Tag Archives: charter schools

THE BLACKBOARD WARS’ BAYE COBB

Hello class, welcome your new diva, er, I mean teacher: Baye Cobb.

Hello class, welcome your new diva, er, I mean teacher: Baye Cobb.

One of the drawbacks of not having a television is that I am not able to keep up with the new Oprah series Blackboard Wars. The show follows the efforts of a charter school to turn things around in a low-income community in New Orleans.

I have yet to see any full episodes. If someone can direct me to a link where I can watch them online, it would be greatly appreciated.

However, I have seen all of first-year teacher and TFAer Baye Cobb that I need to see.

Reading the comments under her profile, it is obvious some people get it and some people do not. Some people see a wealthy white woman who probably could have went into a lucrative career but instead chose to work with inner-city youth. They compliment her up and down, calling her everything short of  a “hero”.

Those people do not get it. This school probably used to have many teachers who dedicated their entire lives to these students. Day in and day out they came to work under the worst imaginable conditions. They did not have shiny new facilities, millions of dollars from private investors, crisp uniforms, small class sizes and all of the other amenities these first-year teachers have. Many of the old teachers were probably from the community. All they were told was that their school was failing and they were the cause of it. They got nothing but derision from the public.

Now here comes Baye Cobb riding in on her (very) white horse. She took a 5 week Teach for America training course and then was charged with teaching math to kids who need a great teacher. It is hard to imagine any of the teachers that were fired to make room for the likes of Baye Cobb could have been any more incompetent than her. Yet, she gets all the compliments and all the praise for sticking out her first year in such a rough environment. While the previous teachers got to toil in obscurity for many years, Baye Cobb gets the spotlight and all of the celebrity that comes with it.

It is unfortunate that these students, who seem by and large like good kids, are stuck with this mess of a woman. Sure, the first year of teaching is always difficult. We have all had our growing pains and embarrassing moments as teachers. Baye Cobb, however, represents everything wrong with putting ill-prepared teachers from white bread backgrounds in front of inner city children. She is a total caricature of herself.

Take, for example. the incident of a student named Coco.

Security guards are called to Ms. Cobb’s classroom. She tells them that there is no longer an issue because “the issue” just left the room. Yes, she calls a student “the issue”. Apparently, Coco was using some foul language to some other students, threatening them with getting her brother if they keep bothering her. When Coco was brought to the principal’s office, it turns out that she was upset because other students were calling her ugly. To his credit, the principal does try to make her feel better by telling her that she is not ugly. He is right to do that, not only because she is not ugly but because she needed to be treated like a human being and not “the issue”.

However, the principal then goes back to treating her like “the issue” by bringing her back to Ms. Cobb’s classroom to apologize. Ms. Cobb accepts Coco’s apology and then gives her a weak and cliched lecture about proper classroom decorum. At no point does Ms. Cobb treat Coco any differently than “the issue”.

This might seem like hyperbole to some but, as a teacher, Ms. Cobb’s handling of this situation disgusts me. She knew that Coco was telling other students to stop bothering her. She knew she was threatening those students. It was obvious that the girl was at her breaking point. Does Ms. Cobb try to find out why she was upset? Does she try to ascertain whether or not Coco has a valid reason for acting the way she is acting? Never. It never even crosses her mind. Coco is merely an issue and her behavior needs to be corrected.

As someone who was bullied in school, this is disturbing. I have had teachers treat me the same way when I was sticking up for myself. Nobody seemed to care why I was upset, only that my anger was a nuisance to them. There have been moments as a teacher when I wanted to jump down a kid’s throat for talking or some other bothersome behavior. Yet, I am always reminded of my childhood and take a step back to try to figure out why the student is doing what they are doing. Sometimes it is because the student is helping a classmate. Sometimes it is because a student is being picked on. Whatever it is, a teacher creates a much better environment when they treat each situation for what it is and not merely as an “issue”. You end up validating the student’s feelings and having fewer problems in the future. Most behavior problems end up containing themselves. The ones that do not can be rectified with a simple gesture: moving a student’s seat, giving a glare or quietly asking the student to desist or to see you after class. It is when a teacher does these things that they usually find out more about the situation and deal with it accordingly.

