Friday, March 30, 2007

The Ultimate Betrayal of Trust

Another teacher has been nailed for having sex with a student. Obviously, this is a terrible thing for everyone involved, especially the student and her parents, but it's also a real blow to those of us who care about public schools. Teachers are in a position of trust, and there's nothing worse for our increasingly fragile reputation than to have one of us abuse that trust. Although teachers who abuse their position like this are rare, it does happen. It even happened in my own school, and not so long ago.

I can't speak for female teachers, but one of the occupational hazzards of being a male high school teacher is occasionally having to deal with a girl who has gotten a crush on you. Most girls who get crushes on their teachers are skilled enough socially to keep it from being obvious, and have enough common sense to know that there will never be more than a student-teacher relationship. If the teacher ever finds out about it at all, it might be years after the fact, and at that point, he might find it flattering. Every once in awhile, however, there will be a girl who can make things embarrassing.

A few years ago, I had a girl as a student who obviously saw me as something more than just a teacher. She would often stay after class and try to flirt, and she also wrote chatty notes to me that were bordering on inappropriate. One night when I was at home working in my basement office, the phone rang, and my wife answered it upstairs. She called down to me, so I picked up the basement phone, and it was the girl with the crush. She had been absent that day, and she said, in what she probably thought was a seductive voice, “Did you miss me?” After I hung up, I immediately heard my wife’s voice again, and she definitely was not trying to sound seductive: “WHO WAS THAT?”

Handling this kind of situation is like walking a tightrope. A girl who behaves like that usually has some problems, and this girl was no exception. She had very poor social skills, and most of her classmates viewed her as strange and treated her as such. Her moods were erratic, so I wanted to be very careful not to say or do anything that would hurt her feelings, because I was concerned about the effect that might have on her. On the other hand, I definitely didn’t want to encourage her flirtatious behavior. I also made sure that if I ever ended up alone in my room with her that it wasn’t for very long because I didn’t want to put myself into a position where I could be accused of anything. The idea of a teacher my age getting accused of being romantically involved with a teenager might seem ludicrous, but that is exactly what happened a to a teacher in our school who was five years older than me. Tragically, the accusations turned out to be true.

Just as I was beginning to write my book, In the Trenches, with the idea of defending public education and teachers against all comers at the top of my agenda, our fifty-eight-year-old high school art teacher was arrested for having sex with a student. This story broke on a weekend when I was away, so when I first heard the news, it was by word of mouth. The only things I learned were that the relationship was supposed to have taken place over a two year period and that the girl was 16 years old.

This man had always struck me as being as decent a person as anybody on our staff, and our principal later told me that he considered him one of our top five teachers. I knew the man's wife, who had been very sick with a stomach disorder for a number of years, but he always seemed to be handling it well--with real concern but a total lack of self-pity. I knew his two children, who had grown into adulthood, and they stood as testimony to what a great job their two parents had done. So when I heard about this accusation against him, I thought it couldn't be true. This man that I had known and respected so much for fifteen years couldn't have possibly done such a thing. No way!

That night I watched the regional news, and our school's sex scandal was the lead story. Instead of hearing the denial I expected, they reported that our art teacher had admitted having sex with the girl. The story was disgustingly graphic, and they finished the report by showing actual mug shots the police had taken of this teacher, who up until a week before, had been such a highly respected member of our community. He was now facing twelve years in prison.

I could not believe it! I still can't fathom what could have possessed this fifty-eight-year-old man to have gotten involved in something like this. For a man like this, it was a kind of suicide, but worse. The wonderful reputation he had built during his thirty-five years of teaching--destroyed. His marriage--destroyed. His relationship with his son and daughter--destroyed. How do you tell your family members something like this? Plus, he now had a significant prison sentence looming in front of him.

