Tag Archives: Youth

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 RISING GRADUATION RATES TELL US

Which world is closer to the one the new graduates are inheriting?

Which world is closer to the one the new graduates are inheriting?

So the news has been flooded with headlines about how national graduation rates from public schools are up to a level not seen in nearly 40 years:

More than 3.1 million high school students received their diplomas in spring 2010, with 78.2 percent finishing in four years, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported Tuesday. The rate is a 2.7-percentage-point increase over the previous year, and those two rates are the highest since the 75 percent rate in 1975 and 1976.

This is not the cause for celebration that the media is making it out to be. If we look at the cheating scandals in D.C. and Atlanta we see the greasy underbelly of the motor driving these graduation rates.

Public schools have been bludgeoned into accepting so-called “accountability” programs that have held teachers responsible for tests scores and pass rates. We drill and kill for exams that seem to get just a tad easier every year. We overlook behavior issues and shoddy scholarship as a shortcut to getting kids to pass. Our jobs as teachers have increasingly involved getting students to fill in the correct bubbles in a certain 3-hour span, the rest of the education process be damned.

This isn’t due to anything we have done as teachers. Our educational leaders, from the Secretary of Education on down, have done everything in their power to put this system into place. With their myopic interpretation of what counts for “achievement”, they have reduced the learning process to a series of numbers and the teaching profession to a series of steps to color within these numbers. So now we focus on the “data” instead of the child; the “value” we “add” instead of what our communities teach our children to value.

Of course we would have high graduation rates in this type of environment. We have become adept at manipulating numbers because our jobs depend on it. The Secretary of Education, the governors, mayors, chancellors, superintendents and principals all need the numbers to go up. The testing companies and data-collection companies need to show that the numbers are going up. All of these entities require the numbers to go up in order to justify their influence. They have been in control of America’s education systems for so long that the numbers better have gone up by now.

The fix was in ever since the appearance of this thing called “education reform”. They came to us and said schools were not doing our jobs. They said they were taking over the schools and running them like businesses. They expected results and they were going to get them. It was foreordained that graduation rates would reach such high levels. They made all of us conspirators in their game of reform. The teachers were taken into a shotgun marriage that tied the survival of the educational leaders to the survival of teachers.

“If these test scores don’t rise, we won’t be around long. But we will make sure that you also will not be around long.” This was the Faustian bargain with which reformers presented teachers. Stand up against the system by not teaching to the test or by exercising your union rights and you go down. Play the game and get the numbers up and we will feature you as one of our success stories, as one of the “good ones”. Everyone wins. Teachers get to keep their jobs. Reformers get to say that their policies work.

And what type of graduates do we have? We have graduates who have been trained to bubble in answers. We have graduates that need an increasing amount of remedial classes once they get to college. This is exactly the type of graduate one  would expect from a school system run on the business model:  one-dimensional, unskilled and mass produced. They are light plastic cogs to be used in a giant machine, easily tossed aside and replaced when they get used up.

And what type of world are our graduates entering? One with proliferating low-wage jobs touted as “job recovery”. One where food stamp rolls, college debt and poverty are rising. This isn’t the bright open future baby-boomers saw on the horizon. Today’s graduates are inheriting a world of diminishing limits. The future is dark and small.

What more can we expect? We have concentrated on getting “achievement” as measured in “data” so much higher because the schools weren’t preparing children for “the future”. In the process, we have neglected to prepare a future for our children to inherit. The ones who would create the future for our children took over the school system and prepared them for exactly the type of future they had in store.

Blank graduates for a blank future.

Education reform is not about improving schools. It is about hollowing out the schools because the future will be hollow. These new graduation statistics are just the results of that.

So no need to be happy. It is the low tide of education reform leaving behind the effluvia they created.

A DEFENSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE UNIONISM

rawr

Social justice unionism, from what I understand, is a philosophy which holds that bread-and-butter union issues are inseparable from wider issues of equality for all people. The union and the society are symbiotic. A setback in the union’s working conditions is a setback for equality everywhere. Increasing inequality somewhere else is a setback for the union’s working conditions.

