Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Discussing education with non-teachers

Over the past several months, I have had blogging discussions with people like Rory, KDerosa, Crypticlife, and Steven. (Please forgive me if I left you out, but those are the first names that came to my mind.) All of these people are intelligent, passionate about the subject of education, and all of them disagree with me a lot. I have found my discussions with these gentlemen, and also people like Elizabeth, who chimes in once in awhile, challenging and generally enjoyable. But I have also often felt frustration when I've gone back and forth with them, because they are not teachers. I know how bad that sounds on the face of it, so please let me explain.

Teaching is a demanding job; I don't think even most of our critics would deny that. And I think most people would agree that there are aspects of any demanding job that are only understood by those who actually do it. Two of my sons are involved with computers. I'd like to tell you exactly what they do, but I don't understand their jobs even when they explain things to me slowly and avoid using big words. I doubt that any of their neighbors would ever try to make even minor suggestions about how they should do their jobs. The same can be said to some extent for people who are doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, and even carpenters and plumbers. But that is not the case for teachers.

Most people have gone to school, and they weren't there for just a little while. Anyone who has gone no further than graduating from high school has spent much of thirteen years of his or her life in school classrooms. We shouldn't be surprised that many people who have done that feel like they have a pretty good handle on what goes on in a classroom, and what it's like to be a teacher. As a result, I think there is a tendency for people who aren't teachers to believe that they understand what happens in the classroom a lot better than they actually do.

Some people can be quite obnoxious about it. A couple of weeks ago, I was watching Fox and Friends early in the morning, and in their "fair and balanced" manner, they were interviewing another conservative ideologue who they presented as an expert. The "expert" began to trash public schools, as conservative ideologues have a want to do, and he finished by saying, "If you're only going to learn one thing, let it be this: they're government schools, not public schools."

Public education critics seem to feel particularly clever when they call public schools government schools, but it actually shows how little they know. They do this because, they say, the public has no meaningful control over the schools. Anybody who works in a school knows how idiotic that idea is. Anytime any parent complains to the school, administrators react, and teachers feel pressure. If three or four parents complain about something, the school goes into crisis mode. Anyone who says that those of us who work in schools don't feel tremendous pressure to keep our publics happy simply have no idea what they are talking about. Nevertheless, this has become a popularly accepted notion.

The expert that I saw on Fox and Friends is an idiot, but the bloggers that I mentioned earlier are not. This post was actually inspired by KDerosa, who made the following statement in a comment on my last post in response to a complaint I made about non-performing students: "I do not understand why teachers never consider the possibility that maybe the problems they see in their low performing students could actually be caused by their own teaching." In fairness, I'm taking KD's statement out of context, and misunderstandings are always possible, but this statement seems pretty clear. Now, KDerosa is obviously intelligent and articulate, and I've never seen anyone who can match him at researching educational issues. But that statement was clearly made by someone who does not understand the mind and the perspective of a teacher.

As I said to KD in my reply, I don't know any teachers who don't consider that--and consider it before almost anything else--anytime their students perform poorly. I think every school goes through cycles of good and bad students. A couple of years ago, my high school was at the top of a very good cycle of students, but the last couple of years we have definitely been on a downward trend. Right now, our school has a lot of frustrated teachers, and almost every one I've talked to about it has told me that they've sat in their rooms at times and wondered, "What am I doing wrong." A lot of people in the public might have trouble believing this, but when things are not going well in the classroom, the first person a teacher looks at is himself. As I've already indicated, KDerosa is not a stupid person. But despite his obvious intelligence, there are some things about being a teacher in a classroom that he'll never quite understand.

I am not saying here that people who are not teachers should never criticize education, schools, or teachers. I have learned a lot from KDerosa, Rory, Crypticlife, Steven, and and Elizabeth, and they've also forced me to clarify my own thoughts. And despite my "special understanding" as a teacher, there been some arguments I've had with them where I've felt like I've been throttled. Let's face it, the fact that they aren't teachers gives them a perspective that teachers need to hear. I am not asking them to shut up (Like they'd listen to me if I did!), and I'm not asking them to concede any arguments to teachers just because they're teachers. All I am asking is that they recognize the fact that because of our experiences, those of us who teach do have some understanding of education that a non-teacher can never have.

One person who might end up bridging the teacher-non-teacher blogging gap is Rory from Parentalcation. Rory has indicated that he is thinking about becoming a teacher, and I really hope he does. First of all, he seems very passionate about education, and with his unique background, I think he'd be terrific. But I also hope he does because I'd love to hear what he would have to say after seeing things from our side.


Blogger TurbineGuy said...

"I would love to hear what he would have to say after seeing things from our side"

HELP ME!!!! :)

2/28/2007 5:40 PM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

As far as your school goes... there is definately something amiss.

According to greatschools.net, your district gets progressively worse, as the kids progress through the system.

In 3rd grade, your students are above average for the state. Each year after that, the scores get lower and lower, especially in math.

The biggest drop off is between 3rd and 5th grades, and then there is a huge drop off once the kids get to High School.

Your schools kids do do pretty well in writing on their 10th grade BST test.

The worst results are on the 11th grade math test.

I was to lazy to get the dissagregated data, but I am guessing you have a sizeable native american population which will skew the results compared to the state.

I am not a public school hater. I am a firm support of the concept of public schools, I also think that a lot of problems that you experience as a HS teacher are definately attributed to the "child centered" culture that pervades our country. It's a cliche, but parents don't raise kids up like they use to.

Kids don't do chores like they use to, they are disrespectful, to much T.V. etc...

I don't really see any simple answers.

I personally suffer from the problems like you do. As shop chief, every year I get two or three brand new 18 year old recruits. It is often a big shock to their system, when they realize that they have to contribute, and that nothing is going to be handed to them on a silver platter, and this is after the Air Force has filtered out the worst.

BTW, there is a very good chance that I might be driving by you next sometime in August, on my way to Alaska. Fancy getting a beer if I am in the neighborhood?

2/28/2007 6:26 PM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...


I feel like you've read my mind. I had a horrible experience while getting dinner tonight. I was just getting ready to blog about it when I wandered over your way. A woman in line at a local restaurant, seeing my school name tag on my shirt, decided to tell me all that we're doing wrong in the classroom. She talked for nearly 20 minutes about what we all need to do in our classes...I finally asked if she was a teacher as well, and she answered, "No." Just like that.

If only she could've been as intelligent as your non-teacher commenters...but, alas, I was subjected to gibberish.

(After my 14-hour day, don't you love the rambling comment I leave on your blog?! ;) )

2/28/2007 6:52 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Rory,

Just so we're clear. I have never viewed you as a public school hater. Critic, yes--and there's nothing wrong with that, especially when someone seems as willing to listen as you do. And if you're ever in the Warroad area, you've got to stop by!!!

2/28/2007 6:56 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

AT, I love getting ANY COMMENT from YOU anytime!

2/28/2007 7:00 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

Dennis, I was an opinionated Mom for many years before I entered the classroom. Did my opinion change after I spent time in the classroom and was a cog in the wheel? You bet it did.

I'm sure you would agree with me that we see the problems....we want to correct them....the problem is we are powerless to correct many of the problems we see.

I would love for every legislator to spend at least one to two weeks in a REAL classroom similar to a student teacher just to get a feel for "how things really are". I think it would be a real eye-opener.

2/28/2007 7:37 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

I'm waiting to hear from Ms. Teacher, one of the few teachers who has traditional teaching experience and some DI teaching experience.

Let me rephrase:

"I now understand that teachers sometimes consider the possibility that maybe the problems they see in their low performing students could actually be caused by their own teaching, but ultimately they always seem to discount this possibility and fall back on the easy view that it's the students' fault."

That seems like a fair statement based on the viewpoints expressed on various teacher blogs.

I concede that teachers are different than non-teachers. Teachers seem to be jaded by their teaching experience. I'll post more on this on my blog later. I have a revealing survey that shows how differently teachers think.

3/01/2007 4:43 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

And just to make sure we're clear, I think this is a logical reaction to working in a very broken system.

3/01/2007 5:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be fair, I think more and more people are starting to tell doctors and lawyers how to do their jobs as well... think of the mounting amount of skepticism aimed at western medicine and the growing popularity of alternative treatments...

3/01/2007 10:10 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

One of the things that concerns me is that you seem to take an attack on the educational system as an attack on teachers.

