Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Meddlers Exposed! Tony Bennett's Version of Educational "Reform"

Sometimes, great news comes out that just makes my day.

If you’ve read this blog or my other writings, you know of the questionable esteem in which I hold the wealthy and political influencers of educational policy.

These are people who in most cases possess very little actual expertise in the field of education, yet because of their financial or political influence, they nevertheless get to exert power over education policy that far outweighs their knowledge.

These people, whom I call meddlers and PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), and who another site refers to as ‘edushysters,’ are most often referred to as "reformers." And they do indeed want to reform education. It’s just that most of their ideas are terrible.

Ideas such as merit pay, charter schools, STEM, burdensome and mostly useless standardized tests, new standards every five years, and the like. These are what will save education and overcome trenchant poverty, broken families, absenteeism, apathy, and a luxury-minded generation that wants everything to be fast (including learning) and "meaningful."

Their other big idea is to "grade" schools, using testing, graduation, and who knows what other data–all decided by non-educators who get paid more than we do for less valuable work. And it’s that particular one that has just been exposed for the fraud that it is, courtesy of the Associated Press.

The article doesn’t say how they came upon these revelatory emails, but this is the gist of it:

The Breaking Story
Florida’s state school superintendent Tony Bennett, who used to ‘superintend’ Indiana’s system, has been found to have deliberately changed the grade assigned to an Indianapolis charter school. The reason? Because a prominent donor and supporter of Bennett’s style of reforms runs this particular charter school.

You can read the full article here. It deliciously exposes Bennett and those of his ilk for the disingenuous, two-faced, superficial, and totally baseless "reformists" they claim to be.

These meddlers exert enormous effort, legislative and grass roots, to implement ideas such as grading schools into state systems. Their arguments usually fall into the notion that "parents deserve choices, and should know which schools are the best."

Now, I have written extensively about how the idea of "good" schools is itself kind of silly. Schools reflect the culture in which they exist. You can have bad teachers at a rich charter or private school (or public, for that matter), and the students will still do well because of their parents pushing them, their own self-motivation, and the inherent benefits they have in growing up in a generally positive environment that facilitates educational achievement.

Conversely, you could have great teachers at a school with entrenched poverty, lots of broken or non-existent families, homelessness, dozens of different languages spoken, and bad attendance, and that school will have lower achievement. For a school like that to see 50% of its students go on to college, and 80% to graduate is a greater achievement than if the rich school were to see 80% and 95%, respectively.

So grading schools is just stupid. It’s utterly pointless. Where are all the ‘A’ schools going to be located? Well, naturally, in the weathiest zip codes.

Up until now, folks like me have been declaring this truth with no evidence other than that we just know it’s true, because we work in schools. We have said that parents in those zip codes would never stand for their schools being anything less than ‘A’ quality. And we were right.

Now, we have proof. And not only proof that it’s true, but more importantly, proof that the people who advocate for these charter schools and the grading of them will do anything to make sure those schools get the A grades.

The article reveals an email where Bennett states, "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

In Indiana, many of these dubious reforms have taken root. The state can take over schools that get failing grades. (Because the state of course knows how to do it better than the people in the actual school—they just haven’t told any of us their secret).

It turns out, the charter school in question was going to get a C instead of an A. The reason? "Terrible" tenth grade algebra scores "dragged down their entire school." This is from Jon Gubera, Indiana’s director of this grading program (how much does HE make? More than a teacher, no doubt....).

These high-level state bureaucrats–meddlers in action–were in an apoplectic email panic about how to fix this. And fix it they did. Get this: Bennett blames the "flawed formula" for causing this low grade for his cherished school.

To fix it, they tried to adjust the color charts to make a high B look like an A, and literally changed the grade just for this one school. After changing the formula, this school’s new grade went from a 2.9 up to a 3.5. That along with the new graphics gave this school an A, and all was well in the world of the PeWKoB. But the smell escaped, and now we have the source exposed.

