Tag Archives: Schooling

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloomberg’s Corporate Schools

The New York City Teaching Fellows program is similar to Teach for America. Fellows are usually drawn from other professions with offers of a subsidized master’s degree and mentoring in their first year of teaching. They are usually sent to the toughest schools. It was a program conceived in an era of teacher shortage, an era that no longer exists.

Now, the Department of Education is talking of overhauling the program. Among other things, their plan calls for starting Fellows off in the classrooms earlier, so as to give them more supervised experience.

This is a solution that does not get at the issues raised by the teachers quoted in the article. Their problem lies more with the fact that they are not supported by their administrators in their all-important first year. They may get mentors from the Fellows program, but those mentors are not doing the job.

Unfortunately, what the Fellows quoted in this article face is the norm for all first-year teachers, no matter what type of program they are a part of. The Bloomberg system revolves around the idea that school administrators are nothing more than middle-management. That is to say, they are paper pushers and bureaucrats who are expected to enforce all the written and unwritten policies coming down from Tweed.

This means that administrators are not expected to be educators.

Now, there are still some principals in the system who are true educators. My first principal was a charismatic man who hired a mentor to work with me for the first two years of my career. That experience made me the educator I am today. I will be forever grateful to that principal for dedicating scarce school resources to ensure that his younger teachers got the most out of their careers and their students.

Sadly, this principal was forced out of the system. I did not know it at the time, but the times were changing. Bloomberg had just taken office and he was determined to be the “education mayor”. Administrators who actually took an interest in quality instruction, visited classrooms and provided needed resources to their teachers were not longed for the Department of Education.

What we have now, thanks to the small schools movement, is a proliferation of administrators. The number of principals has greatly expanded while the pool of talent from which they are drawn is greatly diminished. Thanks to the revolving door that the teaching profession has become, there are very few veteran educators available to become principals. Instead, what we have is a generation of new teachers who have not been properly trained, never been properly mentored and never had true fulfillment or success in the classroom. They see administration as their way out, not to mention up, and they throw themselves solely into being good Tweedies.

This is, of course, a generalization. There are still principals around like the one that stabilized my career, but they are few and far between. The best principals shield their teachers from the most destructive dictates that come from Tweed. The vast majority of them, however, ensure that their staffs get the full brunt of what Tweed hands down. After all, this might be their ticket to even greater power and authority. They might become a superintendent or a consultant for their good works.

These are the connections that the Daily News needs to make in this article. Bloomberg has been a neutron bomb for public schools in New York City. He has killed anything of life inside of them and replaced it with a mechanical, corporate-driven atmosphere. The focus is not on education at all, but on self-preservation. Administrators largely are out to secure their jobs or get better ones. The erosion of tenure has made teachers less likely to take risks by speaking out against injustices. Everyone is atomized into their own individual spaces, afraid of rocking the boat or thinking for themselves.

That is the atmosphere that the Teaching Fellows are describing. They are thrown into a classroom and told to fend for themselves. Those that actually do not delude themselves understand that they are not able to provide a quality education to their students in such circumstances. Those that care about nothing other than preserving their jobs will live with the sub-par educations they provide and hitch their wagons to their principal’s star. These will turn out to be the Tweedies of tomorrow.

This is the true meaning of mayoral control. It is why education in New York City has become a yoke, even more so than it was before, for both teachers and students.

I would venture a guess that this is why Bloomberg loves charter schools. They are a pure form of his corporate philosophy that dominates the DOE. Teachers have no rights, students are subjected to corporal punishment and principals see themselves as nothing more than data pushers and money-managers.

No matter what overhaul the DOE has in mind for the Teaching Fellows, nothing will change until the little man at the top goes away.

60 Minutes Worships Salman Khan And So Do You

"I'm just a humble guy."

“60 Minutes” ran a fluff piece last night about the Khan Academy. It is a perfect example of the type of uncritical coverage he gets from major media. The only criticisms were reiterated by Khan himself, which he merely dismissed out of hand.

Problem #1: The Flipped Classroom

Khan took offense to the idea that he wants to replace teachers with computer programs. Instead, he says he wants to see students learning content at home on the Khan Academy website, then have students come into school the next day to work on Khan’s problems. The teacher will be there to be a coach or a facilitator.