The changes I'd like to see in the schools are mostly structural. Different pay structures for teachers, better teacher selection mechanisms, better ed school practices. Proven curricula, and more development and research into improving and using what actually helps kids learn, rather than what's politically correct. And, I'd like to have some choice in where my kids go to school that wasn't based purely on where I live or being able to shell out tons of cash.

I'm not sure the complaints you're referring to equate to "meaningful control", Dennis. Parents' control over where their child attends, what grade they attend, what curriculum is used, scheduling of activities, and ... well, I could go on, but perhaps you can give examples of things within the school that actually have been under parents' control?

There's a tendency to blame the subject. One thing I love about dealing with people and computers is the human reaction to them. Often, humans will blame the computers for not behaving "correctly", ascribing them with personalities, moods, and "wrong behaviors". Even professional programmers do this, denying bugs exist when the results are clearly wrong. How much easier is it when the subjects are humans, rather than computers? I would definitely think teachers would ask themselves what they're doing wrong. They also have a motive for thinking "nothing". It's easy to blame the parents, or the kids themselves, and the teachers usually don't have the students after a year.

As for understanding the teaching profession, in your last post you gave 21 points the educational gurus came up with. Based on things like that, is it any surprise a layperson may consider themselves to have equivalent knowledge to an educational guru? I'm pretty convinced that even if the guru who came up with those points argued with me, I could make very cogent counterpoints.

You do mention that the average person has spent 13 years in the classroom. Well, if I'd spent 6 hours a day watching plumbing videos, and seeing what works and what doesn't, for 13 years, I might consider myself able to comment on a plumber's work. I'm willing to believe there's something I'm not getting about teaching, but your comments there seem to be a sort of "you just don't understand!" You bring up that you cannot understand your son's jobs, but they certainly are capable of explaining it. What is it that we're "not getting"? If it's that some students are difficult, we're parents -- we can understand that. If it's that you're very busy, we're workers too, and can understand that also. If it's that there's a lot of kids in the class -- well, we were there for 13 years.

And though I haven't had very many, I could already give you horror stories of parent-teacher conferences, where the other party felt perfectly free to tell me exactly what to do ;).

note: I haven't been able to edit or re-read this for structure or tone. It might be disorganized, and might have come out harsher than I intend (knowing my writing style, it's unlikely to have come out less harsh than I intend).

3/01/2007 11:48 AM  
Blogger Denever said...

I'm not a frequent contributor here but I read your blog with great interest. My first thought on reading this entry was much the same as crypticlife's: 1) most of our criticism is directed at the structure of public ed and at the administrators, not the teachers; and 2) what exactly aren't we getting?

I've spent 20 years in classrooms as a fulltime student. I'm in my second semester of being back in the classroom one night a week, learning a foreign language, and that experience makes me think a lot about what works and what doesn't and how students (even middle-aged ones like me) actually learn best. Am I really not qualified to talk about these things with teachers?

Every single day, I use the skills I first learned in elementary school, and I remember much of my early education with alarming clarity. Am I really not qualified to give an opinion on what I've seen and experienced in classrooms year after year after year?

I can see that one complaint may be that things were too different back when I was in school because, yeah, it's been quite a few years.

But does the teaching of basic skills really change that much? Does what makes this person a good teacher and what makes that person a not-so-good teacher really change much from decade to decade?

If, as I suspect, it doesn't, then why does my ample experience as a student not qualify me to comment competently on schools and teaching? (That may have come out as sounding more like a challenge than I intend, but I'm really asking.)

3/01/2007 12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis,

Despite having been a classroom teacher for seven years, a building level school library media specialist for another 12 years (nearly 20 years providing direct instruction to students grade k-12) and am still a public school administrator, I am VERY hesitant to criticize any teacher. One has absolutely no idea of the realities of the classroom, of kids, and of communities until he/she has actually had responsibility for 20-30+ kids. In fact, I believe anyone who is not in the classroom CURRENTLY has incredible nerve criticizing the educational system, but especially individual teachers. You know I don't always agree with you, but, Dennis, I always respect you since you are there, everyday.

I admire the patience you show with the "since I've been a student I know everything about education" group. Oh, and those ivory tower administrators like me!

Keep writing from the trenches, buddy!

Getting any snow up your way?


3/01/2007 1:56 PM  
Blogger Denever said...

"since I've been a student I know everything about education"

Warning: straw man under attack!

Who has said anything this sweeping?

Here's a question for teachers:

Have you ever criticized members of any other profession, such as doctors who treat you and your kids, or lawyers you met while serving on jury duty or even lawyers involved in cases you read about in the newspaper?

Have you ever criticized customer service representatives you've dealt with, or mechanics who've tried to repair your car, or the people who represent you in Congress?

If, so what qualified you to do this if you haven't done any of those jobs yourself? (Please be specific.)

3/01/2007 2:41 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Wow! Where to I begin? To start with, Denever, did you read the second to last paragraph of my post? If you did, how in the world could you conclude that I'm saying that you,or anyone else, aren't qualified to comment on education issues?

To Crypticlife, I plead not-guilty to your charge in your first paragraph. In fact, I at least partially agree with three of the criticisms you list in your second paragraph.

I honestly tried to be diplomatic in this post, and it seems to me that the point of it was just common sense. If you actually do something for a living you will have an understanding of it that people who don't do it don't have. I think EHT says it best:

"I was an opinionated Mom for many years before I entered the classroom. Did my opinion change after I spent time in the classroom and was a cog in the wheel? You bet it did."

That doesn't mean that EHT was a terrible person before she was a teacher and that she's wonderful now (although she is!), it just means that she now possesses an understanding of the classroom that she never had before.

KDerosa makes my point again with this "correction" to his earlier statement:

"I now understand that teachers sometimes consider the possibility that maybe the problems they see in their low performing students could actually be caused by their own teaching, but ultimately they always seem to discount this possibility and fall back on the easy view that it's the students' fault."

Quite frankly, on this subject, KD is totally out to lunch. Every single lesson I have, I'm making evaluations of it's effectiveness and my own performance. How are the kids reacting to this? Are they getting it? Who is getting it? Why are some kids not getting it? What can I do differently? He has absolutely no idea how many adjustments I make day to day to try to do a better job. He has absolutely no idea of all the things I've done during my career in an effort to reach more kids. And I am not unique!

KDerosa, however, does concede something when he says, "I concede that teachers are different than non-teachers. Teachers seem to be jaded by their teaching experience."

Gee, thanks KD. You're a real prince.

And finally, to Doug--The Voice of Reason--thank you for your comment. And have we gotten some snow up here? You betcha, but not as much as you.

Oh, and Crypticlife, don't worry. I'm not going to be offended if you don't edit your work.

3/01/2007 3:20 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Cripes, Doug, that's offensive.

First, I point to denever's excellent post on criticism of other professions.

Second, I'd point out that if it's my own kids, I'd feel morally remiss for NOT questioning. In connection with this, I have daily experience with my kids since birth, in a wide variety of situations. The teachers get 'em six hours a day. My son's first grade teacher suggested to my wife that he might have to be left back for first in the SECOND week of school (when I say second week, I mean in September). My son is fluent in Japanese and English, can multiply and divide negative and positive numbers, can read and write Japanese, and is very inquisitive and perceptive. The teacher suggested he might need to be left back in front of my son. And other students. You think I won't criticize THAT? Is my experience with my son, and laws of confidentiality, outweighed by her ed school credentials and her 42 hours of experience with him and 18 other kids in a single setting?

But really Doug, I think many of us have pointed out that it's more the structure than teachers we're criticizing. And we're not doing it based on experience, but on research. If you want to disagree with my specific desires, that's fine and you may well have more knowledge there -- but you haven't proven that yet.

"In fact, I believe anyone who is not in the classroom CURRENTLY has incredible nerve criticizing the educational system"

In law school, this was referred to as a conclusory statement: in short, a conclusion without any supporting evidence. Your statement, in fact, seeks to deny anyone who is not a teacher an opinion, or even the right to present evidence!

I'd add that at least in New Jersey, the policy manual for teachers indicates that teachers must recognize the parents as the child's "primary teacher". That would make the classroom teacher the "secondary teacher". I'd say if the primary teacher wants to criticize the secondary teacher, they have that right, whether it shows "nerve" or not.

