Category Archives: teaching

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation.  On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education.  In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy.  The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively.  On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers.  The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:

  • Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
  • Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
  • Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
  • Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.

The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs.  “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.

Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts:  Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need.  The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation.  While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place.  This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.

Let me offer a concession at this point:  Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job.  It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new.  Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous.  Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.

And the field of teacher preparation is certainly aware of this.  I have written before that efforts to improve the quality of teacher education in the country are hardly new, and numerous reports and agencies have both proposed and implemented change over the past 30 years.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, we have had influential reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group.  Thinkers like John Goodlad have seriously challenged how we see the relationship between university based teacher preparation and practitioners in the field, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued its own report highlighting innovations to more strongly connect theory and practice as well as universities and P-12 classrooms.  These ideas have been worked into influential standards and accreditation bodies such as the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its successor, The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – which guide the preparation of teachers in more than 700 institutions across the country.

But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?

There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today.  A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction.  Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years.  Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.

The transparency portion of the federal regulations seems perfectly poised to make this worse.  Regulators and reformers insist that they want the best and the brightest to enter teaching through programs with high entry standards and a track record of graduating successful teachers.  But they wish to measure this by tracking the value added on standardized tests of program graduates, a process fraught with conceptual difficulties such as the incredible instability of such ratings, where teachers in the very top of value-added in one year can find themselves moving from one level to the next over subsequent years.  This is yet another incentive to reduce the breadth of the curriculum to tested subjects, to produce teachers who can enact scripted lessons aimed at high test performance, and to discourage graduates from serving any urban population other than those in no-excuses charter schools, schools that do not emphasize teaching as a life long commitment.

Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers).  However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary.  Some of the most obvious threats:

  1. Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices.  While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance.  Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline.  Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession.  Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
  2. Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation.  The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job.  Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all.  Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them.  So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
  3. Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means.  Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions.  Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over.  Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
  4. Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions.  The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.”  Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers.  Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes.  The flaws in this are manifest.  First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows.  Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard.  Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure.  Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students.  Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.”  This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
  5. Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace.  The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating.  Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals.  45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.  Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers.  We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators.  Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
  6. A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs.  In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college.  Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject.  In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment.  Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously.  Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession.  As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated.  This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
  7. De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion.  We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do.  We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement.  We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members.  It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over  truly professional teachers.  The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data.  This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching.  Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.

These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia.  Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime.  Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn.  Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.

A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade.  In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention.  Some ideas that demand our attention:

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, John King, Media, Pearson, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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Filed under classrooms, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

New York Evaluations Lose in Court

Sheri Lederman is an experienced teacher in the Long Island district of Great Neck.  This means that she, like every other teacher in the Empire State, has been subjected to an ongoing experiment of teacher evaluation roulette with increasing focus on the “value added” of individual teachers calculated using student standardized test scores plugged into complex statistical formulas.  The method, called “Value Added Modeling,” is meant to account for the various factors that might impact a student’s score on a standardized test, isolate the teacher’s input on the student’s growth during one year of instruction, and determine whether or not the student learned as much as similarly situated students.  The difference between what the VAM predicts and how the student does – for either better or worse – is used to determine whether or not an individual teacher is effective.  VAMs promise to remove some of the subjectivity of teacher evaluation by relying solely upon tests that large numbers of students take and by calculating how well a teacher’s students did all things considered – literally.  VAM formulas claim to account for differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and home life and only hold teachers accountable for students’ predicted performance.

Sounds great.  Trouble is that they don’t work.

The research base on VAMs continues to grow, but the evidence against them was strong enough that the American Statistical Association strongly cautioned against their use in individual and high stakes teacher evaluation in 2014.  So, of course, New York took its already VAM heavy evaluation system and doubled down hard on the standardized testing component because Governor Andrew Cuomo decided that the evaluations were finding too many teachers competent.  The previous system was, interestingly enough, the one that Ms. Lederman ran afoul of.  According to this New York Times article, Ms. Lederman’s  students performed very slightly lower on the English exam in the 2013-2014 school year than in the previous year, which was apparently enough to cause her test based effectiveness rating to plummet from 14 out of 20 points to 1 out of 20 points.  While her overall evaluation was still positive, the VAM based portion of her evaluation still labeled Ms. Lederman as ineffective.

So she sued.  In the court filing against then New York State Commissioner (and now U.S. Secretary of Education) John King, her argument was that the growth model used in New York “actually punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable.”  In fact, we’ve seen this before when the growth model used by New York City determined that the absolute worst 8th grade math teacher in the entire city was a teacher at a citywide gifted and talented program whose students performed exceptionally on the statewide Regents Integrated Algebra Exam, a test mostly taken by tenth graders, but who did not perform as well as “predicted” on the state 8th grade mathematics test.  It is important to remember that VAMs promise to explain the differences among student test scores by isolating the teacher’s effect on learning, but in order to do this, they have to mathematically peel away everything else.  However, according to the American Statistical Association statement, most research suggests that teacher input counts for only 1-14% of the variation among student scores, so the VAMs have to literally carve away over 85% of the influences on how students do on standardized tests to work.  No wonder, then, that the Lederman V. King filing called the models a “statistical black box” given that this is an example from New York City’s effort earlier in the decade:

NYC VAM

Not only are these models difficult to impossible for teachers and most administrators to understand, they simply do not perform as advertised.  Schochet and Chiang, in a 2010 report for Mathematica, found that in trying to classify teachers via growth models, error rates as high as 26% were possible when using three years of data, meaning one in four teachers could easily be misclassified in any given evaluation even if the evaluation used multiple years of data.   Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers wanted to test the often floated talking point that some teachers are “irreplaceable” because they demonstrate a very high value added using student test scores.  What he found, using New York City data, was an unstable mess where teachers were much more likely to ping around from the top 20% to below that and back up again over a five year stretch.  So as a tool for providing evaluators with clear and helpful information on teachers’ effectiveness, it would perhaps be better to represent that VAM formula like this:

