Saturday, September 22, 2007

In defense of crotchety old teachers

As I was checking out blogs the other day, I wandered over to TMAO's site. Anyone who has read a few of both of our posts probably understands that TMAO and I don't exactly share identical philosophies.

I open my blog with this statement: "Public schools are important, their job is becoming increasingly difficult, and they are doing a much better job than they are given credit for." It's tough to reconcile that with TMAO's introduction: "We must reject the ideology of the "achievement gap" that absolves adults of their responsibility and implies student culpability in continued under-performance. The student achievement gap is merely the effect of a much larger and more debilitating chasm: The Educator Achievement Gap. We must erase the distance between the type of teachers we are, and the type of teachers they need us to be."

TMAO's post dealt with one by Mamacita from Schiess Weekly titled "Anyone Can Tell You Why So Many of Us Are Leaving the Profession," in which she passionately complains about misbehaving and under-performing students. TMAO had absolutely no sympathy for Mamacita (this should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with him) and most of the commenters were also critical of her. I think it's fair to say that TMAO and those who share his philosophy view Mamacita as a crotchety old teacher who doesn't belong in education. I read TMAO's entire post before I ever turned to Mamacita's, but knowing how differently TMAO and I see things, I guessed that I was probably going to agree with Mamacita. I was right.

Although I disagree with TMAO about a lot of things, I admire him. It sounds like he is one of those rare teachers who is able to deal effectively with kids who most of us aren't. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think teachers like him are worth their weight in gold. Nevertheless, I can really identify with what Mamacita had to say. After all, I am kind of a crotchety old teacher, myself.

Here is what Mamacita said about disruptive students:

Most teachers who leave the profession, leave because almost all of the attention, most of the perks, most of the privileges, and most of the allowances are given to the students who least deserve it: the disruptive kids. In other words, these loud, bratty, obnoxious kids are being rewarded for their disgusting behavior, so why should they clean up their act? I wouldn't. Not if doing my own thing meant I'd still get to have and do everything little goody two-shoes next to me got to have and do...

Me, personally, I think that if there are any perks to be handed out, they should go to students who have earned them. No earn? No get. Ever.

Why should a student bother to behave himself if he knows he's going to get a limo ride and a Pizza Hut lunch for bringing a pencil three days in a row? I wouldn't.

Why would a student exert himself to do any work, or allow anyone else in the classroom to do anything either, if he knows he's going to be passed to the next grade anyway? Yes, I am a firm believer in holding back any student who can't do it, won't do it, or any combination thereof.

I don't want my tiny second-grade-size daughter seated next to a hulking ballistic cursing disruptive 15-year-old, but if everyone is REQUIRED to behave properly, there wouldn't be any problems even then, now would there? Because while a student can't help the "hulking," there are no viable excuses for being ballistic, cursing, or disruptive. EVER. Any person of any age who behaves in such a way should be removed immediately, not at the end of the day but IMMEDIATELY, escorted out by the police if the parent can't be reached, and locked away where he/she can no longer deny other children their right to an education. That our schools have lowered themselves to becoming daycare centers for kids who are not required to behave themselves is a national disgrace. The schools who allow it are a disgrace, the parents who allow it are a disgrace, and the kids themselves are a disgrace. That's right; I'm labeling children. After a certain age, they know how nice people behave. Life is full of choices. CHOICES. Door #1: Thank you for being a nice person who behaves properly. You may stay and be educated, that your life's choices might increase. Door #2: Are you sure you want this door? Absolutely sure? Very well. Get out and do not set foot near the school grounds ever again. You are bringing down the entire population of students. Good riddance. Billy Madison speech. Door #3: Whine. Scream. Curse. Threaten. Hire a lawyer. Make promises. We don't care. Get out. And take your obnoxious kid with you...

Until the bullies and the disrupters and the violent and the kids who have no respect for learning are removed from our schools, our schools can not be what the free public schools were meant to be: places where all who wish to learn, may learn all they wish.

It's hard to learn when 25 of the 38 kids in your classroom have important Letters of the Alphabet in their files, prohibiting the teacher from requiring any work or proper behavior. It's hard to learn when it's so loud you can't hear yourself think, and that awful boy next to you keeps stealing your stuff and hitting you on the arm and laughing. He can't help it, poor thing, it's in his IEP that nobody may do anything that would lower his self-esteem.

