Archive for the ‘Education’ category

Judgment at Central Falls Part 1

February 18, 2010

I have no intention of making this blog an apologist for everything that teachers or their unions.   I’ll admit that like all professions teachers have their own bad apples.   However, when I see a lot of people lose their jobs and every news source in America applaud their firing, I feel obligated to dig just a tad further.   Such, is the case of the mass firing of the entire 74 member faculty and administration at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

The facts were spelled out in a very tidy little email that was sent out to many blogs by “Jason”.   Here’s his email:

As I’m sure you’re aware, Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Central Falls is one of the poorest towns in the state. It looks like the pictures everyone’s seen of Detroit or Flint. There are lots of boarded up windows, abandoned buildings, decrepit factories with broken windows, etc. It’s an absolutely depressed community. According to Wikipedia, the median income in the town is $22k.

Teacher salaries at the high school average $72-78k. Apparently 50% of the students at the school are failing all of their classes, and the graduation rate is also under 50%. In an effort to turn the school around, the superintendent requested some changes be made whereby the school day would be slightly extended, teachers would perform some extra tutoring, etc.

The union balked and refused the terms, so now she is firing the entire teaching staff of the high school and replacing them. This is yet another example of unions digging their own graves by refusing to negotiate or accept reasonable terms. Sentiment is on the side of the superintendent, at least among the folks I have discussed the issue with.


Jason was apparently very busy.  His email was printed in Mike Sheldock’s Global Economic Trend Analysis which then was used by pundits in the media to bash the lazy teachers.  I love the irony of a writer using a nearly anonymous email, which credits Wikipedia as a source in an attempt to decry anybody else for being lazy.  Let’s face it, there are a lot of letters in   At first, I had a hard time even finding the article because the first source I saw was Mark Whittington who is working very hard to put the Ass  in Associated Content.  While bemoaning the lazy teachers and their bloodthirsty union, he can’t even get the name of the town right.   After all, as teachers they must be lazy and as union members they must be blood thirsty.

Are the teacher’s lazy?  Well, to start at let’s look at the school.   I dug up the NECAP results for the school.   To begin with, I don’t find standardized tests to be the best indicator of teaching.  Alfie Kohn and others have shown with very thorough research that other than measuring parental income, they aren’t terribly useful.  However, I kept hearing about how terrible the test scores were and decided to look for myself.

In 2005-2006 the 7th grade students who fed into the high school achieved the following results on their 7th grade NECAP test for reading:

0% – Proficient with Distinction
22% – Proficient
36% – Partially Proficient
42% – Substantially Below Proficient

In 2009-2010 when many of those same 7th graders had moved to 11th grade, they achieved the following scores:

8% – Proficient with Distinction
47% – Proficient
29% – Partially Proficient
15% – Substantially Below Proficient

I didn’t cherry pick that data.  I looked at reading because math is really limited to one or two classes a day, while most classes impact a student’s reading skills.  I chose the years I chose because high schoolers are tested in 11th grade and that was the easiest way to track the same group of students.   There are some flaws in this methodology, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that when you go from 22% proficient students to 55% proficient students in 5 years, you’re making amazing progress.

I do put more stock in what the students and their families have to say, let’s take a look at who was quoted in the newspapers:

“They are very sweet,” said André Monteiro, 19, a senior. “They help us out and get the job done. They treat us with respect.”

“It’s not fair,” said Angela Perez, who has a daughter at the high school. “They shouldn’t be punished because the students are lazy.”

“The teachers care so much,” said Perez’s daughter, Ivannah Perez, a recent Central Falls graduate. “I’ve seen them stay after school. I’ve seen them struggle. It’s the students. They don’t want to learn.”

“It’s sad,” said Jessica Lemur, another senior. “They stay when we need help. They love us. I was shocked when I heard the rumors.”

Those quotes are from the Providence Journal, but it still doesn’t stop the majority of the comments below the article from complaining that the teachers are lazy and don’t care about their students.