NYC VAMreal

NYC VAMfake

The judge in Ms. Lederman’s case ruled this week, and, as the linked news articles stated, he vacated her evaluation, saying that it had been “arbitrary and capricious.”  The judge’s ruling is, by necessity, limited in scope because the evaluation system that gave Ms. Lederman her low value added rating no longer exists, having been replaced by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 push to tie HALF of teacher evaluations to test scores and then by the New York State Education Department’s somewhat frenzied efforts to implement that which has resulted in a temporary bar on using the state tests for those evaluations.  The ruling is still significant because the judge recognized the deep, and likely unsolvable, problems with the VAM system used in the Lederman case.  According to Dr. Audrey Armein-Beardsley, the judge acknowledged:

(1) the convincing and detailed evidence of VAM bias against teachers at both ends of the spectrum (e.g. those with high-performing students or those with low-performing students); (2) the disproportionate effect of petitioner’s small class size and relatively large percentage of high-performing students; (3) the functional inability of high-performing students to demonstrate growth akin to lower-performing students; (4) the wholly unexplained swing in petitioner’s growth score from 14 [i.e., her growth score the year prior] to 1, despite the presence of statistically similar scoring students in her respective classes; and, most tellingly, (5) the strict imposition of rating constraints in the form of a “bell curve” that places teachers in four categories via pre-determined percentages regardless of whether the performance of students dramatically rose or dramatically fell from the previous year.”

Equally important as the court’s recognition of arguments against value-added models in teacher evaluation, is the ground that was broken with the ruling.  Ms. Lederman’s attorney (and husband), Bruce Lederman, sent out a message reported by New York City education activist Leonie Haimson which said, in part, ” …To my knowledge, this is the first time a judge has set aside an individual teacher’s VAM rating based upon a presentation like we made.”  The significance of this cannot be overstated.  For years now, teachers have been on the defensive and largely powerless, subjected to poorly thought out policies which, nevertheless, had force of policy and law on their side.  Lederman v. King begins the process of flipping that script, giving New York teachers an effective argument to make on their behalf and challenging policy makers to find some means of defending their desire to use evaluation tools that are “capricious and arbitrary.” While this case will not overturn whatever system NYSED thinks up next, it should force Albany to think really long and hard about how many times they want to defend themselves in court from wave after wave of teachers challenging their test-based ratings.

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Filed under Data, John King, teaching, Testing, VAMs

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

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Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

“Successification”

Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

Advice For My Students: DON’T “Teach for America”

As Fall semester slides into exams, most of my senior students turn their attention to full time student teaching.  They also begin to think very seriously about how to enter the job market for new teachers beginning their careers in the Fall.  It can be a harrowing time.  In addition to being responsible for teaching a full load of students full time and engaging in deep capstone projects based on that teaching, they have to plan how they will seek out and apply for jobs.  Adulthood and difficult choices lie directly on the other side of the most challenging work they have ever done.  I certainly cannot find fault if any of them approach it all with at least some trepidation mingled with their excitement.

So it is unsurprising that I occasionally have students who apply for and are selected to join Teach For America.  Their reasons are varied.  TFA publicly espouses many values that are congruent with my students’ sense of vocationalism in service of their future students.  TFA offers to take the confusion out of the job application process by helping them find a classroom somewhere they may have never considered on their own.  TFA carries with it an aura of selectivity and prestige, and certainly by this point in its history, the organization has connections and influence among the powerful in education policy.

However, I have advice for my students regarding applying for or accepting a position with Teach For America: Don’t do it.

I don’t come to this advice lightly, and while I respect that my students might be excited to join an organization that says it is dedicated to getting young and talented people into classrooms with our most needy students, there is literally nothing positive that Teach For America offers my students that they cannot do for themselves.  And what they package with those positives is entirely negative for our profession.  There are a number of truths about TFA that my students should consider before seeking an application.

First, Teach For America needs you far more than you need them.  TFA may be influential, and the competitive nature of their system may seem prestigious, but my students do not need Teacher For America anywhere nearly as much as TFA needs them.  Anyone willing to join TFA is making two positive commitments: 1) I will go anywhere and 2) I will teach students from vulnerable families and communities.  Well, if you are willing to do that, and you hold a valid teaching certificate, there are precious few barriers keeping you from doing just that on your own.  Many states practice reciprocal certification with other states, and in other cases, fairly minor additional requirements are all that is necessary.  For already credentialed teachers, TFA is just a middleman that makes the process of finding a job in another state less stressful, but it is hardly necessary.  I know a great many of my students are deeply committed to working with students in poverty, and I applaud them for that.  They don’t need TFA.

On the other hand, TFA does need them, or, perhaps more accurately, TFA looks better every time a fully qualified, licensed teacher joins their corps.  My students who have joined TFA arrived vastly more prepared and ready to teach than most other corps members.  They have studied child psychology, education law, general methods of teaching and content specific methods, evaluation, classroom management, and they have completed full subject majors in the content they intend to teach.  Teachers who graduate from my program also have spent 100s of hours in experienced teachers’ classrooms where they have worked one on one with students, led classroom activities, shadowed teachers’ lesson plans, and planned and taught guest lessons – all before their full time student teaching began.  Our entire program is premised on the belief that learning to teach requires careful and thoughtful entry into the classroom using ideas and skills learned from both college faculty and from practicing teachers, and it is premised on thoughtfully planned experiences in classrooms that are crucial at every stage of learning to teach.  My graduates have also completed capstone projects working closely with our faculty examining the evidence of how their teaching has promoted student learning – and they have done so using substantive evidence rather than standardized test scores.  Further, they have passed difficult examinations of their content knowledge as required by the state of New Jersey, they have maintained GPAs well above their college peers, and all of their programs of study are subject to demanding accreditation requirements.