Bennett’s final quote, in response to a concern that they couldn’t legally change the cutoff for what constitutes an A, is a classic for the record books: "We can revise the rule."

My Thoughts
I am thrilled beyond belief for this. The AP reporter who somehow got a hold of these emails ought to be given a Pulitzer. Let’s take a look at how much this really does undermine the meddler’s mantra of "reform." We can see, item by item, how this story exposes so many of their bogus ideas.

School Grading Systems
The fact Bennett complains about the "flawed formula" is the height of irony. This is exactly, precisely, specifically, and completely what I have been saying for years about all these grading systems. And that includes standardized tests students are required to pass.

Who decides what constitutes passing? What are the parameters? How do we know they are fair and accurate, and will produce an appropriate measure? Who decides that? Where is the data coming from that verifies all this, and how do we know it’s quality data?

These are the questions the Rhees and Brills and Bennetts and Duncans of the world just brush off like mosquitoes around a campfire.

Until now.

Now we have one of their own people saying the exact same thing! And what’s so despicable about it is that he’s only complaining about the formula because it makes his favorite school look bad! He doesn’t care about the rest of the schools. He doesn’t say anything about how this flawed formula might also be misconstruing the grades of other schools.

If it’s bad for his school, doesn’t it seem pretty reasonable to assume it’s bad for others?

Furthermore, if just changing a formula results in a 0.6 increase in the grade, this is a very bizarre formula! I mean, nothing else changed. It’s the same data. 2.9 increasing to 3.5 is a 21% increase! Again, this is just from changing the formula.

There are entire schools who, if they were to increase their state test scores by 21%, they’d be celebrating in the streets. And this guy increases the grade his school "earned" by that amount, just by changing the formula!

How reliable are these grading formulas then? How reliable are these state tests and the standards and scoring systems they’re based upon? How much are we paying these people, like Jon Gubera, to administer these apparently highly flawed systems? Why? Maybe if we fired the entire department and saved all that money, nothing at all would change.

Now there’s a reform I can get behind.

Standardized Assessments and NCLB/Race To The Top

The PeWKoB regularly tout the greatness of standardized tests. ‘How will we know if students have learned anything if we don’t test them?’, they always ask with rhetorical ignorance.

How will we know? Because the teachers do it. It’s our job. But that’s another post I won’t get into for now.

But look at this. Bennett’s complaint is that bad 10th grade math scores drug the whole school down. What’s funny is that this is the exact same complaint that first surfaced about the No Child Left Behind law from the early 2000's. There were schools, even ritzy suburb schools where over 90% of the students go on to college, that were labeled as "failures" because one of the 36 different demographics did not show enough improvement.

Even if that demographic was special education students, and even if that school only has ten of them out of 2000 total students, if those ten kids didn’t improve enough, they would single-handedly cause the entire school to be labeled a failure–in spite of the acceptable (to the meddlers) growth of the other 35 categories of students.

This really happened. It’s one reason NCLB has been all but rejected by pretty much everyone lately.

But pay attention to the point. We–the ones who actually teach and know this stuff–saw this lunacy over ten years ago, and pointed it out then.

What did the meddlers say in response? They called us anti-reformers, against change, obstructionists, union pawns (and I personally am far, far from being a union pawn), and many other things. In other words, they dismissed us and went on with implementing their terrible idea.

Yet, here we are, ten years later, with one of their own being caught in the same trap. One category of students–tenth grade algebra–scored so badly they brought down the rest of the school.

Do you see what’s going on here? The reforms they support that we oppose are failing because of the very reasons we’ve been giving for the last ten years.

The Real Explanation
It’s so simple to see what’s going on here. They probably just got a tougher group of tenth graders than usual. You know what? It happens all the time, at every school, everywhere. But, since none of these people have ever taught, they don’t know this.

