Saturday, August 26, 2006

The State of Public Education=New Orleans?

This is my second post in a row that I'm piggybacking on a Education Wonks post. This Wonks post was about the public schools in New Orleans a year after Katrina, but it wasn't the post itself that got me. It was a couple of the comments. I found them infuriating because they are so typical of attacks made on public education by our critics.

Ed Wonk closed his post by saying this:
In pre-Katrina New Orleans, few of the affluent or upper middle-class sent their children to public schools, which were notorious for their crime, violence, and underachievement.

After speaking with relatives of ours who live in the New Orleans area, I don't think that's likely to change in the foreseeable future as those who have the financial means continue to re-enroll their offspring in private and parochial institutions.

And as long those folks with plenty of cash continue to "opt-out" of their own school system, I'm not optimistic that positive systemic change will occur in New Orleans' public schools.
KDeRosa responded with this comment:
When an informed customer evaluates the product from one provider, determines that they are inferior, and then selects the product of another provider, presumably because they are superior, you would not typically blame the consumer for selecting the better product. You blame the service provider for offering an inferior product that the consumer doesn't want.
It is especially noteworthy when the consumer picks the alternate product even though he has to pay for the inferior product whether he uses the product or not. Such is the woeful satte (his spelling) in education.
It is the last sentence of this comment that really gets me: "Such is the woeful state (I assume that's the word that he meant to use) in education." This distortion is typical of people who are critical of public education. To take a place like New Orleans, with all of its problems, and to portray that as "the state in education" is either stupid or dishonest. There are thousands of public schools with millions of students around the nation where any student who wants a good education can get one. Critics of public education completely ignore them when they talk about public schools, however, and focus totally on schools like those in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington D.C..

Do we have problems in some urban areas? You bet! And those problems have to be addressed. If someone wants to argue for vouchers in places like those, people like me have to listen. (Notice, however, that those who want vouchers for "competition" never, ever suggest that public schools be given the same powers private schools have in dealing with their violent, disruptive, and apathetic students.) But declaring the problems in our worst schools to be "the state of public education" is like declaring the frustrations of the 2006 Kansas City Royals to be representative of the state of major league baseball.

And that wasn't the end. Henry Cate made this comment:

Thousands and tens of thousands of people have been trying to improve the public school system for decades. I think it has only gotten worse since the 1983 report. I am afraid the system can not be fixed by working within the system. We need a major change, something like vouchers, to really shake up the system.

First of all, there is no evidence to back up Cate's guess that things have gotten worse since 1983. Even Jay Greene, who is no defender of public education, concedes that. Cate is probably confused because the critics of public education have become louder and louder. And once again, according to Cate, it's not just certain places that have problems, it's the whole system.

I'm sure that people like Cate and KDeRosa love the term failing schools--another concept that infuriates me. They probably picture teachers and administrators just sitting around with their feet up drinking coffee, making no effort whatsoever, and just waiting to collect their paychecks. They have no idea how hard some of the people in those "failing schools" work, and how competent many of them are. I believe that people like Cate and KDerosa are clueless about what actually goes on in public schools and what the problems really are.

What makes all this even more frustrating is that NCLB is designed to declare more and more public schools to be "failing" until they've gotten nearly all of us by 2014--the year when 100 percent of our students are supposed to be "proficient." I'm sure that some of our critics will have a wonderful time running around saying "I told you so," as more and more of us are labeled failing.

I can't blame concerned parents for sending their kids to private schools if they believe that's necessary for their kids to get a good education. As the number schools labeled as "failing" increases, I'm sure more and more parents will do that, even though the term will be inappropriate for many of those schools . And as public schools lose many of our best students--students we need to have a good learning environment in our classrooms, it's entirely possible that some of our critics will get their wish. Public schools around the nation might just become as bad as they say.

12 Comments:

Blogger KDeRosa said...

As a preliminary matter, in his closing comments Edwonk was talking about pre-Katrina New orleans education, so their current post-Katrina problems are irrelevant to the argument.

There are thousands of public schools with millions of students around the nation where any student who wants a good education can get one...

Do we have problems in some urban areas? You bet!


While it is true that there are a few exceptional schools. They are the exception, not the rule. Most schools that perform well are located in affluent areas. What these schools have is a lack of low SES and minority students. The few low SES and minority kids they do have perform just as poorly as they do in the "bad" schools. This is not unsurprising, all these schools pretty much teach the same faddish nonsense.

This is the first flaw in your theory.

