Archives for the month of: August, 2014

We hear a lot about bad teachers these days. Indeed, they are the cause of all our education woes, it is believed, and we must eradicate due process for all teachers since the mean, bad union prevents all those many thousands of bad teachers from being fired.

I will leave aside for today the fact that a large part administrators’ job is to hire, train, and retain good teachers, as well as to fire the bad ones. So if there are many bad teachers and schools are suffering as a result, why are we not looking at the ways in which administrators are letting us down? Let them do their jobs, within the protections of due process. Then we won’t have all these bad teachers.

But what I would like to define is this: what is a bad teacher? How can you tell one from a good teacher?

Some would say, “By their test scores!” But that’s so easy to refute it’s ridiculous. If all the kids I teach are really bright, I will be a fabulous teacher by this definition. If I teach exclusively challenged, struggling children, I will be a bad teacher. This is absurd.

Some would say, “By the increases in their test scores!” Again, dumb argument. Something I teach beautifully might not be on the test. In fact, nothing on the tests is particularly important, such as creativity, resourcefulness, intellectual curiosity, and compassion. Also, what I teach them today may not show up on this year’s test. It takes time for the best lessons to come to fruit.

But I think we can all agree on what makes a bad teacher: someone who either doesn’t teach much or teaches the wrong things.

 

What this looks like in practice: an outline of bad teaching.

 

I. Doesn’t teach much.

A.  Lazy.

  1. Teacher doesn’t show up for work much.
  2. Teacher ignores the kids.
  3. Teacher can’t be bothered to explain anything.
  4. Teacher doesn’t assign or grade any of kids’ work.
  5. Teacher is disengaged and looks for ways to withdraw from kids.

B.  Ignorant or ill-prepared

  1. Teacher doesn’t know much about the subject area.
  2. Teacher doesn’t know much about kids.
  3. Teacher doesn’t know much about planning engaging lessons.
  4. Teacher can’t keep an orderly classroom.

II. Teaches the wrong things.

A.  Mean or cruel.

  1. Teacher hates all or some kids and treats them with harshness or outright disdain.
  2. Teacher is arbitrary and kids can’t figure out the expectations.
  3. Teacher expects too much from kids: kids cannot succeed no matter what they do.

B.  Narcissistic or self-absorbed.

  1. Teacher uses classroom for self-promotion and adoration: a cult.
  2. Teacher wants to be kids’ friend.

C.  Teacher distracted and unclear about subject area.

  1. Teacher has no curriculum or disregards it.
  2. Teacher finds curriculum daunting and so goes rogue and teaches whatever the heck s/he feels like.

 

Have I covered everything? Are there other sorts of bad teaching?

It seems to me that most of these are matters of training, readily open to change. I will take up that topic in another post.

It also seems to me that some of what “reformers” want will actually make all this worse. In fact, the worst kind of teacher is II.A.—those who are mean or cruel. The high stakes testing folks are creating the conditions for a steep rise in cruelty. Indeed, the way they speak about teachers betrays their predilection for this kind of “no excuses” culture.

 

There are a number of splendid blogs committed to battling the rubbish that goes by the name of school “reform”, Diane Ravitch’s being perhaps the best.  If you don’t already know her work, her blog is an excellent place to start.

I would like to do something a little different.  Instead of concentrating largely on the fight for public education, I would like to focus on what teachers, parents, administrators, and communities can do to strengthen their neighborhood schools.  This includes sometimes condensing talking points about contentious issues, such as unions and tenure, so that when we are called upon to explain their merits at dinner parties or family gatherings we have something to say (other than, “Why are you directing all this anger at me in what was otherwise a nice evening?”).

When I was a young mother, it seemed there was a rash of articles about how rotten mothering would ruin kids’ lives.  All the focus seemed to be on how horrid most mothers were, how messed up most adults were because of mothers, how if mothers would just get their crap together the whole world would thrive, and how mothers were to blame for every ill.  It was a drag, but I managed to ignore it and just hang out with my kids.  Now it’s deja vu all over again, when teachers are the scourge of society.  Once again, I’m in the demonized group.

So fine.  As they say on the internet, haters gonna hate.  But we don’t have to become haters, not even to debunk them.

Teachers do challenging work.  Not only need we deflect attacks, we also need to continue to sharpen our skills, to create a larger and more supportive community around our work.  This is necessary not only for us, but for our students.

This blog is for collaboration, mindfulness, inspiration, whole teacher/whole child, sustainable, vibrant education in its largest sense.  I would like to do what I can to speak to those who, like me, want to move from this:

The testy vision of education.

The testy vision of education.

To this:

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Each person, highest potential.  That’s the ticket.

Peter Greene, who blogs at curmudgucation@blogspot.com, often sees an overlooked facet of an issue, like here:

Without Tenure

For a host of reasons, people feel that tenure is an unfair advantage teachers have, as if they win it without really earning it and as if it exists largely to protect incompetent teachers from getting their just desserts of unemployment.