Any teacher will tell you that year to year, for reasons we can’t fully grasp, sometimes you just get a really great group of students, and the next year it’s not as good. This goes up and down all the time. It’s called randomization from the norm. Or, put more simply: People aren’t all the same. Students aren’t factory products. They’re people. And some groups, for some reason, do better than others year to year.

Every teacher just knows this. It’s common sense, and silly to even bring it up.

Do I blame the teachers at Christel House? No. Do I blame the students? No. Do I blame the parents? No. Do I blame the principal? Or the testing? Or the methods? Or the curriculum?


Now, some of those could be factors. I don’t have the data. But very possibly, none of those made any significant difference. Very possibly, it’s just a bad year. And next year, amazingly, the 11th grade math scores will probably be lower than normal too. Incredible prediction I just made there. Did you see that? Mark it down. I’m going way out on a limb with this one...

Charter Schools
Yet another big reform idea is the whole "school choice" and charter school doctrine. And as we’ve been saying for years, charter schools aren’t going to be any better or worse than public schools. On average, they actually tend to do worse.

I once read a rebuttal to that data that essentially said, "You can’t look at the average. The average may be worse or the same, but that means some charter schools are way better. So we just need to focus on those schools only."

But, couldn’t we say the same thing about the public schools you’re comparing to? Aren’t the "best" public schools also being lost in the average? Of course they are.

This is why it’s ridiculous to use averages in this way. It’s like saying the average baseball player hits .260. What good is that? It’s worthless information. I care about what each player does, not the average.

Saying "schools are failing" is a stupid statement. You can’t lump all schools into a single statement like this.

So the whole idea behind charter schools being "better" is just absurd. They can cherry pick students they want; and kick out the ones they don’t want.

But that’s why it’s so funny that the school Bennett is protecting here is a charter school. One of his prized examples has fallen to a 2.9, and this is a crisis we have to fix.

No it’s not. This is what happens in education. Things go up, and things go down. Some years students excel more, some years less.

In 2012, two thirds of my AP chemistry students passed the AP test. Last year, only half passed it. The first year I taught it in 2011, only one fourth passed.

What does that mean? It means the first year is the toughest for the teacher, which every AP teacher will tell you. And it means students will vary year to year. That’s all it means.

The Best Reform Idea Ever
So, if people choose to grasp the significance of Bennett and all his panicked bureaucratic friends adjusting the grades of his favorite school just so he can keep pushing his "reformist" meddling agenda, perhaps they will finally start to question many of the other ideas these guys stand for.

Merit pay? Teacher accountability based on test scores? Closing schools that "fail"? Replacing half of a staff because of low achievement?

Maybe these ideas are as empty as Bennett’s grading system–by his very own words–turned out to be. Maybe the whole "reform" movement is a flawed formula. Maybe we should try scrapping the whole movement and then marvel at the sound of "nothing" happening, as well as all the money we'd save.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reaction to the Liv Finne Guest column

More Hit and Miss from the Meddlers
Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center wrote a column in the Seattle Times on Tuesday. It serves up as the latest example of a member of the ‘policy class,’ what I have called the ‘meddlers’ and the PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), expounding on her vision for what constitutes quality education.

As is typical, it is filled with phrases such as "studies show" and "research confirms," never citing any actual examples of either, and never considering that educational research is, quite often, highly questionable and dubious in its methodology. Isolating variables in a situation where you have hundreds of thousands of students from all walks of life, and teachers from the same, not to mention differing personalities, differing methods, differing budgets, differing regions and values–isolating variables in this morass is, in my opinion, prohibitively difficult.

Thus, it is never appropriate to say "studies show" anything in education. "SOME studies suggest," or, "some research indicates" may be more appropriate.

So beware. Anytime these policy wonks who have never taught and don’t know the reality of teaching in the trenches start expounding about what studies show, take their next statements with a grain of salt. Studies don’t show anything with certainty. And one study will get contradicted by the next.

That said, Finne unsurprisingly gets it about half right. Because, looking at education as a system, and without the perspective from the classroom, she’s basically guessing, probably with a bit of intelligence and insight mixed in, with a dash of deception fed to her by the educational elite.