Compare that to Teach For America’s perspective that all new teachers really need is a great attitude and a summer training institute.  While all first year teachers, even those who are exceptionally well prepared, will find the experience more than the sum of their preparation, it is without question that TFA corps members who have actually studied to become teachers are vastly more ready than their counterparts who have not.

My students also benefit TFA in another manner: they all intend to stay classroom teachers.  This isn’t something they suddenly decided to do.  This isn’t a means for them to “give back” on their way to something else.  This is a career they have been thinking about since they were much younger and to which they have dedicated their entire time in college to entering.  TFA likes to claim that a huge percentage of their corps members “stay in education,” but they use marketing language to paper over the issue.  Consider:

TFA claim 1

TFA also claims that “the most common profession for TFA alumni” is teaching.  These are cleverly stated, but hardly as impressive as TFA wants you to believe.  The first claim is worded to encourage you to believe that up to 80% of TFA alumni are working directly in schools, especially in low-income schools, but it obviously means no such thing and can mean something entirely unexpected if the definition of working “in education” is treated very loosely.  Finish TFA, go to law school, and end up working with education “foundations” or fake grassroots and advocacy organizations pushing various elements of today’s testocracy and that easily slots in with TFA’s claim.  Whether “the most common profession” of former corps members being teaching is impressive or not depends entirely on how many other professions are counted and how large a percentage stay in teaching as a career.  50% teaching out of 20 professions total would be far more impressive than, say, 15% of 20 professions.  The language TFA selects is precisely chosen to obfuscate those distinctions.

Survey research conducted with Dr. Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University has better news for TFA in this regard than many critics might expect, but hardly great news compared to traditionally prepared and hired teachers.  The study, conducted with TFA cohorts beginning  2000, 2001, and 2002 found that 60.5% taught in K-12 beyond their initial 2 year commitment, and 35.5% taught more than four years with 27.8% still teaching in their fifth year.  43.6% of TFA members continued teaching at their initial school past two years, but that number dropped to 14.8% at the end of four years.  Traditionally prepared education majors made up only 3.34% of corps members surveyed, but 71.3% of them taught longer than four years – well more than double of other corps members.

While not a significant portion of corps members, traditionally prepared teachers placed by TFA help bolster their image by being far more ready to teach than their modal corps members and by staying in teaching for far longer.  So when my students join TFA, they get help finding a job they could have found for themselves, and their preparation and career aspirations help TFA look better.

Second, Teach For America will challenge my students’ beliefs about quality education….but not in a good way.  Teach For America likes to claim that they do not favor charter schools over fully public schools in their placements:

TFA claim 2

This means that basically a third of corps members get placed in charter schools – which doesn’t sound like a preference until you look at the numbers.  There are just over 6000 charter schools in the country, enrolling roughly 2.3 million students.  That’s roughly 4.6% of the public schools in the country, and charter schools are only 10% or more of public schools in Arizona, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.  According to the Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools account for 30% or more of schools in only 12 districts nationwide, and there are 147 districts in the country where charter schools comprise 10% or more of the K-12 enrollment in the district.  There are over 14,000 public school districts in the United States.  The nation’s largest school district, New York City, only enrolls 7% of its students in charters while Los Angeles enrolls 21% and Chicago 14%.

So, sure, Teach For America does not favor charter schools – until you look at how its placements in charters vastly outstrips the percentage of schools that are charters nationwide or the percentage of students in our three largest cities who are enrolled in charters.

And the charter sector as a whole should give my students pause.  I always tell my students to look very closely at the schools that offer them jobs to see if the school climate and leadership align with their own values, and that goes double for charter schools which are privately managed, rarely unionized, and whose leadership remains opaque to any scrutiny.  With 6000 charter schools in the country, I will not categorically tell my students to never work in one, but they have to be on the lookout for schools engaging in outright financial fraud,  schools whose real estate and management arrangements actively harm/steal from the communities that host them, and school chains that boast high test scores but also engage in disciplinary practices that violate everything my students have learned about caring for all children.  In New York City, TFA has a strong relationship with Success Academy, a controversial “no excuses” charter chain that has extremely high test scores, but whose academic culture is high pressure to the point of demeaning children and whose disciplinary practices routinely result in suspension of Kindergarten children.

My students have been taught to fulfill a promise that all children deserve an equitable opportunity to learn, not that the only children who deserve to be in school are the ones who can quickly conform to an exercise in extreme behavior modification.  But TFA has a significant preference for working with schools that do just that and then brag that they are “closing the achievement gap.”  That should worry any professional educator’s sense of ethics.

Teach For America’s own record of helping its own corps members is open to question as well.  A growing number of TFA “alumni” are publicly sharing their stories of how the organization failed them and their students. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of California State Sacramento shares the story of his former student who, against his advice, joined Teach For America and was placed in a “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) charter school:

I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager.  Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me….
Shame has a terrible place in this organization.  I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members.  Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members.  The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.”  Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course.  Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.

My students understand that having a robust support and collegial system is crucial for good teaching, both for novices and experienced teachers, and this is validated by research demonstrating that schools with “integrated” professional cultures do the best at serving the needs of teachers at all experience levels.  It is unconscionable that TFA would take college graduates with no training in education and leave them with both minimal preparation and entirely inadequate support systems.  Worse, many former corps members explain that TFA substitutes what amounts to a cartoonish version of “grit” for actual professional learning, support, and development.

TFA appears frighteningly unconcerned with the school conditions and philosophies where they place corps members, plainly favoring working with schools engaged in practices that do not affirm educational equity.  Further, TFA fails to provide what is critical for the development of good teaching and expert teachers, preferring shallow mantras over the complex and uncertain work of professional learning.  My students are vastly more qualified than most corps members, but they should know that TFA will not help them grow further in any careful or deliberate manner.

