Monday, July 31, 2006

"For Once, Blame the Student" by Patrick Welsh

I did not join the blogosphere until the middle of May, so maybe a lot of you have already seen this column. If so, it's worth seeing again. In March, Patrick Welsh, a high school teacher at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote an editorial in USA Today that was titled "For Once, Blame the Student." I didn't see it until a friend sent it to me, but when I read it, I thought, "Man, did this guy hit the nail on the head!" If you haven't already read the column, I hope you'll go to the link and read the whole thing, but here are some bits and pieces of it:

Welsh says that as he was averaging his classes' quarter grades, a pattern leapt out at him:

Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries — such as Shewit Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and Edgar Awumey from Ghana — often aced every test, while many of their U.S.-born classmates from upper-class homes with highly educated parents had a string of C's and D's.

As one would expect, the middle-class American kids usually had higher SAT verbal scores than did their immigrant classmates, many of whom had only been speaking English for a few years.

What many of the American kids I taught did not have was the motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the foreign-born kids.

Politicians and education bureaucrats can talk all they want about reform, but until the work ethic of U.S. students changes, until they are willing to put in the time and effort to master their subjects, little will change.

Welsh tells us that Asian students believe the key to doing well in school is working hard, while Americans tend to believe that the teacher is the key:

When asked to identify the most important factors in their performance in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese students who answered "studying hard" was twice that of American students.

American students named native intelligence, and some said the home environment. But a clear majority of U.S. students put the responsibility on their teachers. A good teacher, they said, was the determining factor in how well they did in math.

"Kids have convinced parents that it is the teacher or the system that is the problem, not their own lack of effort," says Dave Roscher, a chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams in this Washington suburb. "In my day, parents didn't listen when kids complained about teachers. We are supposed to miraculously make kids learn even though they are not working."

Don't assume that schools are entirely left off the hook in this opinion piece, because they're not, and neither are colleges. This is a great column, and if you are a teacher who has read it, you probably know what I mean when I say that it took a real classroom teacher to write it. And it's so nice to see something that hasn't been sent down from one of those ivory towers.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Five Favorite Ed-Posts (Week 2): 7/22-28/06

Back by popular (or not) demand--my five favorite education posts for the week! My list last week excited readers so much that it inspired a total of one comment. (Thank you to EHT for enabling me to avoid the shutout.) So here they are, in no particular order, Fermoyle's five favorite ed-posts for the week of July 22nd thru July 28th.

Private vs. Public Schools: A New Study at Education Wonks and Vouchers and Test Scores: Stalking Horses in the War Over Education, by Ms. Cornelius at Shrewdness of the Apes. I'm kind of cheating here by counting these two as one, but they both involved very lively discussions emanating from the study that came out a couple of weeks ago saying that when socio-economic class was taken into consideration, private schools and public schools performed about equally. Great discussions in the comment sections, and they inspired two of my posts this week.

Off Board by Margaret Soltan at University Diaries. Some people, including me, tend to have the perception that private schools, especially the more expensive ones, have an ideal situation and are problem free. This post made it clear that that is not the case. Liz, from "I Speak of Dreams" referred me to this one, and I'm glad she did. Very interesting post for someone who is as unfamiliar with private schools as I am.

Students Are Not Customers at ChemJerk, which I found at the Carnival of Education. This was the first time I'd ever visited the Carnival--I had no idea what it is. (That just shows how "with it" I am.) I remember the first time I heard our principal, who had been to some sort of workshop, talk about treating our students like customers. I have a great deal of respect for this man, but I almost gagged when he pushed this idea. It's a ridiculous concept, and this post does a good job explaining why.

Parent Involvement Gets Results at Education by Sistrunk. DCS is back! That's great news; I know I really missed her. DCS cares a lot about public education, but she has a little different perspective than teachers, and she articulates it so well.

Jargon Jungle, Edition 3 at California Live Wire which I was directed to by Education Wonks. Good post if you're in the mood for a little sarcastic humor. This post by a group of bloggers gives "definitions" of some educational terms that are in vogue. I went to their archives and checked out Jargon Jungle, Edition 2, and it was even better. My personal favorites are "best practices," "research driven," and "teachable moment."

So there it is for this week. If there are some good blogs out there that regularly discuss education issues, please feel free to let me know about them. I know I'm missing a lot--not checking out the Carnival of Education until this week proves that. Will you accept it if I just plead old age????

Friday, July 28, 2006

PESPD's Myth #10: Because of our poor public education system, we are falling behind other nations

I just got The Knowledge Deficit and the author, E. D. Hirsch recites a familiar refrain. The subtitle on the front cover reads, "Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children," and Hirsch begins his book by saying, "The public sees that something is badly amiss in the education of our young people." I swear that if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this type of thing from educational experts, I’d be a millionaire. I wonder how many people realize for how long we’ve been told “that something is badly amiss” in American education.

I remember reading Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun in the early 1990s. When the book came out, the U.S. was mired in a recession and Japan’s economy was rolling along. They seemed to be able to do no wrong. Rising Sun led the reader to believe that Japan was on the verge of taking over the United States economically, and of course, one of the main culprits was our education system.

Perhaps the most famous lambasting of American public education came in 1983 when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published Nation at Risk. We were told that " if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our schools upon us we would have regarded it as an act of war." Many people remember that, but if you think that was the beginning of reports decrying the horrible state of American education, you’d be wrong. Peter Campbell did an excellent post a couple weeks ago featuring a Life Magazine cover that breathlessly announced a series of articles on the crisis in American education. The date on that magazine: March 24, 1958.

So for at least the last fifty years we have been hearing pronouncements that our education system—especially public education—has been doing a horrible job, and these pronouncements have inevitably been accompanied by doom and gloom prophecies about what this would mean for our nation’s future. If we were to take seriously what the elites have been telling us about the American education system for the last fifty years, we should have been shocked when America landed the first man on the moon, then shocked again when it became clear that we had won the Cold War. Then we should have been absolutely flabbergasted when our economy recovered and became the envy of the world for the last two-thirds of the 90s, while Japan’s went into the tank. My question is this: If our public education system has been so terrible—or failing, as so many like to say—how in the world has our nation continued to do so well?

Michael Barone in his book, Hard America Soft America, belittles public education for producing some of the “softest” 18-year-olds in the world, but then he goes on to say that our 30-year-olds are some of the “hardest.” One reading Barone’s book could reasonably conclude that this country has the most ingenious business leaders and the most productive workers in the world. Barone also reports that the number of workers in America who say they are unhappy with their jobs is at a record low; so in addition to being productive, our people are happy. He also boasts of our military as being unrivaled in the world. Whether he knows it or not, Barone has done a better job than I ever could of making the case that the American education system has been doing a great job.

Although many of the 18-year-olds that I know are a lot tougher than Barone gives them credit for, who cares if they’re hard at that age, as long as they end up turning out the way he says they do? Should our public education system be trying to produce “hard” 18-year-olds, or should we be trying to produce people who are capable of becoming happy and productive adults? He might want to throw the credit elsewhere, but one way or another, according to Barone, we are doing an outstanding job of the latter.

Whether Barone knows it or not, it is not the job of public education to produce entrepreneurs. But it is our job to produce enough people who will be able to become entrepreneurs, and we are obviously doing just that. It is not our job to produce soldiers, but it is our job to produce people who can become soldiers, if that’s what they want to do. I don’t know how many times during the last few years that I’ve heard that America has the best educated and best trained military in the world, so apparently we’re not doing too badly there either. It is not even the job of public education to produce doctors, lawyers, teachers, and mechanics, but it is our job to produce enough people who can become those things if they want to. Once again, we are obviously doing that.

I’m a public school teacher, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of that, in large part, because I teach in a school that does a good job educating kids. We aren’t perfect; we certainly have our share of problems, but we don’t come close to resembling the portrait of a public school that is painted by sour-pussed public school critics. A student who comes to our school who has a desire to go to college will probably be able to do so and be successful there, and the evidence bears that out.

The young woman on the left is Chrissy Hallett, a graduate of Warroad High School. This picture was taken a year ago when she graduated from Harvard Law School. When Chrissy was a senior, she earned a perfect score on the SAT--both portions. Not bad for a kid going to a little rinky dink public school on the northern edge of Minnesota.

And Chrissy is no fluke. We have kids attending the University of Minnesota, the University of North Dakota, and several state and private universities in our region. We’ve had kids go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other prestigious universities around the nation. We have former students who are doctors, lawyers, biological engineers, computer programmers, teachers, nurses, and just about anything else you can name. We have former students who work in large corporations and others who have started their own businesses.