My understanding of what social justice unionism means could be off but this is how I have understood it up until now. Something like this, I believe, is what MORE means when they claim to be the social justice caucus of the UFT. Again, feel free to correct me if I am mistaken.

Recently, some fellow bloggers I respect have raised questions about MORE’s strategy of social justice unionism. One of them has been Chaz of Chaz’s School Daze. I respect Chaz. We are blogroll partners and always will be. In fact, I encourage everyone to visit and follow his blog.

At one point, Chaz made the following prediction for the 2013 UFT elections:

Union Election: Look for Michael Mulgrew and Unity to easily win the election.  Their only competition will be the newly formed caucus MORE.  However, MORE seems to be drifting more and more to the left, no pun intended.  More’s emphasis seems to be “social justice”and not teacher based issues which will cause many teachers who have been disenfranchised by “Unity” to think twice about voting for MORE. Personalty, I would never vote for TJC because of their emphasis on the “social justice” issues.  However, as ICE and TJC have now merged, the “social justice” issues of TJC appears to have won out over the more teacher-centered ICE as the main platform for MORE. I predict that many teachers will probably sit out the election and result in another landslide victory for “Unity” and that is too bad. It will be interesting to see if those “fifth columnists” E4E actually runs in the elections.  It will be even more interesting to see how many real supporters they have?

To start from the end, I totally agree that the misleadingly named “Educators4Excellence” caucus is a “5th column”. They are the resident astroturf group funded by Democrats for Education Reform who, if they had their way, would immediately hand over the school system to the privatizers. Considering their agenda involves inundating our children with high-stakes tests and a revolving door of inexperienced teachers, there is nothing excellent about the way they wish to “educate”. Most E4E people are rookies themselves. One of them should put their money where their mouth is and show the world how “excellent” they are at teaching.  Why not have a teach-off competition with yours truly? I would put my veteran, professional, “sage on the stage” teaching style up against any E4E rookie.

Chaz is also right to assume that E4E will barely register a blip on the radar in the upcoming elections. Unfortunately for E4E, dollar bills cannot cast ballots. Despite their material advantages their message consistently fails to resonate with the rank-and-file. This makes E4E little more than a rump group of social climbers scattered sporadically throughout our sprawling education system. Their inevitable flaccid showing in the upcoming election will be their death knell. If they don’t make headway this year, then when will they ever do so?

So that means the biggest players in this election will be the establishment juggernaut Unity caucus and the plucky upstart MORE caucus. Chaz believes, with some justification, that Unity will dominate. Why wouldn’t he? Unity always dominates. These elections have traditionally acted as rubber stamps for Unity’s stranglehold on power.

Yet, I believe Chaz underestimates the social justice unionism for which MORE stands. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Chaz is correct about MORE’s social justice platform outweighing their concern for the bread-and-butter  issues of teacher rights and working conditions. Even if this was the case (which I don’t think it is), MORE still has a stiffer pro-teacher platform than Unity can ever hope to have. For example, MORE has consistently opposed the Race to the Top evaluation framework to which Unity agreed in negotiations at this time last year. This framework, as I think Chaz would agree, was designed to effectively short-circuit tenure with its “two years in a row of ineffective ratings and you’re out” policy. On top of this, MORE was fundamentally opposed to the un-democratic manner in which Unity handled this whole teacher evaluation fiasco. Not only did they not seek out the input of the rank-and-file, they explicitly stated that the rank-and-file’s input was not welcome.

I think MORE beats Unity hands-down when it comes to standing up for our working conditions and professionalism.

However, I disagree with Chaz’s contention that the social justice unionism aspect of MORE is eclipsing their bread-and-butter stances. Like I said at the start of this piece, social justice unionism is also bread-and-butter unionism. From my perspective, the two work symbiotically and not against each other.

For example, MORE is adamantly against charter school co-locations. In fact, MORE is against the opening of any new charter schools whatsoever. Not only do charter schools drain resources from the public schools with whom they share buildings (taking up classrooms, gym space, auditoriums, offices, etc.), charter school teachers are at-will employees with absolutely zero union protection. A stance against charters entails both a stance against taking resources away from the neediest children and a stance against turning the teaching force into low-skill, low-wage employees. Contrast this to Unity’s support for charter schools, their refusal to fight against co-locations and their inability to unionize even a fraction of the charter school teaching force.

