Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Michelle Rhee in Seattle -- A Teacher's Reaction

I attended Michelle Rhee’s book promotion Tuesday, February 19th. What I saw was a passionate leader who can inspire crowds, but who ignores the complexities and contradictions of her own proposals. As we hopefully know well by now, misguided passion can do a lot more harm than good.

Tucked in all the rhetoric and one-liners was this telling line: “Who wouldn’t be in favor of students having 12 outstanding teachers?”

Seems like a good question. Half the crowd applauded.

Me? I’m against it. Twelve teachers gets you through seven grades. I’d like students to get through all twelve. That requires about 42 teachers, not twelve.

Different Worlds
Am I nitpicking? No, because this line reveals the perspective of Rhee, who only taught 2nd and 3rd grade for three years. Can someone with so little experience and little awareness of how different elementary is from middle and high school, have enough expertise to propose 37 ideas she says will fix the education system? (Yes, she claimed to have 37 proposals, all of which she is certain are the right courses of action, and said they would need to be implemented en masse if we want to really improve the system).

For those who wonder how I get 42 instead of 12: Most students have one teacher per year during elementary school. But once they hit middle and high school, they have about six. This varies depending on the school and the district, of course. Why does this matter?

A great elementary teacher has influence on 25 kids for an entire year. In high school, a great teacher influences 150 kids, sometimes for an entire year, sometimes only one semester. But we see each student for just 50 minutes each day. If we have new students at the semester, that 150 can double to 300 different students throughout the year. 300 vs 25. And that’s just one difference between elementary and high school.

So when Rhee wants to “evaluate” teachers based on student test scores, do you see the problem? The singular influence a teacher has in 2nd grade far outweighs the partial influence of a 10th grade math teacher. Furthermore, the 10th grade teacher instructs students who have been influenced by nine other math teachers before them.

Is it right to hold that teacher to the same level of accountability as the 2nd grade teacher whose students are, comparatively speaking, empty vessels?

International Tests? Invalid Comparisons
This all assumes, of course, that we have valid assessments with which to measure teacher effectiveness. We don’t. It is arguable if our tests even assess students with much validity. And again, this is even more problematic at the high school level. The recent MAP test flap brought some attention to this, as we see students doing worse on the same test the second time they take it. How can they do worse? Are their teachers “unlearning” them?

And let’s not forget the near-worthlessness of these international tests Rhee cites as proof we are “falling behind.” I’ve discussed them before. For now, just remember that hardly any students take these tests. They are invalid statistical samples. And, especially in other countries, the students taking them are not coming from the same system as ours. Most countries do not try to educate every student like we do. Most countries are not deluded by the fantasy that every kid can and should go to college. They separate them, much earlier, sometimes as early as fourth grade. They put some kids into college tracks, and others into vocational tracks.

Is this “classist?” Is this fair? That’s not the point. The point is, they aren’t giving these tests to students in the vocational tracks. So, how would our country stack up (again assuming these tests hardly anyone takes are valid, which I don’t) if we only compared our college, honors, and AP kids with those in other countries? At least we’d be comparing Fuji Apples to Golden Delicious, and not the oranges and tomatoes the “reformers” keep squishing.

These are huge discrepancies, and Rhee is completely oblivious to them, as far as I can tell. Half of Rhee’s argument is based on this notion we are “falling behind” other nations. We aren’t! I’ve met people from other countries. They aren’t any smarter than the ones here. They’re just people. Rhee makes it sound like we’re The Walking Dumb, and the Koreans are the Baby Geniuses.

The Real Korea Story: Too Much Achievement
Last year, the South Korean unemployment rate for college graduates doubled. Why? Because they have too many. Not enough high school grads are heading straight to work, and they have more college graduates than there are jobs for them to do. The over-emphasis on college and an over-achieving cultural norm has resulted in students burning themselves out trying to make the top rankings in all these lists, and they still don’t get hired because every other student did the same thing. Meanwhile, perfectly good jobs go unfilled, because all the kids are overqualified.

Is this better that our system, or just bad in a different way?

In 1980, the U.S. saw 49% of its high school graduates attend college. In 2010, it was 68%. (This is from the National Center for Education Statistics).