“What you are doing is wrong,” said Kelyn Salazar, a junior, said. “After all they have done for us, it’s not fair. They are pushing me to reach my potential. As a freshman, I didn’t care. Now, I’m an honors student.”

“Very seldom have I heard students say how much their teacher demands of them or how hard they have to work,” she said. “When my daughter was in eighth grade, she was told that she could become a hairdresser. I asked her, ‘What about becoming a professor, an engineer, a teacher?’ They never mentioned those.”

Of course, 8th grade isn’t in high school so I have to wonder if the child is more intelligent than the parent.  Even the Providence Journal pointed out that, “Perhaps the most vocal opponents of Gallo’s plan were the students, who couldn’t understand why Gallo was taking away the teachers they loved.”

So all the students were supportive of the teachers, right?  Shouldn’t that count for something?   Not all the students backed the teachers.  A group of 20 students held a protest supporting the firing of the teachers.   They were part of Providence’s Young Voices–a group that is backed by groups like drug company Merck.  They’re from 5 miles away from Central Falls and though they’re not from the town in question, they’re two handlers shrewdly got them on camera.  The students’ conclusion?  We don’t know these teachers personally, but we’re sure they’re lazy.   They will be the focus of Part 2 of this little morality play.

[Part 2 continues with a look at Young Voices]


The Myth of Freedom Writers

February 15, 2010

From time to time, I’ll look at the links that Word Press puts at the bottom of my articles.   I do this because I hope to see what other bloggers are saying on similar topics.   A post I did on Guggenheim Elementary took me to this little nugget today, “In order to achieve quality education, we must educate and hire quality teachers. In this day and age however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get new teachers into the field. A majority of the educators you find in the inner city are young. This is an effective combination because the enthusiastic young teachers are driven to make a positive impression on their students.”

Now, I don’t want to pick on the writer of this blog.  The blog belongs to a student at the University of Oregon.   However, I am increasingly seeing the myth of the young teacher as educational savior and I see it championed by people who should know better.  Teach for America is built on this myth.

The Myth of Freedom Writers: A young, attractive teacher comes into a rough inner-city school where the old, physically ugly, burned out teachers have given up on teaching and the administration encourages that type of burned out behavior.   The teacher who knows nothing of the urban teaching environment has a rough few days, but then wins her students respect, which only makes the rest of the school that much more against her.  She makes huge sacrifices in her personal life and eventually her students learn. There is a terrible incident that shakes her class, but she helps them to rise above it.

Now before I continue, allow me to say that there is nothing wrong with young, energetic, attractive teachers.   However, what usually happens to a caring first year teacher is better illustrated by the character of Mister Prezbo in The Wire.  He’s been a cop in the worst part of Baltimore, but he’s not able to get control of a class of 30 8th graders until the experienced teacher from across the hall comes in and takes control of the situation.  The first half of the first year for most new teachers will be chaos.   The good ones will eventually learn what they’re doing and become excellent teachers.   The others will burn themselves out very quickly and be out of the classroom (usually in educational policy telling teachers what to do) in 2 or 3 years.

Innovation is not Dictated by Age: My mother was a more innovative teacher at 70 than I will ever be.  She had me teach her how to use a computer and she redesigned her school’s whole math curriculum when research showed multiplication and division were more effectively taught together.   At my current school, our two biggest innovators are women in the 60s who have a passion to keep up on what’s going on.

Youth and Experience Have Different Strengths: Young teachers do have more energy, but that doesn’t make them better teachers.  Unfocused energy doesn’t accomplish much of anything.  A good school should have a variety of ages in the faculty because that promising first year teacher isn’t going to alway know what to do and that’s when an experienced colleague can really make a difference.  The best new teachers I have known, have had a mentor that worked very closely with them.