I had tremendous sympathy for his wife and kids. I could only imagine how they would feel when they would see members from this community that they knew. I can only imagine how his son and daughter felt when the story became known in their new towns. I don’t know how this man could have done this to his family, but I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for him, too. I have had some bad days in my life, and I can remember waking up in the middle of the night with a feeling of dread because of something that happened at school, or because of an argument I had with my wife, or because of some problem going on in one of my kids' lives. It is a horrible feeling. How did he feel when he woke up in the middle of the night thinking about what he was doing with that girl; the feeling of doing something so wrong; knowing that it was only a matter of time before she would tell someone, and he would be exposed? And how did he feel after he was caught? I don’t even want to think about what it would be like to live in that horror.

So, yes, I could feel sympathy for this teacher, but I can’t argue against his prison sentence. There is no worse crime that a teacher can commit. When parents send their children to a school, it is an act of trust--trust that we will keep them safe, trust that we will take good care of them, trust that we will try to help them to become better people, and trust that we will treat them as if they were our own children. To do what our art teacher did, and to do what this teacher from North Dakota has done is the ultimate betrayal of that trust.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What if administrators still had to teach?

Just as my last post was not meant as an indictment of parents in general, this one is not meant as one of administrators. Nevertheless, I have often thought, that in an ideal world, every administrator would still have to teach at least one class. I know that in many cases this would be completely impractical, and I am sympathetic to the workload of administrators. I have seen high school principals who are at school all day every day of the week, and then at school events--boys and girls basketball and hockey games, band and choir concerts--every evening including Saturday. I am not one who envies the life of a school administrator.

But teachers, like me, can sometimes find the actions of administrators maddeningly obtuse, because we depend on them for some things, and because we are under their thumbs. Administrators are the ones to whom teachers frequently need to go when they are having problems with a student or a class. In our school, for example, only the principal can mete out any meaningful discipline. Only the principal can assign detention for most infractions, suspend students, or remove them from their classes. During my career I have witnessed situations when teachers were affected by some problem and nearly the entire faculty was calling for action, but the reaction of administrators was, "Ho-hum." I have also witnessed situations in which an administrator is directly affected, and action was immediate. I have witnessed major discrepancies in the treatment of students who have treated teachers with disrespect vs. the consequences for the same students when they have treated an administrator with disrespect. Administrators are also the people who make policies for teachers to follow, and sometimes those policies are blatantly ridiculous.

Most administrators have been classroom teachers earlier in their careers, so it might seem that that would be sufficient. The problem is that they tend to forget what that experience was like over time. I can't blame them for that, because I do it, too. One of the things I love about our summer break is that it gives me a chance to re-charge and come up with new assignments and new ways of teaching or reinforcing material in my classes. The deeper into summer I get, however, the more unrealistic I can become. There have been times when I have come up with a "brilliant" idea during the summer, only to have it turn out to be a miserable failure when I actually try in out in the reality of the classroom in October. Sometimes I will find myself thinking, "Why in the world did I think that was going to work?" Just a month or two away from the classroom, and I can become as impractical as anyone.

That's why I think it would be wonderful if administrators each had to teach just one class. And not an A.P. class. In fact, it would be ideal if it were a basic class. Nothing brings home the reality of the classroom faster than dealing with some of those basic students.

Once again, I want to say that I don't think administrators' jobs are easy, and I realize that I am giving a very one-sided view of the relationship between them and teachers. I might want a principal to take strong action against a student, but I'm not the one who has to worry about being sued if a bleeding-heart judge decides that the action was inappropriate or that due process wasn't adequately followed. I understand that administrators often have pressure to act differently from every conceivable direction--from teachers, from the public, from the school board, and from other administrators. I have dealt with angry parents, but never on the scale they have. I also realize that some teachers expect the principal to do a great job maintaining school discipline while they seem unwilling to do very much about it themselves. No, I don't want to be too critical of administrators, because I've never walked a mile in their shoes. But since I have to follow the rules that they make--sometimes arbitrarily--I just wish they would have to walk a little ways in mine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Idiot parents!"

Did my title grab you? Don't worry, it's not as bad as it sounds. That was simply my reaction when I heard about the complaints of some parents the other day. I have said before and I'll say again that most of the parents I've dealt with have been good, reasonable people, and they have been supportive of our school and their kids. But just as there are some incompetent teachers who give all of us a bad name, there are some idiotic parents who give all parents a bad name. If parents have to deal with an incompetent teacher or two, it probably becomes tough for them to remember that those good teachers exist. When teachers have to deal with idiotic parents, it becomes too easy to forget about all those good ones.