The same types of things can be said for most of the rest of MORE’s platform. As urban teachers, Chaz and myself both see how poverty hamstrings many of our children’s efforts to learn. Both Chaz and myself understand that ameliorating poverty would greatly improve the ability of our children to learn. Therefore, MORE’s stance against the specter of childhood poverty in general would also improve our working conditions as teachers. We would not have to compensate as much for the basic materials, skills and knowledge our children lack due to poverty.

Again, not to continually put words in Chaz’s mouth, but I think he would agree with most of what I said here. It seems as if Chaz’s criticism is that MORE has gone so far “left” that they have lost sight of the importance of protecting our rights as teachers. On the other hand, I say that the best way to improve our rights and conditions as teachers is to go in that so-called leftward direction, although I do not subscribe to the notion that MORE is a leftist group.

Finally, there are two other reasons why it might be wise for us as teachers to hitch our wagons to the star of social justice unionism.

First, as a practical matter, MORE’s social justice stance allows them to say that they are truly putting students first. Michelle Rhee and other so-called reformers in control of school systems around the country have been able to gain traction with the public by clothing their reforms in the rhetoric of putting “students first”. Yet, any real insight into the matter reveals that “students first” is just that: rhetoric. The explosion of a billion-dollar edu industry over the past 10 years, manifested in the form of firms like Pearson and Wireless Generation, demonstrates exactly who has benefited from the age of Rhee-esque school reform. Children mired in poverty still struggle in school as badly as they ever did while edu-biz has ballooned exponentially.

So, if “students first” has worked for Michelle Rhee, why can it not work for MORE? MORE has the added advantage of actually meaning it when they say “students first”.

Second, I think teaching is a social justice act by nature. Teachers play a vital role in a complex socioeconomic system. Their influence can either help children accept the world as it is (including the inequalities by which those same children are victimized) or it can give children the foundation necessary to question the world as it is and the audacity to envision something better. In short, teachers who refuse to see their role as part of a larger, unjust system merely end up perpetuating that system by transferring its assumptions to the next generations. As teachers, we all have a duty to defend social justice.

This does not mean that I believe Chaz is unaware of any of this. Quite the opposite, it is obvious Chaz is keenly sensitive to his role as a teacher and cares deeply about the well-being of his students. Honestly, I think the issue here is one of semantics. It is understandable that some teachers might be put off by the language of “social justice”. It conjures up imagery of angry young idealists breathing fire against “the system” or mohawked anarchists shattering windows in a fit of childish “rage against the machine”. Who wants their union run by people like this? Not me and not Chaz.

However, social justice unionism is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it is a rational, reasonable, sensitive, pragmatic and just approach to unionism. Just like Chaz, it understands that the lives of teachers and the lives of students are inextricably linked. It understands the realities of poverty being the number one determinant in scholastic achievement.

While I understand that many of my union brothers and sisters might be put off by some of the language of social justice unionism, I think many of them have far more in common with the cause of social justice than they want to admit.

And what is the alternative? The same conciliatory, top-down, corporate unionism that has seen our rights, our working conditions and our schools deteriorate over the past decade? Not only have the corporate unionists who have wielded power for so long seen this happen, they have helped make this happen.

I readily admit that our union has gained for us many rights over the past few decades for which we should be thankful. The bulk of those rights were won during the 1960s and 1970s, when the political consciousness of the nation was more awakened. There would be no way the union could act corporate and get away with it. But now it is 2013, the dystopian future of urban wastelands and dumbed-down electorates that was predicted in many a 1960s novel. The union no longer has to fear the wrath of a shrewd people. They have taken advantage of this situation by enriching themselves and selling us out in this modern age of reform. In order for the union to make a comeback, to gain the kind of traction it had when it won all of those rights for us, it must help awaken the population again, even just a little bit.