You also need to explain the high remediation rates we see in our college bound students that are coming out of these supposedly great schools. The remediatation rates are due to a lack of basic skills that should have been taught in K-12. These high remediation rates are another fly in your public school-apologist ointment.

They have no idea how hard some of the people in those "failing schools" work, and how competent many of them are.

It doesn't matter how hard they work, it only matters how effective they are. If they were effective without the hard work, then good for them.

What makes all this even more frustrating is that NCLB is designed to declare more and more public schools to be "failing" until they've gotten nearly all of us by 2014--the year when 100 percent of our students are supposed to be "proficient."

This effect is an artifact of schools failing to improve as the law ratchets up. If schools were capable of improving, then more and more schools wouldn't be failing.

Lastly, these problems are not just limited to public schools. Many parochial and private schools have the same problems because they teach the same faddish nonsense that gets taught in the public schools. My criticisms of education are not just limited to public schools. A bad school is a bad school is a bad school.

8/27/2006 8:52 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Kderosa, my theory is just fine, thank you. With all due respect, I'm sure you think you know what you are talking about, but you don't.

My school is definitely not exceptional, but there is no question in my mind that if a student comes to our school, and wants to go to college, that student will probably be able to do that, and that student will probably be successful. The evidence bears that out. Last year, Chrissy Hallett, one of our former students, graduated from Harvard Law School. During her senior year she earned a perfect score on both portions of the SAT. She is not a fluke. We have kids now attending the University of Minnesota, the University of North Dakota, and nearly every state and private university in the area. Besides Harvard, we've had kids go to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other prestigious universities around the nation. We have former students who are now doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, biological engineers, teachers, mechanics, and nurses. We have former students who have started their own small businesses, and we've got others who are working for large corporations.

I don't know how many of our kids have needed remediation in college, but I doubt that there have been many. My three sons have all graduated from college, and two of them were very average high school students. None of them needed any remediation in college. And I get tired of hearing colleges crying about that. If kids don't qualify, don't accept them.

And there is no evidence that my school is in a league of its own. In fact, all the evidence would indicate that there are thousands of schools around the nation who do just as good a job as we do.

The main problem in public schools today is that not enough kids make their own education a high priority. The kids to whom education is important do well. The kids who don't care do poorly. And please don't try to blame us for not reaching the underachievers, because we spend more time, effort, and money on them than anyone else.

There are problems in public education because there are problems in our society. We can play a role in helping to solve those problems, but we can't operate as if they don't exist. If you really want to see public education improve, you should be arguing for two changes: 1. Give teachers the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from our classrooms. 2. Give principals the authority to keep their best teachers regardless of seniority, and give them the authority to remove any teachers who are incompetent (there aren't nearly as many of them as you probably think). If you want to have vouchers have vouchers where the schools are truly bad, go for it, but if we make the two changes I've suggested it will do more to improve education in this country than all the vouchers in the world.

8/27/2006 10:36 AM  
Blogger rory said...

So thats the solution... get rid of the "disruptive and apathetic" students. Why is it the teachers always blame the students. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

8/27/2006 2:23 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, I did a number of posts on this topic in June. If you check my archives, my first post that month was called "Dialogue on Disruptive Students," and it includes a lot of back and forth on this subject. I am copy-pasting another post I did on this subject here, and I hope you'll have the patience to read it. You might disagree with it, but I'll be surprised if you think it's totally unreasonable. Here it is:

How can anyone argue against education being a right? I know how bad it sounds. It’s like arguing against Mom and apple pie. The idea of education being the right of every child sounds so good, but there’s one problem. It doesn’t work very well. It’s bad for schools, it’s bad for teachers, it’s bad for students who get stuck in classes with disruptive and apathetic students who ruin their education, and it’s even bad for most of the disruptive and apathetic students.

The way education is now treated as a right began with court rulings in the 1960s. First, the Supreme Court said that students don’t leave their rights at the schoolhouse door. Later, they declared education to be a student’s property right that can’t be taken away without due process of law. Then, they ruled that students could sue school officials who knew or should have known that they were denying students their due process rights. Congress and state legislatures couldn’t wait to jump on the students’ rights bandwagon, so they have passed legislation reinforcing this concept.

Philip K. Howard, in his book THE DEATH OF COMMON SENSE, argues that nothing has done more harm to public education than declaring education to be the student’s right. I agree. This has made it impossible for schools to deal effectively with most disruptive and apathetic students. It has led to horror stories like those described by Elizabeth in her post, THE DISASTER WE CALL PUBLIC EDUCATION. If a student brings a weapon to school, then that student might get expelled. But for anything else, it is either impossible or prohibitively expensive to do so.