As much as this might shock public education critics, the performance of the graduates of Warroad High School is not an aberration. Our students might score a little higher than average on tests on a national scale, but there is no evidence that we are in a league of our own. A teacher from the Roseau School District, which is twenty miles to our west, could list accomplishments of their former students just as easily as I can, and so could a teacher from Lake of the Woods High School, which is thirty-five miles to our east. There is no question that there are thousands of public schools around the nation that do just as good a job as we do, but you would never know that by listening to the critics of public education.

Everyone knows there are school districts in various areas of our nation that have major problems, and we need to do whatever it takes to make it possible for kids to get a decent education in those places. Maybe those schools require drastic change. But what is frustrating to me is that public education bashers have managed to convince too many people that our worst performing schools are "typical." Although even good school districts like mine need to constantly be looking for ways to solve the very real problems that we have and to improve, the idea that we need to have a massive overhaul of all public schools because they are generally horrible and in crisis is just plain wrong. The so-called “crisis” in American education in 2006 is no more real than was the “crisis” in American education in 1958. Those of us in good public schools need to do a much better job of getting out the truth: there are a lot of public schools that do a much better job than most people realize.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Yeah, but what do you do with the kids who get kicked out?

Anyone who has read a few of my posts probably knows that I strongly believe that public school teachers need to have the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. I am convinced that doing this would do more to improve public education than any other "reform" that has been proposed in the last forty years. Many teachers have told me they agree with this, but the question I consistently hear is, "What are you going to do with the kids who get kicked out?"

My gut reaction is always to reply, "I don't care! I know where I don't want them!" but I know how harsh that sounds, so let me explain. If a student is unwilling to make any effort to learn, there is nothing to be gained by having that student in school. But every student effects other students, and the only effect that student can possibly have on his classmates is negative. Some disruptive students might gain something from being in class, but the negative effect they have on their classmates far outweighs that. We keep on claiming that we, as a society, believe that education is very important. If we really believe that, do we want to put people in classrooms who are clearly damaging the education of others simply because we can't think of anywhere else to put them? We can argue about what the purposes of public education should be, but there is no way that one of those purposes should be to provide babysitting services for kids who won't try and won't behave.

Before I go on, I should point out that I'm not talking about a lot of kids here. I'm not talking about kids who talk a little too much or fail to turn in their homework once in a while. I'm talking about kids who are constantly disruptive, and kids whose effort is so poor that it becomes clear that they have no chance to pass. In Philip K. Howard's excellent book, The Death of Common Sense, he says that teachers in even so-called "bad schools" report that it is a relative handful of kids who cause most of the problems. There should be an effort to turn disruptive and apathetic kids around, but there comes a time to say, "Enough!"

Removing the most disruptive and apathetic students would greatly improve the learning environment in public schools. First of all, we'd be removing the most disruptive and apathetic kids. (Duh!) But the effect would go much further than that. Very often, the most disruptive kids have a certain amount of charisma, and they are able to drag some other kids along with them. Get them out of the schools, and many of those other kids will be much less of a problem, and some of them will be completely fine.

The number of problem kids in schools would be cut down even further, because many of the kids who now perform and behave poorly want to stay in school. Some of them want to graduate, and some of them enjoy the social aspects--they want to be with their friends. Many of them are kids who are willing to push the limits, and they've found out that nothing serious will happen no matter how badly they behave and no matter how poor their effort is. If they knew getting kicked out was a realistic possibility, their effort and behavior would improve.The last really disruptive student that I had fit into this category. He behaved badly because he could. He seemed to enjoy being scolded, detention scared him about as much as a French Poodle would scare and axe-murderer, and he viewed suspension as a vacation. He was a fairly bright kid, though, and he wanted to stay in school. I have no doubt that if he'd have thought he might get kicked out, his behavior would have been much better.

My point here is that many of the kids who now behave badly would not end up getting kicked out. In fact, we'd be doing them a favor by giving teachers the power to remove the most troublesome kids from their classrooms, because their educational performance would improve. But what about kids who do get kicked out? Here are my options:

1. The most obvious solution is to place them in alternative learning centers. One problem with ALCs, however, is that they lessen the incentive for kids to avoid getting kicked out of their classes. Too many students don't mind the idea of getting sent over to the ALC, so they can be with their buddies. We have an ALC in our school district, but because it is so convenient for the students who get sent there, it doesn't help our schools as much as it should. We still end up with too many kids in our regular classes who don't behave or try as hard as they should. Nevertheless, having an ALC is definitely better than nothing.

2. SLM, who I disagree with on just about everything that has to do with education, suggested in a comment over at Education Wonks that we bring back "reform schools" for kids who refuse to fit into normal classrooms. I like this idea. We already have these kinds of institutions for kids who get into legal trouble (we call them "training centers," here), so why not also use them for kids who refuse to do what is expected in school. Reform schools would not be pleasant places for students to be sent to, and I don't think they should be.

3. Another public education critic, Peter Brimelow, in his book The Worm in the Apple, argues that we should find a way to give more meaning to the GED so that those kids who want to get out of school and into the working world can do so. Brimelow is another guy that I disagree with on just about everything, but I have no problem with this idea. If someone can't wait to go to work in a factory, I have no desire to force them to sit in my classroom so I can make them miserable, and I certainly don't need them there so they can be making my life and those of my other students' miserable. The problem with this is that I suspect a reason employers don't put much stock in the GED is that they know that many people who get them couldn't make it through school because they wouldn't show up, wouldn't be on time, and wouldn't follow directions. Those aren't exactly the traits of an ideal employee. That being the case, I'm not sure how we go about making the GED more meaningful.

4. The argument can also be made that kids who choose not to behave or not to try should become the responsibility of their parents. After all, we are now in the 21st century, and there are all kinds of materials for homeschooling on the Internet. State legislatures around the nation have been doing everything they can to promote homeschooling, and as far as I'm concerned, these kids are great candidates for that option.

5. Finally, if kids who have dropped out or gotten kicked out of school have a change of heart, and decide that education does have something to offer them, I would love to see them come back. If we are going to spend money, I would rather spend it on programs to encourage kids or young adults to do this, than to spend it on the education of kids who are forced to be in school, but don't want to be there. Regardless of their personal history, it seems to me that we have our best chance to help people when they have decided that they want to participate in their own education. Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation" cover story in April told the story of one young man who had done this. A number of years ago, 60 Minutes did a feature on a program that encouraged dropouts to come back to school in Chicago that seemed to be working. I don't know if that program still exists, or if it ended up being considered a success or a failure, but I think the concept was a great one.

The bottom line is that our top priority should be to provide a good learning environment for kids who want to learn and are willing to follow reasonable rules. These are the kids that we can help, and these are the kids who deserve it the most. The first and most important lesson we need to teach kids, especially those with problems, is that they must try to help themselves. Somehow, some way, we need to find a way to separate the kids who refuse to learn this lesson from the rest, especially in so-called "failing" schools. Trying to turn around disruptive and apathetic kids is a noble endeavor, but when we focus too heavily on doing this, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing more harm than good. We have to ask ourselves if we are giving those kids who are trying to do the right thing a fair shake. I think the answers to these questions, especially in some areas of our nation, are painfully obvious.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Proud Parent!

Congratulations are in order! I am now the proud parent of a second generation public school teacher. Our son Andy (third from the left in the picture) has just been hired as a third grade teacher at Cody Elementary School just outside of Bettendorf, Iowa. Andy ended a five year career in professional hockey (minor league) last year, and finished his degree in elementary education at Minnesota State University in Mankato this winter. His new school is in the Pleasant Valley School District where his wife, Kelly (fourth from the left) works as a probation officer. If you're wondering who the other people in the picture are, the old codger on the far left is yours truly, and the very pretty lady next to me is my wife, Susan. (And no, she's not that much younger than me!) The two fellows on the right are our sons Garrett and Patrick. Both of have jobs dealing with computers and software, but I don't understand exactly what they do even when they explain it to me slowly. (Liz, I hope you liked the picture!)

Public Ed. Needs to Face Reality

In case you missed it, there have been a couple of great discussions going on about public vs. private schools over at Education Wonks and Shrewdness of the Apes.

Miller Smith began the discussion at Education Wonks with the following comment:
Most of the parents I know who have transferred their children to private schools have done so due to school culture issues. These parents want a school that controls the students and does not allow the behaviors that seem to be the right of students in the public schools.
NYC Educator responded to this by saying that no kids have the right to bad behavior in his room, but then Smith countered with this: Prince George's County, Maryland, a child has the right to return to class after physically assaulting the teacher. As in grabbing the teacher's hair and banging her head on the desk. Retuened to class two days later. No action taken. Teacher forbidden from having the kids removed to another teacher even.

