Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Insights from "The Blind Side"

(This is a longer version of a guest column that was published in the Seattle Times on Friday, August 20th, which can be found at:  http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2012672957_guest20magill.html )

The teacher accountability craze continues to pick up steam, gaining public support due to the oft-repeated notion that teachers are the most important factor in determining student success.  But are they?

“We know highly capable and deeply committed teachers are the most important factor in ensuring our children succeed in school.” This time it was being propounded by two Seattle city councilmen.

Different mouthpiece.  Same bankrupting misguidedness.

Education seems to be one of the few professions where we regularly have to listen to the opinions of people who do not work in the field, and are forced to take them seriously, as if they know something about it.  No one would listen to me if I criticized the mechanics of financial advisors, even if large numbers of their investors lost lots of money over a span of time.  Come to think of it, this happened across the whole world the last few years.  Lots of criticism about the financial collapse has been delivered, sure.  But no one criticizes the money managers.  They were victims too, right, of the greater more insidious forces at work, caused by financial giants like AIG and Lehman Brothers.  Those poor financial planners were caught up like the rest of us in the credit default swap storm.  Forces outside of our control.  Everyone accepts this.

How fitting an analogy this is.  Yet people who have no practical educational expertise (newsflash: just because you went to school doesn’t mean you know about education) continue to opine and influence public policy to the tune of billions of dollars in wasted spending.  These city councilmen are wrong.  Teachers are not–for the last time forever, not!–the most important factor in ensuring student success.  We are maybe fifth on the list.  Maybe.  (Home stability, attendance, student motivation, poverty, previous teachers....and yes, these are “research-based”)

I just saw The Blind Side (2009), and was awestruck by how this true story exposes both this falsehood and the parallel futility of tying student performance to teacher evaluations.

It features an inner city African-American male named Michael Oher.  He underachieves in all major subjects and skills.  Doesn’t learn in a classroom setting.  Fails to take advantage of resources and opportunities.  Doesn’t do homework.  Doesn’t read well.  Doesn’t advocate for himself.  The same old “risk factors.”  His GPA?  0.6.

The film presents the teachers at his new school–a ritzy private school full of rich white kids–at a loss with how to deal with him.  “We’re setting him up to fail,” one of them says.  Over time, however, they find new ways to help him.  They work with him outside of class.  They start to believe in him.  He gets an expensive expert tutor.  And, sure enough, his grades rise.  His self-esteem grows.  He gets his GPA above a 2.5 by graduation.

So, who deserves the credit for Oher’s academic turnaround (besides Oher himself)?  His teachers, who figured out how to help him?  His coach, who wanted the big huge kid to play on the football team?  No.  There is one answer to this: his new family.

Before, he was one of 12 children born to a drug-addicted mother from multiple fathers (how sadly common this is, too).  Foster homes.  Ran away.  Different schools.  No continuity.  No love.  No enrichment–not a shred of positive investment into his academic or social growth by his birth mother or absent father.

After being taken in by a new family–a stable, loving, ambitious, accepting family that first meets his physical needs (like a bed, a roof, new clothes, good food–things all the educational commentators take for granted)–this family then starts encouraging his academic development.  Even his new brother and sister welcome him and work with him.  His new parents advocate for him.

We must now ask two questions:  Had he attended a typical public high school, but still been a part of this new family, could Oher have succeeded?  Conversely, had he attended the same ritzy private school, but lived homeless and aimless with no love or support, could Oher still have turned it around?

The answer is so obvious that even the little kid in the movie would laugh if you asked it.  Why then do we persistently and at times passionately seek to avoid this reality? Why do we perpetuate the fallacy that teachers have paramount control over the success of our students?

Here’s a couple common scenarios we encounter at school:
Scenario 1: Let’s say I teach four periods of the same subject.  In three of those periods, over two thirds of my students earn A’s, B’s, or C’s, with over ten students earning A’s.  Yet, in one period, only half of the students reach those grades, with only two A’s.  Further, I have six failing students in that class, and only three in the other three classes, combined.   So, what happened?  Do I go insane one period a day?  Is that period my newspaper break?  I must be doing something wrong, right?  Right?  It must be my fault.