Third, Teach For America denigrates our profession, ultimately harming children in the process.  Recently, the Center For American Progress announced its campaign called “Teach Strong” based on nine principles that are supposed to “modernize and elevate” the profession of teaching.  The campaign so far has some very strange bedfellows.  Both national teacher unions have signed on as well the as the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, an organization of the nation’s  accredited university-based teacher preparation programs.  Teach for America is also a partner as well as the fairly odious “National Council of Teacher Quality,” a self-appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” whose signature “study” of teacher preparation quality was conducted by reading online course catalog materials.  Seated at the table with some allies but also with organizations long connected to the research on learning to teach and tasked with helping to improve and “elevate” teaching as a profession, one might think that TFA would take a good hard look at their own contribution.  Having signed on to a program whose stated principles include “reimagine teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates” and “provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed, including through planning, collaboration, and development” one might assume that Teacher For America would be willing to reconceptualize their own “preparation” of corps members with nothing more than summer training institute and demonstrably uneven and inadequate support systems once they enter the classroom.

You would think that, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, TFA’s CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, told The Washington Post that they see no need to change their training program, saying, “We do great, very rigorous pre-training work.”

It has been clear for some time that TFA is on the side of teacher professionalism that honestly does not care if teaching is a lifelong profession.  Consider their obvious favoritism for urban charter schools, which frequently welcome unlicensed, short term, teachers who are easily molded into the school’s way of operating without any pesky baggage like existing pedagogical knowledge or classroom experience.  TFA’s perspective on this is well summed up by their founder, Wendy Kopp, who opined, “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers….The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

What Ms. Kopp is describing is not teacher growth and development as familiar to those who have dedicated their lives to teaching children, and I doubt that even former corps members who remained teachers would agree with her.  She is describing school models that have such narrow behavioral expectations for both students and teachers that “development” is a matter of drilling people into a single, precise, way of going about business, and the preference for barely trained TFA recruits makes absolute sense because they are more easily molded.  This is closely tied to TFA’s continued insistence that its training model is up to the task of preparing young people with no teaching experience and no undergraduate teacher training for work in schools with our nation’s most vulnerable children.  The model is painfully inadequate as career teacher and former TFA corps member Gary Rubinstein has repeatedly noted in his blogging.  More recently, the Network for Public Education has hosted stories from TFA alumni highlighting their lack of preparation for the often complex classroom situations into which they were placed and the lack of continued support needed to help them and their students thrive.  Nothing about the stories host there or in the “preparation” paradigm practiced by TFA does much of anything to “elevate” our profession.

TFA likes to boast about their alumni who are leaders in education, and to be sure, there’s a long list of such alumni who have occupied influential and highly visible positions from which they have wielded power over our public schools.  Sadly, as Gary Rubinstein also observed, a great deal of that influence has been entirely negative:

….these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools….

….TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

TFA’s brand of education “leaders” are at the forefront of closing neighborhood schools in favor of opaque charters, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and breaking teacher unions.  In this school of thought, there are no problems in education of vulnerable children that require increased resources and the dedication of experienced professionals.  Rather, all that are needed are energetic but easily replaceable novices, a “no excuses” attitude, and school management that is relieved of any open and democratic accountability.  This runs counter to everything we know about our most successful schools.  Experienced teachers are more effective than novicesMoney and resources matter in educational opportunity and outcomes.  Wealthier districts have greater rates of teacher retention, significant levels of parental and community involvement and oversight – and higher test scores.  If TFA and its alumni leaders truly cared about righting the inequities in our public education system, they would demand that teachers and students in high poverty districts have equitable situations with their peers in wealthy districts.  Instead of denigrating teachers for failing to be comic book heroes, they could shine a clear light on the insanity of calling on teachers to fix some of the greatest injustices in our society armed with nothing more than youthful energy and attitude.

However, there is no sign that TFA or its enablers in board rooms, school districts, and legislative bodies across the country have the least interest in doing so.  It is past time for young people to stop lining up to “Teach For America,” and there is no reason that my students – who have earned the title of professional teacher through years of hard work – should ever join them.  I work with amazing and talented young people, many of whom are passionate about working with our schools’ most at risk children.  They can do that brilliantly, and more effectively, without Teach For America.

 

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Funding, politics, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

My grandfather had many folk wisdom expressions, but one that sticks with me is “When you are sitting 100 feet in the air, sawing furiously at the branch you are on, be sure to sit on the the TREE side of the cut.”  The meaning here is simple enough: perilous situations demand caution, and it is probably a good idea to check and double check what you are doing lest you end up like these guys:

giphy

I don’t think anyone has shared this advice with Eva Moskowitz.

The Success Academy charter school CEO just had a truly horrible October, in which her suspension policies were put into an uncomfortable spotlight, she retaliated by publishing the disciplinary records of a former student who is only ten years old and by demanding an apology from PBS, a complaint about Moskowitz’s violation of privacy laws was filed with federal DOE, and The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on how one of Moskowitz’s principals kept a “got to go” list of students who he deliberately pushed out of his Success Academy, confirming what data already shows: Success Academy uses a combination of excessive punishment and direct pressure to remove students who win lottery seats at the school.

