DOE’s bidding.

6. Placement of all ATRs

The other dirty big secret of the DOE is the Absent Teacher Reserve. Teachers who managed to not get fired after being hit with frivolous SCI charges or teachers who were given the axe when Bloomberg saw fit to shut down their schools have been forced to rotate schools month-to-month in a sort of teacher purgatory. Since reliable statistics about ATRs do not exist, we do not know exactly how many of them are in the system and what their age and racial makeup are. It is amazing that in the era of data, do data on ATRs is available. Is this because these statistics would leave the DOE and UFT open to all types of discrimination lawsuits? All ATRs should be placed in schools with openings immediately. Furthermore, an investigation into how many ATRs are over 50 and/or minority should be conducted so that teachers can join in a discrimination lawsuit if they so desire.

7. Iron-Clad Contract

It needs to be clarified that contracts that have been collectively bargained have the force of law that can only be abrogated by another collectively bargained contract. This would prevent another set of laws from passing the state legislature like the ones passed to bring New York into compliance with Race to the Top. The Race to the Top’s laws regarding teacher evaluations and tenure rights effectively changed provisions in the existing contract. This set a dangerous precedent. Something like this should never happen again. The union needs to maintain the integrity of collective bargaining. They failed to so the first time around. Let us see if they can get it right this time. As an addendum to this, the nature of “binding arbitration” should also be clarified. Arbitrators need to be independent and neutral, meaning they cannot be part of management at either the city or state level. This will prevent another John King-imposed evaluation debacle that was the result of the UFT’s failure to defend their collective bargaining rights. Again, how likely is it that the UFT will push for this come contract time? The fact that they have so willingly compromised the integrity of collective bargaining, which is the fundamental right of all labor unions, should be a cause of concern to every teacher in NYC.

8. Rational Path to Tenure

New teachers are being denied tenure at a ridiculous rate. It has become the unwritten policy of the DOE to deny tenure to as many teachers as possible, the so-called “four-year-and-out” rule. The entire portfolio system needs to be scrapped. If an administrator needs to see a portfolio to determine if a teacher who has worked under them for three years is deserving of tenure, then they are not much of an administrator. Tenure needs to be based on administrator observations and possibly the observations of veteran teachers. Over 60% of the teachers currently teaching in NYC came in under Bloomberg, which speaks to an absurd rate of turnover. We need to retain dedicated and capable people. Systematically denying new teachers tenure makes as little sense as systematically granting them tenure.

These are just some of the things for which I would forgo money in the next contract. Of course, many of these things depend on reforms that need to be made in the DOE itself, which is a matter for another post. Sadly, my biggest worry is that our union will not even fight for these provisions. It is a shame because Bill de Blasio could score some political points if he could turn to the media and say he did not give teachers a fat raise or retroactive pay. He could avoid accusations of being a squishy, union-coddling liberal. At the same time, the UFT could strengthen their own position with all of these provisions. Most importantly, these changes would restore some dignity and independence to the teaching profession. This would end up improving education for all children in NYC, which is what really matters in the end.

 

The Power of Opting Out

There is always a choice.

There is always a choice.

This piece was originally written for Schoolbook who did not see fit to pick it up. Why let it go to waste? 

Opting out is becoming a form of educational civil disobedience.

Certain school districts in upstate New York are starting to opt out of the new teacher evaluation system mandated by Race to the Top. A group of courageous parents in Washington Heights recently opted their children out of a standardized exam that was being given for no other reason than to evaluate their teachers. A nationwide opt out movement has been afoot for some time as a response to the testing mania that has accompanied the current wave of education reform.

Opting out is empowering because it shows the rest of us, whether we are parents, students or educators, that we still have choices in an era of so much top-down control of our education system.

Teachers should take heart from these examples. I teach history in a solid public high school with wonderful students. The new Race to the Top evaluations are subjecting my students to more testing than ever before. It breaks my heart to see them spending so much time filling in bubbles when they can be in a classroom engaged in actual learning.

As teachers, our ratings and livelihoods hinge upon how our students fair on these exams. On top of this, our administrators have to observe our teaching more than they ever have before. Many of my colleagues have been scrambling to bring their teaching in line with the new evaluation regime. For my part, I have decided to opt out.