Let me make myself clear. I have no problem with students having the right to enroll in our school, and I have no problem with them having the right to be treated fairly while they are here. But they should not have the right to just be here. That should be contingent on whether or not they are willing to make a reasonable effort to succeed, and whether or not they are willing to follow reasonable rules. If some kids are determined not to do those things, there is nothing good that can happen from their presence in school, and it should not cost thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and court costs to get rid of them.

The rights of disruptive and apathetic students to remain in school has effectively taken away the right to an education for millions of students who actually wanted one since the Supreme Court made their rulings. But as I said earlier, this does no good for the disruptive and apathetic kids who are supposedly being protected, either.

Most students behave, in part, because they don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want teachers to get angry with them, they don’t want to serve detention, and they definitely don’t want to be suspended. Disruptive kids aren’t deterred by any of these things, but many of them do want to remain in school. Most students want to earn good grades, and they want to avoid bad ones. Obviously, apathetic kids aren’t terribly motivated by grades, but again, many of them do want to remain in school.

I am convinced that many disruptive kids would improve their behavior, and many apathetic kids would actually start to make an effort if they thought there was a real possibility that they could get kicked out if they didn’t. Wouldn’t this be the best possible thing we could do for these kids? And if they are totally unwilling to change, what good does it do them to be in school?
I am all for offering incentives to troubled students to do well, and sometimes those incentives work. I am all for those few teachers who are so full of love and empathy that they can reach kids that nobody else can. Nevertheless, I think these "carrots" would be effective a lot more often if we also had a stick. As it is now, when it comes to dealing with disruptive and apathetic students, public education doesn’t have a stick.

8/27/2006 3:16 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, your response is long on anecdote and short on data. And, the plural of anecdote is not data.

The main problem in public schools today is that not enough kids make their own education a high priority. The kids to whom education is important do well. The kids who don't care do poorly. And please don't try to blame us for not reaching the underachievers, because we spend more time, effort, and money on them than anyone else.

So you have "underachievers" in your school? Is that why your schools perform so well? Did you not count the underachievers?

I suppose any school is a terrific school by this standard. Too bad that about 2/3 of the student population qualifies as underachievers according to NAEP results.

I contend that underachievers are caused by bad teaching. Studies like Project Follow Through clearly suppport my contention. When teaching improves, we get a lot less underachievers. It's like magic, I tell you.

And, believe it or not, it also works without all the problems in society being cured. So that's not really an excuse.

Also, with respect to inattentive and disruptive students, that's a bogus excuse as well. When teaching improves such that students are learning and with good classroom management techniques in place, the incidence of disruptive behavior is reduces to about 3-5%.

8/27/2006 7:43 PM  
Anonymous SteveH said...

"This has made it impossible for schools to deal effectively with most disruptive and apathetic students."

Either schools can deal with this issue or they can't. It sounds like you are saying they can't. This must make you a strong proponent of school choice and/or full vouchers.

However, this is only one part of the problem, and many public schools do not have these problems to any great degree. Also, high schools separate kids using different tracks or phases. Students on the higher tracks are more motivated and generally don't cause problems. This is not the best solution, but it limits the external excuse that schools and teachers love to use to cover all educational problems.

Lower schools are not much of a problem for disruptive and apathetic students. Perhaps this appears in the upper grades, like 7th and 8th, but many schools have and will begin the separation process by those grades. But, then again, how can you be sure that these problems are not caused by the school itself? Blaming disruption and apathy only on external forces is a copout.


Everything would be just fine if we just get rid of the problem kids? Is that it? Well, that isn't it. Our public schools have few problems with disruptive and apathetic kids, but there are big problems. Of course, kids can, if they really want to, and really work hard, go to college. That is not a very good definition of success. Our lower schools love that sort of definition. "Our kids hold their own" in high school compared to kids from other towns. There are major problems with educational assumptions, philosophy, curricula, and grade-level expectations. The Supreme Court does not demand that schools socially promote students. The Supreme Court does not demand low content, low skill, and low expectation curricula. The parents of twenty five percent of the kids in our town pay (above taxes, two-thirds of which go to the public schools) to send their kids to other schools. It's not about elitism. Many of the parents grew up in public schools. It's not disruptive or apathetic students. That's not the reason. The reasons are low expectations, bad curricula, and ineffective teaching methods. Private K-8 schools were unheard-of (except for Catholic schools) when I was growing up. Now, they are popping up all over the place.