If yesterday’s rally at UFT headquarters was any indication, that awakening is happening. This is why I support social justice unionism

 

Angry Teachers Compilation

When I was a student, I would love it when one of our teachers flipped out on the class. It was great entertainment and killed a few minutes we could have spent on boring stuff like learning.

A part of me still takes a guilty pleasure in watching teachers totally lose it. As a teacher, I sympathize. But as that teenager that still lurks in my heart, I am entertained.

This poor guy was obviously having a bad day. His students did not help matters.

Professor flips out over yawn.

Don’t mess with this guy’s calculator.

This looks like a NYC classroom. It seems like there are 40 students in this room.

This teacher believes in America.

Substitute teaching is never easy.

This teacher has had it and it finally came out.

Another teacher who has had it.

And my favorite….

Thoughts on these videos? What could the students have done differently? The teachers? As teachers, are you concerned that you might show up on Youtube one day?

NYC’s New Student Discipline Code: What Difference Does It Make?

NYC students celebrate the new discipline code.

Students started this school year in New York City under a new disciplinary regime. The Department of Education revised its discipline codes so that things like lateness and talking back to teachers no longer warrant suspension. The American Civil Liberties Union apparently had been pushing to revise the discipline code for years.

As a long-time dean who has worked in some very tough schools, the new discipline codes seem to codify a state of affairs that has existed de facto for a while. Frankly, I have never seen a student suspended for lateness or back-talk. With Bloomberg’s school report card system, schools are incentivized to not suspend students even for infractions far more severe than what the new discipline codes address.

Therefore, it is tough to see how the changes will have any meaningful impacts on school environment.

Furthermore, with Bloomberg’s erosion of tenure over the past ten years, teachers are scared to death to discipline their students or report any wrongdoing they see in their classrooms or hallways. It is all too common to see teachers who try to discipline students incur the wrath of administrators, not to mention parents. These revisions to the discipline code merely affirm this state of affairs.

Most of my years as a dean were during the beginning of my career, when I was still struggling with how to teach properly. I am thankful for that experience because it taught me valuable tools of classroom discipline. Deans, who played a much larger role in school discipline when I was on the job than they do now, were frequently called to classrooms to remove disruptive students. We found that it was the same teachers kicking kids out day after day. Meanwhile, there were other teachers who taught the same students who were being kicked out of classes who never once called us for help. I would pass by their classrooms and the students were all working, respectful and quiet.

Needless to say, we in the dean’s office had our opinions on who were the bad teachers as opposed to the good teachers. The bad teachers were the ones who called us. The good ones never bothered us at all. I was able to learn from the good ones and implement their mannerisms into my class. It meant dealing with classroom management issues on my own. Eventually, I learned that the best strategy for classroom management was a well-prepared, well-crafted lesson faithfully executed. It took many years to get this down, since this basically represents the nuts and bolts of the teacher’s craft. Even today I still rewrite lessons and devise new activities based upon what I have learned as a teacher.

Therefore, I am thankful for my time as a dean since it basically taught me the lesson that it was my job to deal with my class. I could not reject students for minor infractions. On the other hand, the erosion of student discipline along with teacher tenure poses a problem for new teachers trying to learn their craft.

Not everyone will learn the same way I learned. I was fortunate enough to start my career with a principal who invested time and resources into me. He was a veteran educator in NYC himself, someone who had been in the classroom for 20 years. Under his tutelage, I made many missteps for which another principal could have disciplined me. Yet, he labeled me a “natural” in the classroom, did what he could to inspire me and gave me room to learn from my mistakes. He believed that I, along with many of the young teachers on his staff, would be assets to the school system for many years to come. He shepherded us towards tenure and did all he could to keep us in the school system and in his school.

Unfortunately, the environment in NYC schools has changed. Most new teachers are given no guidance aside from the usual professional developments, which are worse than useless. Many of the new generation of principals are not educators and cannot recognize a potentially great teacher to save their lives. The Leadership Academy, the fast track to a principal position in today’s DOE, trains its alumni in carrots and sticks business management, not school leadership. It is no secret that Leadership Academy principals have reputations for being putative and petty. In this type of environment, it is impossible for a new teacher to learn their craft. Most importantly, the statistics show that principals are denying tenure to probationary teachers at an alarming clip. Many teachers who could be naturals are being pushed out of the system by the third or fourth year.