Sure, I cannot prevent my administrators from walking into my classroom to observe me. I cannot prevent my students from wasting their time taking exams. But I can prevent myself from scrambling to conform with a system that I know for a fact to be odious and destructive.

Teaching is the only career I have ever had. All of my teaching years, 14 to be exact, have been spent in New York City’s Department of Education. My methods have been informed by the veteran teachers who took the time to mentor me when I was green. My style has been shaped by the countless students who have let me know, one way or another, what works and what does not work. If not for my colleagues and my students, I would not be the teacher that I am today.

This is why I have decided to make no compromises with the new evaluation regime. I will not allow the regime to change a single thing I do as a teacher. I owe it to my colleagues to opt out in this way in order to give them hope that we do not have to give ourselves over to this new system. I owe it to my students to shield them, as much as possible, from the odious effects of this so-called “reform”.

This does not mean that I will not take risks with new materials, assessments or approaches to teaching. It is quite the opposite. A good teacher modifies and refines their style all of the time. What it does mean is that the changes I make will in no way be informed by the new system. Instead, I will continue to listen to my colleagues and students the way I have been doing for the past 14 years. This is what opting out means to me.

Bureaucracies, especially one as unwieldy as the Department of Education, have a tendency to make us feel as if we do not have choices in what we do. There are always choices. Sure, all of us have to make certain compromises in order to get along in the system. I have made the decision to make as few compromises as possible when it comes to the quality of education my students receive. This new system requires too many unacceptable compromises of me. Therefore, I will merely opt out of this system by pretending it does not exist in my classroom.

If this results in me being rated “ineffective” then so be it. At least I can sleep at night knowing I did right by the students I serve.

Learning From a Bad Teacher

What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?

What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?

I know I am a bit late to the party with this review of Confessions of a Bad Teacher by John Owens. After I read it, I looked around to see what other people were saying about it online. Those who have a problem with the book seem to take issue with the fact that Owens was a teacher for a mere 5 months, meaning he did not stick around long enough to gain a big picture view of the Department of Education under Bloomberg. I say that this is one of the strengths of the book.

The book is an account of what any outsider might find if they cared enough to spend time in the public school system.

John Owens left a successful career in publishing to teach public high school students. Unfortunately, he ended up at one of those schools that represented everything wrong with the Department of Education under Bloomberg. It was a school located in the South Bronx that Owens calls “Latinate”. In reality, it was Eximius College Preparatory Academy. Owens’ biggest obstacle as a new teacher was his principal. He never names who his principal was but a basic Google search reveals that it was Tammy Smith, who was eventually fired for giving students credit for classes they never took.

Owens was hired as an English teacher. This fact alone should tell us something about the school. There is a flood of English and history teachers in the system. That means job openings in these subjects tend to be at schools with high turnover rates. According an Insideschools comment quoted by fellow blogger jd2718, turnover at Eximius was between 31% and 56% under Smith between 2006 and 2008. There is no reason to believe it was any lower when Owens was hired, which was probably a year or two later.

Smith told Owens to refer to the students as “scholars”. She envisioned the school as a “cathedral of learning”. The stain glass in this cathedral were bulletin boards, which had to be updated with new student work every month. The liturgy had to follow the workshop model and each hymn had to follow the strict timeline laid out by Pope Tammy I. Pope Tammy’s clergy were required to input a daily stream of data about their students. It was an unwritten rule that no less than 80% of the scholars in the cathedral should pass. Teachers whose students dipped below this number were subject to Tammy’s inquisition, including the dreaded “U” rating of which she was so fond.

Owens learned early on that what counted in Bloomberg’s DOE was appearance. The bulletin boards, workshop model, data and passing rates were all there to make the school and, by extension, the principal and, by further extension, Bloomberg, look good. Actually building a solid learning environment for students did not even figure into the calculations of school leaders. Helping new teachers like John Owens perfect their craft mattered even less. As far as Tammy Smith was concerned, teachers were there to build what Owens refers to as the “pageant”. All of her efforts went into making the school seem successful. The obsession with perception is Bloomberg’s biggest education legacy, which is perfectly consistent for a man who made his billions as a media giant.

