Category Archives: An Embattled Career

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.

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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.

The Gooey Center: More Goo Than Center

This is your brain on education reform.

This is your brain on education reform.

I happen to believe that Americans who consider themselves political “centrists” are the intellectual midgets of the electorate.

Centrists and Democrats love to decry Tea Party types as the dumb ones. Sure, they show up to rallies with misspelled signs and tell the government to get their hands off of their Medicare. Obviously, their ideas are force fed to them by Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Definitely, they have been voting against their own interests by electing Koch brother-funded troglodytes to local and national office. Worst of all, there is a streak of understated fascism in everything they say. Their vitriol against President Obama is punctuated by dog whistle racism. However, there is one thing that recommends them to me better than self-professed centrists: their vile ideas at least have conviction.

That is to say, Tea Partiers do not delude themselves into thinking they are open-minded. Many might even tell you they are proudly close-minded, which might be synonyms to them for being simple or traditional. At least one knows where one stands with them. Someone like me in their eyes would be just another big city, northeastern leftist who drinks lattes and wants to redistribute other people’s wealth. I respect this characterization, especially considering how it is not totally inaccurate.

Centrists, on the other hand, live in the delusion that they are fair and rational. They believe that listening to “both sides” and taking a little from each is Solomon-like. The past does not exist to these people. The notion that political discourse has been manufactured in such a way over the past 40 years that today’s Democrats were yesterday’s Republicans and today’s Republicans were yesterday’s frothing crypto-fascists does not exist in their world. Obamacare to them is a liberal program, despite the fact that it was created by a Republican think tank and implemented first by a Republican governor. To today’s centrists, the past does not exist and the present is merely an exercise in splitting the baby.

There is no other area of public concern in which centrists have run amok more than education policy. My favorite poster child for this type of centrist is Andrew Rotherham, a centrist Democrat who runs the Eduwonk blog and a reliable cheerleader for the cause of education reform.

Yesterday, Rotherham linked to an article from Politifact that ham-fistedly claimed Diane Ravitch’s interpretation of the NAEP scores in Reign of Error was “mostly false” .  Diane herself ably destroyed this claim. Both Rotherham and Politifact pride themselves on being rational centrists. Unfortunately, their attempt to split the baby of education policy does nothing but put them squarely on the side of education reform. It is unfortunate because education reform, as it is understood today, is a wholly radical endeavor.

Nothing captures the self-satisfied  attitude of education centrists than the comment left under Rotherham’s link:

” I completely agree about the confusion. I heard Ravitch speak last week in DC and found her rhetoric though inspirational at times, mostly divisive and combative, I have seen the same dramatics from hearing the reformers speak as well. I feel that the idea of proving one side right or wrong by cherry picking which test scores to use and which school systems to look at is almost completely missing the point. We aren’t in politics, we are in education. And as educators we need to do what we preach, work together, to find a solution.

I will continue to be optimistic and hope that one day Ravitch and Kopp will start a campaign to simply get all passionate educators talking to work together. That’s my two cents.”

This sounds like a laudable goal until one digs beneath what the commenter is actually saying. He essentially wants all educators to “work together”. Under the label of “educator” he includes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education, a former cabinet member in the Department of Education and someone who specializes in researching the history of education. On the other hand, he includes Wendy Kopp, a woman who wrote a thesis in Princeton on education, got millions of dollars to put her thesis into action and has been busily peddling her money-fueled program to school districts all around the country.

This is the first problem with education centrists. Anyone who has an opinion on education automatically becomes an “educator”. All opinions are valid, no matter the credentials, experience or motives of the person offering the opinion. Diane Ravitch is put on a par with Wendy Kopp or Michelle Rhee or anyone else who has jumped into the world of education policy without spending any appreciable period of time in a classroom teaching students. In this way, education centrists are just like political centrists who put Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all on the same par and believe the truth lies somewhere in between them.