Under normal circumstances, a polarizing figure like Moskowitz might consider staying out of the spotlight for a time, let coverage find different stories, and work with her powerful backers behind the scenes.  Such thinking does not appear to be in Moskowitz’s DNA, for she took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal on November 12th to explain what Success Academy discipline is based upon.  According to Moskowitz’s telling of the story, when she founded the original school as Harlem Success Academy, she had no specific pedagogy or theory of discipline in mind, but it was the work one inspirational veteran teacher who converted her and her teachers to his particular brand of magic:

I wish I could claim that I’ve developed some revolutionary pedagogical approach at Success, but the humbling truth is this: Most of what I know about teaching I learned from one person, an educator named Paul Fucaloro who taught in New York City district schools for four decades…

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

According to Moskowitz, Mr. Fucaloro’s technique was nothing more complicated than very high expectations and a strict insistence that students focus upon him or whoever else was talking with clear physical signs: hands clasped, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking, no fidgeting or other distractions:

Paul’s students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking (called “tracking”). They couldn’t stare off into space, play with objects, rest their head on their hands in boredom, or act like what Paul called “sourpusses” who brought an attitude of negativity or indifference to the classroom. Paul made students demonstrate to him that at every single moment they were focused on learning.

Readers are obviously supposed to infer that Mr. Fucaloro’s methods are so fool-proof that any sufficiently determined teacher can employ them with any group of students and achieve the same results which explains the sky high results on state examinations in her network of schools.  Moskowitz claims that she was essentially a pedagogical blank slate who was only convinced by Paul Fucaloro’s astonishing results and then perpetuated his methods so effectively that Success Academy schools can literally have almost any teacher command almost any class’ full attention all day.

wheels

This narrative is not believable on numerous fronts.  First, it is nearly impossible to believe that Eva Moskowitz went into the development of her charter school network a complete naif with no idea how she wanted the school to operate.   Whatever criticisms she has earned over the years, not knowing her mind is hardly typical.  Daniel Bergner of The New York Times published a hagiographic portrait of Moskowitz in the summer of 2014 in which the 1982 Stuyvesant graduate could not contain her contempt for what she saw as lax standards at New York City’s most selective high school.  As a member of the New York City Council, Moskowitz was known as tough, confrontational, and an expert on education issues while her demanding managerial style led to high levels of turn over among her staff.  Moskowitz’s own impatience with other people is even evident her only published work of scholarship following her doctoral degree in history.  The book, published in 2001, is titled In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession With Self-Fulfillment, claiming that Americans today turn to psychology and self-help experts for guidance and “excuses” as fervently as they used to seek religious guidance. Such negative assessments of most her fellow citizens’ needs probably explains why she reacted with overt derision when Mayor Bill De Blasio sought to implement restorative discipline strategies in city schools.

Suffice to say that I find it laughable that Eva Moskowitz had no idea how strict a discipline system she wished to implement from the beginning.

Another reason for doubting this narrative is that we know that Success Academy methods are hardly limited to what Moskowitz describes, and we know it from Mr. Fucaloro himself.  New York Magazine did an extensive story on the rapidly growing Success Academy chain  and Ms. Moskowitz herself in 2010, and Mr. Fucaloro is featured prominently boasting that his test preparation focus and extra work transforms children into “little test taking machines.”  Further, the type of extremely rigid behavior accepted at Success Academy is drilled early via Kindergarten “boot camps,” and Mr. Fucaloro makes what would be a shocking confession in a true public school:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

Such attitudes appear foundational and durable at Success Academy given Kate Taylor’s report on the network’s “polarizing methods” for The New York Times earlier this year where public shaming of low performers is common enough that children have been known to wet themselves from the stress.  Mr. Fucaloro’s stance on disabilities is particularly shocking, however, and indicative that Success Academy’s Director of Instruction did far more than teach Moskowitz’s teachers to have high expectations for student behavior – and that his methods go far beyond anything he was allowed to do as a public school teacher.  Simply ignoring an IEP and subjecting students with disabilities to behavior modification is not an option for public school teachers (unless abetted by an unethical administration).  Nor is a Kindergarten “boot camp.”  Nor is out of school suspension for five year olds.  Nor is a 65 infraction long behavioral manual.  This list is lengthy, but the message is clear: far from simply being inspired by the high expectations Mr. Fucaloro and his singular attention to student focus, Success Academy teachers are trained in a program of extreme behavior modification backed by punitive consequences, options that are neither professionally nor morally available to truly public schools.

Finally, we know that Moskowitz is being highly selective in her story because of the data.  Let’s take her at her word that Mr. Fucaloro was a demanding but highly effective and appreciated teacher in his public school career.  Not to take anything away from that, but he is hardly unique in that regard. There are countless public school teachers who work hard to effectively establish the learning environment for their students.  Lots of teachers set high expectations for both learning and behavior, so that is hardly unique either.  However, just demonstrating and proving tracking and other techniques, as Moskowitz claims, is hardly all that happened in the early days of Success Academy.  Consider the following table, compiled from NYSED data:

SA1 Data

Two items are of note here.  First, the pattern of student attrition is curious.  Success Academy has not backfilled vacated seats after third grade until this year and still only does so through fourth grade, claiming that admitting new students unused to Success Academy methods would be detrimental.  It is therefore not surprising to see how many of the cohorts in the chart show drop offs around third and fourth grades – any students who left the school were not replaced as is required policy for fully public schools.  This pattern repeats cohort after cohort with growth in early grades, followed by sharp winnowing accumulating over time.  The third Kindergarten cohort is especially noteworthy, growing from 130 students in 2008 to 136 by third grade before shrinking to 109 two years later in fifth grade, an almost 20% change.  Remember, every student who begins at a Success Academy represents a family that went out of its way to seek out that school.

The second item is the dramatic growth in out of school suspensions.  NYSED reports the percentage of students suspended in a given school year, which does not account for single students suspended multiple time nor does it account for in school discipline.  In its first two years, Success Academy 1 suspended 8% and 2% of its students respectively. Over the next five years, however, those numbers jumped to 12%, 15%, 22%, 27%, and 23%.  These figures are eye-watering, and to compare, we can look at the same data from PS149 Sojourner Truth, the zoned K-8 public school co-located with Success Academy 1 grades Kindergarten through 4th grade:

PS149 Data

Of course, cohorts in PS149 do experience attrition as well, sometimes significant attrition, but there is no specific pattern of when students leave the school or of when cohorts shrink or grow.  However, the most striking difference is the out of school suspension rates which top out at 9% and are as low as 3% for two successive years.  Whatever else is happening at PS 149, the school is not heavily wielding out of school suspension with its students.