Ms. Cobb loses this round. I would not be surprised if Coco tuned her out for the rest of the year, or at least lost respect for her authority. There is now a big barrier between Ms. Cobb and Coco, one that will take the teacher a long time to overcome. Coco mentioned that she wanted to leave the school. Maybe that is because her teacher and principal treat her like a problem while the bullies get off scot free.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Take this clip as another example:

Two boys are “fighting” in Ms. Cobb’s classroom, although it seemed more like play fighting. They are on the football team, so they are obviously strong young men. Ms. Cobb decides to step in the middle of the boys and ends up getting hit in the face. She then starts crying.

First, why do the boys even have an opening to play fight in the first place? The fact that things get to that point shows poor classroom management. Second, why is she, a petite woman, getting in between two strong boys? Did she think she was going to break them up? Third, why is she crying? Did she really get hurt or was her pride hurt? This seems to be a common theme with Ms. Cobb. Much like the case of Coco, Ms. Cobb seems to be much more concerned with her authority (or lack thereof) and her hurt pride.

What is really telling is how the students reacted to the situation. When she got hit, one of the boys said “she got thumped” in a very casual manner. They did not seem to be very concerned for her well-being, which is a sign that she has a lousy rapport with her students. Then, when she started crying, the kids were laughing. Again, they were not concerned about her in the least. Ms. Cobb does not have their respect or affection.

As someone who comes from a totally different world from her students, Ms. Cobb has not shown the slightest concern for bridging the gap. The students are forced to do all of the bridging. Coco was forced to apologize. Her students were forced to watch her cry. Everything seems to be one way in Ms. Cobb’s classroom. Is it any wonder the students do not seem to care about her?

My favorite clip, however, is the situation with the cheerleaders:

Ms. Cobb is apparently the cheerleading coach. The students are waiting for a school bus to go to a game or practice or whatever. However, the buses left without the squad because another teacher said that they were for the football team. They call Ms. Cobb on the phone and she comes down to the school. When she gets there she makes them rush and says the last person in the classroom has to do push-ups for not having a “sense of urgency”. Then, one of the students says under her breath “we need a new coach”. Ms. Cobb then forces the student to repeat her words and informs the student that it was not her fault that the bus left without them. The students are subjected to yet another round of tears from Ms. Cobb, who tells them that they do not appreciate the effort she has put into them. The scene ends with her giving postcards to the students so they can anonymously write whether or not they want her as their coach.

Why are the students there alone? Why are they going somewhere obviously off-campus without their coach? This does not really seem to be Ms. Cobb’s fault, since it seemed perfectly normal to the students. Perhaps this is just the way they do things at that particular school. When she shows up, it is understandable that she makes them rush, considering they are late in getting somewhere. If that was the case, why make them do push-ups? It totally contradicts the supposed “sense of urgency” of the situation. Again, is this due to Ms. Cobb’s hurt ego? The student did not jump to her command fast enough and needs to be punished.

One student then made an admittedly rude and disrespectful comment. This is when Ms. Cobb totally goes off the rails. She starts crying and reprimanding everyone for the snide remarks of one student. Again, where is the urgency? If she was hurt by the comment she should have ignored it totally and proved to them over time that she is a good coach, thereby winning the student over in the long run. Barring that, she could have addressed things with that student one-on-one, preferably on the way to wherever they needed to be. Once again her ego, her emotions and her baggage become the problem of the students. The world must stop when Ms. Cobb feels pain. 

Once again, the students seem unconcerned for her feelings. Rather than sitting there stroking her ego, the students would much rather get to where they need to be. On top of this, they seem to be genuinely tired of her antics. Who can blame them? It is completely inappropriate for an adult to force children to deal with her own issues. Their reactions show a lack of respect for Ms. Cobb. They lack respect for her because she lacks respect for them. Her entire demeanor is self-centered. Rather than getting them to the field they are stuck, stuck, dealing with her nonsense. I bet that the kids have heard more about her feelings than she has heard about theirs. That is why her students do not respect her.

The students of this school deserve better. I wonder how many good, solid, upstanding veteran teachers were fired to make room for the likes of Ms. Cobb. Not only is she inexperienced. Not only is she culturally disconnected from her students. She shows no desire to find out about her students, their world and what makes them tick. She expects them to show her that courtesy, however. It is completely shameful behavior for a teacher.