Add to this mix the new lax student discipline codes and you have a bad mix for New York City schools. With no support from administration and no disciplinary recourse, what tools are available to the struggling first-year teacher who faces an unruly class? What tools are available to the new teacher who has those one or two students who, if they were to be removed, would make a positive difference for the learning of the other students in the class? The answer before the new discipline codes was: nothing. The answer with the new student discipline codes is: less than nothing. We are essentially throwing thousands of new teachers into the classroom with no guidance or training and putting it all on them. This has been the state of affairs for many years in NYC. These new discipline policies take another step towards making this state of affairs permanent.

While the public schools’ ability to discipline students is continually being handcuffed, the charter schools with whom our public schools are “competing” get a blank check on student discipline. Not only can they cherry pick students through the sham lottery system, but they can suspend, expel and “counsel out” students even after they have been cherry picked. And where do those “problem students” from charters end up? Right back in the public schools. Not only do public schools not have the right to cherry pick their students, nor expel or counsel them out, they now do not even have the right to suspend students for many types of infractions. While charters are empowered to discipline students, the public schools have no such power. In this case, it makes no sense to claim that charters “compete” with public schools. When admissions, funding and discipline procedures are so different between the two types of schools, it can only be apples and oranges.

I guess it is extraordinary then that charters still fail to outperform public schools. Despite all the advantages that charters have and all the things that allow charters to fudge their statistics, public schools still do a better job of educating students, especially students that charters would never admit in a million years. Why do you think that is? What gives public schools the edge?

In my mind, it is the fact that public schools have more experienced teachers. Rather than expelling students when they become inconvenient, veteran teachers in NYC have learned to expand the right of education to all children, including the ones who do not want to be educated. Public school teachers, despite the fact that they are continuously vilified and their careers are under attack, still educate the neediest students with the scarcest resources. Despite the fact that the charter school on the top floor has smaller class sizes, more funding and more motivated students, public school teachers are winning the competition that the education reformers believed would run public education into the ground.

For veterans of NYC’s public school system, the new discipline codes will most likely make no difference at all. For the newer teachers, it will probably hamper their ability to learn their craft. Regardless, public school teachers in NYC are continuously being asked to do more with less and are rising to the occasion despite the massive campaign to destroy them.

How Bad Teachers Nearly Ruined My Life

Irony warning: people not familiar with irony, sarcasm or backhanded humor are advised to stop reading……. now.

The postmortem of the CTU strike is being handled by people far more capable than I. It would not add to the conversation for me to share my thoughts on the matter at this point.

Instead, I would like to thank the modern crop of education reformers for lifting a major psychological burden off my shoulders.

I attended public school from kindergarten all the way up to the graduate level. My mother enrolled me in the best elementary school allowed by law. I was five years old and my brain was an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge by my teachers. They did a great job for, by the time I was in 4th grade, I was already being tracked into the gifted classes. Sure, my mother ensured I did all of my homework, even as she worked 12 hours a day to keep a roof over my head. She came home, cooked dinner, helped me study for the next day’s exams and, oftentimes, went out to work a second job when things were tight. But, as we know thanks to leading-edge research such as the Gold Standard Study, it was my teachers who got an empty kindergarten brain up to the gifted level by 4th grade.

Things went like that for a few more years. My mother was a constant presence in my education: checking my homework, coming to every parent-teacher conference, bringing every book she could find into the house for me to read and letting me know that I was going to college after high school. My job was to go to school. Her job was to provide.

Yet, there comes a time when every parent has to remove the training wheels, so to speak, and have faith their child will do the right thing on their own. For me, that time came in the 8th grade. My mother gave me the independence to do my own homework and keep track of my own schooling. I repaid her trust by taking up smoking in the schoolyard, cutting class and getting into fights. My grades took a dip during the 8th grade. I have always blamed myself for this, but the reformers have taught me that it was my teachers’ fault.