On the first day of school, let the rules be known and let the penalties for disregarding the rules be known. Let there be no exceptions to these penalties. Require a signed document from every family, admitting understanding of these policies. Require an additional signature under the paragraph that spells out the "no exceptions" policy. From Day One, Period One, expect and require good behavior from all students. Instantly remove any kid that chooses to be an ass. Ass-behavior is always a personal choice...

Wow! I don't know about you, but I have trouble finding much in this rant that I disagree with. That wasn't the case, however, for TMAO and some of the commenters on his post. Here is some of what TMAO had to say about it:

I can't even begin to explain the all-over grossness I felt while reading this. Suffice to say I'm not down with the sentiment expressed therein... Generally, the flight of teachers concerns me, but if the teachers that leave schools are the ones who think it is not their job to motivate, not their job to convince, not their job to get their hands dirty, I got a couple of inches of Bushmills I'll raise in their honor, and applaud the decision to go sell insurance.

A number of commenters on TMAO's post echoed his sentiments, but I don't see Mamacita's frustration as coming from a person who is unwilling to try to motivate, convince, or get her hands dirty. Let's face it, there are teachers who aren't willing to do those things, and TMAO is right--they should get out of the business. But Mamacita's rant sounded to me like it was coming from someone who really cared. I say that because I have felt that way myself--in fact there have been times in the last two weeks that I've felt like that--and I know I care.

It is a wonderful thing to care about "troubled kids." I do care about the "troubled kids" I get in my classes, and I do try to motivate and convince them. But I also care about all those other kids, and I want to be able to do my job effectively. I care when it becomes nearly impossible for me to teach kids who are willing to follow rules and try because "troubled kids" are screwing around so much. I care when I see some of those "bubble kids" who could go either way getting dragged down to the level of the worst kids. I have six classes with as many as 31 kids in them, and we have five minutes between classes. That doesn't leave a lot of time for one on one motivating, although I try to do it when I can. I don't even want to think about what it would be like if I had 38 in a class, and I know there are many classroom teachers who face that and worse with regularity.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: I am convinced that the best thing we could do for the great majority of those "troubled kids" is to make it clear that we will not tolerate disruptive behavior and lack of effort. We have so many kids in public schools who behave poorly and make no effort because we allow them to do so. Are we really doing them any favors in the long run with our tolerance? And Mamacita is right--they drag everybody down in the process. If all kids knew they had to behave, and they knew they had to try, there would be very, very few who wouldn't. And what would we do with those few who wouldn't? Here's what Mamacita says:

Where should these kids be removed to? To be perfectly honest, I don't care. Just get them away from the good kids. Don't good kids have rights, too? I'm sick and tired of disruptive kids having the most rights. SICK AND TIRED of it. It's long past time to give the majority of attention and all things positive to kids who choose to behave properly and kids who want to learn.

I can't say it any better than that!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I'm not an NCLB hater, but...

I am not an NCLB hater. Considering the title of this blog, and considering how many teachers feel about No Child Left Behind, that might be surprising, but I actually believe the program has some value. And I say that as a teacher in a school that is somewhat under the gun as a result of NCLB.

Our school district in Warroad, Minnesota has now failed to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress goals in math two years in a row. When we missed it the first year, we made a lot of excuses. We said the test didn't matter to the kids, we said a lot of our kids weren't taking the higher maths, and we said the test was unreasonably hard. This year no one is hearing any excuses. What we are hearing is an acknowledgement that there is a problem. Despite the excuses last year, our administration and the people in our math department were scrambling to figure out what the problem or problems were so they could fix them, and those efforts have even been increased this year. Would that be happening if there was no NCLB? I doubt it, and there is no way that it would be going on with the present intensity.

I am not a knee-jerk critic of NCLB, but there are a couple of things that I absolutely hate about it, and they are basic to the program. The first thing I hate is the impossible goal that it sets for schools--that one hundred percent of our students should be proficient on state tests by 2014. One-hundred percent proficiency! If we were dealing with robots that might be possible, but we're not. We're dealing with real people with minds of their own and free will, and there is always going to be someone who just has no desire to learn. Maybe somewhere out there in suburbia there's someplace named Perfectville, and schools there have a chance of meeting that goal, but the most of us will NEVER have one-hundred percent proficiency.