At my second teaching assignment, our school was terribly overcrowded.   A brand new school was opened up and our boundaries were redrawn.  17 teachers lost their jobs and 600 students went to the new school.  Our principal called to try and get those 17 teachers jobs, but the new school would have none of it.  They were in partnership with a college and they wanted their entire faculty to come from their teacher program.   Despite having resources that my school couldn’t even dream of, the student behavior was terrible and when they got their standardized test scores back, they went into panic mode.   They called my principal to ask how we did so well and she told him, “You’ve got all new teachers.  What did you think would happen?”

We All Need Help: The easiest way to find out which new teachers will make it is to find out who is open to help and to new ideas.   Teach for America brainwashes their students into believing that all older teachers are part of the problem.   Some TFA teachers break through their programming others persist that they know everything no matter how badly they are floundering.  As a second career teacher, I have a lot of respect for people who decided later in life that they would make teaching their career.  I really don’t have much respect for 22 year olds who decided that with the job market tight, they’d teach for a couple of years. Then, after they saved the world they’d do something else and make the big money.

Older Teachers are at Risk: Opponents of tenure say that it protects bad teachers.   However, it also protects older teachers who may be a little bit more expensive.  Why pay a 50 year old $60,000 a year when you can pay a 22 year old $35,000?  Some programs like Teach for America are ushering in scores of poorly trained young teachers into the classrooms and have the contracts to guarantee spots.  I love To Sir With Love as pure entertainment and I do believe there is room for Mark Thackeray in the classroom, it is just that I also believe there is room for Charles Chipping and Glenn Holland.

Education Reform and the Status Quo

February 8, 2010

  • “Education is the most important problem facing the United States today”
  • “Only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the Republic.”
  • “The chronic shortage of good scientists, engineers, and other professionals which plagues us today is the result of time wasted in public schools.”

The above three quotes come from the father of the atomic submarine, Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1958.   In 1962 Rickover wrote the book Swiss Schools and ours:  Why Theirs are Better. He showed how much more was  expected of students in Russia, Switzerland, Holland, and England and why the United States was doomed to failure unless it fixed it’s chronically failing education system.  The students who were in American schools at the time are between about 50 and 65 and somehow we’re still not under Swiss domination.

  • “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”
  • “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

These quotes are from a Nation at Risk, which was published by the Reagan administration in 1983.   They looked at why test scores had dropped dramatically from 1963 on the SAT test and concluded that if we didn’t fix our education system immediately.  This is considered a watershed moment in modern education reform and a report was prepared in 2008 on the 25th anniversary that chided the nation for failing to implement the report’s recommendations.    What people fail to recognize is that in 1990, when George HW. Bush’s Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins commissioned Sania Laboratories to document the study with actual data they broke down the scores into subgroups and discovered that while the overall scores did decline, the scores of all the subgroups had increased.  When the systems scientists broke down the SAT test scores into subgroups they discovered contradictory data. While the overall average scores declined, the subgroups of students increased.  This is known as the Yule-Simpson effect in statistics and simply means that more minorities and lower income children were taking the SATs.  The report came out with little fanfare and was basically buried by people with a vested interest in showing how poor our schools were.

The students in school in 1983 are roughly between 30 and 44 today and speaking on behalf of my generation, I am delighted to say that we still haven’t ruined the country yet, although we did come awfully closes between 2001 and 2008.  My point is not that the tradition of education reform goes back to 1958 because anybody who has ever sat through an education history class knows that it goes back a lot longer than that.   My point is to show that wrongheaded education reformers warning that the sky is falling go back a long way.  In truth, the strength of our country has been our public education system whose rapid assimilation of a constant immigrant population into good citizens is a wonder of our modern world.

The only two sure ways to improve the quality of education is to improve the quality of the students and the teachers in our schools.   If people believe that the current wave of “reformers” like Michelle Rhee will do anything, but lower the quality of teachers then they are sadly mistaken.   Make teaching a desirable job and people will want to do it and work hard to succeed.  I predict there will be a mass exodus of teachers when this economy does finally turnaround.   Schools are too dependent on people working on their own time for free, for people capable of doing other things to stick around where they feel disrespected.