Scenario 2: There’s another class I teach that gets new students each semester. One semester, I had five students failing, all of them due to bad attendance.  Every attending student learned.  But the next semester, I had fifteen students fail, and only one A.  What happened?  Did I forget how to teach after last semester?  What’s wrong with me?  Hold me accountable, and hurry!

The truth of course is that nothing is wrong.  Can I improve?  Of course, always.  That’s not the issue.  But if you are going to hold me accountable for students who never come to class, or who when they do come, treat their teachers like lumps of coal and view their education as a burden and an insult, then you are going to be searching for those great “miracle worker” teachers until you are old and gray, lying in your death bed waiting for all the “reform” to work.  If all the best teachers in the world were put in one school, they still would produce failures, dropouts, expulsions, and ill-prepared students, if you gave them students not prepared for success at home.

You will never solve the educational problem until the family units in this nation become strong.  And this cannot be legislated, because family strength comes down to moral choices: prioritizing people over pleasure, choosing sacrifice over material gain, investing in the mind, not the image. If you can’t see the wisdom in these choices, then you aren’t ready for a family.  Don’t start one, and you’ll be doing educational reform.

As long as we view relationships as things to satisfy our own needs only, as disposable trade-ins, then our marriages will continue to fail, if they happen at all, and more children will grow up in broken, unstable homes, getting thrown around from one parent to aunt to foster parent to the other parent and back, and the education of the children will continue to suffer.  It’s not just homeless kids.  It’s kids who grow up without real love.  Who know their Ipod better than their parents.  Over 60% of African-American children are born out of wedlock.  60%!  Are we so foolish and naive and willfully ignorant that we deny the disastrous effects this must have on their academic achievement?

Do you think Michael Oher’s previous teachers were incompetent? That somehow, these great teachers at the rich private school found the miracle key?  Inexorably, he had several superb teachers along the way, but his unstable home life prevented him from benefitting from their professionally-developed, district-accountable, state-tested, board-certified, acronym-infested, data-overloaded, overworked pedagogical expertise.

How do I know this?  Because I see Michael Ohers every year in my school.  In the film, all the enormous resources, the people, and the time it took to reach a standard of competence (competence, not mastery!) were devoted to just one student!  This rich private school had to bend over backwards to accommodate his needs.  For one student!  Now, picture a school with 300 students like this, mixed in with 1200 others, and you begin to grasp the issue.

How silly would it be to “hold accountable” Oher’s previous teachers for his lack of achievement? How much control over his situation did they have?

(For all the fiscal conservatives, which I am a passionate one, you’ll like this one: No amount of money exists to help the enormous number of students like him in our system.  It would take more money than we have, more people than are able, and more time than exists in a day, to lift all the students in his predicament out of it and into a life of success–without a wholesale transformation and stabilization of his home life.  There is no other way)

Rather than implementing a costly, complicated, ineffective and impossible system that somehow attaches student scores on some standardized test (what test? which scores? how many years back? same school? same state?) to each teacher they had the last six years, we could choose to make the much harder choice to alter what we as a society believe matters in the family unit.  Are all the gadgets, toys, drugs, pornography, alcohol, video games, celebrity worship, and fun-obsessed pursuits we devote ourselves to beneficial to the growth and development of our children and families?

Does anyone even ask these questions any more?

It’s funny how all the teachers who know how to do their jobs are continually dragged through loopholes like having to be re-certified every five years, ground up by the chomping bits of bureaucracy, wondering why for the 18th time I must demonstrate my “growth” in 14 areas dreamed up by people who’ve never spent one minute in front of a typical public school classroom.  Why should these faceless, intransigent, rigid expectations concocted by people with no educational experience be the determiner of the quality of my work?

How much money would we save if all these standard-writing, software-buying, professional development-peddling, curriculum-writing non-teachers were put out of work instead?  Balance the budget now.  (Funny how politicians can’t do their job in this most basic of tasks, yet they persist in telling us how to do ours).

Teacher quality matters.  Obviously.  And good evaluations by qualified professionals should be used to determine their job status.  And I strongly believe this should trump teacher seniority.  But if we don’t turn around our morally anemic culture, and soon, the efforts of our best teachers won’t be good enough.

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