At Bladensburg High in PG county there was two weeks in a row one of more teachers were assaulted every day. Reaction by admin? Kids returned to class. Would you like to know why? The limit on those kid's demographics had been reached and the school was not allowed to suspend or expell any more of that demographic. The federal judge who has controlled PG county since bussing is still in control via lawsuits from a certain advocacy group.

Oh, and a kid calling you a m*therf*cker in class? They are responding to your demographic and you just need to understand.
Miller Smith has a valid point, and those of us who care about public education need to understand that it is killing us. It frustrates me to no end that no one in the educational elite--liberal (including our unions) or conservative--has ever made a move to truly enable public school teachers to deal with this. All the liberals ever talk about is money, money money, which turns off most of the public; and all the conservatives ever talk about are vouchers, vouchers, vouchers. And those of us who care about public education had better realize that that movement is gaining steam. There are an increasing number of people who are share the view that SLM stated in one of his comments:
You know what I like about private schools, charters, and homeschooling? I'm not endlessly flogged and admonished to provide ever more funds to help offset the perpetual penury of public schools due mostly to poor administration, little oversite, and no motivation to change, or to be constantly reminded that teachers are professionals despite not gaining or maintaining jobs based on results and reputation, or told that my uppity opinions are draining precious energy from my child's education. And lastly, I'm not told that my child, or any child, can't get a good education at a public school until all of our various social ills are cured. I'm 100% for public education. It's the public schools I have a problem with. Just like a library is not actually knowledge itself, public schools are not actually education itself. Public education does not necessarily have to take place as it is now.
I have said it before, and I'll say it again: Any student who comes to Warroad High School (my school) will get a good education if that student has a desire to get one and is willing to do some work. I know that there are thousands of public schools that are as good as mine, but you would never know it when you listen to the critics of public education. They have no qualms about lumping every public school into the same boat as the ones with the most problems. The problem is that unless we address the legitimate concerns of people like Mr. Smith, our critics' portrait of public education will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I will close this post with my all-time favorite educational quote. It comes from Albert Shanker, who was a union leader that even many conservatives admired. He made it in a speech he gave in the mid 1990s:
"We are about to create a system of choice and vouchers, so that ninety-eight percent of the kids who behave can go someplace and be safe. And we're going to leave the two percent who are violent and disruptive to take over the schools. Now, isn't it ridiculous to move ninety-eight percent of the kids, when all you have to do is move two or three percent of them and the other ninety-eight percent would be absolutely fine?"

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fermoyle's Five Favorite Edu-posts 7/15-21/06

I hope people don't think I'm being presumptuous by doing this, but hey--it's my blog and I can do what I want with it. I'm going to start listing the five educational posts I've read during the week that most appealed to me. In a lot of cases, it will be posts that I agree with, but they might also be ones I disagreed with but made a good point. Heck, I don't know what they'll be because I haven't started doing it, yet. In any case, here they are in no particular order: Fermoyle's Five Favorite Edu-Posts for the week of July 15-21.

Tolerance for School Shooter in Nevada, by Ms. Cornelius at Shrewdness of the Apes.

I love this post because it shows something that I firmly believe: many people in positions to make decisions that effect public schools are oblivious to what those effects will be. And no one has been more guilty of that for the last forty years than judges.

The Spellings Report: Live From South Bend Indiana, at Education Wonks. (What a fantastic blog!) I'd have to list this as my favorite for the week, and definitely one of my favorites for the summer, so far. This post shows how incredibly unrealistic some of the people in power are, who are making key decisions affecting us all. I don't know that much about our Secretary of Education's background, but I have to assume from this that she has never been in charge of a classroom. This statement makes me want to scream:
When I hear people say they don't think it's possible to have every student reading and doing math on grade level, I always wonder... does that mean they're volunteering their child to be left behind? I certainly don't want that for my daughters, and I'm pretty sure most parents agree. I know you do, too.
No one is volunteering to have their children left behind, and no teacher wants to leave kids behind. In my school, I can confidently say that the only kids who get left behind are those who simply refuse to come along, and I think that's the way it is in a lot of other schools, too. Quite frankly, the above statement by Ms. Spellings is stupid and insulting.

By the way, the only problem I have with checking out the Education Wonks blog is that it is so good, it makes me feel embarrassed about mine.

Public Schools Perform Near Private Ones in Study, by Peter Campbell at Transform Education. The title of this post makes it pretty self-explanitory, and there have been a number of different posts on it. Anyone who has been reading any of my stuff shouldn't be surprised that it appeals to me. I'm not aware that there were any accusations of bias in this study, but it doesn't surprise me that conservative types are questioning the methods. I'm sure people like Jay Greene will now conduct their own research and get results that are the opposite of this one. After reading Greene's book, I get the impression that researchers are able to set up studies in such a way to get whatever results they want.

I just started checking out Peter Campbell's site a few weeks ago. What an eloquent and effective spokesman he is on behalf of the cause of public education. I am definitely more "old school" than Peter is, but I wouldn't want to get into an argument using facts and figures with him. For me, that would be a little like getting into a home run hitting contest with Barry Bonds.

Mommy! by Mr. McNamar over at The Daily Grind. A good post about parents who want to coddle their children--a problem every teacher has had to deal with at one time or another, especially if they've also done some coaching. I went to school at a time when teachers could still get physical with students. I remember getting slapped by our junior high school principal, and my one thought was, "I hope my parents don't find out about this!" In the last fifteen years, I've had two separate incidents in which students have done something blatantly wrong, and when I looked at them with obvious displeasure, they each said to me, "If you hit me, I'll sue you." And by the way, Mr. McNamar's father is my kind of guy!

This Isn't the Post I Had Planned over at History Is Elementary. This tribute to her mother by Elementary History Teacher doesn't deal with education issues, but how could I leave it out. It was a wonderful post, and all the comments of support she got made it pretty special.

So there you are: my five favorite posts for the last week. I hope to have a little fun with this, and if there are any great posts on educational issues that you think I missed feel free to let me know.

Friday, July 21, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #9: Teachers lack incentive to do a good job because they are not accountable

A favorite theme of conservatives these days, when talking about public education, is the need for accountability, especially for teachers. There are two assumptions in this. The first is that teachers won’t work hard unless they see more money in it or their jobs depend upon it. The second is that teachers today are not accountable for what they do. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

There are some teachers who are incredibly selfless people. They care deeply about their students, and that would be motivation enough for them. After reading several posts by Anonymous Teacher and Ms. Cornelius, I doubt that either of them would work significantly harder for monetary rewards. Maybe they're faking me out (I doubt it!), but they seem to be motivated almost entirely by what they see as their mission to serve their students, especially the least fortunate. I'm not going to say that all teachers, or even that most teachers, are as selfless as they seem to be, but the field of education has more than its fair share of them. Teachers like them probably should get paid more, and they should certainly be secure in their jobs, but those are not the incentives that make them do the work that they do.

The field of education also has its share of people who work hard because of the simple satisfaction of doing a job well. This is a factor in other professions, but it is a more important factor for teachers, especially in small towns, because they are so well known in their communities. If you are a teacher, your reputation depends on the job you do.

A teacher isn't going to get a pay raise for running a great class session, and he's not going to have to worry about losing his job for a bad one, but he knows that he will be held accountable by his students. For those teachers who are not spurred on by more noble aspirations, there is one incentive that is very practical: they don’t want to be humiliated. Teaching is enjoyable when you come to school prepared and are on top of things, but I can't think of too many worse jobs if a person tries to do it unprepared. Being in charge of a classfull adolescents for forty-nine minutes when you're disorganized and have nothing constructive for them to do is a nightmare. The kids see through you in about two minutes, it becomes impossible to maintain any discipline, and you end up feeling like an incompetent fool. I found myself in that type of situation a few times early in my career, and it didn't take me long to figure out that it I'd be a lot happier person if I took the time to prepare. Every teacher knows that there are going to be 25 to 30 students holding him accountable for every class session that he conducts.

For a teacher, having one bad class in which you are poorly prepared and the kids are out of control is a humiliating experience, and it ruins your day no matter how well the other classes go. To go through that class after class, day after day would be a living nightmare. I'm sure that being incompetent at any job is unpleasant, but I can't think of too many jobs that could be worse to be bad at than teaching -- maybe professional boxing.