Her upbringing comes through in everything she does. This is a woman who has had everything handed to her. Her entire life has been structured around her: her feelings, her desires, her dreams. Too bad that she has gotten into a profession that demands complete selflessness. Too bad her students are stuck with a completely self-absorbed diva for a teacher.

If this school “turns around”, and if these students “succeed”, it will be in spite of Baye Cobb and not because of her.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses……

For charter school students with a sense of individuality, public schools are the only refuge from authoritarianism.

This past school year, I met a few students at my school who had been kicked out of charters. They ranged from sophomores to seniors and included boys and girls. All of them have two things in common: a) they turned out to be very nice kids and, b) they were black.

One of them was a girl in my U.S. History class. This was her second year at the school. She is one of those students who has a reputation among the teachers as sort of a handful. I never knew her or had a run-in with her. Then, one day in the middle of the semester, she appeared on my roster.

It was clear from the first day in my class that some of her new classmates were her friends. This was compounded by the fact that there already were a few characters in the room who enjoyed testing me. They really did not do anything bad aside from regular class-clownery, nothing worse than what me or my friends did when I was in school. However, as teachers we know that the addition of one student to an already tenuous mix could change the entire dynamic.

I do not remember her first day in class. What I do remember is that she would talk a great deal to her friends, whether they sat next to her or across the room. Most of the talking would be towards the beginning of the class period, when everyone was settling down. After the class settled down, her talking would be the occasional pantomime across the room. Sometimes, when the entire class was silent, she would burst out laughing very loudly, perhaps because one of her other friends had pantomimed something hilarious.

Between bouts of pantomime and general inattentiveness, I would see her face change and she would raise her hand to answer a question I had just asked. Many times, her answers were just plain off. Other times, they were dead on. When her answers were on, they were intelligent. The same thing with her written work. When she submitted it, it was pretty good. The only problem was that she had constant trouble submitting things on time, usually handing in the last five homework assignments at once. I would grade only the one that was on time and hand the rest back untouched. She would protest, I would tell her about the no late homework policy, and she would do the same thing next week.

This was the routine for many months. It was strange because, even if she did copy all of those late homework assignments off of a classmate, it still took a lot of time and effort. My homework assignments are not very tough, but they tend to be long. Handing in a week’s worth at once is tantamount to 10 pages of hand-written copy. It puzzled me that she would do all of this work when she knew I was only going to grade the on-time assignments.

I never got upset over her conversations or her laughter. I certainly was not pleased with it, but I never disciplined her in front of the class for doing it. Instead, I praised her whenever she said something good and left it at that. Her behavior never reached a level of disruption or distraction, at least in my eyes.

One day, she said something about Obama being a “good president”, at which point I asked her why she felt that way. She said a bunch of things that just were not true, like he helps the poor and the ghettos. I asked her how and she did not have an answer. Then I started sharing my views about Obama. This is the point in the semester, and it always happens like this, when students assume I am some sort of Republican or angry white guy displeased with the black president. I explained Obama’s pro-corporate, pro-rich policies. Then, to throw everyone for a loop, ended off by saying he is just like the Republicans.

For the student, she seemed to not know what to make of me. On the one hand, I did not like Obama. On the other hand, it was clear that I felt that the poor and the ghettos needed a great amount of help and were being shortchanged. I sounded like a Democrat, or at least a general notion of what some 11th graders think Democrats stand for, without supporting the Democratic president. The student seemed ready to pounce on me for being just another angry white guy one minute, then all the wind went out of her sails the next when I expressed views sympathetic to hers.

It might be just the way I remember it, but this might have been the point when I turned the corner with this student. She came to class most days ready to learn, greatly reduced her talking and laughing, and seemed hell-bent on gaining my approval. She turned in more of her work on time, participated more and said many things that showed insight and intelligence. She would stay after class to ask me questions and always ask how she was doing. We formed a strange alliance in the class and got along great. She certainly was not the perfect student, but she greatly improved from the start of the year and ended up earning a decent grade.