The parents who aroused my Irish temper did so by complaining that their high school aged kids would have to serve detention time for tardiness. If these parents had complained that our math program needs to improve, I wouldn't have liked it, but I could respect them as legitimately concerned parents. If they had complained that discipline in our school is too lax, I'd have agreed. There might even be some area where a parent could complain that our school is too rigid, but only a fool could complain that our tardiness or detention systems are too tough.

In our relatively small school we allow five minutes between passing bells. A former principal of ours used to bring a stop watch and take parents who had this complaint for a walk from one end of the building to the other, complete with a stop at a locker, and it always succeeded in ending any discussion about the matter. It never took close to five minutes. I know why students are tardy, and ninety percent of the time it happens because a boyfriend and girlfriend just can't stand to part from each other until the late bell rings.

Students in our school aren't given detention until they have hit their third tardy in the same class during one marking period. Since we have seven class hours and four marking periods, a student could be tardy 56 times during the year and never have to serve detention. Students are assigned a half-hour detention for a tardy, and they can serve it before or after school. In other words, our tardy and detention policies are embarrassingly lenient. Yet, these parents have the audacity to complain because their little darlings will have to serve detention. Aargh!

Parents like these do nothing but damage their own children. These kids know that whenever they have a conflict with a teacher or the principal that Mommy will jump to their defense. If they don't do the things they are supposed to do in school, they will have their advocate. Tell me, who gets hurt the most by that? To top it off, there is always the danger that some administrator will actually listen to a whining parent. As I've said before, schools do care what parents think. A few years ago we changed an absence policy that was having a positive effect because a parent with some clout went on a rampage because his daughters got warning letters. One could argue that our school has never been the same.

When I was in high school, I was not a great student, but I really believe I had great parents. The school and the teachers were right--period! It was my job to do what they wanted me to do, to the best of my ability. If I did something wrong and got into trouble, I should expect to suffer the consequences, whatever they might be, and make sure I didn't do it again. There were times as a student that I might have suffered minor injustices, but I would not have been foolish enough to complain to my parents about it.

I have to admit, however, that there are times when normally supportive parents should speak up rather than simply say, "Do what the teacher says!" The key is for parents to approach these situations with the presumption that the people in the school are competent and want to do the right thing. "Idiot parents" don't do this. Instead, they immediately assume that the teacher or the principal or whoever else from the school who is involved is wrong or lazy or acting out of ulterior motives. They think that instead of supporting teachers and the school, as my parents did, a good parent should serve as advocates for their kids whenever the students have conflicts with teachers or principals.

If this sounds like the old "teacher whining about parents" song, it really isn't. As I said earlier, most of the parents I've dealt with during my career have been pretty good, and that's still true today. And "idiot parents" should not just be a concern to teachers and administrators; they should be a concern to every good parent, as well. I think one of the biggest problems we have in public high schools today is poor discipline, and "idiot parents" contribute to that as much as anyone. It's a problem that will never be overcome unless good teachers and good parents work together to make it happen.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Anonymous on TIME's "How To Build a Student For the 21st Century"

I always feel a little like I'm cheating when I do this, but some stuff is just to good to pass up. Recently, Anonymous wrote a comment for my post on taking DI beyond the blogosphere, and I thought it was excellent. It was basically a critique of TIME magazine's article, "How to Build a Student for the 21st Century." Crypticlife liked it, too, so I thought maybe I'd missed something, so I read the comment again, and I still liked it. Anonymous's philosophy might be a little different than mine, but it's close enough. I hope Anonymous doesn't mind, but I thought the comment was too good not to be a post. So here it is: Anonymous's take on "How to Build a Student for the 21st Century."

The premise of the recent Time Magazine article, "How To Build a Student For The 21st Century," (December 18) is largely false, and frankly, sickening.