What does this mean?  The most obvious inference is that even if Moskowitz is being truthful and that Mr. Fucaloro is an astonishing teacher who was quickly able to establish a well disciplined and effective classroom environment where others struggled, it was far harder to scale up that level of discipline and effectiveness without massively increasing punitive disciplinary consequences, including out of school suspension rates nine times higher than a co-located school in the 2011-2012 school year.  The “secret sauce” at Success Academy’s setting of behavior for its students is not duplicating “the most gifted educator” Moskowitz has ever met – it is sending very young children home from school, sometimes until their parents give up and go away.

By the way, the out of school suspension rate for 2011-2012 at Upper West Success, a school where 29% of students qualify for free lunch and 10% for reduced price lunch?  5%.   Apparently suspension rates in the high 20s are a necessity for schools where 78% of the students are in or near poverty.

None of this is really surprising to those who have been paying attention over the years, but what is surprising is Moskowitz’s inability to resist mythologizing herself and her schools — when the people she is telling myths about are on record with the press and when the school’s use of heavy handed suspensions is not in dispute.  Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising.  Moskowitz provides a big and likely inadvertent insight into her thought process:

Some critics find our approach rigid and overbearing. I’ve got two of these critics in my own home: my kids, who attend Success. They complain when they get into trouble for not tracking the speaker. They were listening, they protest. Maybe so. But sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility.

“Daydreaming….and we can’t allow that possibility.”  Nobody denies that a well managed environment where students are attentive is a big part of successful teaching.  Nobody even denies that some teachers have an incredible capability for that and others can learn from them.  But at the point when your desire for order and control cannot allow the “possibility” that a very young child might occasionally daydream during a long school day, you are no longer practicing classroom management.

You are engaging in a pathology.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Data, teaching

Arming Teachers — Still a Bad Idea

It was never my intention to fold gun politics into this blog.  I prefer to keep my focus on issues directly related to schooling, school policy, and the politics of education.  Our nation’s seemingly intractable issue with gun violence in general and with mass shooting incidents in particular is an issue without direct connection to our schools except via tragedy.  The politics and policies involved with the issues are deeply complex with very hardline opponents on either side of the issue seemingly incapable to finding means of discussion with each other.  Pro-gun advocates in particular appear to have extremely well organized and highly influential lobbying groups that successfully prevent any action on new laws about guns, even ones that enjoy broad support among the American people, including gun owners.  To delve into the politics of guns in America would be to expand the scope and nature of my writing.

But then politicians seem intent to kick the issue right into my wheelhouse.

Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson responded to the recent mass shooting at an Oregon Community College by joining fellow front runner Donald Trump in saying teachers should be armed in our schools, even in Kindergarten.  Dr. Carson said, “If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon.  If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.”  Donald Trump also said, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”  While Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump are regarded as buffoons by the media, they are not alone on this issue.  Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, spent a blessed few days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut being quiet – before holding a press conference that called for more armed people within our schools.  Legislators across the nation have either proposed or passed laws allowing teachers with concealed or open carry permits to bring their guns with them to work, and by 2014, two dozen states had such laws, although it is currently impossible to know how many teachers are taking advantage of their legal ability to bring weapons with them.  The logic is that armed teachers will either deter violence or allow the school staff to stop a shooter themselves.

While I will concede that some states, especially our large, mostly rural, western states, have much deeper gun cultures than most and have an environment where the presence of weapons is normalized and largely safe, and while I will concede the emotional appeal of giving teachers options beyond lock down in an emergency, I also have to state that vastly increasing the number of armed people in our schools is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.  I was tempted to post any number of comedic responses to Dr. Carson’s and Mr. Trump’s bloviations on the issue or any number of cartoons of Mr. LaPierre’s logical pretzel maneuvers.

But this isn’t funny.

While we do not apparently know how many teachers are going to school armed every day (and we can dismiss as logically fallacious the claims that Utah’s current lack of a mass school shooting recently is the result of the “bad guys” not knowing who is armed), we do know realities about schools, and some of those realities are not pretty.  I’m going to rely upon anecdote for this, but I believe it is illustrative – and important.

My 7th grade year was the year bullies ruled our junior high school.  It was the early 1980s, and, frankly, the teachers and administrators did a terrible job of taking control of our school’s culture back, and by “a terrible job” I mean they did practically nothing.  I was bullied pretty relentlessly that year, as were many others, but nobody was bullied as relentlessly and as brutally as one of our classmates who eventually took his own life – which, perversely, finally gave the bullies something to think about and finally led to at least some relief from the physical and emotional abuse.

Sadly, that did not apply to our teachers who were targeted by the school’s bullies as well.

My 7th grade social studies teacher was especially hard pressed.  He was not a bad person.  Under better circumstances, I believe he would have been a moderately forgettable teacher – not greatly skilled, but knowledgeable and able to create an organized curriculum.  But with my classmates, he was pushed to his limits.  The bullies in the class were resolutely non-cooperative and sought any available chance to interrupt him, mock him, or otherwise undermine him with the rest of the class.  They stole from his desk and briefcase.  He found rude messages on his chalkboard.  He persevered throughout the year, but he was simply pushed to his limits by students who did not care how many times they were sent to the office and who saw him as an easy victim to torment – even after that same behavior aimed at a classmate had resulted in tragedy.  Perhaps because he was an adult, they thought different rules applied to the lessons they supposedly had learned earlier.  At the end of the year, they pulled a serious prank in class — setting off a firecracker — and he lost his control.  A desk was flipped over and one of the bullies found himself violently pushed against the wall by our teacher.

