Tuesday, May 30, 2006

PESPD'S MYTH #1: If a Student Fails, The Teacher Has Failed

I'm pretty sure the first time I heard this one was in one of my education classes back in my undergrad days, but that's so long ago and my education classes were so unmemorable that I can't swear to it. It is something every teacher has heard, though, and many teachers think they're supposed to believe it. I understand that when a workshop presenter or education professor says something like this, they are trying to make a point that any good teacher would agree with--we should do whatever we can to reach every student that we can. The problem with this cliche' is that some teachers think they must buy into it completely and that they are uncaring if they don't. And buying into this cliche' completely would be a good way to be driven out of the profession or to a nervous breakdown. No matter how good you are at something, it's hard to stick with it if you constantly feel like you're failing.

Now some people outside of the teaching profession have come to believe this myth, too--even some students. A few years ago I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned-college-professor told a story about a seventh grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could think of to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She replied, "Because if I try, it won't be very good, and I'll be a failure; but if I don't try, then you're the failure."

I'm not sure which is worse: the fact that this myth has become so widespread that some kids believe it, or the fact that so many teachers at that workshop nodded their head in agreement with the young girl. Here was a case where the teacher did everything a good teacher should do. He gave that student every opportunity to try to be successful. If this sounds harsh, I'm sorry, but that young girl had it backwards--the teacher was not the failure; she was.

This story points out how harmful it can be when teachers and schools take upon themselves responsibilities that are actually the students. It IS our responsibility to give kids opportunities. It is also our responsibility to do whatever we can to motivate and encourage them, and I have read some blogs by teachers who seem incredibly gifted at this. It is my personal belief that it's my responsibility to make it possible for every student I have to be successful. However, it IS DEFINITELY NOT our responsibility to MAKE THEM learn. At some point, students have to make the decision to do that themselves. One of the biggest problems in education today is the accepted idea that the primary responsibility for learning lies with somebody other than the student.

If you give me a difficult job to do, but a job that I am capable of doing; and you make it clear to me that it is my responsibility, I'm going to get that job done. On the other hand, if you give me subtle messages that it's really somebody else's fault if I fail, there's a much greater chance that I'll fail. Yet that is the message that many kids are getting today, and it's one reason why so many public school kids are non-performers. We need to make it crystal clear that when a student fails because he didn't try, there is only one person at whom fingers are going to be pointed, and that person is not going to be the teacher. We need to make it clear that students, more than anyone else, are responsible for their own learning.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Over the weekend I had a traumatic blogging experience. As the school year has wound down, I've read a number of posts by teachers who found the end of the school year very stressful. On Saturday, I read a post by Anonymous Teacher, who expressed those same feelings, and I decided to comment. Anonymous Teacher is in her first year, and I've been teaching for 32, so I thought I'd wow her with my wisdom. In the comment, I said that the school year always gets easier for me as it goes along, in part, because I always have some non-performers who drop out of my class and go to the ALC.

Ms. H. from Teaching in Texas was not impressed. In a response to my comment, she lambasted me! She implied that I am a lousy teacher and human being, she said that she hoped she would never become as jaded as me, and she sarcastically referred to me as "Public Education's Self-Proclaimed 'Defender'." Ouch!

I wanted to explain myself, so I responded to her in another comment on Anonymous Teacher's site. I wanted to make absolutely sure that Ms. H. would see it, so I also copied it and put it on Ms. H's. site. When I checked later, I found that she had deleted it. I guess she let me know what I can do with my olive branch. Ouch again!

This experience, along with a book I am reading by Jay Greene, has inspired me to start a series of posts that I will title PUBLIC EDUCATION'S SELF-PROCLAIMED DEFENDER'S EDUCATION MYTHS. Part of my problem with Ms. H. was that I didn't explain myself very well in the first place, but another part of the problem is that we have different beliefs.