"And as long those folks with plenty of cash continue to "opt-out" of their own school system, I'm not optimistic that positive systemic change will occur in New Orleans' public schools."

It's the other way around. Many of these parents leave after they try their best to change the system. The assumption is that the schools and teachers want help from these parents. They want help ONLY IF the parents support the school's agenda. This is the problem. There is a basic conflict over what constitutes a good education; philosophy, curricula, and teaching methods. To blame disruptive or apathetic students and then say that kids CAN go to college from pubic schools misses the real issues either on purpose or by ignorance.


"If you really want to see public education improve, you should be arguing for two changes: 1. Give teachers the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from our classrooms. 2. Give principals the authority to keep their best teachers regardless of seniority, and give them the authority to remove any teachers who are incompetent..."

"Give teachers the authority"? How about principals? "...regardless of seniority.." Talk to your unions about that, not us parents. Do you really think this will happen? Fat chance. Parents would love to see these things too, but they are NOT!!!!! THE answer. There are many, many other issues.

Publics schools are not important. Individual kids are, right now.

8/27/2006 8:12 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Kderosa and Steveh, you are obviously both convinced that public schools are doing a horrible job, and nothing I can say is going to alter that. I think you both did a good job making your arguments, and you didn't get personal, and I respect that.

I guess we are looking at things at completely different angles. You seem to be unwilling to give public schools any credit for students who do well, but place all of the blame on them for the students who do poorly. I believe public schools present opportunities to kids. Many, of various ability levels, take advantage of those opportunities. I don't know what their test scores were, but I do know that there are very few kids who have graduated from our school who are not productive citizens. There are some who don't take advantage of the opportunities they are given. My argument is that when so many kids are able to do so well, why is it assumed that it is the school's fault when others don't.

Both of you seem to believe that students would do much better if only schools would use the right teaching methods. During my career, I don't know how many times I've heard that one--the magical approach that will solve all of our problems. It's been modular scheduling, outcome-based education, mastery learning, brain-based learning, cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, control theory, assertive discipline, and direct instruction. If you are saying that some teachers take the more progressive methods too far, I'd have to agree with you, but I have seen some teachers use progressive methods very effectively. I have also seen teachers use traditional methods effectively, and other bore their classes to tears. One thing I've learned is that when you're dealing with six different sets of 25-30 kids for one hour a day for 180 days a year, there is no magic formula.

Regarding disruptive students, I am not talking about a large number of kids in my school. In fact, I haven't had a truly disruptive kid in any of my classes for the last two years. I think Kderosa's 3-5% figure is about right, overall. But having just one truly disruptive kid in a classroom can significantly affect the learning that takes place in that classroom. And I suspect that in some schools, teachers may be faced with two or three of these kids every class of the day. I'm telling you that legislatures and the courts have made it nearly impossible for classroom teachers to deal with them. I can also tell you that as a hockey coach I had the power to remove kids if I thought their attitude or behavior was hurting the team. During my seventeen years in Warroad, we removed a grand total of two. Because we had that authority, we rarely had to use it. If you don't care about it, or if you want to say that's the school's problem, fine. But if we want to improve public schools, dealing with disruptive and apathetic students is a situation that needs to be dealt with.

Regarding teachers seniority and tenure, Steveh is right. Unions will fight that, and it will be tough to change, but some states have. I can do from my end what I can about it, and I have. I've made my position known about this in a very public way. One thing that surprised me after my book was published was how many teachers agreed with me. Once again, you can say this isn't your problem, but I would like to see the public push for this.

And Steveh: I know kids are important. That's WHY I think public schools are important.

Well, I've got to go. Once again, even though you seem to think I'm an idiot, thank you for visiting my site, and thanks for making your arguments in such a civil way.

8/28/2006 5:54 AM  
Anonymous SteveH said...

"...you are obviously both convinced that public schools are doing a horrible job,..."

No, I didn't say "horrible".

I was told once by someone that the idea is to put your child into a private K-8 school and then send them to the public high school. High schools separate by ability and the better tracks are driven by external AP standards. (One could argue about AP courses, but that is not the point.) I see most of the problems of low expectations, bad curricula, and poor teaching methods in the lower grades. Unfortunately, this means that many students are not properly prepared for the better high school tracks. That kids CAN get into college via public school is not a criterion for success.


Is this a matter of personal educational opinion? Not when one can clearly define that schools are using bad curricula. This is perhaps easiest to see in lower school math. Lower schools (K-8) seem to live in a separate reality with no ounce of outside (like AP courses or even high school) influence.