The only reason I can understand for a teacher not wanting to be well prepared is if it doesn't make any difference, and maybe that's the case in some schools. Things that a teacher designs are much more likely to work when there are motivated kids who will give learning a chance, and there have always been plenty of those in the schools in which I’ve taught. I know that if I were teaching in a situation where there were a lot of disruptions, or the students acted bored no matter what I did, it would be hard to keep doing what I do. I think any teacher who has gotten to that point should get out, but that's easy for me to say since I'm not in that situation.

All of this is not to say that other incentives would be a bad thing. I have said in previous posts that principals should have the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, and they should be able to get rid of their worst ones. If a school district is able to set up a viable merit pay system, that might be a good thing, too, as long as it isn't based on some test prepared by someone far away who knows nothing about that school or its students. But many critics of public education make it sound as if teachers who do a lousy job pay no price for it, and that there are no rewards for doing a good job. They paint a picture of an education system in which schools are filled with lazy teachers who feel like they've got it made and couldn't care less about doing a good job. When they do that, they are unfair, and they couldn't be more wrong.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is Laziness Just a Myth?"

I am now reading a book by Dr. Mel Levine, and I must admit that my mind is not completely open. The name of the book is The Myth of Laziness, and it argues that no one is truly lazy. After all my years of teaching, I find that argument very hard to buy.

I'm only about half-way through the book, but my skepticism has not been eased. Dr. Levine argues that every child yearns to be productive, and if they're not, it's because they are suffering from "output failure," which he says can be caused by various neurodevelopmental disfunctions. Wow, is that a mouthful! One of those specific neurodevelopmental disfunctions is "low mental energy." To tell the truth, that sounds an awful lot like laziness to me.

I had thought about buying this book for a couple of years because one of my strongest beliefs is that effort is the greatest determinant of a student's performance in school. The lack of effort of some kids always amazes me, and I had usually viewed that lack of effort as laziness. Dr. Levine is telling me that there is no such thing.

Dr. Levine seems oblivious to the efforts schools have been making to identify and accommodate children with learning disabilities, and his treatment of schools and teachers ranges from condescending to insulting. He is not afraid to blast a school based strictly on what he is told by parents. In one case, he describes a boy he calls Clint who is a terrible speller and is unable to remember things that he has learned. The boy had been adopted by parents who seemed to have high expectations for him, and who also had a biological daughter who was a very good student. Levine gives no indication that he ever had any contact with the school, which is hundreds of miles away from his medical center, but he tells us as fact that the boy's teachers "had convinced him that laziness was his moral crime in school." Never fear, though, because it's Dr. Levine to the rescue. He also tells us, "Our center had found him innocent."

It seems to me that this child's learning problems would quickly become apparent, so I can't imagine that teachers would jump to the conclusion that he was lazy. Reading between the lines of this case led me to suspect that the laziness charge might actually have been leveled by the parents who wanted the boy to do better academically. Levine tells us that the boy expressed concern that his parents would regret having adopting him. But, let's face it, it's much more prudent for the good doctor to criticize a bunch of people who work at a school hundreds of miles away than it would be to criticize the parents who are paying his bills.

Of course, Levine has the luxury of working with his clients one on one, while teachers work with 25 or 30 kids at a time, and he is not adverse to preaching to those of us in the trenches from his ivory tower. My favorite example of this is in a paragraph that he begins by telling about a girl who would frequently ask her teachers if she could leave the room to go to the bathroom despite not really having to go. He concludes the paragraph by saying, "Isn't it odd that kids get criticized for being fidgety when they should be commended for implementing a strategy that significantly elevates their attention." Gee, why have I never looked at it that way?

I really believe that the setting in which Levine works with kids prevents him from seeing an unpleasant reality--some kids are lazy. He does a marvelous job explaining why learning can be painfully difficult for some kids, but every year I see some kids work hard despite that. In my experience, I've seen kids who will try hard in almost any situation, and others who won't. This summer I am working in our high school weight room for five hours a day. Dr. Levine does a great job telling us why it is so hard for some kids to write essays and spell words correctly, but I wonder if he could explain why it is that the kids who are the most consistent at coming in to do their workouts are also the kids who most consistently did their school work during the school year, and why the kids who are the least consistent at coming in for their workouts are the same kids who were the least consistent at turning in their math, English, and history assignments. My answer would be that some kids have a better work ethic than others. Some kids make the decision to do the work, and some make the decision not to do it. Dr. Levine makes it sound as if their is no personal choice involved in these actions at all.

It might surprise you to know that I actually think that this is a good book for educators to read. It can be damaging to label someone with legitimate learning problems as lazy, and Levine clearly makes this point. His explanations of how the brain works are interesting and valuable, and the book is loaded with ideas for helping kids with various learning problems. I also think that most teachers have enough experience and common sense to take what Levine says with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, I shudder at the thought of parents reading this book, and I'm afraid that, overall, it does more harm than good. There are a lot of frustrated parents of students who perform poorly, some because they have learning problems, but very often, laziness is a factor. Many of these parents will see Levine's message that nobody is lazy as gospel truth, and they will latch onto it like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver. I have no doubt that this will end up providing excuses for a lot of students who could perform better if they ever decided to try.

In the book that I wrote, I described a student who was diagnosed as being ADHD. The girl was doing very poorly in her classes, so we had a meeting with her parents. I had her in class, and she didn't do one reading assignment during an entire marking period before the meeting. That's about twenty-five reading assignments and, to top it off, the parents insisted that this girl was a speed-reader. Every teacher at this meeting was convinced that a big part of this girl's problem was that she was very lazy, but her parents insisted she was not. They were adamant on this point because, they told us, the doctor who had diagnosed the girl had emphasized to them that she wasn't lazy. I'm sure Dr. Levine would have agreed with that assessment.

The parents of the student in this case were responsible people, and I don't doubt that this girl was legitimately diagnosed with ADHD. But I also have no doubt that she was lazy. The doctor may have seen her for an appointment or two, but the other teachers and I saw her day after day for nearly a year. I'm willing to concede that her medical condition could have caused her to miss some of those reading assignments. But all twenty-five? She also never took notes. Did her condition make it impossible for her to do that? Every day? I don't think so. I believe this fairly bright girl used her disability--and her parents concern about it--as an excuse to do nothing. Once she had the authoritative word of a doctor that she wasn’t lazy, she had it made in the shade. The only problem was that the person who ended up being hurt the most by this was not the doctor, or any of the teachers, or either of the parents--it was the girl, herself.

I know it's not easy to be growing up today. There are some problems for young people today that weren't nearly as prevalent in the past, and there are some problems today that didn't used to exist at all. Nevertheless, I think one of the biggest problems we have in public education is that we make too many excuses for kids. Dr. Mel Levine seems to think we don't make enough. If he was put in charge of education policy in America, he would probably replace "No Child Left Behind" with "No Excuse Left Behind."

Well, I hope I've made my point. I'm going to have to be getting back to the weight room tonight, and I've got just enough time to either mow the lawn or take a nap. I think I'll opt for taking the nap. My wife probably won't be very happy about that when she gets home and sees the lawn never got mowed, but what the heck--I'll just explain to her that I had a little output failure. I'm sure she'll understand.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Vouchers, "Failing Schools," and the People Who Call Them That

There was an article in Education Week last week about a national group that is pushing for vouchers in New Jersey. Saying that I have mixed feelings about this is an understatement.

Eschewing the traditional solution of adding money to public schools, the Alliance for School Choice and three New Jersey-based groups filed a class action on July 13 in state superior court in Newark demanding that students in the schools receive vouchers to attend a public or private school of their choice, including religious schools. The lawsuit also would seek to revoke mandatory attendance boundaries in the state.

The choice measures would provide "immediate and meaningful relief" from the
inadequate education provided to the 60,000 students attending the 97 schools
cited in the lawsuit as failing, said Clint Bolick, the president and general
counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based legal advocacy group.

First of all, it irks me that the charge for vouchers in New Jersey is being led by some guy from Phoenix. If people in New Jersey think vouchers are necessary there, and apparently some do, they should be listened to. I'm sure the guy from Phoenix sees himself as performing some kind of public service, but my guess is that he's one of the public education haters that we constantly hear popping off these days.

This is New Jersey's fight, but on the face of it, I can't argue against having vouchers there if parents who care about their kids' education think they need them. Apparently they've got pretty good reasons for doing so.

The 97 schools cited in the lawsuit either have at least half of their
students failing to meet the state's standards in language arts and mathematics
or 75 percent of their students falling short of the standards in one of those

As much as I hate the idea of vouchers, I have to ask myself if I wouldn't want to find a different school for my kids if I was living in that area. I think it should be a priority for our society to provide a reasonably good learning environment for any young person who has the desire to get a good education, especially when those kids are coming from low-income families. Certainly there are kids in these schools who do want to get a good education, but when so many in these schools are doing so poorly, I doubt that the environment is very good.