Improving the quality of students isn’t a case of taking the good ones out of the public schools setting like charter schools attempt to do either by selective enrollment or by quickly dismissing students who don’t “fit in” the way that KIPP does.  The countries that educate their children the best are those with the lowest rates of child poverty and the best child medical care regardless of parental income.  Sadly, we continue to lose sight of the real problem.   Schools don’t fail children, countries do.

Chicago’s Guggenheim Elementary School

February 4, 2010

Kara Crutcher with Amanda Patterson from Gwendolyn Brooks High School

Chicago’s Guggenheim Elementary School is a failing school.  By failing I mean that Guggenheim is located in a poor black neighborhood where many of the students have trouble making the grade on culturally biased standardized tests.  Guggenheim is located in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.   If you google it you’ll see plenty of talk about gangs, crime, violence and drugs.   It’s really easy to get caught up in all that and not see what’s really going at Guggenheim.

Last week, I came across an email at from a student named Kara Crutcher who attended Guggenheim and was now at the University of Pennsylvania.  This struck me by surprise.  It’s a long way from 71st and Morgan to the Ivy League.   I began to do some searching and I found Kara’s email.   After a few email exchanges, I interviewed her for Substance.   This girl has it so together–she’s brilliant, community minded, and not afraid to express herself.   When I was her age, I was still a Republican.  I interviewed Kara thinking of her as the rose among the asphalt.  She was proof that students could go to Guggenheim and make something of herself.  I was wrong.  The miracle is not Kara–brilliance and compassion not withstanding.   The miracle is Guggenheim.

I recommend you read this girl’s amazing interview, but while you’re visiting Substance take a look at the comments.   Another former Guggenheim says, “it was by far the most positive education environment we could have been in at the elementary school level. hands on administrators and teachers who cared about what they taught and how they taught. yes it is important that students achieve academically but in a time when youth have so few places to turn for care and support dismantling one place in the community that parents and students feel they have a voice is the wrong way to go about “school reform.”

Josef Canning is an actor in Los Angeles who graduated from Guggenheim 40 years ago.   He flew back to Chicago so he could speak at  a hearing on closing the school last night.   The alumni area speaking loudly and clearly with one voice to testify to exactly how much this school meant to them.   Perhaps, the most impressive has been the current students who have spoken in favor of the school.   According to Substance’s Kristine Mayle, “Each student spoke with passion, eloquence, and vocabularies that proved that the students of Guggenheim are, in fact, receiving a great education.”

Even Jesse Jackson was blown away by the public speaking abilities of one of the Guggenheim students and called him a future star.  This is the real miracle.   This school is a family and an educational community.  Guggenheim is everything that is great about the American education system.   If education reform means doing away with schools like this one then how can it possibly be good for this country?

At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, they spell out the morale when they tell us, “No man is a failure who has friends”.  As former Guggenheim students come back to pay allegiance to the school that meant so much to them, I’m reminded of that final scene in that classic Christmas movie.  No school is a failure that has students like these.

[Editor’s Note: I am happy to report that Guggenheim has been spared from destruction.  Unfortunately, another 10 schools in Chicago are still slated for closing or turnaround next year.  I will continue to fight to save them and I have been assured by the people at Guggenheim that they will too.   In fact, their alderman Latasha Thomas has arranged for a City Council hearing on the closings tomorrow.  It’s nonbinding so I’m not expecting a miracle, but any show of solidarity would be a big help.]