The biggest problem with this is that it is, in fact, a recipe to replace teachers. He is calling for taking the presentation of content out of the hands of teachers and into his own hands. He is also calling for taking the structuring of assessment activities out of teachers’ hands and into his own. This brings up major questions about knowledge: how children encounter knowledge and what knowledge shall be required.

In history, what if a teacher wants their students to approach an historical topic in a critical way? What if they want their students to examine the many viewpoints of people living during an historical era, as well as different viewpoints of historians about that era? In Khan’s “flipped classroom” model, students would encounter the content first through one of his videos. Only afterwards might there be opportunity for the classroom teacher to get students to study critically the topics already taught by the Khan Academy.

This is all wrong. Any teacher knows that the first impression a student gets about a topic is the one that sticks the most. It is one of the reasons why so many students enter high school thinking that Christopher Columbus discovered America. What if Khan’s videos approach history from a myopic viewpoint, presented from a very narrow perspective? (which seems to be the case, from the history videos I have seen.) The teacher now has to compensate for this and get their students to rethink the information on the video. It makes the teacher’s job that more difficult. I am sure the same thing applies to one degree or another for math, science, literature and every other subject.

The same thing applies to assessment exercises. Assessments solidify knowledge in students’ minds. His flipped classroom model calls for teachers to guide students through exercises of his design and project-based activities of his suggesting. The teacher becomes nothing more than an implementer, someone following a script. It really does not matter what the teacher wants, or knows from years of experience what is best for the development of critical thinking.

The flipped classroom may not call for the wholesale replacement of teachers, but it certainly does call for the wholesale deskilling of teachers. What is much worse, it puts Khan Academy itself as the first disseminator of scholastic knowledge.

Problem #2: The Cultural Divide  

Khan says he wants more human interaction, but looking at the children in that classroom with their heads in their computers gives the lie to that idea. They had their heads in their computers the night before they came to school and had their heads in computers once they came to class. If there is more human interaction in the classroom presented in this video than the classrooms I see on a daily basis, it certainly was not evident.

The people featured in this video seem to paint teaching in brick and mortar classrooms as nothing more than lecturing and reading from a textbook. I certainly do not use a textbook, nor do I lecture, so I take offense to the broad brush with which they paint all teachers. In the presentation of their content, teachers adjust to their classes. Even if the teacher is nothing more than a lecturer (which is very rare), that lecture is given by someone who knows their population, knows the needs of their students and knows how to adjust their words, actions and activities to the students that sit before them.

I teach English Language Learners every year, as well as students with learning disabilities. There is no way I can present material in the same way to these students as I do to mainstream students. Even within these categories, there are students with differing levels of motivation and skills. By the middle of the school year, I find that my teaching style, my demeanor, my notes, the material, the questions I ask differ from class to class. There is an unconscious adjustment that takes place in the style of an experienced teacher where they sense just how to tweak things in order to have the greatest possible impact.

Khan offers nothing of the sort. As I have stated before, he offers nothing but a pause button. All a student can do with a Khan video is watch the same content delivered in the same way over and over again. A very thoughtful analysis of Khan’s videos by Mr. Foteah concludes that Khan uses words that are way out of the league of many English Language Learners, not to mention of mainstream students. Khan, the Ivy League graduate, uses a certain manner of speaking that is alien to inner city youth and immigrant students. No amount of pausing and rewinding will overcome this. Khan cannot make the types of mid-lesson and mid-semester adjustments that a veteran teacher can make.

There is no doubt that Khan’s videos have helped many students. Videos have helped me understand certain topics better, usually Youtube lectures by college professors or policy wonks. But I am a motivated student, I have some background in the topics I want to learn about and I have a sense of the areas in which I need help. Khan’s videos do little for the unmotivated student, the one that teachers encounter on a daily basis. The bells and whistles that Khan adds to his lectures, like the drawing program and the gamey assessment activities, will do nothing for the student who has to walk through gang territory every day or who comes from a home where they are malnourished.

Problem #3: Khan’s Team and Supporters

Khan is not an educator, nor are the people on his team. Perhaps the most insulting thing about the 60 Minutes piece, as well as the people who tend to totally embrace Khan, is how dismissive they are of what teachers do on a daily basis. Sanjay Gupta, the person who did the 60 minutes story, is a medical doctor. He keeps contrasting Khan to a school room of lectures and textbooks, a school room that is largely non-existent after decades of education reform and flavors of the month. It is scary to think that people with so little awareness of what actually takes place in schools think they have found the next great educational paradigm shift. They do not even know the existing paradigm.