There are certain things that, according to college classes and workshops, teachers are supposed to believe. But my experience tells me that some of these things aren't true. In Jay Greene's book, which seems to be another blast at public education, he says that there are certain things that the public believes about public education that aren't true. The public believes these things because of propaganda from special interests (teachers and teachers' unions). Thus, his book, EDUCATION MYTHS. But I've found that Greene, in making his argument, presents some of his own beliefs as facts, and these "facts" also don't square with my experience. So during the next few weeks, I plan on addressing some things that teachers and the public are supposed to believe about public education that I believe are wrong. So here to wet your appetite are PESPD's EDUCATION MYTHS:

1. When a student fails, the teacher has failed.

2. The American people demand high standards from their schools.

3. Education should be a right of every student.

4. All high school aged kids should be encouraged to stay in school.

5. The key factor in the learning that takes place in any classroom is the quality of the teacher.

6. The key factor in determining a student's performance is his or her academic ability.

7. God is not allowed in public schools.

8. Teachers lack incentive to do a good job unless they are held accountable.

9. Public schools will improve if we use vouchers to force them to compete with private schools.

10. Because of our poor public education system, we are falling behind other nations.

I reserve the right to revise this list as I go along. After all, it's my blog and my posts. But don't worry, I won't delete you. There's nothing worse than being deleted. Now, if only I could remember where I put that olive branch!

Friday, May 26, 2006

A New Blogger Confesses

I've only been blogging for three weeks now, and I really enjoy it. I enjoy reading other people's posts, I enjoy commenting on them, and I'm absolutely thrilled whenever I see someone has read and commented on any of mine. Now that I've had a few posts, I decided it's time to be honest and tell why I began doing this. There's no sense beating around the bush; I might as well just say it. The reason I started this blog was to promote the book that I wrote, and the name of the book is IN THE TRENCHES: A TEACHER'S DEFENSE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION.

Writing the above sentence makes me feel like a used car salesman, but I'll feel like a used car salesman who's trying to be sneaky if I don't. Believe me, though, I'm not trying to make big bucks. That just isn't going to happen with a self-published book on the issue of public education. I'm just trying not to lose too much, and I'm trying to keep something going that I honestly believe in.

There were a number of reasons that I wrote the book, but the most important one was that I was tired of hearing public education getting trashed, while it seemed like no one out there was defending us. I'm proud to be a public school teacher, and I'm proud of the job that many of us in public education do. But for most of my adult life, I've been a news-talk-show junkie, and whenever I'd see public education discussed I'd end up discouraged and angry. There would usually be a conservative who would talk about how terrible public schools were, and then there would be a liberal who would "defend" us by saying something like, "Sure, public schools are bad, but that's because they're underfunded." Gee, thanks!

The "experts" involved in these discussions would draw conclusions and make recommendations that I knew were ridiculous, but people were listening to them. As I said in an earlier post, one thing these "experts" almost always had in common was that none of them had ever run a K-12 classroom, or if they had, it was so long ago that they had forgotten what it was like. I thought there had to be a place for a book on education issues by someone who has actually been "in the trenches"--a teacher. That is not to say that there is a huge market for books about education issues. I've often thought that if I knew as much about Princess Di as I do about public education, I could become a millionaire.

In any case, three years ago in August, I began writing the book. At first, I thought the odds were against finishing it, but by the next March I had completed a rough draft that was about fifty percent longer than it was by the time it actually got published. I could have tried to find an agent and a publisher, but it occurred to me that there probably weren't a lot of agents looking for 53-year-old first-time authors of books about education. So last year I contacted a self-publishing company with a very good reputation in the Twin Cities and began the process of getting the book published, and then marketing it. It's been an interesting and enjoyable experience, and I would encourage any of my fellow bloggers who are thinking about writing a book to go ahead and do it. I can't believe how prolific some of you are, and some of you are quite witty. A word of warning, though: self publishing is not cheap.

I ordered a thousand copies and the book was published last October. When it came out, the response from people I knew was very positive--much more so than I thought it would be. While I was writing the book, I didn't want anyone to know what I was doing because I was a little embarrassed about it. I was afraid people would think, "Who the heck do you think you are? Bob Woodward?" Instead of hearing that I ended up being surprised by the number people who said something like, "I've been thinking about writing a book for years, but you actually did it!" I still haven't completely adjusted to the fact that I did that either. Since the book came out, I've been invited to give some presentations, and when I'm introduced as an author, I find myself looking around to see who it is they're talking about.