Just like Fox News represents what used to be considered a radical brand of conservatism, Kopp, Rhee and others who have made millions from dabbling in education policy are arms of a decidedly radical brand of reform. Much like Fox News, their radicalism is a radical capitalism or, more specifically, radical corporatism.

Kopp and Rhee essentially advocate for a temporary, low-skilled and low-paid work force of teachers. Trade unionism and professional experience to them are not only antiquated notions, but notions antithetical to the types of reforms they wish to institute. It is the educational equivalent to the state of peonage to which big chains like Walmart reduce their own workers.

This type of workforce is in itself a reflection of a radicalized form of capitalism. Add to this the private charter and online schools that are hallmarks of education reform. Add to this still the standardized exams for students and prospective teachers created by private corporations. Finally, to top it all off, throw in private education data companies who wish to compile all types of sensitive information on children. What you have is a neat program of privatization punctuated by a creepy type of corporate surveillance. It is a wholly radical scheme.

Karl Marx rightfully saw capitalism as a revolutionary force. It seeks to turn everything into a commodity, whether consumer products, the natural world or education. Left unchecked or, even worse, aided by the power of the state, capitalism has the potential to dominate every facet of human life and civilization. The move to privatize education is of the same ilk as the move to privatize prisons. Both of these developments are part of a wider historical epoch that has seen the growth of massive multinational corporations. Education reformers are revolutionaries who champion the growth of unaccountable private power.

This is why people who strive for some sort of gooey center in education policy effectively turn out to be education corporatists. They accept the underpinnings of education “reform” and then expect its opponents to meet them halfway. However, there is no meeting a revolutionary force halfway. Once one accepts its legitimacy, one automatically rejects any opposition. Indeed, that is the very definition of revolution. It is major, historical change. One is either with it or one is against it.  This is the decision that the privatizers of education have forced people to make. Those who consider themselves part of the gooey educational center have already cast their lot in with the revolutionaries.

Yet, centrists in both politics and education serve the purpose of making the opponents of revolutionary radicals seem like nutty, fringe characters. Political centrists today accept the legitimacy of the far right that has masked itself as modern conservatism. This means that radical leftists, or even legitimate liberals, are off the political spectrum and not part of civilized political discourse. They locate themselves within a very narrow range of political thinking that goes from far right crypto-fascists to centrist Democrats. This basically gives the field over to the political right.

This is why education centrists see people like Diane Ravitch as “divisive” or “radical”. They have already accepted that education reform is true reform and not revolution. They fail to see the greater revolutionary force of which education reform is a part. In so doing, they have inoculated themselves from seeing the validity in any of Ravitch’s, or any other public education advocate’s, ideas. To them, it is only a matter of total reform or less reform. If they were alive during the French Revolution, they would be debating over whether Robespierre should behead 100,000 people or 20,000 people and think of themselves as fair minded if they believed he should only kill 50,000. Whether anyone should be beheaded at all, or if Robespierre should even be in power, they would consider the talk of divisive fringe characters.

Education centrists, much like political centrists, should be disregarded as the vacuous tools they are. They do not have to be won over because they have already internalized the assumptions of a radical ideology. Instead, true defenders of public education should speak to the vast majority of Americans who have not been steeped in the doublespeak that passes for education policy in this day and age. This is the audience that Reign of Error seeks to reach, which is why it is scaring so many reformers.

Do not aim to be a centrist in anything. Instead, take a peek under the accepted paradigms and figure out whose purpose it serves.

Small High Schools are Better, Say Small School Advocates

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Both the Daily News and New York Post touted a study carried out by researchers from MIT and Duke that found Bloomberg’s small high schools to be more successful than their larger counterparts. As someone who has worked in small high schools, the findings of this study do not have the ring of truth. So, I decided to slog my way through it to see what it says for myself.