One of Khan’s supporters on the video even said that change does not usually come from the institutions that run public schools. Perhaps they have not been paying attention to what has been happening in New York, D.C. and Chicago over the past ten years. There has been nothing but change, usually brought about by people who are not educators themselves. This change has taken place with the cooperation of the unions, including our own beloved UFT here in NYC. To say that the system does not embrace change does not even pass the giggle test.

Khan is part and parcel of this wider movement we call education reform. They work from this Shock Doctrine-esque idea that schools are in a “crisis” or are “failing”, so they must undergo major changes. It was not at all clear that schools were in any crisis at all before the reformers took the reins of the school system. The things they have used to justify this “crisis”, namely test scores, have not improved since the reforms have been implemented. The “crisis” in education is a perception built by a constant barrage of news stories about school shootings, teacher misconduct and peeling paint on the walls. These things have not, nor have ever been, presented in proper proportion to the system as a whole. Even if schools are in a crisis, does this mean that schools themselves need a paradigm shift? What has always been overlooked, indeed never touched, is the impact of poverty, family dysfunction and street crime on the school system. These are structural problems with society, not failures of school systems. The more we blame schools for these issues, and the more we think “changing” schools will solve these issues, the more we remove ourselves from any structural solutions to poverty, inequality and broken communities. Education reform in general is one large mass distraction from the broken socioeconomic system under which we all live.

Bill Gates is Khan’s biggest supporter. He says his children use Khan’s videos, yet they do not attend flipped classrooms. Just like every other reformer, they send their own children to elite private schools with small class sizes, veteran teachers and traditional methods. Just like every other reformer, this type of education is somehow not appropriate for everyone else’s children. What Khan’s movement represents is the deskilling of the teaching profession, something the reformers have been aiming at for decades.

The last line of defense for the Khan supporter, as well as the supporter for of many other ed reforms, is that the Khan Academy is just “one more tool” in the teacher’s arsenal. This gets tiring after a while. Teach for America was just one tool to overcome a teacher shortage, now they are pushing out veteran teachers in an age when no shortage exists. Fuzzy Math was one more tool, yet it was foisted on school districts nationwide as the standard curriculum. Young adult literature was one more tool to get students interested in reading, now it is one of the fastest growing literary (I hate using that word) industries around. Now Khan is one more tool. It cannot represent one more tool as well as a paradigm shift in education.

There are so many tools around that teachers do not know which one to use next. Most of these tools are things educators have never asked for, never sought out and never had input into creating. Teachers have been asking for smaller class sizes for years, yet it has never come to pass. We have been calling for the amelioration of childhood poverty for years, yet it continues to get worse. We have called to retain our job protections so that we can speak up for our students, yet they continue to be eroded away. Why not give teachers the tools they have been asking for over the past decades, instead of foisting tools from an ivory tower that were never asked for?

It is because these things were never meant to be tools. They all seek to undermine teaching as a craft, to get as big a slice as the education pie as possible and to hand off the public institution of education off to private corporations.

If you are for the corporatizing of public education, then say so. It never happens like that. Just like Salman Khan, they will sit there with a big grin and act like they have a genuine concern for other peoples’ children. It is the grin of the con artist.

Diane Ravitch on Bobby Jindal and Other Governors

From Bridging Differences:

Gov. Jindal has submitted a legislative proposal that would offer vouchers to more than half the students in the state; vastly expand the number of privately managed charter schools by giving the state board of education the power to create up to 40 new charter authorizing agencies; introduce academic standards and letter grades for pre-schoolers; and end seniority and tenure for teachers.

Under his plan, the local superintendent could immediately fire any teacher—tenured or not—who was rated “ineffective” by the state evaluation program. If the teacher re-applied to teach, she would have to be rated “highly effective” for five years in a row to regain tenure. Tenure, needless to say, becomes a meaningless term, since due process no longer is required for termination.