Dennis, I'd add I believe denever was just reacting to Doug's post, not yours. You were quite diplomatic, and indeed there may be a unique perspective of teachers. I kind of suspect you and KDerosa are talking past each other somehow, but his statements are coming off as rather absolutist. I would assume self-evaluation, far from making you unique, would be rather typical while teaching. I kind of don't think that's what he's really talking about, I think it's about the overall evaluation after the fact, but he's still going out on a limb with his phrasing.

Case in point: I never criticize Anonymous Teacher on her blog when she complains of bad students or parents, because when she does she's talking about specific situations (okay, and I admit -- I have a mental image of her I'm fond of -- no offense to you, Dennis). As much as KDerosa will argue, I'm sure he still realizes there are at least some situations where the kids are at fault. At the end of the year, when the teacher evaluates and realizes some kids didn't do as well as they could have, how does the teacher evaluate then? They can't go back. I suspect it's mixed.

When it comes to administrators, I don't know. They don't have to evaluate their own performance, just the system. People will naturally complain to them about students all the time, rightly or wrongly. When their school drops in performance, do they blame the students, the teachers, or do they make changes which might be personally unpalatable to them? Here, self-doubt becomes less of an issue, and I suspect they take the blame route more easily. In defending all of public education, Dennis, I think you're acting more like an administrator than a teacher (though, you do indicate some changes should be made -- I just mean in terms of trying to defend the structure to the extent you do, rather than your own individual teaching (which obviously isn't at issue here)).

3/01/2007 4:43 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/01/2007 4:55 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I'd stick up for Doug here, but (1) I know he's perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and (2) I've got my hands full just sticking up for myself!.

Correct me if I'm wrong (as if I've got to tell you that!), but I only see one major structural issue in which you and I have a major disagreement--and that's vouchers. Unless I'm mistaken, you think they are a good idea, and I don't. Where else do you see us as being far apart?

3/01/2007 4:57 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

By the way, Crypticlife, does this mean that you don't have a mental image of me that you're fond of? My heart is broken, but don't worry--I'll try to get over it.

3/01/2007 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This little debate is great!

Wouldn't it be wonderful to get into the same room with other education bloggers... particularly the "critics" of public education and the "defenders" of public education.

Maybe somewhere in the middle of the country?

As a former teacher and school administrator, I am a defender of public education... in part because of the incessant and irrational attacks. But I can also tell you many things that need to be improved in public education and it is very frustrating to such slow progress.

I became an educator in part because I had many ineffective teachers... and a few great ones.

Let's agree that blogging tends to lead ua all into absolutism. It's part of the desire to be heard.

We could also discuss the pros and cons of charter schools and vouchers.

Of course public schools are government schools, as they are controlled by the electorate and funded by the taxpayers. Funny how "government schools" has such a clear negative connotation. We used to teach that America had the best government structure in the world.

The "percieved success" of primary students compared to high school students, in all districts, is an artifact of the testing programs. Do we really think that all of these kids get dumber as they get older? And then they get smarter again when they become parents?

The blogosphere has presented views on many of these issues in the last few weeks.

Everybody keep at it!

3/01/2007 7:08 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Lee! I'm glad you're enjoying the debate, and I agree with your overall view. THAT MAKES YOU RIGHT!! How's that for absolutism? :-)

3/02/2007 2:40 AM  
Blogger M said...

I always find it hilarious when people who have not taught in the classroom criticise what's going on in the classroom. Bottom line, they have no idea. They might THINK they do, but actually they don't. They can criticise the education system all they want and they might be right, but how that relates to actually teaching in the classroom? HA!

It's like insisting that peas taste good when you've never actually tasted them. You might have talked to people who have tasted peas but until you taste it yourself you speak with absolutely no authority, clarity or intelligence whatsoever on peas. It's the same with the classroom.

I'm not going to go and tell a builder how to use a jigsaw - even though I might have used one once in year 7 woodwork class almost 20 years ago. I think they might know a little better than me.

3/02/2007 3:56 AM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...


You have yourself admitted that your teacher education was spotty (for example, they didn't even teach or address DI and Project Follow Through).

Is it possible that when teachers ask themselves if they could do better, and they come to the conclusion that they couldnt, that this decision is based on lack of knowledge of alternatives.

I also would like to point out that your peers are HS teachers. Perhaps there is nothing they can do to improve their teaching, but... isn't it likely that there is something that the elementary school teachers could of done to improve their teaching, that would of prevented the problems that you face.

And as some have already said, when I advocate reform, it's at a macro-level of the school and district level. It does no good to tell Teacher "A" that they have can make "x" change. What we need is for education schools to teach their students that "x" method is the most effective based on scientific evidence and study "z". We also need administrator and principal "Q" to support method "x".

If education is a profession, it should be based on valid proveable conclusions. The very fact that different schools utilyze a wide variety of curriculums and pedagogies its evidence that the education system is as a whole broken.

I can understand why you as a teacher would be wary of "advice" from us non-teachers, but if it wasn't for us advocating for change... would there be any change. It it reasonable for us parents to sit back and let Teachers decide what is best, when we are unsatisfied with the results.

3/02/2007 6:05 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

We've been down this road before, so I didn't put in the usual qualifications. Yes, some kids, especially at the high school level, will not take responsibility for their own education even with perfect instruction. And, as I've also pointed out before, lack of student engagement is frequently the result of ineffective instruction.

Now we can tackle Dennis' argument.

Dennis claims that he and other teachers continually revise and edit their lessons. No doubt this is true. But equally true is the fact that 30 years of longitudinal data shows that all this tweaking and revising has had little effect on student performance which remains flat.

So what's been the teacher response to this state of affairs? Judging by the archives of teacher blogs, teachers aren't lamenting their inability to construct lesson plans that are effective teacher tools. No, I don't see much of that at all.

What I do see is the quest for excuses external to the classroom to blame for the lack of student performance.

Here's what I wrote back back in May of last year:

As long as the educational climate was such that teaching failures could be blamed on the children, there was no pressure on the teacher to learn more effective means of dealing with children. Over the years, psychologists, mental health workers, and some educators have trained teachers to shift their failures to someone else or at least to blame:

1. the child's home background,
2. his low IQ,
3. his poor motivation,
4. his emotional disturbance,
5. his lack of readiness, or
6. his physical disability

for the teaching failure. With the recent advent of the label learning disability (for children with normal IQ who fail to learn) there is no teaching failure which cannot be blamed on the child.

And so, if you read teacher blogs, you'll see a litany of these excuses being offered to shift the blame for student failure. Dennis has quite a few of these posts himself.

So, no, I do not think I'm off the plantation on this one. I understand why teachers feel powerless due to the intractability of the student performance problem. And for the same reasons it should be evident why M's appeal to authority above lacks bite: the authority is virtually non-existent.

3/02/2007 7:38 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


Well, let's I just have a mental image of you I'm differently fond of ;)

I think that's our main area of difference, though I'd point out that I'm more for school choice generally than vouchers per se. And even then, I could imagine other possibilities that might satisfy similar ends.

I'm not convinced on your "expel the poor students" argument, but I don't reject it either. I think we generally agree on tenure, compensation (though I believe a significantly greater amount of compensation would help the profession, while I believe you do not).


So if the carpenter makes a bad cut, they should blame the wood?

When the surgeon operates on the wrong lung, how much responsibility would you allocate to the patient? The patient's parents?

Your analogies here relies on objective results with clear causes. Your taste of peas analogy is also erroneous; this isn't taste, it's down to what actually works.

When "what's going on" in the classroom includes the curriculum (I can only assume it does), and the curriculum has been nationally and internationally criticized by experts in the field, does the parent really have no right to speak out?

Legally, the burden for education is not on the teacher. It's on the parent, who can be sent to jail for not educating their child. One cannot successfully sue teachers for educational malpractice or negligence. Because of this, the teacher suffers no pecuniary effect of poor performance. Many teachers nevertheless try to (and do) teach well, which is to their credit, but objectively their performance is irrelevant.

For this reason, many parents send their children to Kumon or other non-school programs where significantly different things happen in the classroom. They do this because it works.

Further, besides teaching, teachers also assume a role as surrogate parent. Especially at the elementary school level, besides teaching reading and math they are also teaching social values and discipline. Particular values are not universal, and a classroom can be quite diverse. A parent may well have valid criticisms here.

Your "argument" that critics "have no idea" remains, still, an ad hominem and nothing more.

3/02/2007 10:55 AM  
Blogger Independent George said...