The real victims in Tammy Smith’s efforts to put on an educational pageant were the students. Owens does a great job of describing the kids he was charged with educating. Any NYC teacher would be able to relate to them. Eximius is a secondary school, meaning it serves grades 6 through 12. Owens taught English to 8th and 9th graders, which are probably the two toughest secondary school grades to teach. Early in the book, Owens describes a boy who specialized in distracting other students. He was a particularly handsome boy and he used his charm to mill about the room talking to various girls. By the end of the period, the boy would find the time to rush some of his class work to completion, yet none of the girls he had distracted ever found time to do the same. When Owens spoke to the boy’s mother, the mother said “that’s how he has always been”. Owens equated the mother’s reaction to saying “yeah, his unbelievable charm and good looks are your problems to deal with.”

Many NYC teachers can relate to parents who seem to excuse or even encourage their children’s distractive behaviors. That is not to say that they represent the majority of parents. Owens describes children who could be made to behave by threatening to call their parents, a situation to which many NYC teachers can also relate. However, in his five months as a teacher, Owens learned that overall discipline is a problem in NYC schools. He found that getting children to settle down was a challenge and a good chunk of class time was spent on discipline. On parent-teacher night, Owens told a parent that children in a suburban school district in which he observed classes did not need to be told to sit down and, consequently, were able to concentrate on actual learning. The parent took this as a racist remark and complained to the principal.

The next day, Tammy Smith put a letter in Owens’ mailbox admonishing him for his racist remarks. Along the way, she was sure to embellish many of the details to make Owens sound like a tried and true racist. This situation illustrates everything one needs to know about why teacher turnover was so high at Eximius under Smith. It illustrates why teacher turnover remains so high throughout the NYC DOE.

New teachers in NYC find themselves caught in a vice. They have students who might have special needs or unstable families or who live in violent communities or suffer from poverty or all of the above. Understandably, this affects their ability to focus in school. No new teacher, no matter how smart or educated or dedicated, can effectively educate all of the students who suffer under these circumstances. They need guidance from administrators and more veteran colleagues on how to reach young people. However, administrators like Tammy Smith are not interested in guidance. Instead, they have internalized the reformer ethos of carrots and especially sticks. A whole generation of DOE administrators have been nourished on the reformer ethos that teachers are low-level bureaucratic functionaries in need of a good beating. Owens’ book demonstrates the hopelessness experienced by many new teachers who are caught between the hammer of punitive administrators and the anvil of students who are in need of a tremendous amount of attention. Like so many other teachers, these pressures forced Owens right out of the system.

The system did literally nothing to help mold John Owens into a great teacher. If Owens was having trouble controlling his class, he would get a sanctimonious lecture from administration on proper classroom management. Instead of learning effective teaching methods, he was subjected to endless professional development sessions on the latest buzzwords in modern “pedagogy”. In order to practice this “pedagogy”, Owens was forced to travel from classroom to classroom between periods because his administrators feared that giving teachers their own classrooms might actually make them feel like professionals. His veteran colleagues, instead of being called upon by administrators to be role models and mentors, were instead harassed because they cost the school too much money. From day one, John Owens and his students were set up for failure.

Not every teacher at Eximius was forced out after five months. Owens described how some of his young colleagues got along in the system. All they had to do was chaperone dances and oversee afterschool activities for absolutely no compensation. In this way, they helped make Tammy Smith look good. She was able to show the DOE that the school was offering a litany of great activities for their students, which allowed the DOE to pretend that they were indeed putting “students first”. In return, these young teachers got to work longer hours at the school instead of writing lessons or learning how to perfect their craft. They got to go home at 8 pm, at which point they would have to work on grading papers or planning the next unit. It was probably a rare circumstance when any of these teachers got to go to bed before midnight. A “good” teacher was measured not by what they did in the classroom but how much blood and sweat they gave to the school building for the benefit of the principal.

Unfortunately, the ritual harassment of veteran teachers at Eximius was a lesson to these youngsters in what they had to look forward to if they miraculously survived in the DOE. Instead of enlisting veteran teachers as mentors, Tammy Smith enlisted the teachers who kissed up to her as the staff’s role models. Owens describes one arrogant, smart-alecky woman who administration held up as the paragon of pedagogy. The one thing she seemed to do better than anyone else at the school was toe the administration line. This was surely no accident. Many schools have literacy coaches, math coaches, master teachers, lead teachers or just teachers who are held up as masters of their craft. Some of these teachers are great at what they do and have a genuine desire to help their colleagues. And then there are those who act as the resident snitch or lackey. The implicit lesson that was taught to John Owens was that the best way to be considered a master teacher was to be in the pocket of the administration.