I am a veteran high school history teacher whose students do very well on standardized tests - AP, CAPT, SAT. I never to teach to tests. I demand that students go beyond their limited frame of reference and learn something, which includes memorization. My students acquire lots knowledge.

That Stanford University Professor who told her daughter to tell her teacher that she only needs to know the Amazon river - not the other rivers of South America - is a perfect example of the Educrat mentality. On the contrary, the mere act of learning something and memorizing it is a useful activity. Moreover, to understand more about the estuaries of the Amazon can lead to other sociological and anthropological awarenesses, even if they are not realized immediately. Memorization builds brain power and makes higher-level thinking possible. How can one think at a higher level when they know very little? How can we ask our young people to depend on Google? Do we not want to help young people think on their feet? Knowledge begets knowledge. More knowledge will not hurt young people, instead it will help them intellectually, psychologically and physiologically.

This "crisis" in education has come before, as far back as the nineteen twenties. In 1925 William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia Teachers College said that instead of teaching facts and figures, schools should teach students "critical thinking." Students need to learn how to "look-up" information in the modern world - the 1920s! In his "Child Centered School," Harold Rugg urged in 1928 a shifting of the focus to a child-centered environment. (Heather MacDonald) These so-called cutting-edge progressive education theories are old. Moreover, they have never worked with most students.

We thought the human condition was somehow evolving by 1914 and then we had WWI. The human condition is what it is. Students are what they are; much of the time they are reluctent learners. The Rousseauian theory of the naturally inquistitve young person is largely false. Some students are sometimes deeply engaged. Yes, the very best and brightest are often self-directed learners. But what about the big middle? No matter how the educrats twist it, turn it and re-package it, their wares are the same, and so are the results. And they are poor results.

And what are the wares of education schools? Theories. Of course educrats will say that knowledge is not important because content - history, math, science, literature etcera - is outside their area of theories. More often than not, student-centered, group work is inefficient and less effective in helping students attain the kind of education that is going to help them succeed. Constructivist education is in the end absurd. There has been a proliforation of Kaplan study centers and the like, because the recent upsurge of progressive education practices over the last 15 years has forced students to get direct, teacher-centered instruction elsewhere.

I am deeply, deeply concerned about the future of our young people. Their counterparts from India and China are learning much more than our young people, and, yes, they do a lot of memorizing and withstand lectures and obsorb lots of information. But they are also very creative.

Education should not be expected to be fun and immediately relevant. It should better than fun. It should be fulfilling and mind expanding. It requires lots of work and intensity. We do not need longer school days or schools years, we need more intensity and content oriented education. For fun we can have more team sports available to more students at all ability levels; they can learn "cooperative" skills, while bringing more blood to their brains and building self-esteem through hard work.

The directives from the education establishment are forcing a loss of discipline and rigor at a time when we need more of it.

We need to impart lots of knowledge and information to the millions of reluctant learners so that they have in their heads an educated mind even when the computer is down. The late Neil Postman said that computers have not solved any problems in education that were there before. Instead, computers and the internet have created new ones.

Friday, March 16, 2007

On grade inflation and giving Fs

MSNBC recently another ran another “report” that seems to indicate that American teachers and American education are doing a terrible job. The major point of the story is that while grades for American high school students have been improving over the last fifteen years, test scores aren't improving at all. The very clear impression given is that teachers are giving out higher and higher grades in their core classes while students are learning no more, and possibly even less.

“The reality is that the results don’t square,” said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the national tests.

If they had conducted that study at my school, the results would probably be about what they were nationally, but the impression it gives would be completely unfair.

I would guess that the average GPA in our school is higher than it was fifteen years ago, but it isn’t because teachers are giving out higher grades in their classes. There are a number of other reasons for the higher GPAs. First of all, about ten years ago, our school decided to start “weighting” our AP classes. We hadn’t done that before, but it seemed to make sense that a B in an AP Government class should probably mean more than a B in a regular Government class. So would that raise a student’s GPA? Yes. Does it mean that the teachers of those classes are grading any easier than they were before? No. But is that a reasonable thing to do? I think so.