Reading Carol Burris’ latest expose on the way charter schools view classroom management, it is no wonder why this student was not longed for the charter world. She was very outspoken, spontaneous and, yes, impulsive. She was pretty much all over the place. Charter school teachers are being trained to “pounce” on any hint of disruption or misbehavior. Any student who shows individual personality is to be squashed with swift discipline. This student, if she was not kicked out of that charter school, would have ended up deformed if she stayed. Her very personality would have been an affront to the teachers and the environment. She would have ended up exploding on them or internalizing their disciplinary methods to believe that she was a bad person, learning to subdue her instincts and fight against them her entire life, whether they were right or wrong.

But she is not a bad person. In fact, she has a very good heart and is extremely likeable. As a matter of fact, most students are. It is sad that, as adults, we have this view that students who walk silently in line and sit up straight 7 hours a day are “good” and those that are a little loud or unruly are “bad”. Apparently, we have forgotten how we were as kids and how sitting up straight for 7 hours a day or walking in line all the time was not only impossible, but pure torture. I went to one of the best high schools in the country and me and my friends were loud, spontaneous, impulsive, talkative and, yes, even misbehaved at times. We were kids and teenagers and it was natural for us to be this way. Many of my classmates have gone on to be very successful, upstanding people with great jobs and families. We were all loud, self-absorbed teenagers at some point, and that is fine.

The charters featured in Burris’ article, and probably the charter from which my student was expelled, have a very myopic view of discipline. Far be it from me to point out the latent elitism and racism in such a view. Reading some of the comments under Burris’ article, it is clear that some people believe that “those” children, the poor minority ones, need a “different” type of school, one that drills and kills rather than encourages and enlivens. Would they send their own children to such a school? Hardly, since their own children are angels and would never talk or laugh loudly in or out of class. Neither did we as children, right? We all folded our hands, bowed our heads and did exactly as we were told by our betters. Give me a break.

There is a way to reach children without squashing their spirit. It is the same way you reach adults: by seeing and acting upon what is best in them. It is by treating them like human beings. For all of the faults of our public school system, including the lack of power to discipline, at least the teachers there are required to try to bring the best out of their students by acting humane towards them. Any teacher that fails in this endeavor is not longed to teach anyway, unless it is one of these charters that looks to drill and kill.

So, please, all of you charter school bigwigs, keep kicking out the children who demonstrate any personality or individuality. I will be glad to take them on. I would take one of them over twenty of you unimaginative, profit-hungry charlatans any day of the week.

Renaissance Charter High School’s Principal Responds To My Piece On Andrew Cuomo Video

A few days ago I wrote a piece about the kids of Renaissance Charter High School’s video celebrating Governor Cuomo’s promise to be a lobbyist for kids. Today, Renaissance’s Principal, Nicholas Tishuk, was gracious enough to post a response to that piece in the comments section. Here is his response:

Assailed,

Hello. A quick fact-check might be in order here:
1) The students in the video are in program studying New York State Policies, focusing on education and youth issues. No students were required to participate, they all volunteered.
2) This is the third round of videos these students have created. The first focused on a civil rights practicum last May to Jackson, Mississippi celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, that we took with a Freedom Rider who works in East Harlem. Innovation chartered a bus invited students from 6 different schools including Boys and Girls HS, University Heights HS, Renaissance Charter, and Beacon students in East Harlem.
3) The previous round was focused on cyberbullying, after they had a chance to meet State Senator Jeff Klein and Pery Aftab, a nationally recognized expert on bullying.
4) This one was made in the lead-up to our practicum where our students will meet their local elected officials in Albany next month. Reading the State of the State speech was a part of their research and the video accurately coveys the students’ enthusiasm for the Governor’s message. You mileage may vary.
5) The school’s curriculum and educational model is steeped in experiential and project based learning. This is a decent example of that in action.

Best,
Nicholas Tishuk
Principal
Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation

Mr. Tishuk is right to defend his school against what he might consider unfair criticism. The part about his response that stands out is this sentence: “Reading the State of the State speech was a part of their research and the video accurately coveys the students’ enthusiasm for the Governor’s message.”

I am really interested in knowing if their enthusiasm is well placed. There is a difference between reading something and reading it critically. As educators, we have a duty to at least to try to be objective. That means presenting our students with many views on the same issue. Do the students realize that every political speech entails rhetoric? If the Governor claims to be a lobbyist for children, does that mean that is actually the case?

