Sunday, November 02, 2008

Reforms I could learn to love!

As I said in my last post, I took a two week hiatus from my blogging, and I never really intended to take that much time off. I have been busy. I traveled to the Twin Cities for a hockey coaches' clinic, and that meant the extra work of preparing for a substitute before I left, and then catching up after I got back. But being busy wasn't the main reason that I was so quiet. I took so much time off because I've been reading Sweating the Small Stuff. I wanted to do a post on it, and I just couldn't figure out what I wanted to say.

I should say before I go on that I have not turned into a critic of public education, and this certainly isn't meant as an indictment of public schools. I am still convinced that the people in our school district are getting what they want, and that's probably true for most public schools around the country. The kids who want to go to four-year colleges end up going to four-year colleges, the kids who want to go to vo-techs end up going to them, and the kids who just want to graduate from high school and go to work in a factory end up doing that. Nevertheless, I think we can do so much better.

Sweating the Small Stuff is about six inner-city schools that have their kids performing incredibly well. Before I read the book, I thought I'd be writing a "Yeah, but..." post. Yeah, they've got great results in those schools, but it's unfair to compare those schools to normal public schools because.... I do believe it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for most public schools to do the things that even University Park Campus High School, the only semi-regular public school described in the book, is able to do. Nevertheless, while reading the book, I found myself focusing on the admiration and envy I was feeling for the people involved in setting up and operating those schools. I also found myself wondering how public schools like mine could at least move in the direction that the outstanding schools described have taken.

The author, David Whitman, describes all six schools as "paternalistic." They treat their students like a very tough but loving father would treat his children. They tolerate no misbehavior, no acts of disrespect toward teachers or other students; they set high standards, and they expect the kids to meet them. Of all the remarkable accomplishments I read about in the book, the one that struck me the most was that of a seventh-grade class at the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland: the entire class had perfect attendance for an entire year. That's thirty kids for 180 days. Since I had five kids absent from my fifth hour class on Friday, perhaps you can understand why that impresses me.

The basic thing all the schools do is to focus from day one on creating a culture in which learning and achievement are valued and disrespect for teachers and peers is not tolerated. Discipline is tough and immediate, and operates according to the "broken windows" theory of James Wilson. The idea of this is that if there is one broken window in a building and it gets repaired quickly, end of problem. On the other hand, if it doesn't get repaired quickly, pretty soon you've got a bunch of broken windows. When it comes to student conduct it means that if there are a few minor conduct problems and they are ignored, pretty soon your school becomes a zoo in which no one can learn. I think public schools have suffered badly from the broken windows theory over the past generation or two. Quite frankly, when I read about the cultures in those inner-city schools described by Whitman, and then see the behavior and attitudes of many of the kids in my own school, it makes me want to cry.

One advantage that all of the schools described in Sweating the Small Stuff have is that the families of the kids have chosen to send their kids to them. That is a huge advantage, and it cannot be dismissed. If we want public schools to improve significantly, however, I'm convinced that we have to try to do some of the things that those schools are doing, even though we have to do it with kids who are basically assigned to our schools. There are a lot of schools around the nation, including mine, that could use some paternalism.

Whitman, like many critics of public education, views our teachers' unions as a major obstacle to improving education. He says that the six schools that did so well either had unions that were meaningless or no unions at all. My question is, does it have to be that way?