See, my math teacher was old. My gym teacher was mean. My English teacher was a dunce. My history teacher was too lenient. It was they who did not add value to my schooling. Sure, I may have cut a class or 40 that year, but none of that should matter. A truly great teacher, one that adds value, can overcome all of that by cramming all the learning that I needed into my brain on the days I was there. Of course I did not do homework or raise my hand much other than to ask to go to the bathroom. It was their fault for giving me homework and letting me use the bathroom in the first place. I was a poor, inner-city child and I needed a great teacher to reach me, to go that extra mile and say to me “You are great. Everything you do is wonderful.” They did not do that. They merely taught.

Luckily, I was still skilled enough to fill in the right bubbles during test time. I scored high enough to be enrolled in the Bronx High School of Science. Science was a very long way from where I lived. My mother would just have to assume, once again, that I was going to do the right thing once I got there.

Bronx Science has produced Nobel Prize winners and world leaders. It is such a shame that a school with a reputation like that had so few teachers that added value to me. I remember French class. I use the word “class” in the true singular form, since I only went to one the entire year. After my first day, I decided the teacher was not going to add any value to me and spent the period playing spades in the cafeteria instead. She had the nerve to fail me every marking period. I never failed French all throughout junior high school and now this non-value-adding French woman from Nice had the nerve to fail me. Out of all my teachers, she took the most value out of my learning. The proof is in the grades. If she was a great teacher, the one our struggling students deserve, she would have left the classroom every day and come to the cafeteria to give me the lesson personally. Instead, she just stayed in her classroom speaking fluent French to 30 students. What about me? Where is the accountability for her?

I may or may have not been to some other classes. I had an old teacher, a young teacher, a cool teacher, one that taught some subject about some books and probably gym. They all failed me. All of my report cards from Bronx Science had 50s all the way the down. Tell me, did any of these teachers add value? I do remember that I perfected the Sho-Ryu-Ken on the Streetfighter II arcade game as I fed quarter after quarter into the machine in the pizza shop. I remember playing touch football in the front yard all afternoon while my schedule said I was supposed to be in some class somewhere. I remember some girls I might have kissed or tried to kiss in the handball courts, encouraging them to cut class so I could ogle them for another period. Oh, and I remember all the fights. Lots and lots of fights. I was an angry kid and everyone was against me. Some counselor somewhere said I had anger issues and needed therapy. What did she know? She was a union worker and only counting down the years to collect her big fat pension off the taxes me and my mother paid. What a fat cat.

Where were my teachers? Certainly, they took no accountability for my education. Here I was, the star of my middle school being failed by a bunch of stuffy high school teachers who thought they knew everything. You would think that one of them, just one, would have come to my house one evening and taught me all the stuff I had missed when I was absent. None of them put any work into my schooling. None of them cared. There I was, a great mind in a supposedly great school, and getting no knowledge at all. If this was supposedly one of the best schools in the nation, I never saw it. An effective school is so efficient at producing knowledge widgets that they overflow out of the classroom windows, under the doors, down the stairs, into the cafeteria, the schoolyard, everywhere. You would think I would be tripping over knowledge widgets everywhere at Bronx Science so that there would be no need to sit in a classroom. Yet, there I was, playing football, kissing girls and getting punched in my face and not one measly morsel of knowledge filtered in to my eager, low-income brain.

Oh, but you did not even go to class, you say. You took no accountability for yourself, you say. You cannot expect teachers to teach you when you are not there to be taught, you say. Those are all excuses! That is the problem with teachers today: they blame the kids. Answer me this: if they were such great teachers, how come I failed? Numbers do not lie. My teachers failed me. They did not believe in me, or even know I existed. The only reason for this is that they were all part of the union. All of them were ineffective and all of them were riding their tenure until they could retire out on a golden parachute. If they had merit pay, I bet you they would have chased me down and taught me something then. If they did not have tenure, they would have ensured that I passed, even if I never showed up in class at all.