Dennis - I mostly agree with your post, but in reading some of the comments, surely you can see why so many non-teachers might be incredulous? Where you went out of your way to solicit dialogue, there seems to be a significant subset of the teaching population that feels that outsiders have no right to question anything you do.

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting, but comments like "I always find it hilarious when people who have not taught in the classroom criticise what's going on in the classroom. Bottom line, they have no idea. They might THINK they do, but actually they don't..." and "I believe anyone who is not in the classroom CURRENTLY has incredible nerve criticizing the educational system, but especially individual teachers..." sounds an awful lot like "Sit down, shut up, and do what you're told."

I may not have been to med school, but if my doctor starts shaving my belly in preparation of surgery after I reported a sore throat, you can bet your ass I'd start questioning him. Maybe my sore throat was caused by an infection to my pancreas, but I'd want the littlest hint of an explanation - not to mention a second opinion - before I lay down let him start polishing his circular saw.

Likewise, if parents are spending a fortune on tutoring just to get their kids to divide 72 by 9 without whipping out the TI-82s, is it really outrageous to wonder what the heck is actually going on inside the classroom?

3/02/2007 10:57 AM  
Blogger M said...

cryptic - meh, are you implying that objects/organs such as *wood* and *lungs* are in any way shape of form the same as living, breathing, decision making students? lol. I don't think so. The argument is perfectly valid.

As for elementary teachers *assuming* a parental role. Nothing could be further from the truth. They don't *assume* anything of the sort. Elementary teachers certainly care for, adore and have an invested interest for their students but they are in no way assuming this role in the manner you suggest.

It's up to the parent to raise the child and teach the child values. If this is in any doubt then we have bigger problems to worry about as a society than what teachers are doing. School yard values (ie: the golden rule, classroom rules etc) are the jurisdiction of the school. I'm with you on that.

Are results the end point of education? What about teachers that inspire children to learn beyond their means/socio economic status? To dream? To try? To have a go? Everyone is always talking about the results - the end line.

3/02/2007 2:15 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"cryptic - meh, are you implying that objects/organs such as *wood* and *lungs* are in any way shape of form the same as living, breathing, decision making students? lol. I don't think so. The argument is perfectly valid."

No, m -- I didn't initiate the comparison of teaching to carpentry or surgery. They are not the same. A carpenter builds a house, it can be measured. The carpenter doesn't fall back on excuses like "it was the wood's fault". A physician doesn't expect his patient to assist in the surgery.

Moreover, both of them can be held accountable. Teachers are not, and will blame their subject.

Teachers take a parental role to the extent they teach the child social rules. The manner I suggested is that they teach social values and discipline. Which of these are you arguing with? You agree they teach "school yard values" (which would seem to cover an awful lot, including most social values), and "class rules" (i.e., discipline). It's not wrong for them to do this, but it is an area rife with difficulty and complexity and potential conflict, and to say parents should have no voice is ludicrous. Do you mind if I put it back to you? Is there a social value teachers will refrain from teaching? Take Dennis' previous post on ed school gurus -- 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 17 are all social values, and some teachers will likely take these to heart.

I'm not sure what your last paragraph has to do with non-teachers. Are you suggesting non-teachers can criticize teachers for killing students' dreams, for crushing their hopes, and discouraging them -- but not for failing to teach the fundamentals of the material? I truly don't think you want to go down that route. If you do, you are taking some responsibility for students' low motivation, or failure to learn "beyond their means" (a phrase I'm not really comfortable with, as I am really not sure what you intend by it).

The reason I was talking about results is because you were claiming some expertise. To claim expertise, there should be some measure of it.

independent george, you'd have that right with your medical provider. It's called "informed consent". There is no analog in education.

3/02/2007 3:54 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

M, I don't recall hearing from you before, but I like you!

Rory, I want to emphasize again that I'm not asking parents, like you, to quit asking questions and even giving advice. You and I disagree a lot, but one thing I really like about you is that, right from our first exchange, I've gotten the sense that you are willing to "listen" to what I say, and to what other teachers say. As long as you are willing to do that, I don't think any teacher should complain about you giving your point of view. If you listen to me, I'd better be willing to listen to you. If I'm not, I hope somebody will give me a swift kick in the backside.

To Crypticlife and Independent George, I would like to defend my colleagues. This post was brewing in my mind for a month or two, and I wrote it over a period of two days. I put a fair amount of thought into it, and I tried to be careful about what I said. One thing I said in the post is that I feel frustration in discussing education issues with non-teachers, and I think some of the other teachers who have commented here have reflected that frustration. If I had responded in a comment, like they did, I probably would have said something in the "Sit down, shut up, and do what you're told!" mode. I shouldn't try to speak for other teachers, but I know that's the way I FEEL at times. I really believe that if you two sat down with the other teachers who have responded and me, that we'd easily be able to find common ground.

KDerosa, thank you for that comment. I do think that an important difference between you and me is that you tend to look at things more from the elementary school point of view and I look at things from the high school point of view.

Regarding "the excuses" I've written about in my posts, they've generally boiled down to the effort and attitude of students. I believe that it's a major problem in high schools, and I think it's something that needs to be dealt with. You advocate things like Direct Instruction in order to create better future high school students. I think you might be right about that, but, as you know, I don't think it will make as big a difference as you do. Regardless of whether you're right about that, I want to do something about our problems at the high school level now. It's not a matter of making excuses; it's about dealing with a problem that I see every day.

3/02/2007 4:05 PM  
Blogger M said...

cryptic - The carpenter doesn't fall back on excuses like "it was the wood's fault". A physician doesn't expect his patient to assist in the surgery.

no I realised this is what you meant and this is exactly my issue with your comment. A carpenter does not blame wood because WOOD is an INANIMATE OBJECT that does not in any way shape or form have a say in how it is used. Children are not the same.

Students are not inanimate! Students do play a part in their learning you know. They are living, breathing, decision making people - they come with values, ideas, personalities, issues, families and backgrounds that affect how they learn and affect their attitude to learning. Classrooms are ALIVE, they are not dead like a carpenter's wood block. There is no way to mould and manipulate a classroom full of INDIVIDUALS in the same way that you can manipulate a piece of wood - it's nonsensical to even suggest so. Of course a carpenter would not blame the wood - how could s/he? Of course a surgeon doesn't ask the patient to assist in their surgery. What does the patient know? Hell, they're out cold! Indeed, a doctor however WILL and DOES INSIST that a patient will stop smoking, lose weight, lower salt intact and lower their blood pressure BEFORE they go under the knife. Perhaps that's a better analogy to teaching.

If the patient doesn't do what they are told they put their own life in jeopardy. It's not the doctor's fault if advice isn't followed. They are at fault for being negligent however - and yes, there are some teachers out there who are negligent and that is wrong. However, it is wrong to assume that just because a teacher doesn't get results they are negligent. That is a dangerous assumptive path to go down.

This kind of argument is, I assume, the whole reason why this post is here in the first place. It's the reason why there is so much frustration on the part of both parents and teachers I think. There is a huge fracture which how things are perceived from way outfield and how they actually are. Until you've actually taught in the classroom for a cycle of years (ie: long enough to see how things change, how ideas are brought up, enforced and then suddenly scrapped, how funding works, how parents do or don't help the situation) then no it's difficult, maybe impossible, to make an argument that is valid. Not that what you're saying shouldn't be considered - of course your opinion matters. It matters between two factions family/school (teacher). Let's keep it a bit more personal since that's who you deal with. You opinion should matter to the school that your son/daughter goes to - and if there is a school council then you should be part of it and working to affect change. I'm very pro parents having a voice and I have worked on side with parents of children I have taught in order to ensure their voice has been heard by management at the school. This is why my opinion is that your voice is important at the local level, it affects your child so go for it.

If you're talking about a global problem you have with all teachers and education as a whole then while you have every right to your own opinion it is, probably at best - ill informed. I'm sure you're a great person, and good at what you do, maybe an expert in your field - but it doesn't make you an expert on teaching, classrooms or teachers in general. Not even a smidge. Sorry.

