Category Archives: PR

Great Teachers Aren’t Enough

With budget cuts to education and social services, schools are struggling across the nation to do more with less. However, the current approach used by the Obama Administration, Arne Duncan, and other so-called reformers is that a good teacher can overcome everything thrown at them.

You’re a great teacher? Have some extra students.

You’re a great teacher? Here are the toughest students to teach.

You’re a great teacher? Mentor other teachers.

You’re a great teacher? Go to the toughest school.

But a great teacher can’t overcome the damage done by budget cuts, bad education theory, and poor home lives. Ellie Herman, a teacher in Los Angeles, recently wrote a compelling and eloquent piece detailing the false assumptions at the heart of the reform movement today. She says:

The kid in the back wants me to define “logic.” The girl next to him looks bewildered. The boy in front of me dutifully takes notes even though he has severe auditory processing issues and doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Eight kids forgot their essays, but one has a good excuse because she had another epileptic seizure last night. The shy, quiet girl next to me hasn’t done homework for weeks, ever since she was jumped by a knife-wielding gangbanger as she walked to school. The boy next to her is asleep with his head on the desk because he works nights at a factory to support his family. Across the room, a girl weeps quietly for reasons I’ll never know. I’m trying to explain to a student what I meant when I wrote “clarify your thinking” on his essay, but he’s still confused.

It’s 8:15 a.m. and already I’m behind my scheduled lesson. A kid with dyslexia, ADD and anger-management problems walks in late, throws his books on the desk and swears at me when I tell him to take off his hood.

The class, one of five I teach each day, has 31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes. I need to reach all 31 of them, including the brainiac who’s so bored she’s reading “Lolita” under her desk.

I just can’t do it.

This theory seems to show that the teacher as savior myth is alive and well. At what point do people wake and realize that schools reflect the communities in which they reside? That teachers can’t overcome every social obstacle? That those making the decisions in education are harming more kids than they are helping?

Herman counters the Asia and Norway arguments with this:

But a huge percentage of students in Japan and South Korea pay for after-school tutoring to make up for a lack of individualized attention at school. Finland, with the best scores in the world, has average class sizes in the 20s, and it caps science labs at 16.

She also details the challenges faced by teachers:

A whole chunk of my students are alienated by this highly structured environment: the artists, the rebels, the class clowns — in other words, some of my smartest kids.

On a good day, about a fourth of my students don’t do the reading or the homework; if I set up a conference after school, they might show up and they might not. Why? Because one kid thinks he has an STD, and another girl’s brother just got out of juvie, and another guy wandered to the ice cream truck and forgot. Because they’re teenagers. Because they’re human.

She follows this with the increasing disparity between the affluent and the poor:

But nobody talks that way about the children of the wealthy, who can pay for individual attention in tutoring or private schools with small classes. I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.

Our children — even our children growing up in poverty, especially our children growing up in poverty — deserve to have not only an extraordinary teacher but a teacher who has time to read their work, to listen, to understand why they’re crying or sleeping or not doing homework.

Teachers are being set up for failure. And, when they do, it will signal a marshaled call to destroy completely the old system and to create a new one, a private one, one that will favor the affluent and condemn the destitute.

A great teacher can overcome much, but a great teacher is not a panacea.

“American Teacher”

What if Superman is already here? Who, then, are we waiting for?

I’ve asked these two questions often and no one really has a response, and maybe there isn’t one. But, maybe Rorschach of The Watchmen did answer it for us in a fashion when he commented on superheroes being looked to for help: “[The people] will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll whisper ‘no.'”

What if Waiting for Superman had it all wrong? What if Superman was in the school, didn’t feel supported, and left? What if Superman took a job somewhere else? Or, what if Superman is still working in the school, and no one recognizes/rewards him?

Well, maybe this new film American Teacher will tell the tale that people seem to dismiss, ignore, or miss. Michael Alison Chandler summarizes the film thusly:

It follows a handful of smart people who work long hours in front of the classroom and deal with resoundingly common problems.

The teachers talk about what inspired them to go into the field (moments of discovery, teaching someone to read, the intellectual challenges of translating one lesson to 35 different learners) and what burns them out (low pay, little support from management, 65-hour weeks, the overwhelming task: “I feel I give everything I have, but it’s never enough,” one teacher said).

Chandler further states:

In an op-ed in The New York Times,the documentary’s producers – who are also the founders of the 826 National tutoring centers – say that real salaries have dropped for 30 years in a row.

The average starting salary is $39,000 and grows to $67,000 after 25 years in the profession, they write, yielding paychecks that price them out of the housing market in 32 major metropolitan markets.

The film offers more in the way of storytelling and explaining than a clear path forward — but urged the kind of political will that found money for three concurrent wars, the bailout of investment banks, or the project that sent Americans to the moon.

Maybe, just maybe, this film will portray teachers and the profession accurately and with a sobering dose of reality for the public to see. Maybe the straw man argument of the so-called “bad teacher” can be put to rest , and a real dialogue about the realities of teaching can be discussed when this film hits the silver screen.


Bad Link

I’m surprised, but not shocked, that politicians and columnists continue to advocate for a link between teacher evaluations and RiF processes, but I have to admit that I’m frustrated by the lack of forethought on this issue.

I don’t believe the current evaluation system in WA State is a good one–which is why nine districts are piloting new systems commissioned by the state–but last in, fist out is the best system right now. It may not be the best later, but right now it’s the most transparent and equitable system known.

Here is my brief comment on a local article comment board regarding this issue:

Everyone agrees the current evaluation system is broken. And, you advocate using that admittedly broken system to determine people’s careers? That’s ludicrous.

Besides this, the evaluation system is supposed to be a growth model for teachers to use to improve their practice. Once it becomes a ranking system, it will create competition in the schools, and teachers will then need to outscore the teacher down the hall rather than collaborate with that teacher.

These types of ideas (linking layoffs to evaluations, value-added scores, merit pay, etc.) create competition and fundamentally change the basis of the collaborative education system. These ideas will change the conversation from “our kids” to “my kids,” and the struggling teacher down the hall (and her 150 students struggling with her) is a benefit to me. Student and teacher struggles would possibly be a desired outcome.

And in that system, everyone loses.

Merit or Popularity?

A small town school in Washington State (Bridgeport) has reached the final round for the possibility of having President Obama speak at its graduation. Bridgeport’s excellence in academics despite having the proverbial deck stacked against them has earned it this distinct honor.

However, instead of narrowing the decision based on merit and some set of criteria the schools must meet, a popular vote will help narrow the field. A small farming town of 2000 people must compete in a popularity contest with schools in Memphis, Newark, San Diego, and Pittsburgh (as well as Goldsboro, N.C.).

How is this even a consideration? Besides the obvious disparity in populations, why would an honor supposedly based on one’s laurels be decided on a popular vote? I guess education is becoming no different than NBA All-Star weekend.

No matter which schools lose the vote, they will have to live with the idea that they did not get chosen because they weren’t popular, not because they were unworthy. And that may hurt most of all.