Then, one day in March after being part of a rumble where I fought around 20 juniors and ended up spitting up teeth, the brain trust that ran Bronx Science had the nerve to counsel me out of the school. They said I did not fit in, was not succeeding and needed another environment. They had the nerve to blame me for my failure. I gave them their wish. If they had the nerve to try to hold me accountable for my own actions, instead of keeping their lazy union teachers in line, then I did not want them. It was not the school for me. So I transferred to my neighborhood school. At least there might be some teachers who actually cared about my education.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. I even showed up to class every day, mostly, and they had the nerve to give me a GPA of 65 by the end of the year. There I was, a Science student gracing the halls of their crappy school, and they had the nerve to not add any value to me either. I mean, come on, I was in class. I was gifted. In the end, I learned nothing. They wanted me to do projects and stuff, but those were stupid and I just discovered that I could buy rap albums on the street for five dollars. I also discovered that I could buy a 40-ounce at the corner store for $1.50. These were the things I was interested in. There was no time for me to do projects or homework when trying to memorize the lyrics to “Psycho” by Lords of the Underground. It was really tough to pay attention in class too, especially on the days I showed up intoxicated.

You would think my teachers would have taken all of this into account. If they really cared, they would have differentiated their instruction. They could have tailored their lessons for today’s intoxicated minor and given me projects about Naughty by Nature, instead of useless garbage like Shakespeare and World War II. But no, these teacher union fat cats kept detracting value from my education, going “blah, blah, blah” while the room spun around and around. They could not even keep the room still so I could sleep off my drunk! I learned that day that bad teachers were all over the city. It did not matter if it was Bronx Science or some school somewhere I was too intoxicated to remember the name of. Because they were all incompetent, I did not learn anything and I became an at-risk youth. They failed me and the union protected them every step of the way.

By the end of the 9th grade, I had been to two different high schools and seen so many horrible teachers. I decided to take the test again to get back into Bronx Science or, hopefully, Stuyvesant. Instead, I made it into Brooklyn Tech. Do you see what happened? In 8th grade, I scored high enough to make it into the 2nd best school in the city and in 9th grade I only scored enough for 3rd best. That is called, say it with me, negative value added. All of my teachers from both of my high schools should have been fired, since I went from being an angel to being “at-risk”. I was a poor, inner-city child suffering with horrible teachers protected by their powerful unions. Where was Superman for me? Where was Michelle Rhee? I used to blame myself for my 9th grade horror story, but the reformers have taught me that it was my teachers who turned me into that.

I ended up going to Brooklyn Tech. I realized that I should wait until at least 18 until I take up drinking again and that not all girls like a guy who plays touch football and Streetfighter II all day. So, I did some homework, met some good friends, went to class and never got into another fight again. My GPA raised from a 65 in 9th grade to a 75 by senior year. The teachers at Brooklyn Tech added 10 value points to me. That is not enough. They should have been fired anyway. I had the potential to reach 100 but their incompetence held me back.

My first year in college, I failed one class. The teacher had a German accent and I could not understand him. He failed me. After my first semester, I had an epiphany. I said to myself, “I am just going to focus on learning and doing all of my assignments”. I buckled down, kept up with reading, did extra credit assignments and worked, worked , worked. I made Dean’s List every semester after that and graduated with honors. My graduate courses were the same, graduating with a 3.8 GPA.

Only one lesson can be deduced from my scholastic career: great teachers make all the difference. Poverty is an excuse for failing teachers. All children can be successful if their teachers care enough. Whatever problems a student has outside of class has no bearing on their ability to learn inside of class. Teachers should be held accountable for their students’ performance. Students and parents should not be blamed at all, nor have any type of accountability for a child’s schooling. Grades are always an accurate reflection of a teacher’s worth. All learning can be quantified in numbers. Unions protect bad teachers. The reformers are Gods among mortals and will save the education system by destroying it.

Rants From The Philosophy Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

What do each of these statements have in common?

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

“They all talk about what people do?”

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

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

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

“Exactly”

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

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

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

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

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

WOW!

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a rhetorical question of course.

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

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

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

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

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

“It was his job.

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

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

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

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

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

Damn

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

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

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

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