While teachers can most certainly relate to John Owens’ story, it is non-teachers who need to read his book the most. So many odious impacts of what passes as school reform in this day and age converge in one place. Eximius is one of Bloomberg’s small schools. It was run by a principal who enthusiastically embraced the reformer obsession with data, appearance and jargon. The name of the school itself is an exercise in marketing. “Eximius College Preparatory Academy” sounds like one of these expensive boarding schools to which many reformers send their own children. However, unlike those fancy boarding schools, Eximius under Tammy Smith did not provide a rich curriculum taught by experienced teachers. Instead, it was a revolving door of disempowered staff suffering under the thumb of a principal who ran the school like her personal fiefdom. This was made possible by Bloomberg’s war on the teacher’s union, which resulted in principals gaining almost unlimited power over the careers of their teachers. With this unlimited power, Smith chose not to do right by her students or faculty. Instead, she chose to make her school a “pageant” where most of the “scholars” graduated thanks to her crooked tactics.

Unfortunately, there are many Eximiuses and Tammy Smiths throughout NYC. Making a school into a “pageant” might further the careers of selfish administrators. It does nothing for the students of the inner city who are in need of a first-rate education. Tammy Smith committed educational malpractice, as so many administrators still do throughout the DOE. Bloomberg’s school reforms have given birth to rampant educational malpractice dressed up as progress.

Owens’ book resonated with me because I started my career in a school similar to Eximius. It was a small neighborhood school that served students similar to the ones described by Owens. However, this was back in 2000 before the election of Bloomberg and the rise of the educational pageant. My principal was the complete opposite of Tammy Smith. He believed in helping teachers, not harassing them. He is the one who set me up with the mentor who I credit for molding me into the teacher I am today. As a veteran teacher himself, he knew what it took to set his students and staff up for success. My first year teaching was also his first year running that school. When he hired me, he made me feel as if I was going to be a part of something special. And I was.

Before he took over, the school had a reputation as sort of a mad house. The previous principal was forced out of the system for financial malfeasance. She locked herself up in her office all day while discipline and school tone deteriorated. When the principal who hired me took over, he made discipline the centerpiece of his vision. He doubled the dean staff, of which I was a part. Students who disrupted class had their parents called into the school. Chronic offenders were suspended. He hired a crop of retired teachers to come in a few times a week to act as mentors to the young staff. After his first year in the building, there was a tremendous improvement in school tone. He stayed on for three more years after that. His tenure was probably a golden age in the history of that school. Everything was not perfect, but the quality of education the students received in that building was light years beyond what it was before he took over. In the end, that is the only thing that matters.

Somewhere along the way, Bloomberg and his obsession with data took over the DOE. The principal was shuffled to another school and then eventually forced to retire. In the meantime, we got a new principal who was rumored to be a hatchet woman sent by the DOE. She brought with her the obsession with pageantry required to be a school leader today in NYC. She cut the dean staff down to one, causing discipline to deteriorate. Teachers were expected to work for free on silly things like curriculum maps. We were tortured with endless professional development sessions by people who could not teach their way out of a paper bag. The morale that had been built up over the previous four years evaporated. Teachers started leaving, including me. Most of all, the students who remembered the good old days noticed the marked decline of the school and resented it. She was not as bad as Tammy Smith, although she was cut from the same cloth.

I could only imagine how things would be different for me today if I started my career under Tammy Smith. Chances are that I would not be teaching. How many good teachers have been forced out of the DOE by the Tammy Smiths of the world? How many millions of students have been deprived of a good education thanks to Bloomberg’s reforms? These are the uncomfortable questions raised by John Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher.

Making it Look Easy

10000hours

How long did it take you to get good?

Last year I took on a student teacher, meaning a college student working towards his education degree, for two weeks. He was being mentored by my colleague next door who teaches 11th grade. His college program required him to teach a unit to a lower grade, so he stopped by for a cup of coffee with one of my freshman classes.