Education has become a venture field. Bobby Jindal was the up-and-coming darling of the Republican Party back when he gave the response to Obama’s first State of the Union speech. Jindal’s speech sucked and he slunk back into the type of national oblivion that the governor of a state like Louisiana deserves (except for Huey Long, who was an exception).

But now he is rebuilding his name by pushing a massive privatization and union-busting education scheme through his state’s legislature. It is the post-Katrina New Orleans school system writ large.

Jindal is just one of a new breed of governors who are making a name for themselves by trying to privatize education.  Diane Ravitch also mentions Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Rick Scott and John Kasich. The only time a national audience ever hears their names is when they are out to privatize education. It is a surefire way to get some press, especially after getting applause from Uncle Arne in Washington.

Education is the new venture politics where governors try to make a national name for themselves.

They had some more localized trailblazers in this regard, like Michael Bloomberg here in NY.

Go back further to the two presidents who preceded Obama, Clinton and Bush, and they both made their national names by being education governors. They were the Rosetta Stones for the flood of education governors we have today.

Only now it is a much different ballgame. Boatloads of public monies are up for grabs like never before. On top of that, we now have all the money flowing in from the Gates Foundation and other assorted members of the billionaires boys’ club.

Education has become the new venture capital, which has caused it to be the new venture politics. National recognition gets that billionaire money flowing into their states, not mention their campaign coffers. It is just another example of our broken political system, where a few people with fabulous wealth can dictate to the rest of us how our own children will be educated.

Obama, Duncan, Jindal, Walker, Cuomo, Christie, every last one of them is on the take. I shudder to think that the history books will celebrate this generation of so-called leaders as heroes for their education reforms.

Then again, if their reforms succeed, nobody will be able to read history books anyway.

Some More Light Shed On New York’s Teacher Evaluations

The New York Attorney General’s office launched an investigation this week into whether or not the education and testing of the state’s school children was sold to the highest bidder. A cloud of suspicion surrounds the Pearson Foundation, a nonprofit subsidiary of publicly traded Pearson Education Inc. (NYSE:PSO), the nation’s largest educational publisher and subject of a previous Crotty on Forbes column. The Pearson Foundation is being investigated for potentially lobbying state education officials improperly and footing the bill for those officials to take trips to numerous international locales

That’s it in a nutshell. This whole deal was the result of Pearson wining and dining state lawmakers and education officials. Now they will make the tests that break the teaching force.

Read the entire article here. It shows the national and even global reach of Pearson’s slimy tentacles.

Mind the Achievement Gap

The New York Times picked up on the MDRC report I had written about here. This was the report that credited Bloomberg’s small schools with higher graduation rates in New York City. Despite the fatal flaws in the report, the NY Times (as is the case with the media in general), parroted its pro-Bloomberg findings.

And yet, in the same issue, the NY Times also ran a story about the achievement gap. The studies they cite find that the racial achievement gap has been narrowing while the income achievement gap has been expanding. As it says in the article: “One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

Interesting, since the small schools that the Times so highly touts have fewer of these activities than the large schools they replaced. Does this mean the small schools only serve to perpetuate the achievement gap between rich and poor? I suppose this contradiction is lost on the editorial board of the NY Times.

It is high time that the media stops equating improved graduation rates with success. All they are doing is worshipping at the altar of data that has defined the Bloomberg regime from the start.

Graduation rates are up because standards are down. Replacing one large school with four small ones requires a massive shake up of the staff. The veteran teachers are fired or reassigned, then replaced with pliable youngsters from Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows. At the same time, four new schools mean four new principals and a boatload more assistant principals. There is a higher administrator-to-teacher ratio, allowing administrators more time to meddle in the affairs of the teachers in their charge.

Anybody who has worked in a small school knows what all of this adds up to. The reduced teacher load for administrators means they can have one-on-one conferences with their teachers to question them about the grades of their students. Each teacher’s passing rates are compared to the passing rates of every other teacher in the school, and then the passing rates of the system at large. The message is clear: this percentage of students must pass, no matter what. If not, expect more meetings, more observations, more nitpicking and more harassment.

So teachers pass kids who really have not learned anything. They find nonsense extra credit assignments so their struggling students can make up the points required to pass. The only students who end up failing are the truants that make their appearance a couple of times a month. For the select few that actually fail, they now are able to take online credit recovery classes, many times on subjects that have no relation to those that they failed.