Education and grade-level expectations are not very well defined. Many schools and teachers do not like to focus on basic content and skills and allow kids to slide from one grade to the next using a spiraling concept of learning. The focus is on learning from a top-down, hands-on, thematic approach that doesn't guarantee specific levels of content knowledge and skills. A high school math teacher told me that they (the high school) have little influence over the lower schools. They can recommend, but the lower schools can do what they want. For math, one can see real curriculum gaps between 8th and 9th grades. Of course, some kids (with outside help) will always get into the top high school tracks, so lower schools think that everything is OK.


"I believe public schools present opportunities to kids. Many, of various ability levels, take advantage of those opportunities."

No, and that is the problem. Many lower schools are centered around full-inclusion and no separation by ability, not even in 7th and 8th grades. Kids who are autistic are mixed in with the best students in a child-centered, thematic approach to education. This is usually handled with enrichment for the better students, rather than acceleration of material. The best students will overcome this (in spite of what the school does) and get into the honors tracks in high school. It's the average kids who are hurt the most.



"My argument is that when so many kids are able to do so well, why is it assumed that it is the school's fault when others don't."

So many? I think that schools can do much better. Many students do well because of outside parental or tutoring help. When I look at the trivial NAEP test questions and bad results, the only conclusion I come to is that schools can do a whole lot better.


"During my career, I don't know how many times I've heard that one--the magical approach that will solve all of our problems."

Actually, I don't really care what teaching methods are used if I can see a coherent curriculum and specific grade-level expectations - AND the school gets the kids to meet those levels. Many of the other parents I talk to who put their kids into private schools don't really comment about teaching methods. However, they do know low and fuzzy expectations when they see them.

Our schools are still trying to get kids to master their adds and subtracts to 20 in third grade. Of course, teaching methods do matter and specific expectations of content coverage and mastery of skills do matter. Many teaching methods used in the lower grades are DESIGNED around low expectation spiraling and fuzzy grade-level expectations. One teaching method might have quite different assumptions and goals than another.


" ... there is no magic formula."

There are, however, well-defined curricula and grade-level expectations. The argument has never been strictly about teaching methods. I started learning all about education because of the pathetically bad math curricula used in our lower schools - curricula that virtually guarantee students will not be prepared for a technical career without outside parental or tutoring support.

We parents have tried to make changes. I was told that I could be on a citizen's curriculum committee, but it was never formed and the school decided to continue to use a pathetically poor math curriculum. They finally changed it to one that is less bad, but it took them 4 years. Schools only want help from parents if they support their agenda.


"And Steveh: I know kids are important. That's WHY I think public schools are important."


You're missing my point. Publics schools: monoply, assumptions, philosophy, curricula (or lack thereof), teaching methods, low expectations, union rules and seniority, disruptive students that schools cannot or will not do anything about, and lack of parental input, get in the way of providing a good education. The goal is not to fix public schools. the goal is to give the best educational opportunities to individual students right now.

Outside of unrestricted and unlimited charter schools, I don't see any process for solving these problems under the heading of "public schools". Most public schools and teachers fight (tooth and nail) all charter schools, especially ones that set higher standards. However, school choice and competition are the only forces that will drive these changes.

8/28/2006 7:58 AM  
Blogger rory said...

Ok... I will give you the disruptive students. Though I can't help but think that a majority of disruptive students are disruptive as a defense mechanism to feeling inadequate academically. My guess is that if the public schools had taught them what they needed to know earlier in their schooling that they wouldn't be disruptive. As for the apathetic, let them get the grades they earn, but kicking them out is a little too much.

8/28/2006 9:53 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, I appreciate your response, and I will return that on your site later.

Steveh, you are hitting me at an area of weakness. Your stongest complaints deal with elementary and middle school math, and I'm a high school social studies teacher. I can't speak with any confidence for the schools in your area, but I can speak for mine. (By the way, ours is a rural school, six miles from Canada.) Our math program is not the strong point of our school, but I have two sons who are making very nice livings in technical fields after graduating from here. Neither of them got any special help or tutoring while they were in high school. One was a very gifted student, but the other had to work hard to make the most of his average ability. Both of them have been well-served by the math education they got in this public school.

I maintain that our best hope for the greatest number of our kids in this nation is to have the strongest public education system that we can. Obviously, I think public schools, in general, are a lot better than you do.

8/28/2006 11:04 AM  
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