Nevertheless, the term "failing schools" grates on me, and the Phoenix Flash can't wait to use it when he tells what the lawsuit would do:

"It immediately allows students to leave failing schools for good ones and at
the same time creates pressure for accountability for public schools," Mr.
Bolick said in an interview before filing the lawsuit.

That's not the only time Bolick is quoted using that term in the article, and despite my agreement that there must be big problems in the schools involved, I think the term is unfair. I have no doubt that when people like Bolick say "failing schools," it is meant to conjure up images of incompetent and lazy teachers and administrators. I remember having the TV on a few years ago and hearing Tony Snow, who is now President Bush's press secretary, saying that he would like to go into those inner-city schools and fire the teachers. I have no doubt that when the term "failing schools" is used, that is the way the people who use the term want us to feel.

Because I have worked in public schools and have experienced both good and bad classes, when I hear about schools with so many students scoring so poorly, I don't picture a bunch of teachers and administrators who aren't trying; I picture classrooms with unmanageable numbers of kids who see school as having little meaning in their lives--kids who won't behave and won't try. I picture teachers trying to accomplish something in an atmosphere like that and experiencing nothing but frustration and humiliation. I know that if I had to face that situation day after day, year after year, I'd never be able to handle it.

People like Mr. Bolick are also very big on "accountability." Accountability is fine if you've actually got a chance to be successful, but it's not so fine when you're placed in an impossible situation like the people running these schools are. I enjoy a good reputation as a teacher in my community, but there have been a couple of times when I've had classes that were absolutely awful. I wish Mr. Bolick could have that experience. There were some students in those classes who wanted to learn, and most of the problems were caused by just a handful of kids, but I felt like we were accomplishing almost nothing. I would get headaches just thinking about those classes, and I would have been irate if someone was constantly throwing the term "accountability" in my face while I had them.

Even though I think we have to do something for the students in places like Newark who do want an education, I have great sympathy for the teachers and principals there, who take so much crap from the likes of Clint Bolick. If I ever start to look down on them because the scores of their students aren't very good, I hope someone will give me a good swift kick in my backside. When anyone like me thinks about the people who work in those schools, the first thing that comes to mind should be, "There, but for the grace of God, goes me."

Friday, July 14, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #8: God Is Not Allowed In Public Schools

Of all of the myths that are spread by haters of public education, this is the one that I find the most offensive. It is the myth that God is no longer allowed in public schools. In November of 2001, a couple of months after 9/11, I received one of those mass emails that has become so common. It had been forwarded by one of our teachers to everyone on our staff. This email message, like so many of them, was supposed to be profound, but, because of the way it began, it only managed to anger me. It began by telling about an interview with Billy Graham's daughter, Anne, that had been shown on TV. I am sure that Anne Graham is a wonderful person, but like so many others, when it comes to public education, she doesn't know what she is talking about. I will share with you the beginning of the email, which includes Ms. Graham's statement, and then the reply that I sent.

Billy Graham's daughter was being interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" And Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said "I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?"

I want to make it clear that this is not meant as a criticism of anyone for sending along this e-mail message. I have no doubt that anyone doing so had the best of intentions. I'm responding because it contains a message that infuriates me when I hear it, and I've been hearing it for a number of years, now. That is the message that we do not allow God in public schools.

One of the reasons this message angers me so much is because it is frequently used by the people who decide to homeschool their children. If we didn't have so many Warroad kids being homeschooled, we wouldn't be in as much danger every year of losing some of our best young teachers and having to cut programs that benefit kids.

The people who promote this message object to the fact that we do not have prayer at the beginning of our school days, like we did up until the mid-1960's. Everyone knows that the basic reason we don't have that anymore is because we have a separation between church and state in this country. The alternative to this is to have whoever is in power impose their interpretation of their religion on society. If you want to know how this would work just look at the Taliban's policies regarding women in Afghanistan.

Many good people argue that the separation of church and state shouldn't preclude prayer in school. Although I'm not sure they're correct, I don't think they are being unreasonable. But I can also remember the discomfort I felt as one of the few Catholic kids in a predominantly Protestant elementary school in the 1960's when we said a prayer in class that did not include the sign of the cross. It wouldn't bother me now, but when I was that young, it did. I never felt any of that discomfort when I said prayers with my family. I wonder how hard it would be today to come up with a prayer that would not cause some discomfort for some of the kids with all of our various religions. I'm not saying that people who believe we should have prayer at the beginning of our day are definitely wrong, but I am saying that those of us who have reservations about this are not necessarily Godless.

Although I wouldn't feel comfortable leading my first hour class in a prayer, God is very important in my life, and I try to bring that to school with me every day. I think there are many teachers like me in that respect.

But even if we don't have school prayers, that doesn't mean we don't allow God in school. Maybe I'm spiritually confused, but I see God more in the way people go about their everyday affairs than in whether or not they are comfortable with public prayer. When teachers go out of their way to help students, isn't God in our school? When some kid who "gets it" tries to help some kid who doesn't "get it," isn't God in our school? When we saw all that concern and love in our
school for Katie Olafson [a sophomore who had been killed in a car accident] and her family last year, wasn't God in our school? When Rick McBride's beeper goes off and he goes running out of school to help out with the volunteer fire department because he wants to help people, isn't God in our school? When we buy frozen food, magazines, candy or candles for ridiculous prices, or when we fork out ten to twenty bucks for raffle tickets that we don't really want because we feel like we should help out kids involved in various activities, isn't God in our school? When special ed. or ESL or Indian ed. teachers come and plead with some crotchety old teacher, like me, for some kid that they care about, isn't God in our school? When Nadine ran her food shelf program last week wasn't God in our school?

We are fortunate in Warroad that most concerned parents who care about their kids send them to our school. They send them to our school because they care about their kids, but also because they care about other people's kids and the community. Am I wrong when I think I see God in many of them? These parents are confident in the values they've instilled in their kids, so they don't keep them home out of fear that they will somehow be corrupted by all the sinners
among our students and faculty. It is their kids more than anyone or anything else--teachers, administrators, or all the computers money could buy--that make this school a good place to learn. We see these kids everyday, and we see what they do, and I would bet there are at least some kids like that in every public school in America. So if some people can't see God in our public schools, maybe they better take a better look.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Journalist Who Supports Public School Teachers

A journalist who supports public school teachers? I didn't know such a being existed. This article by Michael Winerip does an outstanding job of explaining why so many teachers are not fans of No Child Left Behind.

As readers know, I’m not a fan of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law aimed at raising education quality. Instead of helping teachers, for me it’s a law created by politicians who distrust teachers. Because teachers’ judgment and standards are supposedly not reliable, the law substitutes a battery of state tests that are supposed to tell the real truth about children’s academic progress.

The question is: How successful can an education law be that makes teachers the enemy?

While many education critics seem to believe that public schools should be able to responsible for getting students to perform as if social problems didn't exist, Winerip proposes a new program:

Which leads to my second proposal. We need a No Family Left Behind Law. This would measure economic growth of families and punish politicians in charge of states with poor economic growth for minority families.

FOR example, in Ohio, black families earn only 62 percent of white household income, one of the biggest disparities nationally. So every year, under No Family Left Behind, Ohio would be expected to close that income gap. If it failed to make adequate yearly progress for black families’ wealth, the governor and legislators would be judged failing, and after five years, could be removed from office. This way public schools wouldn’t be the only institutions singled out for failing poor children.

Great idea! Winerip also makes a good case for smaller class sizes in this article, and in general, presents teachers in a positive manner that is rare in the education press these days.

Now the bad news: Winerip says that this is his last education column.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Teachers' Unions

The NEA Convention was held last week, so there have been a number of posts about teachers' unions on edublogs during the last few days. Coach Brown and Education Wonks both chimed in on the NEA, and Darren (The Conservative Teacher) had posts on the California Teachers' Association. I was surprised that all three expressed disdain for the unions involved. Darren didn't surprise me, because having disdain for unions is part of a conservative's job, but I wouldn't have expected the feeling to be unanimous.

I, too, have some problems with our teachers' unions. As I've said in previous posts and comments, I think our tenure and seniority systems prevent overall teacher quality from being as good as it should be, and our unions are those systems' strongest defenders. I have also been less than thrilled when the NEA and my own Education Minnesota have supported political positions far to the left of my own, especially when the issues involved are only marginally related to education. I am also bothered by the fact that our unions' endorsement for Democratic candidates is almost automatic, and I can imagine how a teacher like Darren feels about that. Nevertheless, my overall feeling for teachers' unions is one of gratitude.