Then these students get turned loose into the real world. Whether they go to college or into the workforce, they have been trained to believe that they are entitled to rewards for shoddy work. If they struggle, they have been trained to expect second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances. This is a major reason why those graduates that the NY Times and the MDRC so mindlessly applaud end up dropping out of college by their second year.

But our graduates have little to fear. President Obama is on a mission to ensure that what standards are left in college go right out the window. He wants more online classes, lower-salaried professors and, ultimately, a college teaching staff with no autonomy at all. That way, professors will be too scared to fail anybody and our illustrious high school graduates can continue to get unlimited chances for another four years.

This is all as it should be in the corporate takeover of our schools and our country. The truth is that the reformers do want our graduates to have any capacity for independent thought at all. It is not as if the jobs that they intend to provide in the future will require any skill outside of punching a few buttons or reading from a script. Giving the gift of critical thinking to the low-wage functionaries of the future would just put ideas in their head that are too big for their station in life. We saw what happened when the slaves of the American south got a taste of book learning: revolts, uprisings and a rejection of subservience.

Publications of record like the NY Times are complicit in the destruction of the American mind. Do not be fooled with their apparent concern for the socioeconomic achievement gap. The policies they laud are only designed to perpetuate and widen that gap.

Check out the new promo for At the Chalk Face, can’t help but giggle

Here’s the quick promo for a nationally syndicated radio show that Tim and I recorded early January. There’s a clip from our interview with Diane Ravitch. She’s a good sport! Sounds great, disseminate widely people!


I first came across At the Chalk Face on the Huffington Post. Along with the NYC Educator, he is the only edu-blogger on HuffPost that has been worth reading. Check out his radio show, it promises to be an experience.

A Discussion with Joe Rogan on Education

As long as people who know nothing about schools feel free to impose reforms on the education system, why not allow any person with an opinion to weigh in on the supposed crisis in schooling?

But why Joe Rogan, you ask? Good question. The answer is, but why Bill Gates? At least most of the things Joe Rogan says are not nearly as objectionable.

Below the video is my commentary on what Joe Rogan says. He is not totally off, although his criticisms fall short of the mark.


Rogan is somewhat right about kids finding school boring. The rote memorization he speaks of is a direct result of the education deformer obsession with standardized exams. It would be nice if he made this point, but I did not necessarily expect a learned exegesis on school reform from Joe Rogan. Where I disagree with him the most is when he implies school should be fun, then explains kids are so smart at video games because they find them fun. That is certainly true and I believe that is the entire problem. The minds of kids have been denuded by constant entertainment, from video games to television to music to the internet, making sitting in a classroom pure torture. In school, there are no flashy images or catchy tunes to stop their brains from working on their own. The answer is not to make school more like entertainment but, instead, to give structure to our kids’ lives that leaves no room for constant pop culture. That, combined with ending the standardized testing crusade of the deformers, will make our children more willing to engage with school.

“Unmotivated People”

Rogan started his rant on paying teachers more by saying teachers were “unmotivated people” because they are underpaid. He saved himself later by saying teachers should be getting much more pay and respect than we currently do. Few teachers would dispute that. But most of the teachers I have worked with over the years have been extremely motivated. They know they are not going to be traveling Europe every summer on their salary, so all of their work is aimed purely at helping their students. The funny thing about the whole lazy, unmotivated teacher stereotype is how easy it is to stand on its head. After all, if teachers have no monetary incentive to work hard, then the work that they do must be for the sake of doing a good job, which involves helping their children. Denying that teachers do not work hard because they are paid crap or have jobs for life (which is just laughable) assumes that these are the only factors that motivate people to work. To posit this would be untenable, since wages are a relatively recent human phenomenon while hard work is not. The fact is that most teachers are underpaid and work hard, since people can be motivated by things other than money, if that can be believed.

“Shitty Human Beings”

If kids grow up to be “shitty human beings”, as Joe Rogan says, then it is not the sole doing of school. Parents take the greatest responsibility. Beyond that, society in general also takes responsibility. It seems Rogan uses “shitty” to mean shallow, mindless and materialistic. Those are public values reinforced by every television show, radio song, blockbuster movie and video game. It is all about constant change, whether it is the constant change of three-second cycles of images on screens or the constant change of what is cool today. Kids are trained to live and think in the now, making them ripe to internalize the type of short-term thinking that easily lends itself to greed and vanity.

