Friday, January 20, 2012

Perception Vs Reality: The Politician, the Pitcher, and the Weatherman

A district report card released in November ... listed just two schools north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal among the 17 worst schools in the city.”  -Seattle Times, Jan 16th, 2012

If I have a negative opinion of a politician, does that mean the politician is ineffective? 
If I think my favorite baseball team should trade a certain pitcher, does that mean they should trade him?
If I believe the local weatherman stinks because he fails to accurately predict when it will snow, does that mean the weatherman is incompetent?

You could invent a thousand more questions just like these, all of them making the same point:

Just because a person believes something does not make it true.  Furthermore, just because a person has an opinion on something doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about or could do it any better themselves.  Yet another one: a non-expert should be careful when criticizing an expert. 

This truism plays out regularly in school boards.  Throw the bums out, they always say.  Well, since we keep throwing the bums out, doesn’t it seem odd that we keep replacing them with more bums?

Is it perhaps more likely the job might be harder than we think it is?  And isn’t the same thing true for the politician, the pitcher, and the weatherman?

People excel at finding fault.  They generally stink at suggesting real solutions or better ways of doing things.

Now, I’m not saying there are no incompetent politicians, pitchers, weather reporters, or school board members.  But I am saying that when we read “public opinion polls” about how people perceive local schools, these are about as useless as a letter to the editor in the sports page, and about as fruitless as yelling at your television.

Take a recent poll from Elway Research, reported in the same article, stating that 18% of southwest Seattle residents have unfavorable views of their nearby schools, compared with just 9% of northeast residents.

Does this mean anything?  Yes, it means some people think their local schools are lousy.  That’s all it means.

It’s Their Fault
Here’s a better picture of the reality: The United States Congress currently enjoys its lowest approval rating in history.  Last I heard it was in the single digits.  And yet, when people were asked about the representatives and senators in their own states and districts, the approval rating shot up to the 50's. 

What does this tell us?

It means we think all the problems are someone else’s fault.  If five times as many people think their elected officials are fine compared to the rest of congress, then this is why the incumbents keep getting re-elected.  The reason congress doesn’t work, in other words, is because the people as a whole don’t want it to work.  Congress doesn’t compromise because too many of us don’t want them to.

In the same way, in spite of the mantra that the public school system is “failing,” or in “crisis”–both common misconceptions steeped in perception and not reality–high percentages of people have favorable opinions of the teachers of their own children. 

It’s all those other teachers that stink. 

Our school is great.  It’s all those other schools.

One teacher and one school can be effective, but for some reason this does not scale up to the system as a whole.

How do we explain all these contradictions?

The Basis for Public Opinion
They are little more than perception verses reality.  The truth is that the vast majority of people have no clue about what facilitates a quality education.  Because their children are doing well, they assume the teachers must be good.  Because a bunch of their neighbors say the same thing, they assume the school must also be good.  The same faulty assumptions lead others to think a school or a teacher might be bad.

In both cases, the parent forming these opinions knows very little reality.  It is all based on their perception, which is based on one of three sources:

    1. How their student reacts to or performs in school
    2. How the school staff interacts with them, if ever
    3. How the media portrays the school

When I was in high school, my parents never went to a school open house. They never met or spoke to any of my teachers for all four years, to my knowledge.  And yet, they thought my school was good.  Why?  Because I had good grades and seemed be learning.  That’s it.

Could they actually articulate two specific examples proving my school was a quality school?  I doubt it.  How could they?  Neither of them are teachers, nor has either one worked in a public or private school.

As for the second source, if a teacher makes contact with a parent, that parent’s opinion of the school almost always improves.  The only way it won’t is if the parent doesn’t like what the teacher says or how they say it.  But in my experience, most phone calls to parents that I’ve made usually end on a positive note, even if the student in question is causing major problems.  The parent appreciates the call.  That I took the time to call about their child out of my 155 others–that alone makes a greater impact on their impression of me and the school than whatever we talk about. 

As for the media, the silly Elway poll typifies their roll in public perception.  At my high school, we like to make fun of the fact that every time a crime happens within a five-mile radius of our school, the news report will say “near Franklin High School” somewhere in it.  Even if no one involved in the crime is a student here.  Even if it was several blocks (or miles!) away.  Even, in some cases, if the perpetrators or victims attend a different school.  It’s always “near Franklin.” 