Our school, like many others, has found that most students do a very poor job of utilizing their time in study halls. Because of this, we have increased the number of credits kids need in order to graduate. In order to fulfill this requirement, more kids are taking more electives, and many of those electives aren’t very hard. Grades tend to be high in Weight Training and Native American Arts classes. So would that raise a student’s GPA? Yes. Does it mean that the teachers of those classes are grading any easier than they were before? No. But is that a reasonable thing to do? I think so.

Finally, in our school we have also had a proliferation of student aids, who assist teachers in running off copies of tests and assignments and run other various errands for them. Being a student aid is treated as a class, and guess what grade the kids tend to get? Once again, does that raise students’ GPAs? Yes. Does it mean that teachers are giving higher grades in their actual classes than they were before? No. But is that a reasonable thing to do? This time, I’m not so sure.

Since I am only in my own school, I can't say with certainty that the same things going on here are going on in schools nationally, but I suspect they are. Did MSNBC or Darvin Winick check into things like that? I doubt it. It seems that the media--even the so-called "liberal" media--can't wait to throw a little dirt at American education and teachers in general.

There is one area, however, in which I think most teachers are too generous, and by doing so, I think we are doing our students a disservice. I believe one of the greatest mistakes of teachers today is their refusal to give F's to kids who deserve them.

The fact of the matter is that most teachers don't want to give students F's because doing so creates a lot of headaches. When a teacher gives a student a failing grade, he's going to be catching flak from the student, from his parents, and maybe from the administration. He had better have enough evidence supporting the grade to make a prosecuting attorney smile, and he had better have given ample warning to everyone about what was coming. Many teachers feel there are a lot more effective ways they can use their time and energy, so they will often just give a kid a D and be done with it. The problem with this approach is that we are teaching too many students that they can do almost nothing, and still get by.

If a student is doing failing work there are two possibilities. The first one, which is the case about ninety-five percent of the time, is that the student isn't trying very hard. Over the last several years, I have had a number of students who were shocked by Fs on their report cards into making much better efforts in the following marking periods. In the process, they would demonstrate that they were capable of doing much better work than they had been doing. Early in my career, when I would frequently give the same kinds of kids "breaks," I would never see improvement. As a matter of fact, their performances often deteriorated because they learned one lesson very well--if they didn't do their work, somebody would give them a break.

The second, and much less frequent reason for a student doing failing work is that she needs more help than what she is being given. It's tempting to give these students passing grades, especially if they're quiet and cause no problems in the classroom, so it's easy for them to end up never getting the help they deserve. In either case, when we give kids "breaks" by giving them passing grades that they haven't earned, we are not actually doing them any favors.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

How can we take Direct Instruction beyond the blogosphere?

There are various reasons why people start educational blogs. Some of us want to make our voices heard in educational debates, and we hope we can play small roles in making education better in America. We want to make a difference.

There are a couple of problems with that, however. First of all, it's hard for us to get attention. The network of educational bloggers isn't very big, and education isn't a subject that attracts a tremendous amount of interest with John Q. Public. I mean, I don't ever remember having to elbow anybody out of the way in the education section of a bookstore. The other problem is that there is a lot of disagreement between us. If we could ever succeed in bringing about a consensus for any of our reform ideas, maybe the first problem could be overcome.

One subject that does seem to have a consensus is Direct Instruction. As you may know, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post and asked for feedback about Direct Instruction, and similar posts were written at the same time by Ms. Teacher and Joanne Jacobs. Between the three posts, there were over seventy responses. The only skepticism that was expressed about DI came from teachers who had never actually seen it used. Every single person who had used it said it was effective. I don't know about you, but I'd call that a consensus.

Maybe it's because I'm a high school teacher, or maybe it's because I'm an idiot (Quit nodding, Cryticlife!), but I had never even heard of Direct Instruction until I began blogging. I know I'm not alone, however, because I've talked to a number of other people in education, including elementary school teachers, who also hadn't heard of it. As I said earlier, the network of educational bloggers is relatively small, but isn't there something we can do to make more people--or at least a lot more people in education--aware of the effectiveness of Direct Instruction? Isn't there something we can do to pressure education schools and those who put on workshops to begin to teach this very promising technique along with their "progressive" ideas?