The researchers at MIT measure “success” by Regents scores and college admissions. This means that they have a myopic focus on the core subjects. The fact that the arts have been disappearing from all high schools, especially the smaller ones, does not register a blip anywhere in this study. They also make no mention of the dearth of enrichment programs at smaller schools, a dearth caused by their small size. Smaller schools do not have the pool of talent and resources that larger schools used to have to build things like debate or football teams. The study makes much of the idea that smaller schools have “themes” but never assess whether or not these themes truly reflect what goes on in these schools. It is just taken as an article of faith that schools with “technology” in their titles teach students technology, or schools with “leadership” teach leadership and so on. While this faith is troubling, one must keep in mind this study was carried out by economists, probably the most faith-based of all the social sciences.

One glaring shortcoming of the study is that it does not measure the scores of students with special needs in smaller high schools. This includes English Language Learners. According to the paper:

“Students who were special education and limited English proficient were manually placed into programs that could accommodate them and were therefore  not always subject to assignment based on lotteries. As a result, no students who are special education and limited English proficient are in the lottery sample.”

The “lottery sample” to which they refer makes up the bulk of the small school students that are being measured. On the other hand, they did not exclude a similar proportion of special needs students and English Language Learners from their sample of students from larger schools. To say this might end up skewing the results of this study is an understatement.

One of the findings of the study is that students and parents felt safer in smaller schools according to the Learning Environment Surveys. They do not mention the percentage of students and parents who fill out these surveys, which is typically a very small amount of the overall population. Is it really reflective of the overall attitude towards the school if 5% of the families who attend it feel safe?

If the learning environment is so good in these schools, then how can this be explained?

“Small school teachers often had to take on administrative roles given the reduced staffing at small schools, and additional work requirements may have lead to higher turnover rates (Hemphill and Nauer, 2009). The estimate in Table 3 implies that 28% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by offered complies in the following year, while 19% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by non-offered compliers in the following year.”

So, the yearly turnover rate at these small schools is between 19 and 28 percent and the researchers backhandedly chalk this up to teachers at these schools having to take on administrative roles. This puts a shiny gloss on a much uglier reality. New teachers being unprepared for the classroom, systematic harassment, denial of tenure and expectations by administrators that teachers work overtime for free are not mentioned anywhere in this study, although they are pervasive problems throughout the system. This calls into question the rigor and objectivity of this study.

And what of the fantastic gains of the schools that were studied? According to the Daily News article:

” Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University found that city students who attend small high schools established by Bloomberg are 9% more likely to receive high school diplomas and 7% more likely to attend college, compared with students who attend older, larger city high schools.”

Therefore, these schools in which the scores of special needs students and English Language Learners were not counted, were a whopping 9% more likely to graduate students and 7% more likely to have graduates who attend college. These numbers should be put into perspective.

First, many of the large schools to which these smaller schools were compared have become little more than dumping grounds for the Bloomberg administration. As is the case with Long Island City High School, many of the larger schools have much higher numbers of special needs students and higher rates of overcrowding. It has been the DOE’s tactic to set large schools up for failure in this way so that they have an excuse to close them down, chop them up and, in many cases, move in charter schools. Furthermore, as the study states, many of these smaller schools benefit from the largesse of philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation. The study did not take these funding disparities into account.

Therefore, after all of these advantages, and after all of the ways this study skews the playing field in the favor of small schools, they are still only 9% more likely to graduate students. They do this without providing the type of enrichment activities that were possible with larger schools. This makes these smaller schools little more than diploma mills, and not very effective ones at that.

Rising graduation rates or college admissions is in no way a measure of success. It is usually more indicative of lower standards, which we see in the increasing number of incoming CUNY freshmen in need of remedial classes. It is interesting that this study does not delve into which colleges the graduates of small schools are accepted. Are these two-year or four-year colleges? Are they being admitted to Hostos or Hunter? These are things that would have given a more accurate picture of the types of graduates coming out of the small schools.