I can think of no circumstance in which the presence of a gun would have made that day better — for either our teacher, the class as a whole, or the 13 year old bully who had finally gone too far.

And here’s the thing – there are tens of millions of students in this country, taught by millions of teachers in over 95,000 public schools across more than 16,000 school districts.  This is hard work, and despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers manage their classrooms very well, at any given time during the school year there are teachers who are being pushed to the limit of what they can manage. For some of them, that might be their daily reality, but for many of them it could simply be a matter of a very bad day or even a few student for whom they have not found a way to connect or who refuse to allow a connection.  Even if this problem only exists in one classroom every 1000 schools at any given moment, that leaves almost 100 classrooms across the country with an adult who is under serious duress.  Under normal circumstances, this can managed — perhaps some such teachers are not capable of classroom management and need to seek different work.  Perhaps some simply need a colleague to give them a 5 minute pause to regather themselves.  Perhaps some need better structural supports within their schools from colleagues, administrators, and families.  Perhaps the culture of the school needs adult and student leadership aimed at stopping bystander acquiescence in the presence of bullying.  There are many possible solutions and interventions.

A gun in the classroom is not one of them.  And although we do not know the number of teachers in the states that allow them to carry a gun to school do so routinely, if Mr LaPierre and certain legislators have their way, it is only a matter of time before a classroom gun tragedy does not come into school from the outside.  I do not mean that every teacher under extreme duress in the classroom is likely to turn into a shooter. But think about what we know about the presence of guns: more permissive gun laws are associated with higher per capita rates of deaths by guns; death by violence is more likely among adults who purchase guns; guns in the home are associated with a modestly increased risk of homicide and a greatly increased risk of suicide; the mere presence of a weapon can increase the aggressive behavior of others.  If we follow the advice of Mr. LaPierre and if we understand some of the high stress situations that are possible in school – well, it doesn’t take much imagination, does it?

Even in the hands of teachers who are in full control, the “more guns in school” argument is problematic.  We know that in active shooter situations, even highly trained police officers frequently have very high miss rates.  In 2005, New York City police officers were on target in 34% of all shootings — and in distances of zero to six feet, 43% of the time.  This isn’t because they are terrible shots, but because in a high stress situation, even highly trained people miss – a lot.

This is likely why the FBI provides advice for the general population on what to do in an “active shooter” situation, and the advice is to run, hide, and to fight as the absolutely last choice.  As both a father and as an educator, this is what I expect from my children’s teachers and from myself and my colleagues.  Tasked with caring for a classroom full of students, responsible action is to take them to safety or to make certain they are hidden from harm as best as possible.  Since teachers are in charge of many others and must keep control of them during an inherently chaotic and frightening situation, the chances of ever getting to the “fight” stage is likely vanishingly small. An adult with 25 Kindergarten kids under her protection has much more critical tasks in a crisis.

There are some extraordinary circumstances I am willing to entertain.  We have schools in rural areas that are very far from emergency help.  It could also be plausible for a weapon to be in school under extreme security that can only be accessed by a highly trained security officer.  But the immediate call for “more guns” in schools is a call for more problems and distracts us from debates we ought to be having.  We should discuss what levels of security are needed at school entrances and exits that still allow us to teach.  We should figure out the most effective actions school teachers and administrators can take in a crisis situation to protect the children in their care.

We also need to stop pivoting directly into the “mental illness is to blame” argument after every mass shooting event, and set aside the pipe dream that psychologists can easily sort out potential shooters from the population.  We need to have an honest conversation about the consequences of ready access to firearms, and what laws might be able to slow down or prevent some people’s ability to get a gun in the heat of anger.

And we need politics in this country that is not so craven as to actually ban the CDC from studying the causes and impacts of gun violence or to subsequently block legal funding for that purpose.  Gun violence and mass shooting events are problems that are almost unique to the United States compared to our peer democracies.  Suggesting that teachers should deter that violence from entering our schools by arming themselves and then doing what even trained police officers have trouble doing during shootings is not only absurd – it is abjectly dangerous.

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Filed under classrooms, school violence, schools, teaching

Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock And Teachers Checking Themselves

Unless you were on an Internet and media blackout this week, you heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old high school student in Irving, Texas whose homemade clock got him detained by police and suspended from school for making a “hoax bomb.”  Young Mr. Mohamed is an avid tinkerer and builder who is frequently photographed in a NASA t-shirt and whose fondest wish is apparently to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his clock was one of his many home projects which he wished to share with his engineering teacher. Unfortunately, another of Mr. Mohamed’s teachers was suspicious of the clock, failing to understand that wires, circuit boards, and LED displays do not explode, called in administrators who called in police, and the result was Mr. Mohamed finding himself detained in handcuffs and then suspended from school:

Unfortunately, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne openly defended both the school and the police, and actually voiced  concern that the incident could deter police from investigating potential threats instead of showing the least concern that bright and inquisitive student inventors are already deterred from letting anyone know they love science and inventing.  Then again, Mayor Van Duyne is known for campaigning against imaginary threats of Sharia law, so we should not expect much.

The chief of police in Irving, Larry Boyd, also defended his officers, even while admitting that they determined quickly that the clock was not a bomb.  Given that information, Mr. Mohamed’s detention and suspension are even more outrageous, and the insistence of authorities that those actions were justified because they believed the clock was a “hoax bomb” looks like a pathetically thin cover for a series of prejudiced assumptions.  Mr. Mohamed never said that his clock was a bomb and demonstrated no interest in trying to trick people into thinking it was a bomb.  The school obviously concluded it was not a bomb very quickly since they took no actions to get students to safety.  To believe the “logic” of school officials and the Irving police, you have to believe that the word “hoax” requires only the ignorant assumptions of others rather than any intention to deceive on the part of the accused.

Mr. Mohamed's Next Invention?