What does this communicate to a largely uninformed public that thinks it knows more than it does?  It simply reinforces the false perception they already hold, that south-end schools have more crime.  On the contrary, I know people who live in Lynnwood and other suburbs who’ve had their cars broken into multiple times, right at their homes.  Me?  I’ve parked on the street for more than ten years in the supposed ‘hood,’ even though Seattle doesn’t have a ‘hood’ in the traditional sense, and I’ve never once had my car messed with.  Not once.  That’s the reality. 

Fear of certain neighborhoods, certain cultures, certain ethnicities, is often based upon perception as well, not reality.  Not always, but often.

So those three things–student performance, teacher interactions, and the media–those are the basis for 99% of public opinions about schools.  It is only the very few people who either know something about education or are more involved in the school who base their perceptions on more than those three things.

The truth is, a school is simply a reflection if its culture.  Some schools buck this trend, and they make the headlines.  Most don’t, because, well, then it wouldn’t be the trend. 

But as I’ve argued previously (Uncle Tom's Cabin and Atlanta Scandal), our school system today is a reflection of an eroding culture, one that is more self-absorbed than at any time in history.  Our education system is going to reflect that, one way or another.  In one school the parents blame the teacher because their kid didn’t get into Harvard; in another they blame the teacher because the kid can’t do algebra in 12th grade.  In both cases, the teacher is at least fifth down on the list of who to blame.

So what’s the point of all this?

The Real Dangers
The point is, these surveys tell us nothing of value, and they distract us from what ought to be occupying our attention–how to right a culture headed in the wrong direction.  I mean, what a shock that more parents dislike the schools where more students fail and drop out.  These results are keeping me up at night.  I really thought parents at schools where everyone does well would hate their schools.  I mean, sure, right?

Now, other than me pointing out what should be obvious, there is a far greater ramification to these kinds of opinion polls.  In addition to feeding the lie that our schools are “failing” or in “crisis,” which they aren’t, these kinds of surveys also embolden all the organizations out there that want to change everything.  After all, if something’s broken, someone needs to fix it.  And if everyone thinks it’s broken, then someone’s going to try.  Even if they too know little to nothing about education.

But, what if it’s not actually broken?

Here’s the full quote from the Seattle Times article on this poll: (Full Article Here)
“A district report card released in November, which was based on test scores and other indicators, listed    just two schools north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal among the 17 worst schools in the city.”

Question: What is the perception of the article on what defines a bad school? It appears that test scores and “other indicators” are how we identify the losers.  What are these other indicators?  Here are a few of them:
  • percent of graduates enrolling in college within one year
  • percent of students taking SAT or ACT
  • percent of graduates who took a college level course, like AP or IB
  • percent of those students who passed the AP or IB tests; 
  • percent of students with fewer than ten absences per year (yes, really, as if we have any control over that!) 
  • percent of students graduating within four years, and within six years
Follow up question: Does this perception have anything to do with reality?  Not if you recognize the vast differences between schools in the factors and circumstances that affect how students learn.  We have this ludicrous notion that all schools should achieve the same levels, and the ones on the bottom--they are the worst!  I call this the fantasy of equality.  It shows up in all kinds of places. Some things will never be equal. That’s just reality. Education is one of them.

Let me ask it another way: Does a school with lower numbers in these metrics automatically qualify as a bad school?

You see, we just gloss over this question like it’s nothing.  Of course it does, we think.  A school with a 40% dropout rate is clearly worse than one with a 20% rate.  But is it?  Does that school actually have worse teachers?  Do you know this for sure?  Doesn’t it seem like a cataclysmic coincidence that all the “worst” schools happen to be in urban or rural districts?  How can it be that all the worst teachers and administrators happen to work only in those places?  Doesn’t this defy any semblance of the law of averages?  Or, is it just as likely that bad teachers can hide in schools with more stable families and more wealth, where students have already learned how to learn?

I actually believe the teachers in urban Seattle schools are probably better, on average, than teachers in middle-class schools.  And yes, I have evidence for this.  It’s not just a baseless perception.