Tenure is not a safeguard against firing.  I know personally a number of previously tenured teachers who no longer teach in our district.  Tenured teachers can and do get fired for incompetence.

Tenure protects the good teachers from retribution for doing their jobs.  If a teacher knows of an illegality or inequality and speaks up, only tenure protects that person from being silenced.  Tenure puts teachers and administrators in a more equal position vis a vis one another:  it ensures that teachers’ voices can be heard.

Peter Greene points out that it’s not the firing, it’s the silencing that we must fear in the rush to abolish job protections, i.e. tenure.

It’s not the firing. It’s the threat of firing.

Firing ends a teacher’s career. The threat of firing allows other people to control every day of that teacher’s career.

The threat of firing is the great “Do this or else…” It takes all the powerful people a teacher must deal with and arms each one with a nuclear device.

Give my child the lead in the school play, or else. Stop assigning homework to those kids, or else. Implement these bad practices, or else. Keep quiet about how we are going to spend the taxpayers’ money, or else. Forget about the bullying you saw, or else. Don’t speak up about administration conduct, or else. Teach these materials even though you know they’re wrong, or else. Stop advocating for your students, or else.

Firing simply stops a teacher from doing her job.

The threat of firing coerces her into doing the job poorly.

Imagine if tenure were abolished how tempted a district facing financial cutbacks would find firing all its senior teachers.  Without tenure, they can fire at will.  No justification necessary:  and there goes your school culture, your expertise, your stability.

Imagine if every time we elect a governor, all the teachers who belong to the other party were fired and replaced with those of the party affiliation of the governor.

Tenure does NOT mean a guaranteed job:  it means they have to have a reason to fire you.

More from Greene:

We spent a lot of time in this country straightening out malpractice law issues, because we recognized that a doctor can’t do his job well if his one concern is not getting sued into oblivion for a mistake. We created Good Samaritan laws because we don’t want someone who could help in an emergency stand back and let The Worst happen because he doesn’t want to get in trouble.

As a country, we understand that certain kinds of jobs can’t be done well unless we give the people who do those jobs the protections they need in order to do their jobs without fear of being ruined for using their best professional judgment. Not all jobs have those protections, because not all workers face those issues.

Teachers, who answer to a hundred different bosses, need their own special set of protections. Not to help them keep the job, but to help them do it. The public needs the assurance that teachers will not be protected from the consequences of incompetence (and administrators really need to step up– behind every teacher who shouldn’t have a job are administrators who aren’t doing theirs). But the public also needs the assurance that some administrator or school board member or powerful citizen will not interfere with the work the public hired the teacher to do.

A professor of economics who testified at the Vergara trial in California, in which tenure was declared a violation of students’ civil rights (currently being appealed), cited in a letter to me an example of a teacher who didn’t show up for work for 90 days as a reason to eradicate tenure.  Seriously?   No tenure law in the world stipulates that they can’t fire you for failing to show up for work.  That “example” is either a gross distortion of facts or administrative malfeasance– and it’s the kind of rubbish overstatement into which arguments about tenure devolve.

Once again, I ask the obvious question:  if we all agree that getting more good teachers into the classroom is the highest priority, why are we trying to make teaching as ugly and demeaning a profession as we possibly can?  Why are we so focused on punishing the bottom 1% or 2% that we would gladly throw the vast majority under the bus?

Oh, New York Times.  Despite your commitment to all things charter, you’ve gone and published an op/ed piece that shows where our policies will take us if we pursue the “reform” agenda– and it doesn’t look good.

 

Read:  An assault upon our children:  South Korea’s education system hurts students

 

Se-Woong Koo describes the harsh discipline and utter preoccupation with testing that turns kids into cogs in the economic machine.

 

He writes:

But to effect any meaningful change in education, a culture that treats its children as a commodity to be used in the service of the family or the national economy must be radically altered.

Compare with this sentence by Alan Golston, which appeared on a Gates Foundation website:

Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it’s a natural alliance.

To our “reformers”, kids are not human beings, but output for industry to consume.  Hmmm.  Sounds like South Korea to me.

“Reformers” propose to use test scores as the primary measures of teacher effectiveness.  Tests inescapably lead to the narrowing of curriculum, the pitting of one child against another, and the source of debilitating pressure for those who do not score well naturally (by design, 90% of kids score below the 90th percentile.  Tests presume that most kids are sub-optimal– and are then used to blame teachers failing to get every kid into the 95th percentile).

Now we see that South Korea, which cleans our clock on the PISA exams, is sowing misery and conformity:  just what our “reformers” will do if we don’t stop them.

Compare the South Korean preoccupation with obedience with KIPP’s “no excuses” disciplinary policies.