Goals Gone Wild

January 15, 2010

I’ve often said that the moment you try to run schools like a business you succeed only in running it like the worst type of top down autocratic business where the big bosses make edicts that have nothing to do with the job reality of their work force.   In other words, think of Chrysler in the 1970s.   I love the blueberry story, which does an excellent job of explaining that since schools have no choice over quality control of our “ingredients” running us like a business is doomed to fail.  However, listening to NPR on the way to meet a friend for dinner tonight, I was struck by story about a paper that was produced last year by scholars from Harvard Business School, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Eller College of Management, and Wharton School entitled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

As the Illinois Senate was busy tying half my teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, I thought it was a particularly relevant paper for those who want to base everything schools do around filling in circles with number two pencils.  The paper argues, ” that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

There are some great anecdote’s in the paper such as when Ford was losing market share in the 1960s to foreign competitors and Lee Iacocca set the goal of producing a car that sold for $2,000 and weighed less than 2,000 pounds available for sale by 1970.  The goal and the tight deadline meant that many levels of management signed off on unperformed safety checks.   One of the safety checks involved the fuel tank which had less than 10 inches of crush space behind the rear axle.  As a result, the Ford Pinto had a nasty tendency of bursting into flame on impact.   The result of Iacocca’s Pinto was 53 deaths, millions of dollars in lawsuits, and serious harm to Ford’s reputation.

This doesn’t just apply to business.   This applies to the school setting as well.   The authors of the paper found that:

  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.

Do we really believe that the state legislatures around this country are going to be doing anything to monitor these goals to perform a cost/ benefit analysis?   The entire paper can be found here and makes for a very interesting read when looked at through the prism of standardized testing.  I think it might be helpful to look at the harmful side effects one by one:

  1. A Narrow Focus that Neglects Non-Goal Areas – In other words, teaching to the test and ignoring things like critical thinking, writing, art, and socialization.
  2. A Rise in Unethical Behavior – When you base people’s entire livelihood on one test, desperate people will cheat.
  3. Corrosion of Organizational Culture – When everybody is focused on the test, finger pointing will ensue.   The 6th grade teacher will be mad at the 5th grade teacher for things that were not covered in 5th grade.   A strong move is made from teachers as colleagues to competitors.
  4. Reduced Intrinsic Motivation – When everything is about the test score, why bother with anything else?  Why put in extra time on something that won’t increase scores if your job depends mostly on standardized testing?

The authors of the study never say that goal setting is bad.  As teachers, it is something we do all the time.   What they say, however is focusing too much attention on one goal will backfire because it will lead the employees to neglect everything, but the goal.   They offer many examples.  The paper is only 15 pages long and I see so many corollaries between the businesses they talk about and the current education reform movement.   Give it a read.  It’ll make a lot of sense.   I’ll say it again–If you run a school like a business, you run it like a very bad business.

Fighting Privatization

January 4, 2010

I’ve made a resolution to do a better job keeping this blog updated this year.  The assault on education in this country and in my own city of Chicago is too pressing not to be vocal about what’s going on.  I’ve mentioned before that I am a member of CORE (The Caucus of Rank and File Educators), a group that has been trying to stop the privatization efforts in the Chicago Public Schools.   I’ve only been a member for a few months, but last year the organization and several community activist groups staged a big summit to protest school closings at Malcolm X College.   We’re having another summit this Saturday January 9th to continue the fight.   Last January, 500 people came out in a blizzard.  This year, I’m hoping we can draw 1,000 committed activists.  I have a lot of problems with Chicago’s program of turnaround schools.   Studies have shown that they do nothing positive for the students in the school that is closed and instead increase dropouts, overcrowding, and student violence.   I took the liberty of reposting here, an article I wrote on the criteria Chicago is using to determine which schools stay and which ones go.

For the third time in three years Chicago has changed the criteria by which schools are eligible for closing.   The ever changing criteria are supposed to help the schools separate which schools are “failing”.  However, despite closing over 70 schools, the administration continues to show a lack of faith in their own ability to come up with fair criteria while their lack of consistency has schools scrambling to find out if they’re on the chopping block.

There are so many problems with judging schools based almost entirely on attendance and the ISAT test.   One culturally biased multiple choice test administered by a politically connected company that was awarded the contract under shady circumstances by the Blagojevich administration is hardly a scientific way to evaluate schools.   Major trends like neighborhood demographics and student mobility can play havoc with test scores, but so can small things like who had a good night’s sleep or ate a breakfast before taking the test.