“Hypothetical” Reality
Suppose  one school has 70% of its students coming from poor backgrounds, for example, and 50% of its entering freshmen class reads at or below a 6th grade level. Suppose another school has only 20% of its students qualifying for free lunches, and only 10% of its entering freshmen read that poorly. 

Now, if the both schools get 81% of their students to pass the state reading test as 10th graders, which school is “worse”?  The second one.  Because they started from a higher place, and therefore “should” have been able to end at a higher one.  Do you see that?  Who actually facilitated the greatest amount of growth? 

Increasing from 20 to 70 is far more challenging than increasing from 60 to 90.  Sure, 90 looks better.  Unless you’re one of the ones who started at 20.

Interestingly, these are not totally hypothetical numbers. School 1 has numbers pretty much like the one where I teach.  And in case you’re wondering, we got 80% of the “free lunch” students to pass the reading test as well, so it wasn’t just the 30% of students who aren’t poor.  The district overall average is 75%.  And yet, what is the public perception of Franklin?  Certainly not in line with those numbers.

What does all this mean?  It means you can’t judge all schools by the same standard, because they aren’t all starting at the same place.  Some schools start halfway down the track, while others start outside the stadium.  Just getting to the track is a big accomplishment, then. 

Bad schools?  I don’t think anyone anywhere, let alone someone who knows only what their kid and the media tells them, is qualified to say whether a school is good or bad.

What’s YOUR Perception?
The real question, the question no one ever asks, is this one:

What truly defines a bad school or teacher, in your perception?

The inability to answer it stems from what many of us teachers will continue to say.  Having a good teacher does not guarantee all the students will learn, but a bad student will not learn from any teacher.  In contrast, a good student will find a way to learn from any teacher–even a bad one hiding in a ‘good’ school.

In addition, if a school reflects its culture, then maybe where we find struggling schools, we should start asking ourselves what’s going on in the culture that has so infected that part of the city, state, or nation as to cause such poor results. 

There are good answers to this question, but the specifics of what defines a good teacher or school is not the point of this post.  The point of this post is simply this: Just because your kid scores well doesn’t mean the teacher is effective.  And just because the kid does poorly doesn’t mean the teacher is to blame.  When the education reformers try to define a good school, they quote numbers from metrics similar to the list above.  What percent drop out?  What percent pass state tests?  What percent attend school? But, none of this means the school–meaning the teachers and staff–are necessarily bad at their jobs.

If I hold my students to a high standard, and another teacher with the same students holds them to a lower standard, which teacher will have more students fail?

I will. Yet, how often do we hear how important “high expectations” are?  I’ve ridiculed this buzzword extensively in other posts.  If you truly do have higher expectations, meaning higher standards, then you should actually expect more, not fewer, students to fail. 

Now, that can be mitigated, of course, with good instruction, but it also demands good attendance, motivation, correct course placement (you can’t take kids in algebra and put them in calculus the next year), and adequate resources. 

But even with all those things, you may still have more students fail.  Or you may have less, or even no change.  So much more happens in a classroom than simply passing or failing.  These are not measures of the quality of the school or the teacher.  They are simply the results of whatever transpired over the course of a semester.

One year, I had 15/135 students not pass my chemistry class in one semester.  The next year it was 26/97, and this year it’s 14/102. 

Am I changing anything year to year?  Yes!  For the better!!  My instruction improves every year, or at minimum, is as effective as the previous year.  I either stay constant, or get better.  I never get worse (at least, not yet).

In the same way, in 2009 80% of our 10th graders passed the reading test.  In 2010, only 64% did. Last year in 2011, we were back to 81%.  What happened?  Did we forget how to teach in 2010? 
How do we explain such variant data? 

We explain it the same way we explain the weatherman getting it wrong, or the pitcher who had a 3.2 ERA for Boston coming to Seattle and bombing with a 4.6 ERA.  These things can be explained quite simply by the fact that reality is not as easy to predict, categorize, control, or manipulate as easily as we want it to be.

You cannot turn a lever and make a school work better.  It’s a complex, dynamic, multi-variant system that juggles all kinds of goals and activities while trying to move with the trends of the society without sacrificing the methods and ideals that got us here. 

To take something operating at that level of complexity and call it a “failure” because 40% of kids drop out here and only 20% drop out there is as silly as yelling at your television when the 5 day forecast doesn’t pan out.

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