No aspect of public education has been the subject of more scorn than teachers' unions. A secretary of education compared them to terrorist organizations, and Peter Brimelow, in his book The Worm in the Apple: How the Teachers' Unions Are Destroying American Education, compared them to the Communist Party. That has not been my experience with them. When I wrote my book, I knew that some of my most important ideas ran counter to positions Education Minnesota believed in. Nevertheless, they ran a full-page article on the book in their monthly newsletter, and despite the fact that the editor told me she disagreed with me, the article was completely fair. That doesn't sound to me like something the Communist Party would do.

The standard of living that my family has enjoyed has certainly been helped along by my unions. I don't feel like I'm overpaid, but when my income is combined with my wife's, we are now able to live very comfortably. That wasn't always the case. When I began teaching, my salary was so low that my wife and I qualified for a welfare program, I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and dinner for an entire month, and my mother-in-law cried during her 200-mile trip home to the Twin Cities after seeing the house we lived in. Furthermore, prior to intervention by the unions, female teachers had been required to leave the classroom as soon as they became pregnant. Things have changed, largely due to the efforts of our teachers' unions.

The dominant industry in my community is a non-union business. That's probably a good thing, because in our changing economy, I'm not sure they could have survived if it had unionized. There is no question that in private industry, unions have become victims of their own success. It's tough for a company paying union wages to compete with companies paying nonunion wages, and with companies who pay what they pay in places like Mexico, India, and China.

By and large, the business in our community treats their employees pretty well, but every so often the management there will take some arbitrary action that leaves people shaking their heads. I also have to wonder how well any businesses would treat their workers if there was never a threat that a union might come in. Despite the generally good treatment of workers by the business in our community, there are a lot of families with both parents putting in 60 hours week after week just to make ends meet. Nobody has complained about parents more than I have, but I have to admit that it would be tough to be a great parent when they have to spend that much time at the plant.

Peter Brimelow tries to argue in his book that good teachers might get paid better if we didn't have unions, because people value education so much. Yah, right! I might not like tenure, I might not like seniority, and I might not like some of the political stands the NEA and Education Minnesota have taken, but when it comes to working out a total package for the teachers in our school, give me a union any day. I have no desire to go back to my peanut butter and jelly days.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Michael Barone's Soft Public Ed.

I just finished reading Hard America Soft America by Michael Barone, who is a senior writer for the U.S. News and World Report. Barone is also a contributor to Fox News. If you are guessing from that that he is a tad conservative and that he is probably not a fan of public education, you are two for two.

Barone says that there is a hard America and a soft America. Hard America consists of things like the business world and the work force and our military. Barone argues that they have become hard because of competition and accountability, and they make life better for all Americans. Soft America consists of things like our welfare system and, of course, public education. Barone argues that they are soft because of the lack of competition and accountability.

Barone says that all of these institutions have gone through various periods of softness and hardness. He says that although education went through a period of hardening after Sputnik and there have been some signs of hardening recently (vouchers and NCLB), education has been the most persistently soft. In fact one of the main points of his book is that the United States produces 18-year-olds who are very soft, and 30-year-olds who are very hard.

I actually agree with Barone that public education could use some hardening, but his analysis of the subject showed that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Barone says that public education began to get much softer in the late sixties and early seventies, and he blames this almost entirely on “progressive” educators. I will admit that schools tried some ridiculous things during that period, but Barone doesn’t say a word about the court decisions that have done more than anything else to make it difficult for those of us in public education to be “hard.”

In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard traces those decisions and their effects on public education. It started in 1969 when the Supreme Court sided with five students who had been suspended for wearing black armbands as a protest against the Vietnam War. The Court said, “Students don’t check their rights at the front door.” Then, when some students were suspended for a lunchroom disturbance, the Court ruled that education was a student’s property right that could not be taken away without due process of law. Next, the Court ruled that a school official could be sued for violating a student’s due process rights if the official knew or should have known he was doing so. As Howard says, “For teachers, exercising judgment as to the right thing to do was replaced by a preoccupation with how any decision might affect students rights.” He says that the Court’s declaration that education is a property right has done more damage to public education over the last 40 years than anything else. He’s right, but Barone totally misses this.

Barone makes it clear that he thinks the number of high school kids who work during the school years is a bad thing, but he credits this with some “hardening” of our students. At the same time, he completely ignores the effects of high school athletics and other extra-curricular activities. You would think that Barone would love this area of American life, but he says absolutely nothing about it. The kids have to compete for spots on teams, and the teams have to compete with each other. Coaches can be hired and fired at the whim of their employers, and there is no tenure or seniority. I want Barone to know that I will match the toughness and character of the kids I’ve coached and coached against during the last 32 years with that of 18-year-olds from any other nation. And I will definitely take them over somebody flipping burgers at MacDonald’s.

Although I agree with Barone that public education could use some “hardening,” he takes a much dimmer view of the institution than I do. I’ll bet that shocks you! In an effort to make his point, Barone uses a quote by a so-called expert that is one of the most stupid statements I’ve ever read or heard. Paul Peterson is, according to Barone, an educational scholar. Peterson says, “Students are walking away from public schools, choosing other ways of getting the apparent equivalent of a diploma (GED certificates). They seem to understand, better than anyone else, that the American schoolhouse is badly in need of repair.”

In my book and in the presentations I give, I often ridicule so-called education experts, who preach to us from their ivory towers, because so many of them have no clue about what actual school classrooms and actual students are really like. Peterson’s idiotic statement is a classic example of that. If he truly believes that kids who drop out of school and then decide to try to earn GEDs do so because they understand something better than the rest of us, he has been in that ivory tower way too long.

Barone’s book is not all bad, however, and I found it an interesting read. He dedicates the book to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (my all time favorite senator) and his wife, and he gives us a good look at a conservative’s view of America. Best of all, despite his personal view of American education, he unwittingly makes a case that we are doing a fantastic job. I will explain how he does that when I do my post on PESPD’s Myth #10. I’ll bet you can’t wait!

Friday, July 07, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #7: The key factor in determining a student's performance is his or her ability

The general public has always seemed to believe that the key to a student’s success in school is his or her academic ability. A student’s performance depends, people think, on whether or not the student is “smart.” The A students are “smart,” whereas the D students aren’t. My experiences as a teacher have convinced me that intellectual ability is not the most important factor.

Any teacher or high school student can tell stories about kids with relatively low ability who do amazingly well because they try hard. They can also tell you about kids with a lot of ability who do poorly because they just don't care. There is no question that students with less ability will experience more frustrations and setbacks than will students with greater intellectual ability. This can make it hard to keep trying, so they will need more help and encouragement, and I believe most schools bend over backward to provide it. Nevertheless, the major factor in a student's performance is his or her effort. Students who take education seriously and try hard do well. Students who don't care about school do poorly. The single biggest problem in education today is that not enough students in public schools make their own education a very high priority.

One interesting thing I've found is that students who try hard get smarter. A few years ago, I had a girl in one of my American History classes who tried very hard, but her grasp of the subject was not that impressive. She would take fantastic notes (which were optional) on the reading assignments, but she would still get some items wrong on the quizzes. She would get very high scores on objective tests, because she worked so hard on the test review assignments, but on any essays or opinion assignments, she seemed very mechanical. The thinking just wasn't there.

Two years later I had her again in my Economics and Sociology classes, and she still made her fantastic effort, but it was clear that her thinking had improved. Her writing was better, she had become much more skilled at analyzing things, and her opinions were now always well reasoned. The girl got smarter.

For a number of years early in my career, I taught seventh grade classes and twelfth grade classes. Eventually I had twelfth graders who had once been in my seventh grade classes. I can still picture certain students who as seventh graders had a hard time with the material, but who worked very hard, often ending up with C+’s. As seniors, they were much more successful. They still had to work hard, but now they were earning A-'s and B+'s. On the other hand, I can also remember students with so much ability as seventh graders that, with very little effort, they would earn B's and sometimes even A's. By the time these students were seniors, they were down to C's and D's. At some point along the way, their ability ceased to carry them.

Every so often during my teaching career I will have some sort of educational revelation and, about twenty years ago, I had a very depressing one. I was correcting a final test I had given, and thinking about the students who were earning C's and D's. At that time, I used sixty percent as the cutoff for passing, and the final test was made up entirely of multiple choice and matching questions. Since a monkey should have been able to get between twenty and twenty-five percent of the test answers correct, it was clear that students earning between sixty and seventy-five percent weren’t learning much.