In short, while Joe Rogan makes some very good points, he makes the cardinal mistake most other people make by laying too much blame at the feet of the schools. Schools are not supposed to be entertainment factories or morality seminars. Schools are supposed to inculcate kids with core cultural ideas and the ability to think critically. As long as we leave schools on the hook for things they were never supposed to do in the first place, we let the rest of society (parents, politicians, businessmen and ourselves) off the hook for their role in raising children.

The Teaching Philosophy of Teaching Philosophy

Bertrand Russell really looked the part of a philosopher.

I teach philosophy to teenagers. It started years ago at my first school when the principal wanted to offer electives. I filled out a proposal to teach a philosophy class despite the fact I only took one course of it in college. Most of what I learned of it was on my own. The principal approved the class and it became my job to teach 25 inner-city teenagers the wonders of Plato, Descartes and Wittgenstein. I have taught philosophy most semesters since then, albeit on a scaled down, once-a-week basis. It has become one of the most instructive parts of my career.

Thinking is a messy process. It involves a lot of fleeting imagery, uncertainty and frustration. Philosophy was the only subject that came to mind that could help students think explicitly about thinking itself (thinking qua thinking, in philomosophical lingo). If my goal as a teacher was to get students to think, what better way was there than to have them dive the depths of the thought process? It is an exciting prospect that still motivates me to teach my weekly philosophy class.

The only problem is, it is difficult. There is no example or curriculum to follow. Everything I do has been trial and error, based upon using what has worked in the past and discarding what did not. It is my own personal Exhibit A in favor of having experienced teachers in the classroom rather than Teach for America teeny-boppers. There could be no substitute for all of those years of adapting my technique, scrapping methods that do not work and perfecting the ones that do.  My class is far from perfect now but it is much better than when I first started. Much like everything else in life, more practice earns better results.

The other thing that makes teaching philosophy difficult is the mind of the teenager. Philosophical ideas are better appreciated after a certain level of life experience the average teenager just does not have. This is one of the things for which I have constantly had to adjust, taking care not to take my own supposedly mature view of things for granted. This is where the art of teaching comes in. Bringing the mind of the teenager up to the level of philosophy involves knowing what types of questions to ask, activities to provide or tone to use, as well as when to do all of these things. Over the years, having to construct a philosophy curriculum from whole cloth has forced me to examine my assumptions about teaching. I would have never gained this awareness without extensive experience, which just happens to be the thing the deformers hate the most in a teacher.

The most instructive part, however, is when my students struggle with a philosophical idea. It is a big change for a student to go from being asked “how do we solve for ‘x’?” to just plain “how do we solve?” There is nothing concrete for their minds to chew on. It requires aiming their thinking at nothing in particular. This is the single most difficult jump for students. Their minds are strung out on a diet of television, music and standardized exams. They are used to having an easy answer expressible in a simple image, whether their favorite pop star or a choice on a test. That means I have to start concrete where my students are in order to take them to the abstract place I want them to go.

It does not escape me that the things that are rotting my kids’ minds are things pushed on them by education deformers. Young minds are eating up every image and sound bite made possible by Bill Gates’ operating systems. They have been trained to look for the one correct answer thanks to the deformers’ obsession with testing that dominates our school system. My philosophy class has been an indictment on everything the reformers stand for, as well as personal proof for me as to the worth of an experienced teacher.

My favorite part of teaching philosophy is when I get my students to examine the world around them. I do not mean the world as taught through an academic subject, like explaining the scientific reasons why the sky is blue. I mean the actual world of the student, the one of school, friends and entertainment. The ultimate goal is for them to turn philosophy inward so they can examine the reasons behind why they do what they do, like what they like and believe what they believe. It is a great moment, usually defined by a pregnant silence. Even if I only I have one of those moments a year, it is worth it.

I want them to shine the light on themselves, since that is what philosophy has done for me. Not only on my teaching methods but on my life in general, philosophy has helped me gain a bit of perspective. Essentially, I want for my students what I have for myself. Perhaps all of the wealthy education deformers who send their kids to elite private schools should make this their guiding principle when playing God with the lives of other people’s children.