It seems to me that there are elements of a very interesting story in here. We have a program mandated by Congress that went on for several years (Project Follow Through), and I assume that millions of dollars of tax-payer money was spent. We have results showing a particular program to be superior, especially in working with disadvantaged kids, but we have higher-ups burying the results because it didn't correspond with their theories. We have the founder of the program, Zig Engelmann, unable to find any publisher willing to tell his story. This looks to me to be a nice big-fat-juicy scandal that somebody in the media or some politician should love. Of course, this is education, and that just doesn't have the sex appeal of some other things. Maybe we could get Zig to claim that he was part of a plot to murder Princess Di, or maybe he could claim to be the father of Anna Nicole's baby. That ought to get the ball rolling!

I admit that I feel self-conscious pushing so hard for Direct Instruction, because I'm a high school social studies teacher, and I've never been trained in the technique. I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to tell elementary school teachers how to do their jobs, and I wouldn't want to see any of them forced to abandon methods they believe are working for one they may have never heard of. But unless all of the things that I have read and all the feedback about Direct Instruction are wrong, they should at least be aware of what Direct Instruction is and how effective it has been for others. Right now, I think it's safe to say that that is not the case.

Political bloggers played an important role in the Election of 2004, and conservative bloggers had a great deal to do with eventual ousting of Dan Rather from CBS News. If they could have that much power, maybe we can make a dent here. How can we spread the message of Direct Instruction beyond our little educational blogging network? I have some ideas of my own, but I'd love to hear from others, especially those who have actually used it. Maybe together we can make a difference on something we actually agree on.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Public Education and "the Market"

A couple of weeks ago, IanH brought up an article by Leander Kahney about Steven Jobs' views on education. Jobs believes that we can fix our education system by allowing schools to get rid of bad teachers and adopting a voucher system. Although Jobs is anti-union and I'm not, I actually agree with him about the first one. His advocacy of vouchers, however, I strongly disagree with.

According to the Kahney article, Jobs said that vouchers will allow parents, the "customers," to decide where to send their kids to school, and the free market will sort it out. Competition will spur innovation, improve quality and drive bad schools (and bad teachers) out of business. The best schools will thrive.

I do have to admit that my fear of vouchers and "choice" might be overblown. In Minnesota, we have open enrollment, or "choice", within our public school system. A major issue in our state right now is a battle between our state legislature and the Minnesota State High School League, which governs high school athletics in the state, over a new transfer policy that has been proposed because so many kids have been changing schools in order to play on better football, basketball, or hockey teams. You see, I can give you the names of dozens of people who have switched schools in order to enhance their athletic careers. I can also name students who have switched schools because they couldn't get along with anyone in their original school, and I can name still others who have switched schools in order to be with their boyfriend or girlfriend. But during the entire time that "open enrollment" has been in effect in Minnesota, I can honestly say there is not one student that I personally know of who has switched schools because of academics. Not one! I'm not saying they don't exist--I'm sure they do. But the idea that "choice" has made Minnesota schools better academically is a joke. Once again, however, Minnesota's system involves only public schools, and private schools aren't in the mix.

There are some people who seem to believe that the market is God, and if you simply leave things up to market forces, everything will work out wonderfully. I definitely believe that an economy based primarily on market forces works better than a command system in which the government directs production and distribution. But the market isn’t God. Market forces have given us some very good things, but they have also given us telemarketers and spam email. Market forces have given us hour after hour of coverage on the news channels informing us about the dispute over where Anna Nicole Smith’s body would be buried. Market forces gave us the Great Depression, and despite Herbert Hoover’s high hopes, market forces were not able to get us out of it.

Market forces do not have the answers to everything, especially in education. KDerosa and others have told us a lot about Direct Instruction. They've told us that Direct Instruction proved itself to be a superior form of instruction during a congressional mandated program called Project Follow Through, but the results were buried by a few higher-ups who didn’t like them. That sounds incredibly scandalous to me, and I would think it would make a great story, especially in this era of No Child Left Behind when politicians and the public are supposedly soooooooo interested in education. Yet, Zigg Engelmann, the father of Direct Instruction, can’t even find a publisher who is interested in telling his story. I guess education just isn’t sexy enough. Nope. Market forces aren’t the answer to everything.