The book has not quite taken off like The Da Vinci Code, but it got more attention than I had any right to expect. The Grand Forks Herald did a full-page article on it, and then followed that up with an editorial praising the book the next day. (Now I know that having an article in the Grand Forks Herald might not impress too many people in New York City or Los Angeles, but it's a pretty big deal in Warroad, Minnesota.) Then the Minnesota Educator which goes to teachers throughout our state did another full page article on it, and there were letters to the editor back and forth about the book for the next couple of months. The feedback I've gotten from teachers around Minnesota, and even some from around the nation, has been very encouraging. Many have told me that I wrote exactly what they thought, and I feel good when I hear that because it is exactly what I was trying to do. The book created some controversy, however, because it argued that public schools teachers should be given the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. Most teachers who have contacted me agree completely, but there are some who strongly take issue with that.

I now have less than a hundred books left, so the time has come to decide whether to hang it up, or keep going and order another thousand books. I've decided to stick with it and order the books--probably not the most rational decision I've ever made, since there is no real evidence that I'll be able to sell more than a handful of them. I've already sold whatever can be sold to my family and friends and to the people around my community. I've had my fifteen minutes of fame with the Grand Forks Herald and Minnesota Educator coverage. So where the heck to I go with it now?

I really don't know, but in March I retired from coaching hockey after 32 years, and that had always been the frosting on the cake of my educational career. I hesitate to call it "my passion" because I'm also passionate about my teaching, but there has been something extra-special about coaching. I know that I'll need something to replace it, and right now, promoting the cause of public education seems like the best candidate. You see, I really do believe in this cause.

That is why I started blogging. I hoped that I could draw people to my blog, and then from there they'd take a look at my book, and some might even buy the darned thing. So now you know the truth. And since this entire blog has been about the book I wrote, I won't talk about it anymore. Oh, I'll plagiarize it now and then, but I won't slyly make any references to it in an effort to lure you to it. Never! I promise!

Well, maybe just once in a while.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Liberals, Conservatives & Public Ed.

I should probably dedicate this post to "Conservative Teacher" because he is the one who inspired it.

I know that many public education teachers are liberal Democrats, but I don't quite fit that mold. I am somewhat left of the political center, so I don't like Tom DeLay, but I don't like Nancy Pelosi either, and I find Michael Moore and Ann Coulter equally obnoxious. I think liberals have done great damage to public education, but now conservatives threaten to destroy it.

In his book "The Death of Common Sense," Philip K. Howard says that nothing has done more damage to public education than the ruling by courts that education is a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law. I agree! That ruling was made by liberal judges and it's been backed up by legislation passed by liberal legislatures. Minnesota's Fair Pupil Dismissal Act is an example, and it makes it either impossible or prohibitively expensive to remove disruptive kids from classrooms.

I know that there are places where the public schools aren't very good, but I'm convinced that the perception that public schools in general are doing a poor job is wrong. That perception really scares me because I'm afraid it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy as parents who care about their kids education react to it by pulling their kids out of public schools.

I teach in a good school, and the performance of our former students testifies to that. Yet there is no evidence that my school is in a league of its own. There are thousands of schools around the nation with millions of students who are doing as good a job as we are. Nevertheless, all I ever hear from politicians and TV talk show pundits is that our public schools are failing.

Although liberals are very open to providing more money for public education, I get the impression that they think we're all doing a lousy job, too. An example is the "Dropout Nation" article in Time Magazine last month. Whenever students do poorly, they jump to the conclusion that the school must be failing to do something or be doing something incorrectly. Liberals want schools to develop more programs and use more progressive teaching methods in order to reach the non-performers. They fail to understand a basic truth of public education: non-performers rarely do poorly because schools are lacking the right program; the great majority of them do poorly because they don't try very hard.

The things that liberals have done to screw up public education could turn me into a conservative if it weren't for the conservatives themselves. While liberals might be misguided, I don't know any of them who could actually be called hostile to public education. Many conservatives, on the other hand, have no qualms about their hostility toward teachers and teachers unions, and some of them, as was pointed out in my last post, would even like to destroy public education. It is hard for me to view them as anything other than the enemy.