The worst part of this study is not the obvious bias in favor of small schools. It is how the miniscule gains it finds in these small schools, gains in a very limited scope of categories, is seen as success. There is no attempt to put things into context. There is no attempt to ask the question: was killing off most of the large high schools, firing hundreds of teachers, shuffling around thousands of students and bringing in countless unqualified administrators all worth these 9% gains in graduation and 7% gains in college admissions? Or how about: was the destruction of the enrichment activities that came with larger schools worth it?

These are the types of questions that must be asked when assessing Bloomberg’s legacy for New York City’s public schools. Given the advantages heaped upon the small schools in this study, it is more likely the case that so-called “achievement” of New York City students is no different that it was 12 years ago. The study itself gives an indication of this when it mentions that SAT and PSAT scores, the only statistics not open to manipulation by the Department of Education, have remained stagnant.

That means the Bloomberg legacy is one of aimless destruction. It means that Bloomberg subjected the children of NYC to never-ending upheaval in their schools for what purpose? There are more administrators in the system than ever before. There is more teacher turnover than ever before. There are more no-bid contracts in the DOE than ever before. When all of these factors are put together, it means that Bloomberg oversaw the creation of a pliant teaching force under the thumb of unqualified administrators who helped institute a program of privatization in our public schools. He turned education in NYC into a gold mine for his billionaire friends.

The scariest part about all of this is that it only promises to get worse. Even if Bill de Blasio is the progressive white knight that many people think he is (which is quite doubtful), he can still do only so much to undo the damage of 12 years of Bloomberg. He still has to contend with reforms coming from the state and federal level over which he has very little control. Those reforms only promise to exacerbate the damage done by Pharaoh Bloomberg.

Economists all too often act as lickspittles for the moneyed elite. This study is just another example of that.

 

 

John King’s Bully Pulpit

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

October is national anti-bullying month. A recent study suggests that schools with anti-bullying programs actually might have more incidents of bullying. While this might have something to do with the fact that such schools over report bullying incidents, the study confirms a general sense that anti-bullying programs do not work.

The sloganeering involved in most school anti-bullying campaigns is similar to the anti-drug campaigns popular in schools during the 1980s. Both efforts tend to gloss over complex societal issues in favor of hokey slogans. We knew that the crack plague of the 1980s was not going to end by teaching the next generation to “just say no”. Similarly, we know that teaching our children to recite words like “tolerance” and “respect” is not going to end this problem of “bullying”.

Bullying is not going away. This is because the currency of our school systems, the currency of this thing known as “education reform”, is naked bullying. Look at the parent in Maryland who was roughed up by a police officer for questioning the Common Core State Standards. Look at New York State Education Commissioner John King’s recent performance in front of concerned parents in Poughkeepsie where he first tried to talk over their concerns, then canceled the rest of his speaking tour when he discovered that New York parents do not want to be lectured to like children. For good measure, he accused these parents of being beholden to “special interests”.

John King’s comments actually represent the first stage of bullying. What makes it easy for children to bully another child is the sense that the victim is somehow flawed. The child can be labeled a “wimp” or “whore” or “gay” or “weird” or any number of labels. Once that label catches on with peers, it becomes permissible to then torment and torture the victim. This is how seemingly good people could be led to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. Their “goodness” is reserved only for the acceptable members of society. Anyone who is out of those bounds is fair game. Dictators have used this strategy to persecute groups they did not like. Democracies use this tactic as well, often with greater success.

King’s labeling of concerned parents as a “special interest” is a favored tactic of education reformers. The reformers burst onto the scene with many labels. They labeled the schools as “failing”. They labeled the children as “stupid” or “violent”. They labeled teachers as “incompetent” and “lazy”. Thanks to a massive PR campaign funded by billions of education reform dollars, these labels stuck. This gave the reformers the public traction they needed to go ahead with their agenda. This agenda involved closing schools, disenfranchising parents, firing teachers and other acts of institutional violence that could be properly labeled as “bullying”.