Mr. Mohamed’s Next Invention?

From one perspective, Mr. Mohamed’s misfortune has yielded some positive results. As his story circulated, he gained positive feedback from national leaders and figures in technology and innovations.  President Obama’s twitter feed issued an invitation to take the clock to the White House:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave Mr. Mohamed a standing offer to visit the company headquarters and meet him:

As did Google:

He got a shout out from NASA:

And, perhaps the icing on the cake, an astrophysics professor from MIT invited the young inventor to visit the campus, and said he was the kind of student the institution likes.

So – there’s a bit of lemonade from this.

Which is good because it is disgraceful that it came to a point where any of us have heard of Ahmed Mohamed.  Instead of being given the kudos and encouragement he deserved from those who knew him and were entrusted with his well being, he was humiliated and punished for nothing more than being a curious and inventive student.  Assume for a moment, that his English teacher’s confusion and suspicion of the clock was justified.  I don’t actually want to because it betrays a really staggering amount of STEM illiteracy to look at an LED display, a circuit board, some wiring, and a plug for a wall outlet…

Note the complete lack of explosives.

Note the complete lack of explosives.

…and fail to conclude that it is safe.  But fine, assume the English teacher was not reacting out of absurd and prejudiced impulses.  The entire issue could have been settled in less than a minute with the following conversation:

English Teacher: “Hi, Ahmed.  What’s that thing that beeped?”

Ahmed: “Oh, it’s a clock I made at home and brought to show my engineering teacher.”

English Teacher: “You made a clock at home? Yourself?”

Ahmed: “Uh-huh.”

English Teacher: “That’s pretty cool! Can you show us how it works?  Then maybe make sure it doesn’t interrupt class again, please?”

There, done. “Problem” solved. No national story, here.  Just a kid getting an appropriate level of recognition for doing something cool.   Instead, the sequence of events went like this: His English teacher KEPT the clock (despite claiming it looked like a bomb), Mr. Mohamed was pulled out of a later period by the principal and a police officer, he was queried about trying to make a bomb whereupon he repeated that he had made a clock, taken from school to the police station, handcuffed, fingerprinted, questioned without his parents where he said his last name was brought up repeatedly, and accused of bringing a “hoax bomb” to school with three teachers listed as complainants. The police claimed that Mr. Mohamed was being “passive aggressive” with them, and claimed “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only say it was a clock. He didn’t offer any explanation as to what it was for, why he created this device, why he brought it to school.”

Here’s a little explanation for the officers: It’s a clock. It tells time.  If Mr. Mohamed made a clock and would “only say it was a clock” it is probably because it. is. a. clock.

Look, running a school is a difficult and uncertain business, constantly fraught with circumstances you never expected.  One of my favorite stories illustrating how hard it is to be school principal is from some years back when an elementary school in Montana had to make a new rule for show and tell after a student’s mother brought a dead bat in a shoe box — and 90 kids had to get rabies shots.  Imagine the poor school principal having to revamp the school rules in the wake of that.  The school probably had anticipated various things not appropriate for show and tell, but I am betting nobody had ever thought of a “please do not bring in diseased infested carrion you found in your barn”.  That’s the sort of thing that makes running a school and a classroom so unusual – you can think of every possible circumstance imaginable, but 25 kids and their parents and guardians can almost always confound your imagination.

So schools are charged with keeping everyone safe within their walls, and we live in an age where schools have tried to respond to real and imagined threats with especially harsh rules that have ugly consequences.  But what happened to Ahmed Mohamed had nothing to do with keeping the school safe. His teacher suggested the clock looked like a bomb despite what he told her, but she kept it instead of immediately evacuating the classroom. Mr. Mohamed was questioned by the principal and the police that the administration had summoned without asking for a bomb disposal specialist.  Mr. Mohamed repeatedly said to his teacher, to the administration, and to the police that he had made a clock, and yet he was finally accused of making a “hoax bomb” despite trying to to tell everyone and anyone who would listen that it was a clock – which it is – making the “hoax” accusation laughable.

At every stage of this disaster, the adults who had authority over Ahmed Mohamed and who had professional and ethical obligations to care for his rights and well being could have stepped back and stopped, but they did not.

It is impossible to escape looking at the very real likelihood that he was suspected of mischief because of prejudice against his name and his religion. None of the adults gave him the benefit of the doubt, and even though they had to have quickly concluded that the clock was entirely safe, they still could not entertain the notion that he had made it and brought it to school for the understandable reason that he wanted to show off what he could do for a teacher he hoped to impress.  Instead of backing off, they doubled down on their initial errors, compounding them with new ones.  Instead of acting to keep their students safe, they invented an entirely bogus reason to justify their initial prejudice, and violated the rights and trust of a young man who ought to have impressed them.

Teachers and administrators are not perfect people.  We have prejudices and irrational impulses, and it is impossible to banish all of them from our actions every single day.  But it is absolutely vital to pause and check yourself.  Ahmed Mohamed’s English teacher could have settled this with a simple and quick conversation.  If that teacher insisted on clearing that impression with an administrator, that person should have quickly recognized the innocuous nature of the clock and returned it.  At worst, the principal could have had a simple conversation with the young man and logically understood that when someone keeps calling a clock a clock, it is ridiculous to assume he intends to trick people into thinking it is a bomb.  Ideally, the educators involved should have been embarrassed by their initial assumptions and fears and what spawned them, but at a minimum, they should have recognized their responsibility to Ahmed Mohamed as soon as it was obvious that he had a clock.

Unchecked prejudices lead to unfounded fears, and in this case, they led to far worse.  Every teacher has to be aware of her or his personal flaws and prejudices, and has to constantly check her or his actions against them to strive for fair and ethical treatment of every student.  Nobody did that for Ahmed Mohamed.

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Filed under Media, racism, Social Justice, teaching