Isn’t that growth? Isn’t that good? It infuriates me that these “reformers” just consistently refuse to say even one good thing about our education system. That’s nearly 20 percentage points higher! That’s good! How good does it have to be before you’re satisfied, Ms. Rhee?

But all we hear about is what a horrible system we supposedly have. Interestingly, Rhee actually gave one specific goal on Tuesday: She wants us to move from the bottom third of the international rankings to the top third. The funny thing is, that’s probably achievable. The really funny thing is, it wouldn’t mean a darn thing even if it happened, in part because it’s an invalid comparison, as I’ve shown.

Meanwhile, the Korean president has had to encourage young people to “work first, study later,” according to one news article. They had to convince job and career fairs to counsel students to explore options other than college. They’ve increased funding for vocational colleges!  The horror!

Back to the Lunacy of High Expectations
Let’s look more deeply at another huge difference between elementary and high school. We’ve already considered the huge difference in the number of students per year, and the ‘huger’ difference in the amount of time the teacher spends with each student. Now, let’s examine the “empty vessel” notion I mentioned earlier in more detail.

If an Algebra teacher gets a student who thinks 2-5 is 3 and does the “fraction freak-out” every time they see 5/9, this kid will have a tough time with Algebra, don’t you think? Yet Rhee’s “reformers” want to evaluate the teacher using the Algebra EOC test. Do you think it’s possible to effectively remediate that student, AND teach them algebra, all in one year (while teaching 149 others)? If so, you have clearly never been a teacher.

Now, Rhee counters this by trotting out the absurd but oft-repeated notion that students rise to whatever expectations we set for them. Baloney. Again, though, I suspect this is much more true in 2nd grade than in 10th.

I have an expectation that my students bring pencils to class. Some of them can’t even meet this. I’m serious. Some of them miss two or three days a week of school. Some of them can’t be quiet for more than five minutes at a time, or stay seated for more than ten. These are (not high) expectations, and students can’t even reach those! And Rhee seems to think that by requiring all students to pass Algebra 2 to graduate, students will magically rise to the level of cosines, tangents, and third order functions, even though some of them can’t multiply 1/3 by 2/7.

Funny thing again, they tried this in a Tennessee school district, and what happened? Lots of kids didn’t graduate, and they had to rescind the Algebra 2 requirement.

Look, at some point these “reformers,” and the public who stands and applauds all their flowery one-liners, need to just accept basic truths: Not all students are the same. Some are better at some subjects; some are better at others. Not everyone can be great at everything. This absurd notion defies all of human history.

Rhee’s other response is that we use poverty and family hardships as “excuses” for why children can’t learn. This is insulting. No one I know says these students can’t learn. But a student who can barely read is not going to magically turn out five page essays. By the time they get to us in high school, they come to us at different levels.

Rhee humorously blamed her daughters’ poor soccer skills on her own DNA. Isn’t that the same kind of “excuse?”

In fact, isn’t it a direct contradiction of the idea that “all kids can learn everything if we just raise the expectations?” So all kids can be math whizzes, but not all kids can be good at soccer? Hmm.

Requiring all freshmen to take Algebra is absurd. They aren’t all ready. That’s not a low expectation. That’s a reality. And, if students really do always rise to our expectations, why don’t we put all freshmen in calculus?

But Rhee doesn’t get this, because she only taught 2nd grade.

37 Ideas Like This?
It calls into question her other ideas. She says we shouldn’t treat all schools the same. I agree. Yet we are forced to adopt uniform curriculum across the district, to “align” with every other teacher according to ever-changing standards. All kids are made to read the same four books in ninth grade. Why? Who says those are the “right” books? What is so bad about the teacher choosing? Like, we know how to do our jobs, and stuff. Most of us.

She says we’re wasting money on bureaucracy, yet we spend hundreds of millions developing, refining, administering, and grading all these standardized tests, and rewriting the standards every three years. How much money is spent on this? The latest figures I’ve heard are around $100 million in Washington. $100 million just on testing, in just one average-sized state.
Think about big states. We’re talking tens of billions across the nation. Is it worth it?

Rhee denies the role of the student and the parent in educational success. Her message is akin to blaming the police for high crime rates (see my satirical post about this). I give Rhee credit for her passion, and for challenging bureaucracy. But we need people who acknowledge the systemic complexities to produce effective change.

1 comment:

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