Conservatives are all for seeing the most motivated students in public schools leaving for private schools through the use of vouchers, and they often point to the great discipline in those private schools. Why have I never heard a conservative suggest that public schools be given the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students like private schools can? To me, that sounds like a conservative idea. Instead, they want public schools to "compete" with the equivalent of one hand tied behind their backs. If public schools have to compete like that, it's a competition they can't possibly win. As public schools are forced to tolerate kids who won't try and won't behave, and as motivated students leave, they will be turned into holding cells for those young people in our society with no hopes, no dreams, and no drive. From some of the horror stories I've heard, it sounds like that's exactly what has happened in certain places in our nation. Maybe that's exactly what some conservatives want.

I guess I'll just have to remain in the middle of the road.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Crackpots Against Public Education

Did you know that public school teachers are all part of a conspiracy to turn the United States into a communist nation? Did you know that public education is actually at war with Christianity? So says Dr. Bruce Shortt, a Baptist minister, in his article, "Public Education Against America." Shortt’s solution is to have "Christians" develop an exit strategy to remove all their children out of public schools and into "Christian" and home schools.

Shortt lays out a conspiracy theory that is so complicated that it would put Dan Brown (THE DA VINCI CODE) to shame. John Dewey, the Italian Communist party, the Frankfurt School, and American colleges and universities are all part of the plot. Schools of education are actually "political re-education camps," and concepts such as "respecting differences" and "diversity" are actually part of cultural Marxism. Your everyday, run-of-the-mill public school teachers and administrators are also part of this sinister plot, but we’re just too dumb to know it. I guess I owe Dr. Shortt a real debt of gratitude. I’ve been trying to figure out whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican, and here all the time, I’ve just been a Communist dupe. Silly me!

I always get angry when someone makes what I believe is an unfair criticism of public education, but Shortt’s article takes the cake. The scary thing is that there are a lot of people who listen to crackpots like Shortt. I have never been a fan of homeschooling, and I have to wonder how much of that movement is fueled by crap like this.

Obviously, I’m offended by Shortt because I’m a teacher, but I’m also offended because of my religious faith. I grew up in a lower-middle class Catholic family. My parents wanted me to go to college, but they didn’t want me to pursue a career based on how much money I could make. That’s one of the reasons I ended up becoming a teacher. I’ve never been one to wear my religion on my sleeve, but I’ve always felt like I’m practicing my faith when I do my job well. When someone devises a hair-brained theory in an effort to convince people that I’m actually involved in some sort of anti-American anti-Christian conspiracy, I get a little annoyed.

I am also annoyed because I honestly believe that people like Shortt give a bad name to Christianity. I am no theologian, but I do have at least a rudimentary understanding of the teachings of Jesus—things like love of neighbor and forgiveness. I see those qualities frequently in the teachers and students that I work with, but I have trouble finding them in people like Shortt. It also seems to me that Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for those who viewed themselves as religious, but showed no tolerance for people who they viewed as less religious than themselves. Gee, who does that sound like?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation"