School yard values count within the school - as they should. Teacher DO worry about students who are showing anti-social behaviour or who are just misbehaving. God knows we actually do CARE - well I do, a lot. But how a child ultimately turns out as a person living, working and interacting with society as a whole counts on how they were raised at home. Schools can make a difference to those children who a open to it - and families that need help for that matter (see doctor analogy). It's highly dangerous to say that teachers should teach all values. What then is the job of the parent? To house, feed and clean? Talk about shirking responsibility a bit.

denis - I'm a regular reader of anonteacher and popped over. Nice to meet you ;)

3/02/2007 6:42 PM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

cryptic, I can't figure out if that's a compliment or something else? Kidding. Yes, I do have problems with specific students, and I wonder what I could do better with them. In fact, that's why I'm awake at 3 o'clock on a Saturday morning. I can't sleep for thinking about that one student.

kderosa, I have seen many studies that show that those things you have listed don't affect education at all, but I've also seen many studies that show they do. I've seen many studies that show that timed reading drills work, and I've seen many studies that say they don't. My point is, there are so many different studies out there all saying different things about how to construct lesson plans to reach students.
When we have 30 students in a classroom, and they all have different learning styles, it's very difficult to construct lessons that engage all of them. It makes it even more difficult when you have a boatload of "experts" telling you a variety of different things about what is an effective teaching tool.

And from my experience (keep in mind this is somewhat limited experience), the L.D. label is used more by the student than the teacher. I know that I'm responsible for teaching ALL kids, whether they have the label or not; however, I have quite a few L.D. students (and I think Dennis has made this point before) who have the attitude of, "My I.E.P. says I don't have to learn." Again, that's only a small minority of students with an I.E.P.

Dennis, "One thing I said in the post is that I feel frustration in discussing education issues with non-teachers, and I think some of the other teachers who have commented here have reflected that frustration." --As you said, it's very frustrating to speak with a parent or any other person who doesn't teach. As you've pointed out, they think that 13 years in the classroom makes them an expert. Someone pointed out that parents are the expert on their child, and I agree 100%, but you also have to keep in mind that that child isn't the only one in the classroom. There are, in many cases, 25+ other students. The teacher is responsible for the learning of all.

I don't mind hearing from parents when they're open to what I have to say; in fact, I enjoy talking to several parents. They give their perspective, then I give mine. We eventually reach some sort of compromise. cryptic and kderosa, if that's the kind of "criticism" that you're talking about, where it's a sharing of ideas, the I'm all for it. It's when a parent, or any other person for that matter, walks in with the attitude of, "Those ignorant, lazy teachers, ruining our children," that I become frustrated.

I have read many books concerning what works and what doesn't in the classroom. I read books specific to my subject matter and those that discuss education in general, and the one thing I've noticed is, just like on Dennis's blog, very few of them agree. Everyone has a different idea about how to reach every student. If someone has the magic solution, please, give it to me. I want to see my squirrels succeed...all of them...but I can research all I want and educate myself all I want and listen to all the criticism I want, but there are so many different "solutions."

::I'm going to be the English teacher who doesn't proofread again.::

3/03/2007 1:15 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Anon Teacher, your mistake is taking all education research at face value. Discount all the unscienific research, the level 1 research, and unreplicated level 2 research, and the story is much different. Then throw out all the research with an educationally insignificant effect size of 0.25 or less. What remains, the valid research, shows that works in education. And what works in education is not what is being practiced in the classroom.

3/03/2007 5:41 AM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

kderosa, I'm going to defer to you when it comes to research methods. I'll be honest, my strength is English. Statistics and numbers are very often lost on my brain.

My response to you then is--or I suppose the better word would be question to you--are you discussing questioning teachers or schools (and you've probably answered this question before)? Because teachers really only have so much power. I wish I could have more freedom when it comes to what and how I teach, but I, unfortunately, have very little.

3/03/2007 8:13 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

AT, I thought your point about "hearing from parents" was excellent, and I can't think of any teachers who don't feel that way.

M, I think you make some great points, and I'm with you, buddy! But I don't know how much experience you have dealing with KDerosa. If you don't have much, take it from someone who's had a few statements knocked out of the ballpark by the big guy: throwing research at KDerosa is a little like throwing high fast-balls to Barry Bonds.

3/03/2007 8:14 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I should add, by the way, that although we have to be impressed with KD's knowledge of research, that doesn't mean that we have to agree with his conclusions.

3/03/2007 8:31 AM  
Blogger Denever said...

To clarify: my first post was directed to Dennis, and I was just reiterating crypticlife's question because I was wondering about the same thing. My second post was directed at this statement from Doug:

"I believe anyone who is not in the classroom CURRENTLY has incredible nerve criticizing the educational system, but especially individual teachers."

It also applies to m's post saying essentially the same thing.

Maybe it's something we just have to agree to disagree about. I am frankly surprised at how defensive and thin-skinned many teachers are. My profession is criticized constantly and while my colleagues and I often talk about common misperceptions and misunderstandings about the legal system by non-lawyers, I have literally never heard a fellow lawyer state that no one has a right to criticize lawyers unless they're practicing lawyers themselves. The very idea is laughable.

We'd certainly have a lot more peace and quiet in this country if everyone refrained from criticizing professions they don't belong to, but again - the next time you're inclined to opine about foreign policy, ask yourself how many terms you've served in the White House. And then shut up.

3/03/2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Oops, I screwed up. That was AT who threw the research at KDerosa, not M. I apologize for the error. It's not the first, and it certainly won't be the last.

3/03/2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Independent George said...


I understand your frustration; I can just imagine some of the "feeback" you must gotten during your career. But what I think needs reiterating is that these are their children you're talking about. It might not seem like it, but they have a monumentally larger stake at what happens inside the classroom than you do, and a far smaller influence on it. So even if knee-deep in a crazy "my-child-can-do-no-wrong-you-must-be-screwing-it-all-up" conversation, "sit down, shut up" is still not an option. And if it's not an insane parent, but a smart, educated, and frustrated one, then "sit down, shut up" is precisely the wrong thing to say.

you'd have that right with your medical provider. It's called "informed consent". There is no analog in education.

I disagree. A parent might not know much about managing 30 kids of varying backgrounds and personalities, but they might know a heck of a lot about, say, math. So if a child comes back to his parents and explains that he doesn't need to memorize the multiplication table because it's "superficial knowledge", better suited to a calculator so they can focus on "higher order skills", then the parent has every right to question the heck out of the teacher. I'm not talking about the, "Why did junior only get an A-? I spent hours writing this report for him!" line of questioning (for which you have my sincerest sympathies), but the "What do you mean he doesn't need to know long division?" line of questioning. Given that (a) these are their kids, and (b) what goes on in the classroom will have long-term effects on them, I think 'informed consent' is indeed a pretty good comparison, for good or ill. (To stretch the analogy further, this also means a patient also has a right to refuse vaccination, adopt the "fried chicken" diet, and dose himself with colloidal silver until he turns blue; the 'consent' part always - and rightfully - outweighs the 'informed' part).

Are results the end point of education? What about teachers that inspire children to learn beyond their means/socio economic status? To dream? To try? To have a go? Everyone is always talking about the results - the end line.

It's not the end point - it's the starting point. We're so concerned about the measurables not because we think this is the end-all of education, but because we know that 'inspiration' is utterly worthless without the skills to follow through on it. And it seems that whenever anyone mentions that those measurable skills seem to be trending downwards, their concerns tend to be deflected with another line about either 'inspiration' and 'educating the whole child'.

3/03/2007 11:18 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

My response to you then is--or I suppose the better word would be question to you--are you discussing questioning teachers or schools?

Schools. Administrators are the ones in charge. They are the ones telling teachers what to teach or permit what is taught. I only blame teachers to the extent that they agree with the bad things administrators permit/dictate.

Dennis, the only difficult thing about understanding education research is separating the junk science from the real science. Once you do that, you're left with about 10% of the pile.

3/03/2007 12:18 PM  
Blogger Kilian Betlach said...

One of the principles of logical reasoning states that you cannot judge the quality of an assertion based on the source. The greatest fool on the planet could assert the sun is shining, but that doesn't make it night. To put it another way, just because George W. Bush said it, doesn't make it wrong.

This principle must likewise apply to this discussion. If educational "outsiders" are incorrect in their assertions either as a function of their lack of formal experience or not, then their discourse will reveal their errors and such will be pointed out. This seems to work along the lines of, "I agree with you in principle, and this is how the current system filters your point..." What that means for teachers is that many of us are on the defensive constantly, arming ourselves with arguments along the lines of "I want it to be that way, too, but..." It is difficult to strike the balance between recognition of an imperfect system and our own roles in reforming and/or perpetuating this system, and difficult also to recognize the disparity between our own efforts/ ideology and those that are dominant in our profession.

