Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Diverting Us From the Mission of Education

It isn’t everyday that a member of the public fortunate enough to have a microphone who has never taught in education says something most teachers agree with.

So I thought it worth giving credit to David Sirota for his column that appeared in the Seattle Times this week.  It’s called “What real education reform looks like,” and in very short space he tears down many of the obstacles to real conversations on improving education.  His column can be found here: Sirota Column -- Creators.com

One of the greatest causes of these obstacles is what I have dubiously labeled the PeWKoB, which stands for People Who Know Better.  Such people include Bill Gates, Steven Brill, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan.  The damage done by these folks stems from the fact that their ideas are often no better than Joe the Plumber’s, but because they have money and influence, people take them seriously, and the rest of us–teachers, parents, students, administrators, and the public–are left to wallow in the aftermath of vapidity, bureaucracy, unfunded ideas, and wasted time.

Sirota describes the PeWKoB with a tri-fold attack:
  • “Students aren’t helped by billionaire-executives-turned-education-dilettantes who leverage their riches to force their faith-based theories into schools."
  • He adds to this “millionaire pundits” who always revert to the (partially true) notion that we just need better parents. 
  • And he finishes with this doozy: “Kids most certainly don’t benefit from politicians pretending that incessant union-busting, teacher-bashing and standardized testing represent successful school reforms.”
His basis for all this comes from a couple of recent data points. One, from Stanford, identifies yet again what many teachers have been saying for years–that poverty is the single greatest factor in determining a student’s achievement. 

This truth cannot be stated often enough, because the PeWKoB relentlessly try to distract the public from it with all their pseudo-reforms.  We buy into their solutions to problems that have little relation to actual student learning. 

So, why is the truth about poverty so important to understand? There are several reasons.

Resource Priorities?
First, consider how our resources are used in education.  How much do we spend on teacher training, re-training, un-training, and re-re-training?  The constant stream of new curriculum, new methods, new approaches, and therefore new consultants and speakers who get paid big bucks to come in and “train” everyone in these groundbreaking, “research-based” methods that showed massive improvement in some district no one’s ever heard of, and which we learn little else about other variables that were also altered.  For every one good idea, such as Socratic Seminars, you have a dozen worthless or impractical ones. 

How about standardized testing?  They have to pay companies to create them, then to administer and grade them, and then to re-write them every three years when the standards change yet again.  Have you noticed how standards seem to change every few years?  You would think, if “standards” were really the problem, that by now we would have seen a difference from at least one version of them.  And, who writes all these standards?  I’m convinced there are whole departments of people down at the state who are paid to write standards, and this is why we get a new set of them, with a new acronym, every few years.  How much does this cost us?

How about administration?  District, state, and national?  We have hundreds of school districts in each state, many of which have only one high school, but each must fund all the admin necessary to support a school district. 

Then consider, as Sirota does, that most wealthy districts tend to have more money to do all the other things that help improve school cultures.  They can pay for sports equipment, field upkeep, stadiums, club expenses, drama productions, newspapers, tutors, and after-school programs. 

So wealthy schools, who already have the most advantaged students, have all these additional advantages that most of their students take for granted. (I would know, because I went to a typical, white, suburban high school, and I took it for granted.  Now that I teach in an urban high school with a high poverty rate, my eyes have been opened). 

Equality is Inequality
Second, in light of this, look at how governments fund school districts.  In most states, there are various schemes in place to “equalize” funding.  What these often do, unfortunately, is just make it more unequal.  Here’s why:

Say it takes $10,000 to educate an average student.  Most wealthier and middle-class students will cost a little less than this.  Students from poor backgrounds will use up more.  So, if your state distributes funds to districts on a per student basis, the wealthier schools will have more money leftover to do all the fun cool stuff that gets their names in the paper and makes them seem like great schools compared to those dirty city schools. 

Why Urban Schools Cost More
If you dispute the notion that poorer students cost more, that’s okay.  You just don’t know the facts.  Where do these extra costs come from?  One example from my school is what we call the “homework center.”  One of the biggest problems caused by poverty is that many students don’t have a quiet place at home to do their work.  A quiet place to read, think, and focus for an extended period of time makes a big difference.  It keeps you from getting distracted.  In addition, many poor students have additional responsibilities at home that better-off students might not have, such as helping with younger siblings.  This is especially common with students from other cultures and nations.

Thus, homework center helps students such as this who want to get their work done, but aren’t able to do it as efficiently at home.  But, homework center happens after school, and any staffing requirements need to be paid for.  Not enough consistent and qualified volunteers exist to make a program like this work.

That’s just one example.  We also need more people to help struggling students stay on track.  Some students want to succeed, but because of instability at home, lack of resources, and fewer role models to help them weather the vicissitudes of the school year, they need a bigger boost from school staff.  Sometimes that requires people besides just teachers.