Before he taught his unit, he had to observe me teach the class for two weeks. As many of you know, my teaching style is very traditional. It has inaccurately been dubbed “lecture” or “chalk and talk” by some. This is because my students sit in rows as I stand up and ask questions. With every question we answer, we fill in another part of what are dubbed “Harvard style” notes that I compile on the board. By the end of the period, we have several boards full of pretty detailed notes. These notes answer an aim question that usually begins with the word “how”, like “How did the Renaissance begin in Italy?” or “How did Athens change during the Age of Pericles?” In my world, this is called an old-fashioned developmental lesson.

A few days before my temporary student-teacher started his unit, I asked him how he intended to teach it. He had some activities and questions lined up. Since he had been working with my colleague for quite some time, I did not micromanage what he had prepared. He was developing a style with which he was comfortable and I wanted to see him test it out with a different group of kids learning a different curriculum.

During his first day teaching my class, I sat in the back and took notes on what I was seeing. Whenever I take on a student teacher, I write copious notes while they are in the front of the room running the show. I take note of what happens every second. My hand is usually shot after 50 minutes of continuous writing.

After the period, we sat down to do a post-mortem of the lesson. As is my custom, I asked what he thought about it before I shared my observations. On this particular occasion, I do not remember what he said about his lesson, nor do I remember what I had written about it. What I do remember was his reaction when he found out what I had to say. It probably went something like this:

“The first question you asked was good. Notice how you received mainly one-word answers from the students. Perhaps you should have turned this question into a ‘why’ question. Never be afraid to give them the answer and then ask them why.”

“Remember when so-and-so raised his hand and said that? You basically just glossed over it and moved on. But he made a good point that you could have seized upon. You should praise the students when they participate and build off of what they say. There is a grain of truth in most things they share. If you can’t find the grain of truth, maybe ask the class what they think of that response.”

“Move around the room. Don’t just stand in the front. Be active. Let the students know you can be anywhere at any time.”

“The notes you wrote on the board were good but they need to be organized. Students need to know why this idea goes here and that idea goes there. There should be a logic and progression to your notes so the kids can go back over them later and understand it.”

“Look around the room. Make eye contact with every student. You don’t have to keep calling on the same 3 kids. Spread around the participation. For more advanced students, call on them when you ask a difficult thought question. For students who are shy or struggling, give them the softball questions. Make it so every kid can get involved with the lesson at different points.”

And on and on it went for the next half hour.

I remember him being surprised by how much I had observed and how detailed my observations were. Quite simply, he did not realize how much was involved in actual teaching.

When people observe my class, I think there is a tendency to believe there is nothing more to what I do than asking questions and writing notes. It is as if they believe I just roll out of bed and pull questions from certain orifices of my body, then write what the students come up with on the board. As someone who has been doing this job for nearly 15 years, it looks pretty easy from the outside.

Then, the few who actually try to take my place discover it is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Questions do not come ready-made from a can. You cannot just ask any question and get brilliant responses. Your questions have to be tailored to your kids. Students respond in my class because I make the questions easy to understand. That is not to say that the questions are easy. What it means is that the questions fit into their mental universe. They know there is an answer there but they have to go through their minds to find it. A teacher cannot do this without years of experience.

On top of this, there is the teacher mannerism. The way you look, speak, walk, move, breathe and everything else has to be an act. This does not mean it is phony. What it means is that certain mannerisms make the class run seamlessly. Praising students for great responses, or great questions, is vital. It is easy to forget to do this as a rookie teacher. After years of doing it, however, it becomes second nature. What happens when you’re in the middle of a discussion and a few kids are chatting or goofing off or somehow off task? How do you keep the lesson moving and deal with it without turning it into a “thing”? These are the types of things that separate good teachers from mediocre teachers.

What happens if a student gives a response that is totally off base? How do you fold that answer into the lesson without making the kid feel bad or derailing the discussion? After 15 years, I still get unique and interesting responses from my students. A veteran teacher has an instinct that allows them to think on their feet and use those responses to the benefit of the class.

These are all of the in-class skills of a teacher. Then there is the little matter of knowing your content. The better you know your content, the more connections you can make between lessons. You can ask better questions, present the material in a thorough and seamless manner and make it interesting all at the same time. How about creating homework assignments? How about creating exams? How about grading all of these things? How do you set up a fair grading system, leave useful written feedback and return it to the kids in a timely manner?

Yes, being a teacher is hard work. There are a few college students who have been stopping by my room this year to check out my classes. I wonder if they know what it is that they are seeing? I wonder if they appreciate all that it requires? How many of them are sitting there and saying to themselves “I can do that”? My response to everyone who might be thinking this is: no, you cannot.