This inside vs. outside dichotomy spills over into an inside-outside analysis of where responsibility lies in student performance. Personally, I cannot imagine doing the job of teacher if I held the worldview that the majority of ultimate student outcomes and performance were tied up in factors beyond my control. How could you possibly go to work feeling so impotent? Many do, and I guess that explains why so many teachers are so embittered.

That there are some students whose previous experience and familial background make them "unreachable," there can be little doubt. The idea, that it is these students who represent systematic shortcomings -- well, let's put that notion, and all the chest-thumping and hand-wringing about apathy back in the cracker jack box it came from.

3/03/2007 12:28 PM  
Blogger M said...

It seems like there's an assumption that the classroom is like a vacuum - where all issues related to the classroom - results, parents, attitude, etc - are due to things that happen within the classroom. True on a level, but not always. The classroom is not an island. What happens within the classroom is the result of many different interacting and significant events - teacher, parent, student, principal, school environment, socio economic status of the families that come to the school, school community, fundraising, government funding, research, educational "reform", media representation of teachers and education, political lobbying, society. It's not that it's beyond our control just that teachers can't do it alone, often we are left doing the dirty work of 'educational reform' that we don't even quite agree with. Often we are told 'parents/public want to see this change'. I think when teachers are blamed for all ills that go on in education then we're being counter productive - especially since there are other factors at play. I think that's why teachers might be a bit 'thin skinned'. Often we're targeted unfairly.

I just saw this on a site and wanted to share. I hope it's not too long. Sorry Denis.

No Dentist Left Behind
My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I've got all my teeth.

When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the new state program. I knew he'd think it was great.

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.

"No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will they do that?" "It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14, and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as excellent, good, average, below average, and unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. The plan will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their licenses to practice."

"That's terrible," he said.

"What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?"

"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said.

"Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele, and that much depends on things we can't control? For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem, and I don't get to do much preventive work. Also, many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off, so many of my clients have well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. "I can't believe that you, my dentist, would be so defensive. After all, you do a great job, and you needn't fear a little accountability."

"I am not being defensive!" he said. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."

"Don't' get touchy," I said.

"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned red, and from the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth. "Try furious! In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average, or worse. The few educated patients I have who see these ratings may believe this so-called rating is an actual measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I'll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

"I think you are overreacting," I said. "'Complaining, excuse-making and stonewalling won't improve dental health'... I am quoting from a leading member of the DOC," I noted.

"What's the DOC?" he asked. "It's the Dental Oversight Committee," I said, "a group made up of mostly lay persons to make sure dentistry in this state gets improved"

"Spare me," he said, "I can't believe this. Reasonable people won't buy it," he said hopefully.

The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes." "That's too complicated, expensive and time-consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective patients will think This can't be happening," he said despairingly.

"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you some."

"How?" he asked.

"If you receive a poor rating, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said brightly.

"You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? BIG HELP!"

"There you go again," I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score made on a test of children's progress with no regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

I just shook my head sadly, but he had brightened. I'm going to write my representatives and senators," he said. "I'll use the school analogy. Surely they will see the point."

He walked off with that look of hope mixed with fear and suppressed anger that I, a teacher, see in the mirror so often lately.

3/03/2007 12:40 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

M, the only problem with this is that it is far TOO GOOD to be hidden here as the 40th comment on a post. Thank you!

3/03/2007 1:07 PM  
Blogger Kilian Betlach said...

No, Dennis, no M., it is not too good.

We don't compare low-income schools to high-income schools the way the analogy suggests. Performance is measured against two things: 1) a static set of standards and 2) the previous year's performance.

Come on. Let's do better.

3/03/2007 3:07 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

TMAO, I don't know if there's any such thing as a perfect analogy, but I think this one's pretty good. I am also always looking for things that will generate discussion on education, and in that sense, I think this might be very good. Finally, I think most of the hockey teams I coached in Warroad were good teams, and if anyone had criticized one of them, I would have defended that team. Nevertheless, I was constantly looking for ways that we could improve. Please don't assume that my defense of public education today means that I don't want to get better as a teacher and that I don't want all of us to get better as an institution.

3/03/2007 4:08 PM  
Blogger M said...

Actually tmao that DOES happen. It happens a lot- and so does your method too. In fact we recently changed the way we report to parents to ensure that this kind of thing happens. A lot of teachers where I work are against this measure, but it happened anyway. It happened because parents apparently wanted to judge how their student was doing across the state rather than just their school. This is what we were told anyway. So yes, it's happening, and it's happening right now. It's happening against teachers having a say about it. This is exactly why this kind of discussion is interesting - assumption versus reality.

Also, if there was no comparison we wouldn't have this fluffy idea of putting so-called great teachers into 'low performing' schools, paying them more and hoping that will fix the problem. Not going to happen. You're right, let's do better.

3/03/2007 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

m mentions "assumption versus reality". Sometimes it's interesting to know just what is being considered as this "reality" of testing data.

Way back up in the original comments on this post, Rory noted this about Dennis's school:

"Your schools kids do do pretty well in writing on their 10th grade BST test.

The worst results are on the 11th grade math test."

Being from Minnesota, I can tell you that nearly all schools in the state had results that were awful last year for the 11th grade math test.

Are all of Minnesota's kids bad at math by 11th grade? Would this "data" cause someone to not choose to move to a certain area or school district in Minnesota if they had high school-aged kids?

Reality: The 11th grade math test meant absolutely nothing to the kids. The 10th grade reading and writing tests were "graduation tests" - kids have to pass them to graduate. Last year's 11th grade math test was a "school test". Guess what? A lot of kids didn't try really hard on that test - it didn't affect them personally. A lot of kids finished in 10 minutes and slept / read / did something they found more important than proving their school isn't leaving anyone behind. There's no disclaimer with the "data" to let the reader know about that reality.

I'm OK with "accountability", but NCLB is done so differently even from state-to-state, I'm not certain it really shows much sometimes.

3/03/2007 6:00 PM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

amy h., I tend to agree with you when you point out that many students don't take the tests all that seriously; although, some states are attempting to change that by requiring students to pass the 11th grade test or take a remedial class. I'm not sure how that will work, as the test results aren't returned until well into students' senior year. But I suppose that's up to the schools to figure out.

3/03/2007 10:02 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Amy H., I think you make great points. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to carry your argument over to my post on this subject.

3/04/2007 2:36 AM  
Blogger teachergirl said...

Hey, boys and girls! I don't know if anyone else will be checking in on these comments again, but I feel compelled to toss in my two cents worth.
I teach 5th grade; I am giving a state mandated writing assessment on Wednesday that 90% of my class could care less about. Not serious about it at all. The teachers are more concerned than the students. Right now,

In less than 30 school days, we are taking state/national mandated tests that will determine whether these little darlings will go to the sixth grade. Can't really tell if they care or not. They haven't acted like it this year. They don't do their work (classwork or homework); they would rather socialize or draw than read or pay attention. (Some days, all they would have to do is pay attention and the material would fall from the heavens into their little brains.) And, of course, you know when I'll hear from the parents: when they don't pass the state test.
If you came to me and criticized my methods, I believe I'd hand you the keys to my classroom and let you have a go at it. You try teaching a room full of kids who don't understand the importance of an education, who don't read anywhere near grade level, who treat me like I'm a video they can talk through. By all means, you come do what I haven't been able to do. Because I have racked my brain during sleepless nights, trying to figure out ways to reach children who don't want to be reached.

3/04/2007 7:30 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Teachergirl, I'm still checking, and believe me--I hear you! If any non-teachers check, however, I don't know how many of them will, and that is not meant as an insult to them. This is a classic example of a situation where people who do what you do will know exactly what you mean, and people who don't will not and will probably see it as whining.

3/04/2007 8:17 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Since when doesn't the motivation part go along with the teaching part?

If you can't motivate, should you claim to be teaching well?

I alos don't doubt that the students are responding logically to a school system in which doing close to nothing gets rewarded as much as doing hard work, where there are few consequences for doing close to nothing, where doing hard work is not celebrated and is not part of the school culture.

Add while it might be enlightening for some of us to get an opportunity to teach in your dysfunctional school, I'd bet the teachers in your school would profit more by getting the keys to the classroom of an effective teacher where effective teaching is taking place, including proper student motivation.

3/04/2007 9:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy W said...

M - let's take your dentist/customer conversation a different way.

"Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele, and that much depends on things we can't control? For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem, and I don't get to do much preventive work. Also, many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off, so many of my clients have well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. "I'm surprised that you're ignoring dental methods that have made great improvements in the outcomes of even patients from poor backgrounds. P.S. 161 from Brooklyn is also working with a poor, low-income group in a rural area and he's getting cavity rates that are below the state average. And Portland Elementar is also getting great results. Why don't you go and study these successful dentists methods for reducing cavities in low-income areas, and implement them in your practice?"

"Of course" I added, "I don't mind if you use a different method, as long as it's getting results like P.S. 161 or Portland Elementary."

3/04/2007 12:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KD, I think you're wrong to be so insulting based on such little information. The one thing I'd bet on based on what Teachergirl wrote is that she's working in a much tougher situation than mine. I don't know what school she works in, what city or state it's in, or what the neighborhood is like. I've never seen her, I've never seen her school, and I've never seen any of her kids. For all I know, she and her colleagues might be better teachers than me. But I sure can't tell that they're worse from the four paragraphs that she wrote.

3/04/2007 3:24 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, I'm being no more insulting than teachergirl's patronizing comment.

I know none of this stuff either, but it sounds like a typical Title 1 school and, as such, I know such schools are capable of much better performance with more effective teaching. And in such effective schools, the educators do not make the kinds of excuses that teachergirl is making. The excuses and complacency are a big part of the problem.

3/04/2007 7:15 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

Ken, While I agree with you that motivation and teaching go hand in hand I feel your comments towards Teachergirl were a bit too over the top. I may be wrong, but until she made her comment I doubt you've visited her site much and I feel you were just being too snarky.

For someone so versed in educational research and for someone always ready with an opinion you already know that any teacher worth her/his grain of salt is pouring over the research and idea-banks for any type of tap dance we can do to engage our students. I can truthfully say with much confidence that Teachergirl is one of those teachers.

As I've stated before I have a unique perspective having been a paralegal for many years before entering education. My opinions changed once I entered the classroom. One of the things that amazed me was how little power I have as a classroom teacher.

Ken, one of your comments to Teachergirl regarded students who constantly see little or nothing done to change student behaviors who aren't motivated. Those are mainly the students who aren't producing anything but classroom disruptions. I'll agree with you that some of those students can be reached with the right techniques on some days, but not every day.

You don't actually think Teachergirl or I have any control over disruptive students, do you? If I attempt to remove a violent student the most that happens to them is they are talked to and then returned to my room. I had one rolling on my floor and crawling up under other people's desks and chairs three different times the other day. I called in the morning and was told, "Be right there." I called again after lunch and was told the same thing. At 2 p.m. I called and reported I had taken pictures of the student with my cell phone camera. I guess they were afraid I would post them because every admin. in my building was falling overthemselves to get to my room. Why does it have to get to that point?

Was I using the wrong technique with this student, OR is this child simply overwhelmed with environmental issues or mental issues? Honestly, it's a crap shoot with this kid.....I never know what will work with him. It all depends on his medication and how much he gets or doesn't get. Bi-polarism at 9 years old can do some strange things to your day, you know? There are times Ken, when it doesn't matter what strategies you know or don't know. The child has real problems that can effect the classroom environment. He doesn't want to hear from me that Dr. Silver or Marzano says a particular stratgegy is supposed to engage him.

I can't even report the true grades of failing students. The lowest grade I'm "allowed" to give in my gradebook is a 55. I'm not even allowed to disclose how low the grade actually is to a parent. Who sets these directives? It's not me believe me.

NCLB provides mandates for students failing for the year, however, I've been told that all 4th graders will proceed since they will get caught by the "the test" in 5th grade. We are "encouraged" not to object to students moving on even if they shouldn't.

Every year I've taught I've read reports, bought the latest books, and search high and low for any type of help I could get. Very few professional development seminars have ever helped me. Why? Things are thrown at us in a 1 or 2 hour seminar and then we are handed a binder a foot thick and told good luck. This is the new procedure for planning lessons. We expect everything to be up and running in one month or else." Systems are implementing any type of fix willy-nilly and not training teachers properly. Do we complain? Yes! Does anyone do anything about it? No.

For these reasons and many others teachers do have thin skins when we are critisized. We do care. We are trying, however, we are the bottom rung of a very broken ladder, and since we are at the botton guess where all the sh** lands.....you guessed it... on the classroom teacher's head.

3/04/2007 7:38 PM  
Blogger Jane said...


First of all wow! This is some reaction! I teach for LAUSD in one of the poorest communities in the country. Someone here commented that we don't compare high performing schools to low performing schools as a complaint about the dentist analogy. Actually we do all the time! Sites like greatschools puts that info out for comparisson. My students take the exact same standerdized test as a high income school child. Some of my students don't even have electricity at home! Many sleep four or five in a bed! Many of the problems that make them behind are so far out of my control. As for looking at my teaching first- OMG! If I could only STOP looking at my teaching...late at night, when I wake up, in the shower, on the drive into work, it's a constant! I am constantly wondering what more can I do!

This is a great blog! Glad I found it!

3/05/2007 4:41 AM  
Blogger Kilian Betlach said...

Jane, M., et al

Comparing scores at greatschools.net or looking at scores across states from a parental point of view of course happens. Of course. That's not what the silly dentist analogy was about and you know it. Of course I wasn't suggesting that we never look at the scores of schools A and schools B. Are those comparison part and parcel of federal so-called "accountability" measures, as the silly dentist analogy suggests? Of course not. That's the point.

What Teachergirl, Jane, and to a lesser extent EHT propose is that their efforts, by virtue of being substantial, must be respected, acknowledged, and celebrated independent of their results. Many, many teachers subscribe to a similar ideology because the job is terrible demanding, folks care a great deal, and it's real hard. Those inputs yield outputs like Jane's: "Many of the problems that make them behind are so far out of my control."

She's right for the wrong reasons. It wasn't the poverty or lack of utilities that caused the under-achievement, it was the under-achievement of all the educators who under-taught and under-served those students before they entered Jane's classroom. And that's the ballgame. It's not a student achievement gap, it's an educator achievement gap, exhibited by Teachergirl, who basically admitted she cannot do the job for which she earns a paychek. Apparently, she cannot create the environment in which students work hard and learn well. We read and then defend(!) stories like this, and then blame achievement levels on poverty. Are you kidding?

[ELA/ELD/SEI Teacher, Title 1 school, 61 students: 58 ELL, 11 SpEd, 61 free and reduced lunch]

3/05/2007 5:59 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

EHT, my intent was not to attack teachergirl's teaching personally, but based on her description she is teaching in a dysfunctional classroom. No doubt much or all of that is the blame on the sdministrators of the school who pick the curriculum and the class structure, and how to deal with the behavior problems.

I don't have a problem with a teacher pointing to the miserable conditions in their classroom and concluding that teaching in such an environment. Noneducators can see this as well as educators. It is good evidence of a badly broken system, with apologies to Dennis.

The question is whether first hand knowledge working in such a failed system confers special knowledge. I contend it doesn't. The only thing you learn from working in a failed system is what not to do. For this reason I do not believe that teachers generally have any special knowledge as to what is needed to make the system effective. That's why I say that teachers, like teachergirl, would profit from working in an effective classroom. It's not personal.

3/05/2007 6:07 AM  
Blogger The Tour Marm said...

I'm not a classroom teacher. I've been a professional tour guide in Washington, DC and other cities and sites along the historic Eastern Seaboard. In this capacity, I have been conducting around 20 schools a year for extended periods of time, from all over the country during the past twenty-five years.

I've had the opportunity to assess and formulate opinions.

For the past five years, I've been particularly concerned with the low level of knowledge and preparation by students on their annual East Coast trips. The Midwest and the deep south are by far the worst. Most of my schools are from California.

In the past few years, the core knowledge of public school students have dropped significantly and I've had to deal at base level rather than add to their classroom work. I can no longer assume that students in eighth grade know how a bill is passed or that our system of government is divided into three branches! This is in upper middle class areas! It's shameful!

The deportment of students has also deteriorated and I have spent a great deal of time in 'bus management'. There is a general breakdown where respect for authority is concerned.

Parents on my trips have become more intrusive and have consistently undercut the teachers in front of the students!I prefer not to have them on the trip as they tend to interfere with the process.

Administrators and school boards have become intolerable to work with; they care more about liability and scores (I have excellent insurance) than with actual education.