This is not to say that we shouldn't have challenging goals. In 1961, President Kennedy pledged that the nation would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade. Many thought that was impossible, but President Bush's one-hundred percent proficiency goal is the equivalent of Kennedy saying that we would conquer the speed of light and engage in time travel. Had he set that as a goal, we probably would have never made it to the moon.

Even Jay Greene, a strong proponent of NCLB, concedes that it sets an impossible goal. In fact, he defends NCLB by saying that the one-hundred percent proficiency goal by 2014 is so ridiculous that everyone should know that no one is really serious about it. Therefore, he argues, it shouldn't be used as an argument against NCLB. If that is the case, then people like President Bush and Margaret Spellings should come out and publicly revise that goal--drastically. Instead they both continue to promote it.

I wonder if people like Bush or Spellings understand the effect of their defense of that ridiculous goal. First of all, it plays right into the hands of our complaint that non-teachers simply don't understand what actually goes on in real classrooms. It also feeds into the distrust that people in public education have for Republicans. Many of us suspect that what Republicans really want is to privatize education, or at least, to create a full-scale voucher system. When a goal is created that is impossible to meet, and a plan is set up to use vouchers to punish schools that don't meet that goal, it seems to confirm that suspicion. And Jay Greene's saying, "Ah, don't worry. They're just kidding!" doesn't make us feel a lot better.

I have one other major criticism of NCLB. I hate the name! I'm aware of the oft repeated criticism that public schools and teachers aren't accountable and they don't want to be, so I really am trying to be open-minded about No Child Left Behind. But that name makes it very difficult. The image it conjures up of uncaring schools with all those lazy, incompetent teachers leaving eager students behind makes me want to throw-up. School has begun again, and during the last two weeks I've been reminded just how "eager" some of those poorly performing students are. Although our school is far from perfect, there is no question in my mind that nearly every one of our so-called "left behind" students during the years I've been here were their own worst enemies. They weren't left behind; it was impossible to get them to come along.

I know that there are those who think the major problem in our education system is bad instruction, and although I disagree with them on the degree, I have to acknowledge that in many places poor instruction is part of the problem. Our school needs to improve it's math program, and right now, I'm less than impressed with my sophomores' reading skills. Maybe we've got a problem there, too. Nevertheless, I think all but the most die-hard critics of public schools would acknowledge that student motivation is at least part of the problem. And yes, better instruction, especially at the younger levels, would lead to fewer attitude and motivation problems as students get older, but anyone who thinks it would wipe it out completely is living in dreamland.

Schools and teachers spend more time and effort trying to bring along the "left behind" kids than anyone else. A good argument could be made that we spend too much time on them. I just spent half a Saturday preparing progress reports for my low performers, and I expect more paperwork, and phone calls and meetings to follow. There will be very little of that for my high and medium performers. I probably should send progress reports to their parents, too, but I only have so much time. And there is nothing unusual about the way I do things; nearly every other teacher will tell you the same story. Believe me, low performers are not doing poorly because teachers and schools are "leaving them behind."

Our public schools need to improve. I think NCLB is a motivating force in that, and that's a good thing. But students have to be an active participant in their own learning, and some refuse to do that. It is the parents responsibility to send their kids to school ready to learn, and some of them aren't doing that. So sure, go ahead and do whatever can be done to make teachers and schools accountable, and do whatever can be done to motivate them to improve. But please, change the damned name!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Discussing education issues: Is being a teacher irrelevant?

Last February, there was a very lively discussion on this blog about what I described as the frustration teachers sometimes feel when discussing education with non-teachers. Matthew K. Tabor has had a couple of posts on this subject, but he takes it on from the opposite angle: he appears to be frustrated by being told that he is less qualified to discuss education issues because he isn't a teacher. Text Savvy also had a post on this subject. Matthew calls this a "truly excellent post on the irrelevance of being a teacher to contribute to education," and he includes Text Savvy's conclusion:

In my view, the conditions that exist in elementary and middle school education today–regardless of their exact nature or cause–serve to attract those most closely involved with it and those most directly affected by it away from inconvenient truths. So not only are non-teachers valuable to education criticism and reform, they are necessary prophets for an industry that can be frustratingly self-serving and unrepentant.