The Good Stuff

In the spirit of positive dialogue, let’s take her good points first.

1. Money

Finne talks about how the legislature increased funding by $1 billion this year, which was spurred by the McClearly decision from the Washington State Supreme Court. Then, she astutely points out that only "59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom."

This is a major problem. Finne falters here, though, and fails to point out the most obscene use of the other 41 cents–testing and assessment. Last I’ve heard, the state spends about $100 million per year writing, re-writing, administering, grading, and reporting scores on the state tests.

We have more tests required to graduate than any state in the country. There’s the HSPE writing, the HSPE reading, the biology EOC (which isn’t really about biology), and the algebra and geometry EOCs. Five tests, four of which are taken by most students their sophomore year.

The money wasted on this stuff is epic. So is the time, but that’s another story. To his credit, Superintendent Randy Dorn has once again set out to reduce the testing burden, wanting to cut 5 down to 3. I’m with him. And hopefully one day they’ll cut 3 down to zero.

Yes, that’s right. Zero. What kind of radical am I, thinking such an absurd notion that we don’t need any state tests? I’m one that believes it makes zero difference to student achievement. And you can’t tell me what "studies show" because there are no studies on this, since everyone has bought into the testing industry’s mantra about how important all these te$ts are.

2. Wasting money

Off her first point, instead of identifying testing and other bureaucratic waste as the true sources of wasted money, she makes the broad but generally accepted statement that "pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed."

The problem with statements like this is that they are so easy to make. Politicians do this all the time. When you ask how the money should be better used, that’s where you find out what the person really thinks.

And Finne doesn’t really ever get there. She does list a bunch of reforms, but most of them wouldn’t actually cost much money. They are more like policy shifts than expenses, for the most part. We’ll get to those in a bit.

So yes, Ms. Finne, the money does need to be better spent. Throwing money at something doesn’t guarantee anything. At our school, we sure could use a fourth counselor, considering we have 1400 students.

However, she is misrepresenting the facts when she says this extra $1 billion is "an 11% increase compared to the last budget."

This is classic budget doublespeak. It’s like what the politicians do with Social Security on the national level, calling a slowing of the rate of increase a "cut." If the rate of increase is reduced from 3.5% to 3.0%, that is not a cut. It’s a reduction in increase. This is basic math, so anyone who doesn’t grasp what I’m saying needs to listen:

Suppose a senior citizen gets $1000 a month from Social Security. A 3.5% increase results in her getting $1035 the next year. A 3.0% increase results in her getting $1030.

They are both higher. It is not a cut. A cut means you get less. A cut would mean less than $1000. It irks me beyond belief when they keep misrepresenting stuff like this and leading the masses along with them.

Now, how does this relate to Finne’s point? Because she makes it sound like an 11% increase is a huge amount, and wow, we better figure out what to do with all the extra cash so the schools don’t waste it all on....what, exactly?

She never identifies what we’re wasting it on. I know, firsthand, that at the school level there is actually very little waste. We stretch everything out.

But the 11% increase is not large at all, because budgets have been cut so much (yes, really cut, not the doublespeak kind) the last few years. This $1 billion is just getting us back to where we used to be. Go back a few years and compare the current $15.2 billion budget to those years, and then we can see a better representation of how much of an increase this really is. And, you do of course have to consider inflation.

A couple years ago the Seattle district cut 90 positions because of budget cuts. I remember thinking, How can they have 90 positions they can cut, and still run all their operations smoothly? What were those 90 people doing if they can be cut, and all the nuts and bolts like HR still work?

I conclude that the waste is contained within that 41 cents Finne identifies as non-classroom spending. It’s testing, but it’s also other stuff we rarely hear about.

