Friday, February 27, 2009

Frustration: Teachers, non-teachers & education policy

I suspect that if any "educational elites" ever read any of my stuff, they quickly come to the conclusion that I am an educational Neanderthal. They probably picture me as a character from one of the Geico cavemen commercials. But I wonder if they have any idea how many of us Neanderthals there are. After one of my recent posts, Denine left the following comment:
As a first year teacher, I often feel like I am the only one who sees the "reality" in public education. I read your blog and realize that I am not alone.

The most gratifying thing from the writing I've done, whether it's in this blog or in the book I wrote, has been getting comments like that. I can't count the number of times that teachers approached me personally or wrote me letters telling me something to the effect that they felt like they could have written the book I wrote because it expressed exactly what they had been thinking. When I heard things like that, I felt like I had succeeded in what I was trying to do.

There are a lot of teachers who agree that one of the biggest problems in American education is that there are a lot of kids who don't try very hard, and that there are a lot of forces in our society that push them in that direction. There are a lot of teachers who agree about the disastrous effects that disruptive and apathetic students have on other kids stuck in classes with them. There are a lot of teachers who are frustrated because they lack the power to do anything meaningful to deal with these problems and they are expected to provide quality educational opportunities to all their kids despite them. I believe that unless something is done about these problems, education--at least in public schools--will never improve significantly no matter what other nifty reforms are imposed upon us. I've found that there are a lot of teacher who feel the same way.

I don't mean to speak for Denine, but I think she was expressing that sentiment when she also said this:
"I feel like I am at a total loss when it comes to solutions for so many of the problems in public education. I feel like most of my fellow teachers have given up and just accept things as they are. They all just tell me that I will do the same thing, too, in a few years when I realize that things are not going to change."

In a couple of posts in the past, I have expressed my frustration about discussing educational issues with non-teachers. Some non-teachers get offended by this, but I'm really not trying to give offense. I'm not saying that non-teachers have no right to an opinion on educational matters, and I'm not even saying that because they have never taught in a classroom that their opinions automatically have less validity than teachers. In fact, on some educational issues, they might even have more. Nevertheless, the experience of being in a classroom day after day does matter. It does give one a perspective on some things in education that you can't possibly have without it. Why does it seem like that perspective is ignored?

What is so frustrating about being in education, especially with the media and the elites of the nation constantly harping about how poor a job we're doing, is that policy is made by people who do not live their lives by teaching in classrooms. Policy is made by politicians, superintendents, and the like, and they seem to be most influenced by journalists, business leaders, high-brows from universities, and others who know nothing about what day to day life in a K-12 classroom is actually like. Yes, I know, someone might argue that our unions are very involved in making policy, but I'm not sure when the last time was that most of those union leaders were actually in the trenches of the classroom. I do know that our unions have failed miserably to express the concerns that I'm talking about.

This morning as I was watching CNN, a little item flashed across their screens saying that the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has announced that he believes we need to have a longer school year. Now, I am not against that. Heck, it would probably mean that I'd make more money. But let's face it, the biggest concerns about education in America have to do with our lowest achievers, and any teacher can tell you that the overwhelming majority of our low achievers don't try very hard. If you are going to do anything meaningful about that, the first thing that must be addressed is their lack of effort. Any teacher could also tell you that adding days to our school year will do absolutely nothing about that. But then, Arne Duncan was never a teacher.

Last week I posted about the effort in the Minnesota State Legislature to pass a law forcing kids to stay in school until they are 18-years-old. Any high school teacher I know could tell you that forcing every kid to stay in school is a bad idea. But the chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carlos Mariani, thinks it is a great idea. Surprise, surprise, Rep. Mariani is not a teacher. His former occupation before becoming a state legislator in 1990 is listed as consultant--whatever that means! The superintendent of the St. Paul schools, however, thinks Mariani has a swell idea. She made this wonderful sounding and incredibly naive statement about it: "When kids drop out, everyone loses." Anyone who has ever taught in a high school classroom can tell you how wrong that statement is, but then Ms. Carstarphan has never been a teacher. Her career before becoming the head of the St. Paul schools: a photographer and then a wiz-bang administrator.

I wish I had an answer for what to do about this, but I'm afraid I don't. All I can do, I guess, is to keep on blogging, and hope that others who've had similar experiences to mine do the same. But for those of you who are not teachers, I hope you'll have some patience with people like me when I complain about non-teachers and educational policy. I'm sure teachers aren't completely alone in this respect, but I don't know how many other people have occupations where the key decisions for them are consistently made by people who seem to have no idea what they are doing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A good name for a bad concept

Eduwonk is having a contest for re-naming "No Child Left Behind." With all due respect, I disagree with the idea of changing the name of this program. The name is perfectly appropriate; it is the concept that is flawed.

I should point out that I am looking at this from a high school teacher's point of view, and maybe an elementary teacher would see it differently. But the name "No Child Left Behind" implies that education is something that is done "to" or "for" somebody. As a person who deals with 15-18-year-olds, I can tell you that I can't educate anyone. I can't force any of them to come along with me. I can make it possible for every one of my students to be successful (and that ain't easy!), I can motivate, and I can make my classes as interesting as I possibly can. But I can't force my kids to become educated. It doesn't matter how hard I work at it, if my students are going to be educated, they are going to have to have some desire to do that, and they are going to have to do most of the work themselves. I can do everything in my power to give all of my students the opportunity to be educated, but I'm sorry--I can't ram it down their throats. "No Child Left Behind," just as the name says, is based on the idea that I can. And that's why the program is fatally flawed.