The Common Core is just the latest incarnation of this bullying. The only difference is that now, after a decade of failed education reforms, it is tougher for the reformers to sell their tropes of “failing” schools and “underprepared” children to parents. They cannot make the labels stick, which means, hopefully, it will become harder to foist their will upon our public schools.

People should not be surprised by the actions of Commissioner King. As the founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network, King instituted the type of draconian discipline policies for which many charters have become notorious. As Pedro Noguera wrote about his visit to UC:

“I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

Unfortunately what is often driving these high-performing schools is the idea that the kids need to be broken. That the kids’ culture needs to be taken away from them and replaced with something else, because they come in with deficits. They come in as damaged goods. And these schools believe that their job is to mold the kids into something else.”

There probably is not any bullying at Uncommon Schools because the administration has a monopoly on the practice. King obviously already wrote the children in his school off as brutes. This made it easy for him to institute an uncommonly brutish discipline code that would have gotten him run out of the wealthier school districts in America. He made it a mission of his chain to bully children into behaving in the proper way. In the end, all bullying is ultimately aimed at getting the victim to conform to some preconceived norm.

This was King’s exact attitude towards the parents in Poughkeepsie. In his mind, the children of these parents were “unprepared” to meet the “challenges of the 21st century” and so need the Common Core to make America competitive. When the parents rebelled, he gave them a label reformers have traditionally reserved for teachers and their unions: “special interests”. This means that anyone who disagrees with John King or the Common Core are merely myopic naysayers who only care about themselves. It is a convenient way for him to justify to himself the imperious manner in which he handled the parents in the audience. It is a convenient way for him to justify all of the reforms he has helped force upon New York State up until now.

It should be recalled that King was the one who designed New York City’s disastrous teacher evaluation system. In that system, King called for teachers to be judged by the test scores of students who are not theirs in subjects they do not teach. We can see in this John King’s disdain for teachers. He has already labeled us as selfish “special interests” in need of the same draconian treatment as the students in Uncommon Schools. His evaluation system is institutionalized bullying.

When teachers get fired because students they never taught fail standardized exams, that is bullying. When students as young as 5 years old have to prepare, then sit, for standardized exams with no other purpose than to rate teachers, that is bullying. When the schools of these children close because they are labeled as “failing” due to these exams, that is bullying. When every public school is forced to abide by ridiculous standards that will serve to suck the joy out of learning, that is bullying. When the charter schools who are the shining stars of the reformer movement are exempt from all of these changes, that is bullying. The reformers have labeled a certain group of people, namely public school teachers, their children and now their parents, as failures in need of corrective action.

If incidents of bullying have increased over the past decade, there can be little wonder why. The way students behave within a school building reflect the environment created for them there by adults. If the school building is located downstream from where education reformers dump their effluvia, as most public school buildings today are, then it can be little wonder why bullying takes place there. If children see people like King and Michelle Rhee deride their teachers as “ineffective” and “special interests”; if they know the state wants to close them down because they are “failing”; if they now see their parents shrugged off and insulted by the State Education Commissioner, then it is the adults from whom the children are taking their cues.

The bullying problem in schools will never end until the way schools are run is fundamentally changed. Instead of autocratic mayors having unquestioned control of urban school districts, we need the type of local and democratic control of school systems for which America used to be known. Instead of putative standards enforced with putative tests, we need the type of school system that has a rich and open curriculum.

Many parent groups, understandably, are calling for John King to lose his job. While I sympathize with that sentiment, we all know that the disappearance of John King will only pave the way for another SEC with the same exact agenda. The only difference would be that Governor Cuomo will choose someone who is a more shrewd political operator. I say: keep John King as SEC. There can be no better poster child for the high-handed and bullyish tactics of the education reform movement. Nobody could do more damage to education reform in New York State than John King himself.