As I've said before, I'm grateful for what unions have done for me. There is no question in my mind that my salary would be less, and I would have a much less comfortable lifestyle if it weren't for teachers' unions. But I really believe that our unions have to change. There is no question that they have the potential to be our main instrument to bring about positive change. Other than helping to keep teachers' salaries reasonable, they've done very little in that regard. In fact, our critics are probably right about them being obstacles. It's time for our teachers' unions to start behaving more like professional associations and less like unions.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if our "professional associations" would take the lead in trying to get courts and legislatures to recognize that discipline and order are necessary in schools if learning is going to take place. So much of what the courts and legislatures have done over the last forty years have made good discipline in public schools much more difficult if not impossible. Wouldn't it be wonderful if our "professional associations" would take the lead in getting education schools to quit pushing solely child-centered methods. Maybe they could even urge them to teach more about maintaining discipline and order in classrooms, rather than encouraging teachers to "negotiate" with the kids. Finally, wouldn't it be wonderful if our unions would begin to help schools keep their best teachers and get rid of their worst ones regardless of seniority. Teachers have the power to control our unions and I really believe most teachers would like to see these things happen. If that's not true, then that is an indictment of us all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The changes you want to see occur in the teachers union can only come about if membership and dues payment is strictly voluntary. If membership and/or dues payment is compulsory then the union has all it needs to ignore what members want to accomplish.

11/03/2008 4:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if our "professional associations" would take the lead in trying to get courts and legislatures to recognize that discipline and order are necessary in schools if learning is going to take place."

Yes, that would be wonderful. Instead, our unions spend our confiscated money on political campaigns unrelated to education, such as the gay marriage proposition in California.

11/03/2008 6:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reforms you want are only possible if government is removed from education. As long as education is funded by government, politicians will be calling the shots, not you, Dennis. Sad but true.

11/03/2008 10:35 AM  
Blogger mazenko said...

Though I haven't read the book, I am not surprised by the results, nor the methods. Especially interesting is the linkage of the success of these schools and students to strong parental/community involvement. That always seems to be the key factor, and, interestingly, both an argument for and against vouchers. The choice issue is clearly effective, but only because it is the motivated communities in the first place that make such schools work. Private schools work so effectively (I know my Catholic school did) because they get rid of the problems. Those kids end up back in public schools. Thus, with situations like that, I can hardly see how a system outside of government could effectively meet the needs of the nation.

I concur on unions as well, though we agree that unions are hardly the systemic problem. There are plenty of successful union schools. Additionally, union dues, except those delegated for negotiations, are already voluntary. No one can be forced to join a union in the United States, and any dues that are being spent for political campaigns are refunded to any teacher who is interested. Thus, I would assert that the members who don't request "non-negotiation related funds" back are in fact endorsing the union to use additional funds for lobbying.

11/03/2008 11:35 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...


What? I don't have to pay for all the non-negotiation stuff my union does? Why didn't anyone tell me how to do this? I've never seen a piece of paper with this option on it, never been told anything by a representative of the union. I've just had union dues automatically deducted from my paycheck.

Every year, my car insurance company sends me a list of my coverages and what they cost. Periodically, magazines send me subscription renewals. I've never been offered any choices by my union since the first day when I was basically told, "Of course you're joining. Sign here."

11/03/2008 12:30 PM  
Blogger mazenko said...


I believe the term is "agency fee payer," and funds not used by the local for negotiations are refunded.

From what I understand there is an organization in California that helps teachers understand their rights in terms of union dues and membership. It's website is -

When I lived in Illinois, I was a member of the union and paid the dues without a second thought. However, I had several colleagues who filed each year with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a refund of their dues. You might consider checking with them.

Sadly, I guess, this is a case where you need to know your rights in order to exercise them

11/03/2008 2:39 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Michael, one thing the six schools all have in common is that they actually DE-EMPHASIZE parental involvement. Whitman says they recognize that parents in the inner-cities probably aren't going to be very involved in their kids education, so basically all they ask is that the parents provide a quiet place for the kids to do their homework. Even on the attendance, the schools, especially the principals, would take matters into their own hands. At a couple of the schools, the principals personally go to kids who don't show up, sometimes sitting outside the house and laying on the horn.

11/04/2008 2:26 AM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Your endorsement of the book has made it the next one on my list. I've recently finished Pedro Noguera's The Trouble With Black Boys, an examination of race and poverty in education reform.
I can't get enough stories about working in urban education. This experience at a failing urban school has caused me to examine much of what we do.

11/04/2008 8:07 AM  
Blogger mazenko said...


For more information, you might check out this post from a teacher:

11/04/2008 11:24 AM  

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