I have often argued that being a teacher gives one a feel for many education issues that others can't possibly have. I am not about to back off from that position. That does not mean, however, that I think that any argument any teacher makes is valid. And it definitely doesn't mean that the arguments and criticisms of non-teachers should be dismissed.

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that whether or not one is a teacher does not determine how seriously I will take their views on education issues, or even on instruction methods. During the summer months, the education blog that I consistently turned to first every morning was Joanne Jacobs. Joanne is not a teacher. No book has influenced my views on education more than The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. Philip K. Howard is not a teacher. And amazingly, no one has influenced the little tweaks I've made in my teaching style over the last year more than KDerosa with his constant harping about Direct Instruction. KDerosa is definitely not a teacher. On the other side of that coin, during my career I have attended dozens of workshops put on by teachers. Some of them were worthwhile, but quite frankly, most of them were useless.

If Text Savvy, as he reports in his post, was told that he wasn't qualified for a job that he already proved that he could do simply because he lacked teaching experience, he has a right to be miffed. If anyone told Matthew K. Tabor that his views on education lacked credibility simply because he was not a teacher, he has a right to resent that. Considering their experiences, I can certainly see where they are coming from.

But my experience is different, and I think a lot of teachers feel the way I do. There are few fields in American life that have been the brunt of more criticism over the last few decades than public education. Much of that criticism has been very harsh, SOME of it has been unfair, and SOME of that criticism has clearly come from people who have no idea what it is like to run a classroom. That is very frustrating. I have witnessed panel discussions on television about public education that included media pundits, corporate leaders, politicians, and superintendents, but there hasn't been an actual classroom teacher in sight. I have watched as people on those panels made bold pronouncements about what should be done, and it has been clear to me that SOME of those pronouncements are totally impractical. That is very frustrating. Those of us in teaching have also had a number of policies imposed upon us by courts and legislatures, and some of those policies have made it more difficult for us to do our jobs. SOME of them were clearly devised by people who had no idea what it is like to run a classroom. That is very frustrating. When Text Savvy says that people in education are "frustratingly self-serving and unrepentant," I assume that he means we're defensive. He's probably right, but who wouldn't be?

I think the idea that non-teachers should not be able to participate in discussions about education issues is ridiculous, but the idea that being a teacher is irrelevant also leaves me shaking my head. Speaking as a teacher, I can honestly say that I have no desire to see teachers dominate discussions on education. But I do think our experiences are relevant, and I do think we should be included.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Nation at risk?

Remember Nation at Risk in 1983? It said, "If an unfriendly power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have regarded it as an act of war." How many reports have we heard since then about the horrible job being done by public schools? How many complaints have we heard from corporate leaders, politicians and others about the terrible job public schools were doing preparing people for the workforce? How many dire predictions have we heard about the disastrous effects that public education's failures were going to have on our economy? I think it's fair to say that according to what we've been hearing from the media and many of "the elite" in America for about the last thirty years this should be an impossibility:

GENEVA - American workers stay longer in the office, at the factory or on the farm than their counterparts in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more per person over the year.

They also get more done per hour than everyone but the Norwegians, according to a U.N. report released Monday, which said the United States "leads the world in labor productivity."

The average U.S. worker produces $63,885 of wealth per year, more than their counterparts in all other countries, the International Labor Organization said in its report. Ireland comes in second at $55,986, followed by Luxembourg at $55,641, Belgium at $55,235 and France at $54,609.

The productivity figure is found by dividing the country's gross domestic product by the number of people employed. The U.N. report is based on 2006 figures for many countries, or the most recent available.

Only part of the U.S. productivity growth, which has outpaced that of many other developed economies, can be explained by the longer hours Americans are putting in, the ILO said.

The U.S., according to the report, also beats all 27 nations in the European Union, Japan and Switzerland in the amount of wealth created per hour of work — a second key measure of productivity.

Norway, which is not an EU member, generates the most output per working hour, $37.99, a figure inflated by the country's billions of dollars in oil exports and high prices for goods at home. The U.S. is second at $35.63, about a half dollar ahead of third-place France.