One of those college students is going to be teaching a unit to my freshman in a few weeks. I wonder how things will go when it is time to take the reins. The college student I worked with last year had the advantage of having a warm, laid-back personality. It remains to be seen if this new student teacher has the same quality. If he does not, things might get rough for him.

I think the education reformers who have barely stepped inside of a classroom believe that teaching is a matter of discussing stuff with students. They do not think we work hard enough, so they have invented all of these rubrics, exams and buzz words to ensure that we are not skating to collect a check. In their years as young reformies, they probably observed many veteran teachers who made the work of educating look easy. They probably thought to themselves “I can do that” and concluded that we are a bunch of lazy union hacks who are not doing any actual work.

If I had the ability, I would force every college student who observes my class to teach it. Perhaps just one day of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and allowing them to be devoured by the sharks might preempt any idea they might have that teaching is unskilled labor. By doing this, maybe us veteran teachers can prevent the next generation of Michelle Rhees (who was such an awful teacher she had to duct tape her kids’ mouths shut), John Kings (who spent 6 minutes teaching kids cherry picked by a charter school) and Wendy Kopps (who never taught anything to anybody) from springing up among us.

Next time you walk into a classroom and see a teacher who is making it look easy, just know you are in the presence of a master who has spent countless hours and years honing every last inch of their craft.

 

Different Types of School-to-Prison Pipelines

school to prisonThe ACLU released a report recently outlining what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like in New York City public schools in the Bloomberg era:

“The total number of annual suspensions has more than doubled during the Bloomberg administration, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Black students and students with special needs served an outsize proportion of these suspensions.”

They attribute this development to a zero tolerance policy handed down by Bloomberg in 2003:

“Mayor Bloomberg brought a harsh brand of zero tolerance to New York City in 2003, when he announced a new disciplinary plan calling for ‘an immediate, consistent minimum response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy’, including a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy’ for students who are in trouble repeatedly.”

NYC public school teachers who read these words might wonder on what planet the ACLU conducted this study. Just last year, Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a much more relaxed discipline code for the entire system. Even before this new code, one of the most common complaints from teachers in the city has been the complete lack of discipline in the schools.

I served as a dean for the first few years of my career. Deans in NYC are essentially school disciplinarians. They handle suspensions, parental conferences, arrests and investigations of wrongdoing. One of the first things I learned as a dean was how to suspend as few kids as possible. Kids who got into fights, disrupted class, cursed out teachers or compiled a long list of minor infractions over time rarely saw suspensions. If teachers in NYC tend to feel handcuffed when dealing with classroom discipline, that is because they are.

As a dean, I considered suspension my trump card only to be used in the most serious circumstances. We tried to work on modifying the behavior of disruptive students through mediation, parental involvement and conduct sheets that had to be filled out by teachers. At the time, I considered this a decent “ladder of referral”, as it is called in NYC. A combination of these things, along with a healthy relationship with the students, usually worked in quelling disruptive behavior. This allowed us to reserve our suspensions for the worst transgressions. I felt that using the suspension card too much cheapened its value and made it less effective in the long run.

Of course, this disciplinary tactic opened us deans up to accusations by our colleagues that we were coddling unruly students. The way I saw it, suspension was a poor disciplinary tool. It essentially amounted to a three-day vacation for students. What happens when the kid comes back from suspension only to continue with their unruly behavior? Since public schools cannot expel kids, the only thing left to do was to suspend them again.

The only exception to this is in the case of the “superintendent’s suspension”, as it is called in NYC. A superintendent suspension is usually given in response to a serious infraction, like a major fight or brandishing a weapon or assaulting a teacher. In my salad days as a dean, a “supe’s suspension” entailed getting a parent to pick the kid up from school on the day of the infraction. Then I would tell them to wait for the superintendent’s office to hand down a hearing date. Once the hearing date was set, we had to determine what type of penalty we wished to seek. The penalties ranged from a long suspension to a request for transfer to another school. We then had to go to a hearing where the student, parent and possibly their lawyer had a chance to defend themselves against the accusations being made. In most cases, the parents did not show up and we were able to get the penalty we wanted.