But sometimes we do hear about it, such as the Silas Potter scandal. Here we learned there was an entire office devoted just to increasing contracts with minority-owned businesses. And it turns out the guy running it was just throwing money at people for doing no work at all, and pocketing some for himself. How nice. And what does any of this have to do with student learning? Uh, nothing?

3. Transferring bad teachers

Not all teachers may agree with me on this one, but Finne is right here as well. Many districts will transfer ineffective teachers from school to school, rather than deal with them another way (like try helping them, or fire them). This is a real problem. Buildings are forced to accept these teachers before they can open positions up to general applicants.

So, there might be some great teachers who are a perfect fit for a job, but the school will never hear about them because the district forces a transfer on them before the position is opened up. At our school, we have gotten some really poor teachers through this system.

I remember one math teacher in particular who only lasted one year, who could barely communicate with the students. I had some students the next year who had her the previous one, and it was clear they learned next to nothing. It was a horrible situation.

So this is a real problem. I’m not getting into all the solutions right now, because it is more complicated than Finne makes it seem, but she is right that this needs to be adjusted.

4. Union Overreach

Finne’s last good point is to criticize the WEA (yes, they aren’t infallible...far from it) for seeking to end school at noon on Wednesdays or Fridays.

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know how much I hate when my class time gets stolen. Students get called out of class all the time, and yet I’m supposed to keep teaching and get them all meeting standards. Yet some kids miss 10-20 days a year for school-related excused absence activities. It’s ridiculous.

Ideas such as this from the WEA, which have been cropping up for a couple decades now, are based on the correct notion that teachers are overworked and need more time to plan, collaborate, and grade. Yes, yes, and yes. We do.

But nevertheless, I vehemently oppose any solution that cuts out whole swaths of class time.

I have my whole year planned out. I know what I want to teach, and about how long it takes to teach it. When you take out a day here, a day there, or chunks of time every week, you are reducing the quality and depth of the education I can provide.

And so when I’m also told I’ll still be held accountable for reaching standards, that’s when I get a little feisty. That’s like telling us to make twice the bricks without the straw.

Yes teachers need more time. The best answer I’ve come up with is, stop burdening us with tasks not related to our classroom work. Stop overloading our classes. Finne points out that class size is not that big a deal. Yes and no. The difference between 30 and 26 isn’t really that much. But the difference between 35 and 30 is a lot. Especially when you only have 32 chairs.

Like most meddlers who’ve never taught, Finne looks only at the numbers, and doesn’t see the people, or the physical reality. Class size for me is not about achievement as much as it’s about...having enough time. Managing my class and procedures. Getting the grading done in timely manner.

So just like the union is wrong to want to force us all to give away hours of instruction every week, Finne is wrong to imply class size makes no difference. If it’s too big, you just can’t do as good a job getting to all the students. It’s irrelevant whether or not this shows up in testing data, which is all the meddlers tend to look at. It’s about teachers being able to do their jobs well, reach all their students, and plan instruction that works with a reasonable predictability.

Many of the more effective methods of teaching break down if classes are too big, leading teachers to be more likely to just get up and lecture.

The Flawed Stuff

So, Finne made a few good points, though missed some of the finer details. But here, we’ll see where she and other meddlers and reformers just keep getting it wrong. I won’t go into great depth here because of time. She did pack a lot into one little column, and that does make it hard to go into much depth, for her and for me.

1. Low-Ranking Schools.

Finne claims that "one-third of Washington’s schools rank as only ‘Fair’ or ‘Struggling,’ the lowest two categories on the .... School Achievement Index."

Wait, you mean a third of the schools are below average? Are a third above average too? And, let’s see, that leaves a third in the middle. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Getting serious:

First off, here’s a tremendous example of the wasted money Finne correctly assails earlier. What the heck is the School Achievement Index? How many people at the State Board of Education are involved with these rankings? They had to come up with rubrics, ways to measure and score them, people to collect and assimilate the data, websites and conferences to present it all....think about all the bureaucracy that must go in to something like this.

(Michelle Rhee, eat your heart out).