Elementary schools are judged based on ISAT reading, math, and science scores meeting and exceeding standards; attendance; and value-added scores and composite scores in both reading in math.   Charts have been created for all schools that make it appear very scientific as schools are rated in 8 different categories.   However, three of those categories are determined from the same math test and another three are determined by the same reading test.   Schools which fail to gain 1/3 of the achievable points are then eligible to be closed.

The constantly changing target makes it difficult for schools to succeed.   McKay Elementary School on the South West Side is on the bubble having earned 14 of 42 points.   Like all schools potentially facing the chopping block, they are in a working class neighborhood and service a minority population.  In 2007 38% of their students met or exceeded standards in math, but in 2008 they improved that number to 46%^ of their students, and last year they were up to 54%.   They showed similar gains in reading and science.   Under the 2007 and 2008 scoring systems, McKay would have been safe.   With the new system, they are not.

High Schools use a more complex system that evaluates schools based on average ACT, one year drop out rate, attendance, freshman on track, AP enrollment, AP success,  and PSAE scores.   Again, there are liars and then there are statistics.   At a time when the College Board is pointing out massive flaws in the entire AP program, CPS continues to push it.  The Prarie State Exams have led to a four year program in many suburbs where students are never given junior status so that they never take the examination.   These are the two main criteria Chicago uses to judge high school quality.

Schools can also be closed if a school’s enrollment is less than 250 and it is using less than 40% of available space or if in the opinion of the board, the infrastructure of the building is unsound.   These rules are applied unevenly.   De la Cruz middle school’s unsafe building was rented to UNO for $1 this year.   Carver Military Academy’s “need” for a small program in their large school has prevented Fenger parents from having a safe place to send their kids.   Of course, the test score data is also not rated equally or several of the city’s charter schools would find themselves facing the axe.

When decided something as important as the future of the children in this city, we owe it to them to find an effective way to measure the quality of schools and a fair and open process for deciding which schools are not making the grade.  These criteria are neither fair nor open.  There have been no positive gains demonstrated by Chicago’s program of closing schools, but we have seen the danger it brings for students forced to travel to other neighborhoods for their education.   Our students deserve better.

Teach Locally, but Think Nationally

December 9, 2009

I’ve been getting a lot of traffic from Washington, DC lately on both of my blogs because of the writing that I’ve done on Michelle Rhee.   To my mind, Washington is definitely ground zero in the battle to privatize our schools.   What Michelle Rhee has done with her summary firings in our nation’s capital should be known to teachers far and wide.  However, we make a big mistake if we don’t see that the same forces that have hit Washington hard have also been at work in Chicago where mayoral control has displaced many teachers and despite a growing unrest by the parents and students of the city, charter schools continue to open leading to a huge uptick in teen violence.   In Milwaukee, the mayor is trying to take over the city’s schools.   In Detroit, they are trying to blackmail teachers into an agreement where each teacher would loan the school district $1,00o.  New York is threatening to tie tenure into test scores and let’s not forget the Race Off the Cliff coming from our federal government.

I really hope that each and every school district is able to fight off the threat to their districts, but if we are really to be successful we must unite together nationally because the threat that we face is national.   The people who are trying to bring corporate technique to the public schools are the same people who have joined together to ruin our economy.   It would make a lot more sense for the corporations to hire teachers to try to bring the classroom to the board room.   After all, our schools continue to lead the world in producing Nobel and Einstein Prize Winners even as our country has become a spending economy instead of a producing one.    For all of the Gates Foundation’s money, the American people would rightfully react with such horror, if they sent their children to schools that failed as often as any Microsoft Windows Operating System.

I’ve mentioned some big school districts, but I’d love to hear how your particular district is being privatized.  I won’t yell at you if you think it’s a good thing, but I want to know how are charters and corporate “accountability” moving into your schools.   What’s happening where you live?