(As a side note, the charter-school fanatics will tell us how lousy our public schools are, and how much better their teachers are. Yet, the successful ones, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, employ armies of aides, tutors, and coaches who support their students in ways the classroom teachers cannot.  They criticize us for being unable to do what their overflowing coffers make possible for them.  They spend thousands more per student than any public school does.  They aren’t miracle workers.)

Another example: We have more students who will be the first in their families to attend college. They don’t have any knowledgeable person at home to help them navigate all the application and financing hoopla.  It takes extra resources to make college admission not just possible, but practical and attainable, for our students.  We have an entire program at our school called CAN (College Access Now) that serves this purpose.  Since its inception several years ago, it has a 100% success rate.  Yes, you read that right.  Every single student who has entered this program (it’s voluntary, which is why it works–motivation is everything) has been accepted into college. 

Wealthy and middle-class schools don’t need these kinds of programs nearly as much as urban and poor schools do.  I could go on with more examples, but you get the point.

I recall again the film The Blind Side, which I wrote about in an op-ed last year (Blind Side Op-Ed.)  One single student gets put into a ritzy private school, and drives the teachers crazy initially because of his unusual personality and ostensible inability to learn. Only after they modify their approaches do they start to discover that he does indeed possess talent; it just has to be accessed a different way.  He makes it to college.  My point back then, and again now, is that this school had zero other students like this.  When you only have one, it’s really easy to devote a lot of time to them.  And we should celebrate the success of that one, but it’s not really that surprising.  Many schools such as mine have hundreds of students like this. 

So, poorer schools do need more resources. 

That being the case, how does it make sense to give “equal” resources to all school districts?  In reality, urban schools should get more.  This is heightened by the fact that costs of living are higher in cities.  This is another instance of equality causing inequality.

I have become increasingly frustrated about this.  Teachers who work out in the boonies in towns with one stoplight have the same state salary schedule as teachers who work in Seattle.  With my salary out in those small towns, I’d be wealthy.  In Seattle, it’s a living wage.  How is it fair to pay all teachers the same across the state?  It’s no wonder other districts attract more applicants.  If the pay’s the same, but the cost of living is lower, then...the pay isn’t really the same. 

This is an issue not just with the state, but the union as well.  Unions, by and large, seem to think everyone must be treated the same, or else it’s just not fair.  Fairness seems to be the highest platitude of the land for them.  And yet, in their obsessions with fairness, they actually have created a situation that is decidedly unfair.  It is not “fair” or “equal” in any way to pay all teachers the same wages (assuming same years of experience and education, obviously). 

The end result is what we read about all the time: urban districts have a harder time attracting quality teachers.  Our schools possess fewer resources, need additional resources because of our student population, and have the lowest paid teachers because of the higher cost of living. 

The way it should be is the exact opposite.  We should get paid the most, and not because our jobs are harder (though that’s a good reason too), but because it costs more to live where we do.  And our schools should get a higher per student outlay than districts that don’t need it as much. 

The PeWKoB’s Distractions
The third reason we need to keep declaring poverty to be the number one determiner of educational achievement is because then we can more strongly oppose many of the worthless and marginal suggestions touted by the “reformers.” 

Standardized testing is my personal favorite, and has been one of the longest lasting fads we’ve seen. What benefit does all this testing have?  All the same kids pass whatever tests we throw at them, and the teachers can predict without even seeing the scores which of their students will pass.  The tests tell us very little we don’t already know, and we normally don’t even learn the results until the following year, rendering any information anecdotal at best.  (Read my other posts on testing, starting with this: Standardized Testing EXpOsED! )  Besides testing, there are several other distractors.

I attended a lecture by Steven Brill, a popular member of the PeWKoB, recently in Seattle. (See my continuing series on his talk in other posts).  He’s a big advocate of merit pay.  He buys into the fallacy that we can improve student achievement by paying teachers more.  He uses the common logic of merit-pay proponents, that if we pay teachers more, they will work harder, and that we can more easily weed out the bad ones. 

Unfortunately for Brill and merit-pay folks, it just doesn’t work.  A few districts across the nation have actually tried it.  In each case, such as the recent one in Nashville, the results have shown merit pay to have made no difference.  I wrote about this in an earlier post as well (The Money Issue) , but the best line of all from the Nashville case was this: merit pay didn’t make teachers work any harder because they were already working as hard as they could. 

I regularly work 9-10 hour days.  I get paid for 7.5.  And no, contrary to another popular misnomer, I don’t get paid for two months off in the summer.  We are paid for 180 days of instruction (actually, down to 178.5 this year due to furloughs–our own “tax increase” that resulted from voters shooting down a tax increase on the wealthy).  The summer pay is deducted from our monthly paychecks for ten months, so we receive twelve equivalent checks. 

So go correct all your friends who think silly thoughts about this: We are not paid for the summer.  And speaking for myself, if I worked much harder, burnout would be knocking at my door.