Kahney does a good job shooting down Jobs' theories, but I'd like to take a shot at them myself from a different angle. In a normal market situation the firm supplying the product and the customer are separate. According to that scenario, the school--the administration, the principal, and the teachers--would make up the firm, and the parents and their children would be the customers. Many people view education in this way, and THEY ARE WRONG!

Speaking from the perspective of a high school teacher, I can tell you that even though the students are "customers", they are also very much a part of "the firm" that is producing the product. The effect that students have on each other's education at the high school level is enormous, and it even rivals the effect of the teachers. I have had great classes in which a tremendous amount of learning has taken place, but I have also had classes that I've actually been ashamed of. Same teacher, but totally different classes and results because of the effect that students have on each other. The best class I've ever had was my first hour American History class during the 2002-03 school year. There were some students in that class who were considered poor students and some others who were average, but there were enough good students in that class that they made everybody better. The influence of those good students caused the poor and average students to work harder and learn more than they ever would have in a different class. Sadly, I have also had the opposite of that. In those classes, students who studied were scoffed at, and there were enough bad students to drag everyone else down closer to their level.

One thing that irritates me more than anything else is that the promoters of "competition" in education never propose that public and private schools all operate under the same rules. Jobs' idea of "competition" and "letting the market forces decide" consists of having private schools, who have the power decide who to allow into their schools and the power to kick out any students who don't meet their performance and behavior standards, vs. public schools, who must allow anybody in and must also recognize the "right to an education" and "due process" rights for all student no matter what they do. Hey, that sounds fair.

If we really want public schools to improve, we certainly do not want to encourage those good students, who have such a positive effect on their classmates, to leave. Yet, that is exactly what a voucher system would do. If someone wants to do away with our public education system, or turn it into an institution that simply houses the young people in our society with no hopes, no dreams, and no drive, while others attend the private schools of their choice, they should say so. My friend Steven comes right out and says that he doesn't believe in public education, and I can respect that. But Jobs does not, either because he's not being honest, or because he doesn't know what he's talking about. I suspect that it may be a little bit of both.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Get well, Steven!

If you've missed Steven, so have I. Steven was one of the most regular contributors on this blog during the months before Christmas, and we almost always disagreed. In one of his comments, he mentioned that he is a CPA and that he would be extremely busy once tax season began after the New Year, so I wasn't surprised when his comments quit coming in.

I received an email from Steven yesterday, and it turns out that he's got a lot more going on than figuring out how to save his clients' pocketbooks from Uncle Sam. A few weeks ago, Steven was diagnosed with a rather dangerous form of prostate cancer, so he is now being treated for that.

When it comes to education issues, Steven and I have about as much in common as George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton. We have had our little verbal spats on this blog, but that's okay. (I think I've been having about a six-month spat with KDerosa and Crypticlife!) It's always nice to look at the comments on a post and see those of people who agree with you, but I know it makes it a lot more interesting when you have people like Steven who are willing to disagree. Although Steven's views are so much different than mine, I've really come to like and respect him. He's willing to take unpopular stands and stick with them, he's demonstrated a sense of humor, and by consistently being able to disagree withoug being disagreeable he's made our arguments fun.

Steven will be in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope he'll be in yours. He's a good guy, and we need him back. I know this blog sure does!

Get well, Steven. But when you're feeling better, be prepared to get verbally thrashed again! ;-)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

John Taylor's "No Dentist Left Behind"

On my last post, M wanted to share the following essay by John Taylor, a retired school superintendent in South Carolina. I loved it, but I suspect that many of my non-teacher readers will hate it. In any case, I thought it was too good to leave buried as the 4oth comment for one of my posts. Taylor originally wrote the essay a number of years ago in reaction to an accountability program in South Carolina. It was resurrected after No Child Left Behind was passed, and it has made the rounds through email and other Internet sources. In any case, here it is.

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.