After that final test, I made a major effort to become more creative in my teaching. The students I was most concerned about were those who seemed mired in mediocrity, so they were the targets of most of my new ideas. Some of these ideas--mastery learning, for example--created a tremendous amount of work for me and, one day a couple of years later while carrying out one of those ideas, I had another educational revelation. (If you have the urge to yell, "Hallelujah!" now, go right ahead.) I looked out into the classroom and it was clear that many of my C, D, and F students were putting forth their usual effort -- little or none. While I was working my backside off, the kids I was trying to help wouldn't lift their fingers to help themselves.

The lack of effort by some kids never ceases to amaze me. There are students who never -- and I mean never -- attempt to do any of the homework assignments, and there is no guarantee they’ll do any work in class, either. Amazingly, some of these students are honestly surprised when they see the F’s on their report cards. Some of them only try during the last week of a marking period, when their situation is completely hopeless. I always find myself speechless when one of these kids, who may be twenty to thirty percentage points below the passing minimum, comes up to me and asks if he can do extra credit, or asks, "What can I do to pass?” (Be reincarnated!) They think if they give it the old college try for a whopping five days, the teacher will give them a break. I think part of the problem is that too many of these students have already received too many breaks.

I am a typical public school teacher in that more of my time and effort is focused on kids who don't try than on anyone else. Nevertheless, critics are very quick to blame public schools for students who lack motivation. They say we aren't doing enough to reach these kids. I remember a talk show I saw on TV a couple of years ago in which the host and a guest representing some educational reform group wrapped up a segment on public education by saying that low test scores weren't the fault of students or their parents. It's everyone else's fault: state legislature’s, teachers’ union’s, school board’s, etc.

To that, I can only say one word, and it starts with a B.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dumbing Down

There are certain terms public education critics love to use that I get tired of hearing. It annoys me when conservatives use the term "government schools," because Milton Friedman told them they should refuse to use the term "public schools." There is one that bothers me much more than that, though. That term is "dumbing down," and I read it again the other day in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

California and some other states have inflated test outcomes by lowering the achievement standard students need to meet to be proficient in reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, university researchers say.

It amounts to a dumbing down of how the states calculate student progress, the researchers concluded.

I know that many NCLB critics who read this article would be happy to say, "I told you so!" and they would certainly have a point. Nevertheless, the "dumbing down" phrase really gets me. I've heard that phrase over and over again during the last two or three decades, and it always gives one the sense that the standards of public schools are constantly declining. Most people, if asked, would probably say that they believed that to be the case, but even Jay Greene--not exactly a great friend of public education--says that is a myth.

What annoys me the most about the phrase "dumbing down" is that it is so often used by high-brows "who demand high standards," but seem to have no idea of the variety of learners and learning abilities that public schools work with. When they picture today's typical student, they probably picture kids who were much like themselves. I think it's safe to say that they don't picture kids like Suzy.

Suzy was a girl that I had a couple of years ago in one of my American history classes. She was a nice girl, who made a reasonable effort in the class, but she was not the American history equivalent of a rocket scientist, so my class was difficult for her. At the end of every marking period, students in my classes have to satisfactorily complete a "Required Knowledge Test" in order to earn a passing grade. The students have to get every item correct the first time the test is given, or demonstrate to me that they've learned any items that they've missed. Students have to do a lot more than pass this one very easy test to pass the class, but they can't pass the class without fulfulling this requirement. Over the years, I've had a couple of kids, who had passing grades before the Required Knowledge Test, guess that I wasn't serious and that I would pass them even if they didn't take care of it. They guessed wrong. Although Suzy always got the Required Knowledge Test taken care of in the end, it was not easy for her.

My Required Knowledge Tests were inspired by another social studies teacher in our school and the Jay Leno Show. The social studies teacher loved to let me know any time former students of mine were unable to answer American history questions he'd ask in his class, and the Leno Show sometimes features segments showing people who are unable to answer incredibly easy social studies type questions. There are some things that anyone should know after having an American history class, and I wanted to make sure that my students knew those things. This wouldn't really solve my problems with the other social studies teacher or Jay Leno since I wouldn't be able to control whether they'd remember all those things two or three years down the road. Nevertheless, I could make sure they knew it while I had them in class.

Since the body of knowledge for students increases as the year goes on, my Required Knowledge Tests get longer each quarter. The test at the end of the first quarter in nineteen questions, and the one at the end of the fourth quarter is seventy. It was the test at the end of the third quarter that caused the most problems for Suzy. On that test, she got two wrong. That meant that after she got her test back, she would have to go back and learn the correct answers to the items she got wrong, and then I would quiz her orally on those and any related items.

One of the questions she got wrong was this: Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II? The answer Suzy had given was George Washington. Ouch! When she came up to my desk to go over the two items she missed, she had no problem with the other item, but when I asked her this question again, once again she said, "George Washington." The girl was persistent.

Now, I wanted to help her through this, so I asked her three other questions that she had gotten correct on the test. "Okay, Suzy," I said, "who was America's commanding general in the Revolutionary War?"

She replied, "George Washington".

Then I said, "Okay. And when did the Revolutionary War occur?"

Suzy said, "In the 1770s."

"Okay, that's good. Now when did we fight in World War II?"

"In the 1940s."

"Okay, Suzy, you're right again. And you like you just said, George Washington was our commanding general in the Revolutionary War, so who was America's most important general in Europe in World War II?"

At this point Suzy looked at me like I was an idiot who couldn't understand plain English, and said in a way to make it clear that she was running out of patience, "George Washington!!!"

This story did have a happy ending. Suzy eventually did learn that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our most important general in Europe in World War II, but it definitely took some help. She simply could not seem to make the connection on her own that if George Washington had been our general in a war that took place in the 1770s, it would have been a little difficult for him also to have been our general in a war that took place 170 years later. This inability to make connections is not terribly unusual for high school students. In fact, high school teachers see things like this every day.

Suzy is a nice young woman who has since graduated from high school, and she will do fine in life. But let's face it, if you asked her a question about World War II today, my guess is that she might not give you a very good answer. She did the work necessary to earn a passing grade in American history. Her attendance was good, she was always on time, she regularly did her assignments, and she could learn and repeat answers. Does that mean I can I sit here and tell you that I think she really understood it? No. I think she got some sense of American history while taking my class, but would I call her "proficient"? Probably not. But there is no question in my mind that she deserved her passing grade.

I've had a number of Suzys in my classes over the years, but I've also had students like Chrissy, who got a perfect score on her SAT. I've also had students like Bobby, who wrote one of the funniest and most insightful essays that I've ever read when he answered a final test question on the history of liberals and conservatives in America during the 20th century. I have to do everything I can to set my class so that it will be challenging for Chrissy and Bobby, but I've also got to do everything I can to set it up so that Suzy has a real chance to learn as much as she can and to be successful. I've got news for the experts: that isn't easy. I have a sneaking suspicion that when the high-brows look down their noses at public schools, and complain that something has been dumbed down, a lot of them might have Chrissy and Bobby in mind, but not too many of them are thinking of Suzy. They probably couldn't care less about her. Well, they can afford that luxury, but I can't. It's my job to serve all of them.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Coleman Report: Race, Social Class, and Education

NOTE: Although I am linking to Education Week's article on the Coleman Report, you need to have a paid subscription to get into it. I'm sure most people don't have that, so I will also link to an older article on the report. When I write about what I think are some of the key points of the Education Week article, I promise I'll try to be "fair and balanced." Hopefully, I can do a little better job of that than Fox News.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Coleman Report. This Education Week article on it is more in depth than any that I've read before. (There is an older article on the Coleman Report here.) The study that resulted in the Coleman Report was ordered as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and hopes were high that the damaging effects of racism could be overcome in a relatively short time by having good schools. But when the report was released 40 years ago by the U.S. Office of Education, it said that the most important factor in determining the performance of children in school was not the school they attended, but their family background. It created a great deal of controversy because it concluded that schools generally can not overcome differences that are created by the families to which children were born. The Education Week article says that still hasn't changed.

“The Coleman Report basically opened up that question, and nobody’s been able to answer it satisfactorily since,” said David J. Armor, a researcher who worked on the original study and subsequent reanalysis. “No one has found a way, on a large-scale basis, to overcome the influence of family,” added Mr. Armor, currently a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

It seems odd to me that the Coleman Report created so much controversy. Should it be any surprise that schools can't do everything? Should it be any surprise that they can't be expected to overcome every problem in our society, especially when those problems become rooted in the home? (Duh!) Although we will win some battles now and then, it seems obvious that without good parents as partners, providing a good education for children is an uphill battle that schools will usually lose.

The report had another conclusion which doesn't surprise me:

The Coleman team also found that whom students went to school with was almost as important as family background in predicting academic success.