Very few infractions rise to the level of a superintendent’s suspension and fewer still warrant expulsion. In the most extreme case I saw as a dean, three students assaulted the principal which resulted in an all-out rumble between them and the School Safety officers. They were arrested and ended up testing positive for having crack in their system. Despite the egregiousness of this case, it was still a fight to get these kids out of our school. They lawyered up and dragged out the superintendent suspension hearing for weeks.

In the end, the main reason why public schools do not usually seek to suspend kids is that it looks bad on the “data” that has become so ubiquitous under Bloomberg. Principals know that suspension rates are a matter of public record, and also get factored into the school’s annual report card grade, so they discourage deans from pursuing suspensions. This is why schools that routinely get rated as “safe” in NYC can be anything but.

So the question remains: what planet did the ACLU study? Most teachers here would not recognize the zero tolerance suspension mills portrayed in this report.

I searched the entire study for the word “charter” (as in charter school) and the word did not come up once. My suspicion is that the study lumped charter schools in with the rest of the public school system. In that case, I can imagine suspension rates going through the roof over the past decade. The zero tolerance, almost militaristic, discipline code of many charter schools is well documented. Despite the claims of many charter advocates that they are as public as any public school, their discipline, suspension and expulsion policies are of a totally different breed.

In any event, the study does not paint an accurate picture of the discipline policies of NYC public schools. That is not to say that a school-to-prison pipeline of some sort does not exist here. It is just not the lock-em-up, zero tolerance type that exists in other places.

The report mentions the fact that many public schools have metal detectors through which all students must pass every morning. This is true and is not a practice with which I agree. However, I think it is important to look at what happens on the other side of the metal detector. I know a very smart parent who enrolls her children in a charter school. Despite my protestations to her that charters are nothing but test-prep mills, she has a response with which I cannot argue: they do not tolerate unruly behavior.  She does not have to worry about her child sitting in a classroom where kids are constantly disrupting the lesson. She does not have to worry about gang violence and fighting. While she might have an overly negative view of public schools, it is a view shared by many parents who opt for charters. These parents have a point.

There really is little that a regular NYC public school can do to curb generally rowdy behavior. Principals do not want to suspend students. What is more, principals fear angering parents by coming down too hard on kids. They all too often turn a blind eye to unruly behavior for fear of hurting their “data” or having an uncomfortable confrontation with a parent. This blind eye amounts to a sanctioning of bad behavior. Kids are instinctively able to feel out where the limits of the adults lie. Many know that there are very few limits and take full advantage of this.

This does not mean that most kids are unruly, far from it. However, it does not take a classroom full of unruly students to ruin the learning environment. A very small percentage of troubled kids can dominate a classroom or cafeteria. Through the sheer force of their examples and personalities, they can sweep up many of the meeker kids in a nefarious net where mischief becomes the order of the day. NYC’s teaching force is younger and more inexperienced than ever, as is the current crop of administrators. This means that the adults are less equipped to keep a lid on bad behavior. Experienced educators are able to manage school tone through soft means that do not include suspension or other types of harsh disciplinary actions. In short, lax discipline codes and inexperienced adults have been leading to a deterioration of school tone across the entire system.

At the end of the day, this is another version of a school-to-prison pipeline. A good school is able to reward good behavior, recognize the role models in the student body and elevate them so their examples affect all of the other students. What we have is precisely the opposite state of affairs, one where the most aggressive and abrasive students become the role models and set the tone. Other students then learn the lesson that these are the qualities that get one ahead in life. In these cases, schools can become recruiting grounds for gangs and other types of dangerous activity.

This is a school-to-prison pipeline that breeds criminality. Kids can be influenced into committing nefarious acts who might otherwise not be so inclined. They can be compelled to engage in a serious fight or drug use or brandishing of weapons or other types of criminal activity. These actions can lead to arrest and jail time. This type of school-to-prison pipeline is the other side of the same coin as the type of pipeline created by zero tolerance policies that criminalize even the most innocent childhood behaviors. A school can look for wrongdoing everywhere and end up criminalizing everything or it can look for wrongdoing nowhere and foster a culture of criminality. Charter schools fit the former category and public schools the latter.

I respect the ACLU and what they tried to bring forth in this study. However, their treatment of the issue is too thick to be of much value. There are different types of school-to-prison pipelines and I hope one day groups like the ACLU can realize this for themselves.