The point is, Steven Brill and those of his ilk are almost totally misguided in their beliefs, because they think the problem is teachers, unions, and public schools.  They ignore the effects of poverty, parenting, social and cultural degradation, and most of all, low student motivation and self-discipline.  They think motivation is up to the teacher.  The truth is, it’s up to the student. 

Now, as you saw above, I have issues with some union policies as well, but they are not the primary cause of educational struggles.  Yes, I believe seniority should not be the number one factor in deciding which teachers to fire when budgets are cut.  This is “low-hanging fruit,” to use the cliche of the day.  I differ with some colleagues on this issue.  I also believe we need a more robust evaluation system, but that’s an issue for another column.

One of the great lines from Brill’s presentation came from a member of the discussion panel afterward.  The issue concerned the unsustainable nature of the KIPP model for teachers (KIPP is a charter school program), who are basically required to work 12 hour days.  A KIPP-style teacher was saying how he could probably do the job for four years, and then would have to leave before it destroyed his marriage. He also said the hours were impossible for anyone with kids.  Wow...shocking stuff, I know.

Then Paul Hill, the director on the Center for Re-inventing Public Education, made a truly shocking statement.  He first acknowledged the challenges of teaching in this program while a person has children (that’s only, like 20 years or so...) but said it seemed reasonable for younger teachers to do 12 hour days, and that, after your kids move out in your 50's, then you could work longer days again! 

He was serious.  This was not a joke, and not an off-handed remark.  He was serious.  This is a guy who honestly thinks teachers can be reasonably expected to work 12 hours a day.  My two questions are simply these:

1. For what pay, sir?
2. Do you work 12 hours a day? 

The truth is, as Brill himself even admitted, only a small percentage of teachers truly lack competence.  Yet Brill’s people continue to single out teachers as the problem, and tout merit-pay, longer days, and testing as the solutions. 

The Final Issue
And brings us to the fourth and final reason we need to keep resetting the focus onto poverty as the primary issue faced by education: Because it is.

The shadow behind every problem in education is motivation.  All problems are made simpler when a student wants to learn.  And all solutions to any problem work better with students who care. 

But for students with fewer resources at their disposal, being motivated is not always enough.  If we can provide them with the extra boosts they need, then once they make it to their goals and find the success they and everyone else desires, they’ll be able to start a stable family and provide a better future for their kids than they initially had.  Isn’t there some kind of Dream about that, or something?

Now, when it comes to unmotivated students, I have a very different column to write, and a very different set of solutions.  But Sirota hits one more nail right on the head–one of my biggest annoyances that Brill walked right into.  And that concerns the illusion that education is in “crisis.”  We hear this all the time.  Brill said it in the first minute of his speech.

But are we?

What defines a crisis?  My dictionary says, “A time of danger or great difficulty.”  The thesaurus compares it to words like disaster, emergency, calamity, and catastrophe. 

When people call something a crisis that in fact isn’t, you must immediately question their motives.  Usually, their motives are to generate funding for a pet cause.  In education it’s no different.  The crisis-inventors like to cite examples of unmotivated students and incompetent teachers.  Both groups are the exception to the norm, and there are better ways to deal with both than revamping the entire system for the majorities who just want to teach and learn.

If we are in crisis, how are we churning out more AP students than ever before?  How are SAT scores remaining fairly consistent?  How are there still so many students getting into colleges and succeeding there, and entering the job field with success?  Where are all these competent workers coming from?

If our system were truly on the brink of disaster, this is not what we should see happening.  We should see entire school districts imploding, mass exodus to home schooling, school board members getting run out of town, and teachers being assaulted regularly by roving bands of gun and knife-wielding students who sexually harass the girls, vandalize the hallways, urinate in the nurse’s office, and set fire to the bleachers.

That sounds like a true disaster...a true crisis. 

But when our nation’s “test scores” on some random international test take us from ranking 16th down to 21st among industrialized nations (how come we don’t include poor nations in these tests?....hmm!), this does not a crisis define. 

Let me call that international “ranking” what it really is: statistically meaningless.  Or, in colloquial language: Total bunk. 

A test taken by a handful of students in nations of tens and hundreds of millions means less than nothing to begin with, because there are no stakes.  And it means even less when you try to compare entire societies with vastly different governments, political ideologies, cultures, and values, and think that somehow their education systems operate in the identical ways they would need to in order for any single test to produce a valid comparison. 

These test rankings have about as much significance as the BCS college football ranking system, and are even less reliable. 

But crisis?  It’s laughable.  Tell the students who just passed the AP chemistry test from my class last year that our system is in “crisis.” 

So, I applaud Sirota for refocusing the public yet again on the core obstacle in our way.  He doesn’t provide many specific solutions, but that was not his point.  His point is this: If we keep focusing all our energy on the wrong problems, many of which are invented and foisted upon us by the PeWKoB, we will never find the right solutions.

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