Tag Archives: Value-Added Education Data

How Bad Teachers Nearly Ruined My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate College

I grew up in a poor, single mother household. My mother stressed to me from a very early age the fact that I would be going to college. It was more than an expectation. It was a fait accompli. The prophecy ending up fulfilling itself and I am grateful to my mother until this day.

Now that I am a teacher, I find myself doing the same thing with my students. I speak to them as if college is a fait accompli. There is no talk about if they go to college, only when they go to college. The high school in which I work has a good track record of getting the vast majority of its graduates into pretty decent universities.

By exhorting my students to go to college, I felt as if I was acting as society’s balance wheel, as Horace Mann might say. It is understood that the children of the wealthy will go to very good universities no matter their intellectual capacity. Why should my students not be held to the same, or even better, expectations?

Many years ago, I had a student that entered my class hating history. By the end of the year, she had told me that I had made her love the subject. She was not lying, since she ended up declaring it as her college major. I used to be heartened when I discovered former students decided to major in the humanities whether it be history, English or philosophy. My goal as a history teacher has always been to cultivate engaged and thoughtful citizens. No area of study does better at accomplishing this than the humanities.

But my feelings about college have undergone a change in recent years. At the start of the Occupy Wall Street protests, its critics sneered that the protestors were just a bunch of lazy do-nothings who majored in Liberal Arts only to find that they could not make a living with their degrees. Indeed, one of the first thoughts that ran through my head when I heard about my former student majoring in history was “what is she going to do with that degree?”

Reading David Brooks’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times only reinforced my pessimism about college. Without intending to, Brooks put his finger on everything that is wrong with college today.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.

And then he goes on to say

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

Brooks is a Neocon who speaks in the cold language of economics. To him, colleges “produce” knowledge and critical thinking skills are something that can be quantified in percentiles. Parents and students are consumers entitled to get the most in return for the big bucks they shell out for higher learning.

Unfortunately, Brooks reflects the way we have come to view college and, indeed, all types of schooling in the United States.

There was a time when America’s institutions of higher learning were the envy of the world. People were able to major in the liberal arts and have assurance that there would be some sort of livelihood to be made from it: teaching, writing, museum work, public leadership, etc.

But one of the impacts of the Neocon coup of the past 35 years is a massive disinvestment of government and private funding for the arts. Fewer opportunities exist to make a living with one’s mind. This has been coupled with massive cutbacks in government support for universities. There was a time when university presidents were eminent scholars with a solid intellectual track record. Now, they are more likely to be business people who can balance the books. One of the ways they do this is through raising tuition rates which, by 2012, have become astronomical.

This also has led university presidents to trim the fat, so to speak. Undergraduate professors are more likely to be underpaid adjuncts. Most importantly, universities market their vocational programs and networking opportunities over of their intellectual rigor. The most popular majors are the ones that guarantee some sort of pipeline to a future career: business, education, public policy, non-profit management, etc. History, English and philosophy are withering on the vine in favor programs that promise credentials and contacts. Indeed, it is considered irresponsible, lazy and unambitious to major in a purely intellectual subject.

How can it be otherwise? If you are going to force incoming freshmen to go into six-figured debt upon enrollment, then it is only fair to try to guarantee them some sort of livelihood that would enable them to repay those debts after graduation.

This is what education reformers talk about when they say they want education to prepare students for the 21st century. We are living in a knowledge economy, an information age, where students need a college education to make them into the types of workers the economy demands.

And David Brooks the Neocon has a perfect way to get the colleges to do the bidding of this brave new economy.

One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.

It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.

There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.

That is correct, Brooks wants the type of education reform that has destroyed the K-12 system to metastasize to the college level.

In this proposal is the assumption that learning is the responsibility of the teacher. No learning means bad teachers. Value-added data will weed out the bad professors and, hopefully, “punish” them.

Even when students reach the ages of 18-22, reformers do not expect them to take any initiative at all for their learning. It is all on the teachers. Students are just passive vessels. The professors must open up their students’ brains and pour knowledge in.

This is exactly the type of view Brooks has because this is the type of worker of tomorrow corporations want. They do not want workers who are curious enough to seek knowledge or wise enough to know what they do not know. Instead, Brooks wants a college system where students sit there and receive. He wants a system where the professors have to dumb down the curriculum because their students have been trained to tune out anything that is boring or not immediately relevant to them.

David Brooks wants a college system where students are vegetables. These vegetables will go on to be the non-questioning, uncurious workers and consumers of tomorrow.

This is why I used to be encouraged when former students decided to major in the liberal arts. We live in a nation of Fox News, MSNBC and Jersey Shore veg-heads. To speak economically, there is a demand for critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Liberal arts degrees go a long way towards providing our country with the types of citizens we need. As a history teacher, I used to think I had done my duty if I could help inspire even one student to pursue a life of the mind.

Now I am not so sure. Some of my former students might become active citizens who care about the direction of the country and the world. At the same time, they have dug themselves into horrific debt in order to get there. Our society does not value people who live by their minds enough to reward them with high-paying jobs. In short, I fear that I may have been encouraging my students to make themselves into debt slaves.

Our universities are quickly being sacrificed to a regime that seeks to organize every aspect of our lives for us. It is a regime that tells us what to value, who to vote for, what to buy and where to work. The only hope we ever had to fight against this are the millions of people capable of independent thought and action. These are the people who seek knowledge on their own, are able to read books from cover to cover, are able to express themselves clearly and are able to question the assumptions of the age. I had always seen a college education as a big step towards developing the skills to be an independent thinker.

Yet, our universities are becoming little more than vocational training centers whose value is measured in the jobs for which they can credential their students and the networking opportunities they provide. They still cultivate the life of the mind, but it is the closed and passive mind. It is the mind that blames teachers for its own stupidity. It is the mind trained on little more than a steady diet of overly specific, overly technical jargon that has no relevance outside of the vocation one chooses. It is a mind so compartmentalized and boxed in that it is incapable of critical thinking or questioning.

Sure, there will still be liberal arts programs, but these are becoming luxuries that only the very wealthy can afford. Everyone else is forced into a college major that promises to help them repay the obscene debt that must be incurred upon entering.

David Brooks seeks to complete this ominous trend. Through value-added testing, he hopes to compartmentalize knowledge into factoids like in public schools. Its aim is not to measure learning. Its aim is to make college students see themselves as passive vessels. Its aim is to give college students all the excuse they need to stay vegged out. “Oh well, if I don’t do well on this test, the teacher gets blamed. It must be their fault.”

This is because they are not students at all, but consumers. And what are consumers? They are people presented with a choice. They have no right to question those choices or come up with choices of their own. Instead, they must choose from what the corporate masters decide to present to them. Do you want a business, education or public policy degree? Do you want to work with computers or numbers?

And what if someone wants to be a thoughtful and engaged citizen?

Sorry, that is not a choice.

Welcome to corporate college, where you pay through the nose for the privilege of ignorance.