In short, there is a fine line between education and indoctrination. As it stands, there is no evidence that the students of Renaissance were encouraged to get behind the rhetoric of Cuomo’s words. There is no evidence that the students are acquainted with the debate on education reform, including the role of charters in these reforms.

It remains to be seen how in depth the educators at Renaissance are encouraging their students to get into the issue. I have invited Mr. Tishuk to respond to this and I have given him the assurance that his views will not be suppressed on this website.

In my mind, this opens up the possibility that charter schools are indoctrinating their students to accept the premise of education reform. If that is case, then that is not just a little scary.

Renaissance Charter High School Requires Their Students To Shill For Governor Cuomo

9th and 10th graders at Renaissance Charter High School made the following video as an assignment. They did such a good job that it received a mention in the New York Times.

I suppose this is an example of the innovative teaching that goes on in charter schools. Of course, it is easy for students to make something like this when the school has proper video equipment. As you watch the video, ask yourself what the students might have actually learned from this project. Yes, maybe they got experience being in front of a camera. They also probably got a taste for what it means to be behind the camera. Finally, they most likely used editing equipment to take all of their raw footage and weave it into a comprehensive piece.

Public school children are perfectly capable of doing the same thing; all they need is the equipment. Of course, in the age of budget cuts that starve public schools, it is unlikely many of them would even have this equipment.

The students did a good job on the video. It is not their fault that their teachers required them to shill for Governor Cuomo. While some teachers might be impressed with something like this, I do not see the educational value at all. The only thing the students of Renaissance Charter High School learned from this video is how propaganda works.

The media does the same thing as the students in the video. They take the words of someone in authority, like a governor or tycoon, and broadcast it far and wide. If Cuomo says he is a lobbyist for students, then the media reports him as being a lobbyist for students. If President Bush says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then the media will replay that line over and over until 300 million Americans believe it.

The teachers who gave this assignment were obviously not interested in developing critical thinking in their students. That would entail the students doing some investigative work, like why Andrew Cuomo would say such a thing in his State of the State speech (did they even learn what the State of the State is? Do they know what a lobbyist is?) Maybe it has something to do with being bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. Or perhaps it has something to do with an opportunistic politician who wants to ride the wave of teacher bashing that pervades the country. Whatever it is, the kids at Renaissance will never know.

And this is why the public should not buy this claptrap that charter schools are somehow innovative laboratories of pedagogy. As far as this assignment was concerned, it was a net loss for the students. Sure, they might have gotten some experience in making a video. Yet, they carried out an exercise in media propaganda without knowing it. They will now think that all it takes to be on television is to become a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. They have learned that political rhetoric is fact and the media’s job is to parrot this rhetoric far and wide.

Welcome to the world of education reform, where students are taught not to question the world around them. Welcome to Renaissance Charter High School, where students are given a top-flight education in shilling.

What I wonder is, does the staff at Renaissance see anything wrong with requiring students to mindlessly repeat what essentially amounts to a political stance? Do they see anything wrong with making an issue that has more than one side seem as if there is only one side?

Probably not. Something tells me that the teachers there are young and underpaid, without the skill or the knowledge to create activities that require actual thought on the part of their students.

Free Market Drivel

The Founding, as told by Libertarians

There is no good reason to support the current wave of charter schooling. The American education system is too Byzantine for anyone but insiders and a few specialists to know very well. When laymen cry in unison with the deformers about our schools being in “crisis”, it is not out of any intimate knowledge they have of schools. It is because the school system is run by the state and the state in their minds mean inefficiency. All of the bad press surrounding “incompetent” teachers and “underperforming” schools is just the continuation of a war against the public sector that began 30 years ago. Laymen who want to replace public schools with charters are largely uninformed about the school system and how it works. Like everything else, they have been brainwashed to assume that public sector is bad and the free market is good. Their concern with education reform is disingenuous, their opinions are merely reflexes conditioned by decades of propaganda and their role is merely that of shills for the hedge fund brats who profit from the chartering of our public school system. Defenders of public education who debate the facts with charter supporters are wasting their breath. Instead, we must attack the Orwellian contrast of “free market good, public sector bad” that too many Americans take as a matter of faith.