In the middle of April, Time Magazine ran a cover story called "Dropout Nation." Nathan Thornburgh wrote the article, and he claimed that thirty percent of America’s high school students end up dropping out of high school. There is little doubt that most people reading this would wrongly assume that this is just another failure of public education.
First of all, while there are areas in the nation where the dropout rate is high, the claim that the overall total is thirty percent is dubious. What makes me want to scream, however, especially at this time of year, is the message sent in the article that when a student drops out, it is actually the school’s fault.
Thornburgh interviewed three dropouts from past and present generations, and (Surprise, surprise!) all three indicated that their decisions to drop out were the fault of their schools in some way. One woman, who is now twenty-eight years old, spent much of her high school career skipping classes. She blames her dropping out on a frustrated administrator who finally asked her, "Why don’t you just quit school?" Now the young woman says that she wonders what would have happened if someone had asked her to stay. I guess we are supposed to assume that she would have turned around and become a model student if only somebody in that nasty school system would have cared. I say, "Good for that administrator!"
Another young woman, who recently dropped out, seemed to blame it on the cheerleaders in the school because they weren’t nice to her. Her mother, who also dropped out, blamed her own decision on that all-time popular favorite—the school’s indifference. Why am I not shocked that none of the three dropouts are willing to take full responsibility for their own actions and decisions?
Let’s face it--dropouts are usually non-performers. The Time article says that dropouts rarely report being overwhelmed academically, and that strikes me as true. When kids drop out it’s rarely because they CAN’T do the work; it’s because they simply WON’T do it. Our public schools invest more time, attention, and money on kids like them than anyone else. Most of the letters and phone calls home and meetings we have after school involve them. We have special education programs, 504 plans, counselors, school social workers and probation officers; and we don’t have all these things because someone decided the honor roll students needed extra help. In the classroom we’ve tried having basic classes, we’ve tried mainstreaming, and we’ve tried various new teaching methods—some of them idiotic—in an effort to bring the non-performers along. So please don’t tell me that we have dropouts because public schools are indifferent.
Time’s approach to our "dropout crisis" is typical of the way our society has approached all educational problems involving students who don’t perform. We blame everyone except the non-performers. For some reason, we have decided to treat the non-performers in our schools as victims. If they are victims, they are certainly not victims of our public education system. In many cases they are victims of poor parenting, in some cases they are victims of the bad influence of the friends that they have chosen, and in others they are simply victims of their own lousy decisions.
Public schools should welcome kids of all ability levels who really want to get an education. They should welcome kids with legitimate learning and emotional disabilities, and they should do everything they can to help them as long as those kids show a desire to learn and to be successful. Schools should also welcome back dropouts who have had an honest change of heart like one young man portrayed in Time’s story. But when a student has made up his mind that education has nothing that he wants, there’s not much we can do for him.
There should be real efforts made to turn potential dropouts around, and public schools do that. But for some kids there is a time when it becomes clear that nothing good can happen from their being in school, and they actually become detriments to their classmates’ education. When that happens, the school shouldn’t be blamed, and the student shouldn’t be encouraged to stay. In fact, if we really want to improve public education, when a student like this doesn't make the decision to leave school on his own, the school should be able to make that decision for him.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Public Schools Under Attack

Are public schools under attack? You bet they are!
When I was in the process of setting up this blog, I wanted to look at some sample blogs. I typed in the words "public education" and the first item that came up was praise for an article that calls for the abolition of public education. Dr. Bruce Shortt, so-called "Christian," wrote the article, and he encourages all like-minded people to remove their children from public schools until his goal can be met.
Three weeks ago, Time Magazine’s cover story was titled "Dropout Nation." The article made the very dubious claim that thirty percent of all American students end up dropping out before graduation, and suggested in a no-so-subtle way that this was another failure of the American public education system.
For the last forty years, public education has provided millions of kids with avenues to wonderful lives despite the intentional and unwitting efforts by those on both ends of the political spectrum to make that as difficult as possible. On the left, we’ve had the bleeding hearts like the journalist who wrote Time’s article and the judges who have made decisions that have forced us to allow behavior in our classrooms that they would never tolerate in their courtrooms. Because of them, nearly every public school teacher has had to put up with some students in their classrooms who refuse to make any effort and refuse to behave. These students damage the education that takes place in nearly every classroom they are in, but it’s almost impossible to remove them. As if that wasn’t enough of a handicap, we now have those on the right who are doing everything they can to encourage our good students to leave through the use of vouchers and homeschooling.
When you consider the efforts of the left and the right to turn public education into a babysitting service for malcontents, it’s incredible how well we are doing. Our school now has graduates in nearly every state and private university in Minnesota and North Dakota. We’ve had kids go to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other prestigious universities throughout the nation. Last year, one of our former students graduated from Harvard Law School, which was really no surprise since she had earned a perfect score on both portions of the SAT during her senior year at our high school. Our school certainly has its share of success stories, but the amazing thing is that we don’t stand out in any way. There are thousands public schools with millions of success stories around the United States. But if you listen to people like Dr. Shortt and Time Magazine, you’d never know it.