When these meddlers go on about wasted money and bureaucracy, this is what they should be talking about! What a colossal and gargantuan cascade of resources blowing out to the Sea of Reform!

Are you getting this? This is where the money–that 41 cents of every dollar–gets wasted.

But, that’s the hypocrisy of the PeWKoB and the meddlers. They whine about all the wasted money, but then they talk about how important all these metrics are, all the data, all the standards, all the rubrics. People have to be paid to develop all this crap. And I suspect they probably get paid more than most teachers.

Because that makes so much sense, doesn’t it. Pay the data crunchers and rubric-addicts more than the teachers doing the actual work.

And, on top of that, who cares? All that money to tell us a third of the schools supposedly suck?

You know, in most cities, people already know this. Don’t they? People know which schools are perceived to be better than others. Which ones have a strong principal. Which ones turn out lots of college grads. (Which ones have the most money....ooops, my bad....annoying truth)

And, besides that, what good is this? I’ve written extensively about how the whole notion of "failing" schools is itself kind of a scam. Schools are a reflection of the culture. Put a school in a drug-infested, fatherless, poverty-stricken neighborhood, and you’re going to get a "failing" school. You want to change that? Change the culture. Build up the family unit, instead of continuing to do all we can to tear it down. Eradicate the drugs. Stop having unwanted children out of wedlock. Are these conservative ideals?

Well, yes. Who cares, if they’re true, which we all know they are. Which is why it’s funny that it’s often the conservatives who rail against all the failing schools. How can they on one hand recognize all these social ills, but then on the other hand believe that somehow, the schools should have some special superpower immunity to it all?

School are a reflection of the culture. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.

And these rating systems, including Finne’s support for the stupid idea of "grading" schools from A to F (another conservative idea), do nothing of value. All they do is point out which schools are in troubled neighborhoods. Big deal. Stop wasting our time and our 41 cents and do something useful.

Let me say it another way: How many failing schools exist in the wealthiest, most stable parts of the big cities? I would venture, going out on a limb here....none. I rest my case.

2. Teachers Rule

Finne says "research" shows that "the most important factor in whether students are learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom."

Tell a lie often enough and people start to believe it. Again, what research?

This insipid lie has been promulgated for years now. I’ve heard it in so many different places. But is it true? No. And there’s plenty of "research" out there to counter it.

For example, why did the Harlem Children’s Zone succeed? Was it because of the great teachers? No. They were a cog in the wheel. The real reason is because they addressed the issues I mentioned in the last section. They addressed the culture.

They have "pre-birth" classes for single mothers. They have systems in place that track the kids from before they’re born all the way through high school. They are addressing the social and family problems that are usually at the root of most failures and dropouts.

So, before the teacher, we have many other factors.
  • First, the culture and the family life.
  • Second, the level of household income.
  • Third, attendance. If you ain’t there, I can’t teach ya.
  • Fourth, behavior and self-motivation of the student. Students who hate authority, spurn the value of knowledge, disparage their future and don’t believe all the things teachers are trying to help them learn matter–these students fail. Yes, there are students like this, at least in middle and high school. And I don’t make these students. They come to me this way.
  • And fifth, perhaps, might be the quality of the teacher. But if I thought about it longer, I could probably come up with more before this.
Stop believing this lie. It just isn’t true.

3. Charter schools.

Predictably, Finne supports these wastes of time and resources. Charters aren’t inherently bad or even inferior. They just have nothing to offer that’s different from public schools. They don’t address any of the real problems. Look at the list above. The first four items in that list–charters have no more answers to them than public schools. Or, if they do, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, it costs way, way more per student than the $11,300 Finne implies is more than enough for us.

You can’t have it both ways. All the successful charters do one of two things: They spend way more than public schools and have way more tutors, resources, and other forms of assistance. If we had all that, we’d do much better as well. Or, they kick out students who don’t meet their academic, behavior, or attendance standards. If we could do that too, what a difference it would make.