If I wanted to pull a Fox News here, I would probably say, "See! This proves my point that the make up of the students in a class is crucial." Actually, though, this was referring to social class. Specifically, they found that African-Americans did better when they went to school with middle-class students than when they went to school with lower-class students, and this became fuel for the policy of forced busing. In a later report by Coleman, he concluded that that policy had failed.

I think the differences between going to school with lower class kids and middle class kids had a lot more to do with attitudes than whether or not the kids were black or white. Upper-middle class families, regardless of their race, tend to put the most emphasis on education, because their economic success has been based on their careers. The parents in these families know that in order for their children to live as well as they did, they'll have to do well in school. I've read that in sociology books, and I've seen that in students that I've had. Lower-class people, on the other hand, tend to be afflicted with a sense of hopelessness, and this affects a lot of their kids' attitudes toward school. Obviously, schools need to try to alter this outlook, but I think the evidence shows that so far, we haven't been very successful at that. But that doesn't mean that there aren't any lower class kids who see education as important. Some do, and there is no more important challenge for public education than to find a way to provide these kids with a healthy learning environment.

Education Week's article says that some people reacted to the Coleman Report by saying that schools don't matter. How dumb can you get! As Daniel Patrick Moynihan (my all-time favorite senator) and a collaborator of his said, "Children don't think up algebra on their own."

If someone thinks education should be able to cure all of society's ills in a generation or two, I guess school doesn't matter. We can't single-handedly overcome the effects of hundreds of years of racism, and we usually can't overcome the effects of lousy parenting. We also can't operate in a vacuum, and pretend that so many of the things that are screwed up in our society don't exist. We can, however, offer every individual student the opportunity to be successful. Unfortunately, because of things in their lives over which schools have no control, there are a depressingly high number of lower class kids who won't take advantage of that opportunity. Some will, however, and to those kids, regardless of their social class, school definitely matters.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

My Friend's Fantastic Commentary (If you're a teacher, you've got to read this!)

Shortly after school let out, I received an email from George Larson, an old friend of mine and a former hockey coach. George was a long-time English teacher at Brooklyn Center High School, and now he is the principal there. He had heard about my book, so he was writing to congratulate me on its publication, but he also told me that he was sending me a couple of articles he had written on public education a number of years back.

He sent them via regular mail, or slow-mail, as George puts it, and they ended up in my school mailbox. Since I don't check my school mail very often in the summer, I just got them last week. They were both excellent and left me thinking that I'm not the one who should have written a book.

One of the points that I tried to make in my book, and still try to make from time to time on my blog, is that a lot of things going on in our society make our jobs as teachers much more difficult. In one of George's artcles, he made the point much better than I ever could, and I'm going to share that article with you now.

To set the stage, the year was 1989, and President Bush "41" had just conducted an education summit with the governors of the 50 states. I think you'll find like I did, that even though the year was 1989, all you'd have to do is change a few names and what George had to say is completely relevant today. The title of George Larson's article is "The Cleavers Don't Live Here." Here it is:

I knew I should have invited them here. Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia campus is a wonderful place, but I think Room 28 would have been better suited for a presidential summit on education.

I'm sure there would have been room for all 50 delegates, and all the 13- and 14-year olds scurrying around Room 28 would have created an appropriate setting for such a meeting. I don't suppose there were many kids that age on the Virginia campus.

If meeting in Room 28 proved impossible, at least Mr. Bush could have invited some of us to Virginia. After all, the summit was about kids and teachers, wasn't it?

I think I was qualified to take part in the summit. I've been teaching for 22 years. I love kids, teaching, and learning. Too bad I didn't receive an invitation, because I would have spoken right up when my turn came.

First I would have talked about my father. He had an eighth grade education. He’s 80 now, but I think of him often when I reflect on my 22 years in the "trenches." No man valued education more than he did. Filling his home was an atmosphere that shouted "School is important" and "Learning is important."

Mr. President, as my 13- and 14-year-olds come to my classroom each day, I wonder how many, if any, come from such an atmosphere? Does such an atmosphere exist anywhere in this country today? These children come to me each day, wearing the cloak of 1989 America. You see, America’s schools and students are a microcosm of our nation.

Next, I would have told the president and governors a little about those warm, wonderful, loving beings that enter America’s schools each morning.

Some haven’t had breakfast; others didn’t have supper last night. Some have four parents, some have three, some have two or one or none. Some watched TV for four hours last night, others drank beer for four hours. Some are pregnant, others wish they were pregnant because then they’d get some attention. Some were kicked out of their beds last night because mom’s boyfriend was sleeping over.

Some worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at a restaurant last night. For some, TV Guide is the only reading material in the house. Some watch in wonder as Mom and Dad scramble, claw, and climb the corporate ladder, working 15-hour days. On weekends, their parents are equally busy climbing the social ladder.

Some claim Metallica and Morton Downey, Jr. as their heroes. Others rush home at 3 p.m. to learn all they can from Jesse, Geraldo, and Oprah. Still others skip school to watch soaps. Some skipped school for MTV and Nintendo.

Some have never been inside a museum. For some, a family trip in the summer is going to the movies two blocks away from home. Some shower only once a week. Some can only think about their divorcing parents, so schoolwork isn’t their first thought of the day.

Some live near the 7-Eleven where three murders have been committed. Some belong to gangs. Some haven’t seen Mom in a week and have never seen Dad. Some must rush home from school to babysit, instead of staying after school. Some are depressed because
Seventeen tells them they must look a certain way, which they never will. Others throw up daily so they can look like Seventeen’s cover girl.

Some think about ending it all. Some do. Some were abused last night, so nouns and verbs aren’t really a priority this morning. Some were kicked out last night, and some were high. Some are sick, but there’s no insurance, so they stay sick. Some are substitute moms and dads for their three brothers and four sisters, and they’re only 15. Some are 13 going on 30. Some consider Pete Rose and John McEnroe "cool." Some think anything goes as long as you don’t get caught.

Some can’t read, but no one ever took the time to read to them. Some have questions about sex, but parents, schools, and churches juggle responsibility, so the streets supply the answers.

Some say, "What’s the use? Dad went to college, and now after 15 years on the job, he’s unemployed." Some say, "Mom gets more on welfare than she does when she’s working." Some ask, "If I go to school and then to college, will I find a good job like the one I have in the crack business?"

Some watched Dad cry as the bank took the farm. Some watched and listened as Mom and Dad waged their daily battles. Some watched Dad hit Mom. Some have black eyes from frustrated dads. Some watched porno on cable last night. Others were stars of a porn film. Some cried because their were no dollars for prom dress, but always enough for beer.

Some know that Mom and Dad have never been inside their school and never will. Some know that the manager of the local fast-food place will give them 25 cents an hour more if they can find a way to get out of school at noon to work for him. Some say "nigger" or "spic" because everyone at home does. Some watched their parents cheat on taxes, lie to the policeman, and run a red light. Some have read about government scandals and corruption in the 1980s. Others know about corporate greed and astronomical salaries and believe that’s where it’s at. Some believe only money matters.

Some have been latchkey kids since they were 5. Some are left alone all day and all night. Some hear parents laugh at or belittle their teachers. Some are the 10th child in a third-generation welfare home. For some life begins with Sunday football. Some live in homes that haven’t been turned off in 10 years. Some are 15 and haven’t sat with their family for a meal since they were 3.

Sorry, Mr. Bush, I see that my time is up. I just wanted to tell you a little about some of America's schoolchildren. You know, the ones the summit was about. The ones who each day come into the Room 28s of America and bring with them the residue of 1989 America.

If there exists a crisis in American public education, then it exists because there's a crisis in America. This is not the voice of condemnation, nor is it the voice of a school teacher trying to pass the blame or point a finger. I tell my students to be careful when they point a finger, because the remaining three fingers point back at them. There should be no pointing of fingers. Amercan classrooms are what they are today because of what America is today.

Columnist Cal Thomas says, "Fixing public schools should mean privatizing the entire system." His theory places responsibility in the hands of the parents and takes it out of the hands of the government. He may be referring to parents like my father and to a post-Sputnik attitude toward public education. That's not the way it is in 1989. That's why the summit is a start, but it must be the start of total commitment by our national government.

The summit was a thoughtful, noble venture. It's a beginning. But the summit will not change 1989 America. I'm not sure what will. Whatever educational system we use in coming years, it must be one which knows that the child of 1989 is not the child my father sent to school. Before any real educational change can occur, America will have to take a look at itself and make some adjustments.

I would comment on George's article, but despite the fact that it's 17 years old, any addition from me could only detract from it's eloquence. I mean, how do you top that!