If we want reform that will improve education in America in a meaningful way, it needs to be based on the idea that we will provide the opportunity for a quality education for every child. That includes providing the best possible opportunities for kids with various learning disabilities. However, implicit in that concept is the acknowledgement that there will be kids who will turn their backs on education. Certainly we should try to motivate and encourage kids to take advantage of the opportunity, but eventually we must accept their decisions. If a student won't try or won't behave appropriately, that student should be removed from the educational setting or at least separated from those who do want to be educated.

I know I sound like a broken record when I keep saying this, but kids affect other kids in the classroom. When we say that we will leave no child behind, we are making sure that we will leave many behind that don't have to be. When we say that we will educate every kid whether they like it or not, and we will force them to stay in their classrooms no matter what they do or don't do, we are condemning countless kids who have wonderful possibilities to be stuck in those classrooms with them. For too many that means an inferior education or no education at all.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is this somebody's idea of reform?

If you ever say "reform" or "high expectations" to a teacher, and the teacher turns and runs the other way, please excuse him. "Reform" and "high expectations" might sound good to the average layman, but to someone who actually has to teach classes, they often mean that the idiots are back at it again. As I perused the Minneapolis Star/Tribune the other day, I saw that certain reformers in the Minnesota State Legislature are back at it again. Their idea to improve education in our state: force all kids to stay in school until they are at least 18-years-old. It's enough to make a grown man cry.

The subtitle to this article reads, "Proponents say it would signal the state's strong educational expectations." Puh-lease!!! Any classroom teacher can tell you that "high expectations" does not equal kids simply being in school. High expectations should mean that the kids who are in school perform at a reasonable level. Forcing sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who don't want to be there to be in school ends up lowering expectations, not raising them.

A case that illustrates the futility for forcing kids who have no interest in education to stay in school involves a student of ours from a few years ago who got into trouble with the law. The judge in his case made it a condition of his probation that he be in school. Well, the kid came to school alright, but instead of going to class, he just wandered around the hallways. Our principal brought him into his office and asked him, "Aren't you concerned about what this means for your probation?" The kid's answer: "The judge just told me I had to be in school; he didn't say I had to go to class."

I'm sure the judge in that case was well-meaning; he just didn't know any better. A superintendent of schools, however, should. Apparently St. Paul's superintendent of schools, Meria Carstarphen, doesn't. She made a statement for the Star/Tribune article that is so wrong that I have to wonder if she's ever actually been in a high school classroom. She said, "When kids drop out everyone loses."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Students affect other students, and anybody involved in education should understand that. In the great majority of cases, when a student drops out, many of that student's former classmates gain, and some of them might gain greatly. It is depressing that someone with the power of a big city superintendent is ignorant of that.

Every year, my American History classes get better as the year goes along because we get rid of some malcontents. Most of ours end up going to our ALC, but some do actually drop out. Good riddance! The kids that leave have no desire to learn anything, they make no effort, they are often disruptive, and they drag everybody down. There is no question that the effect of their leaving on the education that takes place in my classes is positive.

If someone wants to have a program to emphasize the importance of education to troubled kids, I would be all for it as long as that program emphasized to those kids that they have to perform--they have to be willing to behave, and they have to be willing to try. If someone wants to start a program to encourage kids who have dropped out to decide for themselves to come back to school and take their education seriously, I would be all for it. That would actually make sense.

Dropping out is not a good thing, but it is a symptom and not a cause of educational problems. I'm sorry that dropouts have gotten lost somewhere along the way, but the St. Paul superintendent has it backwards--if we force kids who have no desire to learn to stay in school, everybody will lose.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I'm still here!

My blogging buddy, Mark Roulo, sent me an email a week ago to make sure I hadn't fallen off the face of the earth. It's nice to be missed by somebody, and I've felt guilty about being away for so long. But blogging takes mental energy, and I just haven't had enough left over to do this lately. As I told Mark, I set the blogging aside because I have been so involved in my two jobs--teaching and coaching hockey.

Even though I've done it for 33 of my 34 years in education, I guess I forgot how demanding coaching is on one's time and attention. After taking a year off, I came back into coaching last year and although I worked with the varsity goaltenders, my main responsibility was handling the junior varsity team. Hockey is huge in northern Minnesota, but there is far less pressure on JV than there is on varsity teams, so when it comes to enjoyment vs. pressure, it was one of the most enjoyable years in coaching I've ever had. This year I was moved to varsity assistant, and our team is very good. As a result, the pressure has increased, and the amount of energy demanded from me has gone up with it. I thought I'd be able to hang in there with the blogging through the season, but I underestimated how hard that would be.

Our team finished it's regular season on Tuesday with a record of 23-2. We begin our section playoffs next Thursday, and we have to win three games to make it into the state tournament, which is our main goal every year. Right now, it appears that we have a legitimate chance to not only make it into the state tournament, but to win our state championship. There is the very real possibility, however, that we will get knocked off in our section tournament, and if that happens, it will be hard to view our season as a success, regardless of our impressive record. That is pressure! I'd love to tell you that I handle pressure marvelously and that I will be calm, cool, and collected throughout the upcoming ordeal, but the truth of the matter is that at times like these I remind myself a lot of Barney Fife. As I told Mark, at least I'll be able to put my Metamucil away for the next couple of weeks.

I'm posting this because we have a nine-day break between our last regular season game and our playoffs, so the head coach has given the kids (and me) a rare weekend off. I might post again soon because we only have school two days next week. We've got Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday off because our girls' hockey team made it into their state tournament. You think that doesn't add a little to the pressure? In any case, don't worry about me. I'm still up here in the frozen tundra of Warroad, and hopefully I'll be able to get back into blogging when our season is over.