But then all the people talk about this "right" to a free education we seem to think everyone has. Well, if that’s what we believe, then someone’s got to teach the ones no one else can handle. And who’s that gonna be? Not Steven Brill, that’s for sure.

4. Compensation changes

I saved the worst one for last. This is already too long, so I can’t go into detail. But Finne says teacher pay should be changed "beyond an adjustment for inflation, [and] be provided in the form of professional training in methods that actually work at teacher underachieving students how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, and divide."

In other words, merit pay.

But this is different than the usual merit pay approach. She’s suggesting our pay should somehow be tied to training. I’m not clear how this would work. We have to go to training in order to get paid? Does it matter if we use the training in our classes? How will this be enforced? And when will the pay be disbursed?

This is an inordinately complicated idea she’s suggesting. Which on its own, doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. But, it’s that last phrase that gets me the most worried. Where she says "methods that actually work."

This is the kind of language people often use when they think something is simpler than it really is. Finne seems to be implying here that there are obvious methods, that the smart people all know about, that easily work to teach students these basic skills.

I would humbly suggest otherwise.

It is often the reformers, especially in math, who come down with, frankly, wacked out curriculums that students, teachers, and parents universally despise. In Seattle, we’ve been dealing with a terrible new math curriculum for several years now, and at the high school levels, we’re starting to see its effects, as kids can’t do basic stuff. And this is with reform math curriculum at the lower levels.

So these "methods" she’s referring to....what are they, exactly? And how do we know they work so well?

On the contrary, first, we should differentiate between skills and understanding. These are not the same. And you don’t teach them the same way. You learn a skill by doing it, over and over. You learn understanding in a very different way, that takes a lot more time, but produces valuable fruit when it’s given enough water.

In my chemistry classes, I do quite a bit of both, because I believe both are important. When I taught math, I skewed a little more to the skills side, but not exclusively.

The point is, to suggest there are a set of methods that we all know work, and we just need to train everyone–this has been the elusive promise of many a professional development session. And it often leaves much to be desired.

And she wants to pay us based on this? I’m highly skeptical.

Wrapping Up

But that’s the whole point. Once again, this is a person with little to no classroom experience talking about how to fix a system she hasn’t participated in. She is oversimplifying complex ideas, and suggesting changes that will do little to nothing in addressing the core problems that she fails to properly illuminate.

My research shows that it’s almost lunchtime, so I will end this column now.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Seattle Times Column

Hi everyone. I have an op-ed published in the Times today. Here's the link:

To clarify a couple points:

-The bottom 5% is not referring to academically struggling students. It refers to the bottom 5% in terms of behavior--a much more significant metric.

A struggling student who works hard will have a better shot at life than a "gifted" student who does no work and causes all kinds of problems. Talent is not the issue, it's what you do with it.

So people who are bothered by the 5% idea should re-consider it in these terms. If you object to the idea that there is a bottom 5%, then I hope you never supported the idea of the 1%. There's very little difference in concept, just a different issue.

-It's hard to fit a lot of information in a 600 word column, so some things I would normally elaborate on have to get left out (hence this blog, where I can go on for pages). But the other main thing I would have said more about is that I agree suspensions should not be overused. The recent stories about first graders getting sent home for making guns with their fingers and their pop  tarts is just ludicrous.

Suspensions are also better utilized as in-school, rather than as free time at home, as some people have pointed out. This is absolutely true. If we had the personnel, this is the place where some of that behavior coaching could happen, because they actually have the time for it.

-But the heart of the column is that one or two students simply should not be allowed to jeopardize the educations of the rest of the class, and this point  remains true without exception. To say this is not "giving up" on anyone. It's to accept reality. Some students will fail, no matter what we do. See my recent post -- Everyone Must Agree On This First -- for more on this.

Hope this helps.

(By the way, next post will be a comparison of students from North Korea in South Korean schools. What will Michelle Rhee think of this data?)

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.