Good teachers whom I've have worked with for years are either frustrated, changing to private schools, or taking early retirement.

It is my personal opinion that teachers are not being given the 'space' to teach. There is a general lack of respect concerning teachers and the teaching profession from all sides. In short, there are too many cooks spoiling the broth and too many chiefs.

In addition, today's students are too preoccupied with their after school activities and electronic toys to pay attention to their studies.

That's why I have become a curriculum-based tour designer; to be of service to teachers while we are on trip. Believe it or not, we get a lot accomplished without the external problems posed by parents, administrators, or NCLB.

I wouldn't trade places with any teacher. I do what I can with what I have. Somehow it works in the short time I spend with the students.

3/05/2007 10:49 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KD, thanks for throwing your apologies into that comment. It just oozed sincerity!

There has been a lot of frustration expressed in the comments on this post, but I want to make it clear that despite them, I completely disagree with your contention that we have a "failed system." Although I'll be repeating arguments I've made in the past, that would probably best be handled in a future post.

Tour Marm, thank you for your comment. You obviously have a rather unique perspective, and it was great to hear from you.

3/05/2007 1:47 PM  
Blogger teachergirl said...

Wheeeeee!! A firestorm of controversy!

I kind of wonder if you don't mean to attack teachers personally; I mean, as an attorney, don't you kind of do it for a living? (Trust me, I put one through law school doing this job. I know what I'm talking about.)

My school is truly a wonder to behold. Title 1, no. We have kids from all sides of the tracks and some who live under them, too. Some of our kids leave after 5th grade and go to the finest private schools in the state; some of our kids can't find their way home on the school bus. But guess what? We do everything we can to get them ready for next year. And the year after that and the year after that. Have we been thwarted by stupid legislation passed by people who have never asked what educators think might be in the best interests of the students we teach? You bet we have. Are there things I would change? You bet I would. I try changing things on a daily basis to get kids to understand and to be motivated, only to be thwarted by their indifference.

Perhaps you don't understand that elementary teachers are often mothers, teachers, guidance counselors, cheerleaders, social workers, and psychologists to our children. This can suck the life out of you. Easily fifty percent of my parents are invisible. Digest that for a minute. Ten of my kids get to school at 7:20AM and don't leave until 6:00PM.

As ElementaryHistoryTeacher said, 4th graders are pretty much permitted a pass because the 5th grade test is supposed to catch them. Parents think that an 800 on the state test means that their little darling is a genius. Well, guess what? That score means that their "genius" barely passed the state test with a 30%. And if that is all he was able to pass the 4th grade with, what am I supposed to do with him in the 5th? Parents think that if little Johnny passed 4th, what's the big deal about 5th?

So, when I say, come ahead, I'll give you the keys, let's see what you can do, I am almost serious. I think the superintendent, area superintendents, and legislators should perhaps spend some time in the classrooms they so sorely wish to legislate. I would never tell you how to fix the legal system, the medical system, the sewer system, the nursing profession, the trucking industry...but everyone thinks he has a right to jump a teacher because.. well, why is that? Do you stop a policeman and tell him how to do his job because he is a public servant? Do you go to the firehouse and tell the firechief how to fight those fires a little better? Maybe pass a little legislation to go along with it? What's up with the teachers, then?

But guess what?

I believe that teaching was something I was called to do - how many people do you know feel that way about their profession?

I am exhausted at the end of every day. But do I read everybody's blog at the end of the day to see if there might be something else I could do tomorrow? Here I am, because EHT is one of the best teachers I "know." I wish I taught with her. I think we would be phenomenal.

Have I been snarky? Probably. But there's been some snark thrown our way, too.

It does get personal - trust me; when you are vilified daily, it becomes personal.

3/05/2007 2:51 PM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/05/2007 6:20 PM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

Wow... and the post started out all kind and fuzzy.

Teachergirl, I note you are teaching in the 5th grade. Wouldn't it be nice if those K-2 teachers down the hall used effective techniques to teach you having to deal with apathetic students who don't know how to read on grade level?

I think Ken, myself, and other knowledgeable parents sometime overly express our frustration. We are aware that there are successful school models out there that use techniques that having low SES students higher that your average middle class students.

Yet despite this, we witness our children coming home frustrated and confused. We then spend hours at home making up for the ineffective teaching methods. When we try and approach the teachers and administrators at our schools, we are met with blank stares or condescending remarks... I mean what do we know?

The common theme lately seems to be that if critics should experience teaching for themselves we would realize that its not the teachers its the kids.

Though Ken may have been overly blunt when he suggested that its teachers that need to go and visit effective classrooms, he does have a point.

I realize that teachers are just cogs in the wheel, but since their teachers that have the most day to day interaction with kids in a school, should teachers be the biggest advocates of effective instruction.

My simple question for all teachers is this?

Would you give up your creativity and freedom in teaching, if there was evidence that a scripted curriculum provided better results?

All we need is love... all we need is love love... love all we need.

3/05/2007 7:02 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Teachergirl, I'm glad you came back with another response. It would certainly be hard for anyone to question your passion.

Rory, I'd sing "Yeah, yeah, yeah," but I even type off-key. Somehow we've come back to DI again.

I am as sold on DI as I could possibly be without actually have been trained in it myself. One problem I have is that it is very hard for me, as a high school teacher, to be telling elementary teachers what they should be doing. I think most of them would be very resentful if I did. After all, it's not like we're all doing a perfect job at the high school level. And I also have to admit that if a parent came up to me and told me I should change my methods, I would probably meet them with the same blank stares and condescending remarks that you get.

If DI really is that good, the question is how do we get the word out? I think both you and KD are important. KD kind of clobbers you over the head, and I'm sure a lot of teachers are put off by it, but he has definitely made DI an issue in the blogging world. I think your message here is very diplomatic, and I would hope that most teachers would be more responsive to it. But I don't know how big the blogging world is, so how can we get the word out beyond that? I don't know about you, but I find it very depressing that Engelmann can't find anyone to publish his book. What does that say about how important our nation really thinks education is? If education was really as important to the public as we pretend, what happened in Project Follow Through would be a major national scandal, and we would be hearing about it on CNN, Fox News, and all the major networks. But instead, we get hour after hour of Anna Nicole.

3/06/2007 5:13 AM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

"One problem I have is that it is very hard for me, as a high school teacher, to be telling elementary teachers what they should be doing."

"If DI really is that good, the question is how do we get the word out?"

I would hope that you would use every opportunity you have to present information you have to your peers and administrators. Many will be turned off, some will research further and agree with you.

As members of the Union you can make your views known to your officers and vote accordingly.

You can inform parents of the evidence and let them know if their kids had been better educated in elementary school they would of been even more successful as HS and Middle School students.

When you meet the elemenary school teachers you can present the information that you have.

You could write an editorial to your local newspaper.

You could start an organization of teachers who advocate reform.

You could change your blog name to public education defender and reformer... :)

3/06/2007 9:31 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"And I also have to admit that if a parent came up to me and told me I should change my methods, I would probably meet them with the same blank stares and condescending remarks that you get. "

And yet, we still won't shut up :)

"CNN, Fox News, and all the major networks"

Has anyone tried contacting these outlets?

3/06/2007 10:38 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Cryticlife, from what I've heard about DI, I don't think you should shut up about it.

Rory, I have been talking to people about it--my principal, our superintendent, and other teachers. My guess is, however, that they probably don't think about it again after our conversations. Grass roots movements are wonderful, but I'm afraid for change to happen, it is usually necessary to have one of the elites--media, political, or educational--latch onto it. Right now DI and Project Folllow Through is an issue on a few of our blogs and in a few schools, but I would like to see it somehow become an issue on a much wider scale. Once again, I think the problem is that the public just doesn't care that much about education.

3/06/2007 11:45 AM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

I think the problem is that the public just doesn't care that much about education.

Unfortunately I have to agree with you about this. Most parents put their kids up on a pedastal and are unwilling to consider the fact that their kids could do a lot better. I think this contributes to the behavior problems you see in the High School.

How about this... you are officially converted, and I agree with you. Does this mean our blogging careers are over?

3/06/2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Careers over? As Karen Carpenter would say, "We've only just begun."

Wait a minute--did I just quote Karen Carpenter? Maybe I have been doing this too long!

3/06/2007 6:14 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

I finally have a moment to weigh in on this fascinating discussion. I've posted my thoughts over at my blog.

3/06/2007 7:37 PM  

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