The propaganda campaign against the public sector started in earnest with Ronald Reagan. The Watergate scandal, the loss in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis and a host of other embarrassments made the nation ripe for the Reagan Revolution. Reagan preyed upon the public’s disenchantment by blaming the government for all of the nation’s problems. If only the government would get out of the way, competition could flow freely and innovation would abound. Reagan and others did a remarkable job of painting small government and free competition as the American way. In true Orwellian fashion, they gained control of history in order to gain control of the future.

But this version of history is incredibly skewed. It is a quaint, elementary school version made up of frontiersmen and cowboys taming the wilderness. It is a mythic idea of rugged individualism that has never been anything more than a myth. For every Horatio Alger story of a poor boy making good through pluck and application, there are just as many stories of those same poor boys being helped along at some point by the government. Rugged frontiersmen often obtained land from the government for next to nothing and were protected from Natives by a string of western military outposts. Even the hero of many small government types, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned a stateless society only after all Americans had been given free government land and educated at free government schools. Of course, the Reaganites airbrushed all of these communist tendencies of Jefferson’s out of existence (after all, he was deeply inspired by the French, who were innovators in communism), leaving behind only a rabid libertarian. The libertarian myth of American history is merely groundwork meant to prepare us intellectually for a libertarian future. The charter school craze shows us that, for teachers and students, the future is now.

While rank-and-file Americans might be easily fooled by the myth of small government and rugged individualism, charter school operators suffer from no such delusions. Every spate of privatization has been preceded by Orwellian double-speak. Government-run prisons in the 1980s were assaulted by accusations of being ineffective because they were unable to “reform” their prisoners. Having corporations run the prisons would instill “competition” and make the prisons more “effective”. Now that corporations control the prison system, nobody bothers to ask anymore how well they reform their inmates. Considering that incarceration rates have quintupled since the 80s, it does not seem they have done a very good job. This is what the reformers have in store for the school system. They are bludgeoning schools with the same accusations of failure. They will then insulate themselves from those accusations once they gain control of the system. The reformers know what they are doing. Their aim is not the restoration of America to its true, libertarian purpose. No such purpose has ever existed. Instead, they wish to profit from taking over functions that have largely always belonged to the state. They seek not a restoration but a revolution. Privatization is a radical change away from citizenship and towards consumerism.

The neat little libertarian narrative of American history allows corporations to insert themselves into the place of the plucky young man who gets ahead through hard work and intelligence. Instead of the innovating individual, it is the innovating corporation that will save our schools, prisons, military and every other facet of the public sector. It has been the most successful propaganda campaign of the past 30 years. We will decry the government as an inefficient bureaucracy and then, in the next breath, exalt these large, clunky corporations as paragons of efficiency. And why would we not? Corporations have to provide high quality products for low prices. Despite the financial crisis where an entire industry colluded to provide nothing but air for sky high prices, despite that so many privately-run charter schools in Florida have committed some sort of financial malfeasance and despite the fact that charter schools nationwide have not outperformed public schools on standardized exams, we still persist in this idea of the hero corporation. At every turn we have seen corporations do nothing but cut corners so that their CEOs will profit, yet we refuse to shake this libertarian notion of the superiority of the private sector. Even in the face of disaster wrought by the private sector there are still a substantial number of people who believe that it can save our education system.

What people mean when they say “small government” is “big corporation”. They want to make the government irrelevant so that the private sector can step into the vacuum. It is disingenuous for worshippers of the “free market” to assume that all that needs to be done is to get government out of the way so that free choice may take over. Leaving private citizens to fend for themselves is just a scheme to allow those already with wealth and influence to run the show. Yet, where would any of the wealthy classes be without the state? Where would oil, agribusiness, banking, transportation or any other industry be without corporate welfare and favorable regulations? Now that a chosen few have gotten fat off feeding from the government trough, those chosen few now want the government to get out of the way so they may sit on and solidify their gains. Maybe free market ideologues could be taken more seriously if, before they call for the government to stand down, they order corporations to give back all the wealth made possible by government largesse.

This shows that, many times, the teacher bashing in the general public is nothing personal. We are just the latest target of an indiscriminate war against the public sector, as well as citizenship itself.