Here is how the op/ed concludes:

But above all, the conviction that academic success is paramount in life needs to be set aside completely. South Korea may have become an enviable economic superpower, but it has neglected the happiness of its people.

Decrying the state of young people’s existence in Korea, Yi Kwang-su, an early reformist intellectual, wrote in a 1918 essay, “On Child-Centrism,” “As long as parents live, children have no freedom and are treated like slaves or livestock not unlike subjects of a feudal lord.” Before South Korea can be seen as a model for the 21st century, it must end this age-old feudal system that passes for education and reflect on what the country’s most vulnerable citizens might themselves want.

And yet we in education in the U.S. see the hedge fund managers and billionaires and “reformers”, who have no experience in education, have never taught a class, presuming to dictate to us what we must teach kids so they are “college and career ready.”  In other words, they know what they want in their future workers and they want American schools to do the work of preparing them.

I’d rather foster intellectual curiosity and passion for knowledge, so my students can create their own companies and put those guys out of business.

One of the talking points of educational “reformers” is that parents deserve a choice: they should be able to take their tax money and bestow it upon the school that best meets their needs. Charter schools have sprung up to accept this money and to provide an alternative to a neighborhood public school.

 

So how could anyone possibly oppose such a common sense idea?

 

We know from many failed notions that common sense doesn’t always pan out as imagined. At one point we had a common sense notion that you can’t allow women to vote and if you do, they’ll just vote the way their husbands tell them to. Or that there couldn’t possibly be any harm in doctors delivering babies after dissecting cadavers: the notion of tiny little organisms that would kill the mothers was just crazy talk.

 

So what is wrong with the concept of “school choice”?

 

  1. Choice is very expensive. We do not have a choice of police protection, armies, postal services, or any other government service. If you want to seek a private company to handle your security, fine—but you’ll have to pay for it yourself and not ask your neighbors to give their money to provide you with a sense of autonomy. We provide those services to everyone, funded by taxes. How can we afford to tailor every service to individual whims?
  2. We place many legal requirements on schools, such as mandated curricula, handicapped accessibility, teacher credentials, and more for good reasons. We voted for the people who made those laws and they effected them to guarantee quality and justice in our educational system. Why would we want to waive the rules for some schools? If they are bad rules, change them for all. If they are good rules, hold all schools to the same standard. Some charters have been teaching religious doctrine as fact. If a private school can win support from parents for such a curriculum, that’s between them—but why should public tax dollars go to promote religious ideas as facts?
  3. Public schools hold school board meetings in public. They make their decisions in public. They are accountable to the public financially and in every other way: there is transparency in public schools. Charter schools have no such requirements. They can govern themselves in secret and keep their books private. Nobody is getting a yacht out of public school, but those who run charters are in many cases getting rich: on taxpayer dollars. Have you ever wondered why so many hedge fund managers and billionaires become involved in charter schools? Why can’t they donate to the neighborhood public school? Answer: no $$$.
  4. Public schools by design accept all the kids in their area. Charters are free to reject kids they don’t want to take. The kids are already here and somebody needs to help them achieve their highest potential, whether they make your scores look good or not. See Jamie Vollmer on this point:  the blueberry story.
  5. No study has found that charters are more effective than public schools if you compare apples to apples. Those charters that seem to be outpacing the local public schools either never accepted the kids who are the farthest behind, or they have attrition rates through the roof: kids who will bring down the scores are ushered out. Public schools don’t give up on anybody.
  6. In most cases, the motive behind charter schools is profit. That’s why so much business money is flowing their way. What happens if a charter stops making money? They can close. Where will the kids go to school? That’s not the charter’s problem.
  7. Charters facilitate segregation. When parents can choose, they choose schools with kids like theirs. In New Orleans, where there are no public schools, the charters are increasingly homogeneous.

 

Public schools are an essential aspect of democracy. To allow special interests to take the money we need to fund them is an anti-democratic catastrophe.

 

We are not running a business, thank goodness.

We are not running a business, thank goodness.

I am going to start asking people that question.

I suspect that everyone would describe the same school:

  • a beautiful, safe, sunny building in good repair
  • caring, experienced, knowledgeable teachers
  • a big, welcoming library with a trained and enthusiastic librarian
  • a green, tree-intensive campus with lots of playing fields
  • a widely varied curriculum with plenty of arts, athletics, and electives
  • help for kids at all levels:  those who struggle, those in the middle, those who excel.
  • small class sizes to allow for individual attention for all students
  • a vibrant and supportive community that values what happens at the school.

Funny how absolutely none of this is supported by current “reform” initiatives.  None of it would be improved by the Common Core, which presumes that teachers have been unclear on what to teach.

I went to a school like this.  Except for some details (like class size), I teach at a school like this.

 

A beautiful building and a beautiful campus.

A beautiful building and a beautiful campus.

I’d like to see us start pursuing this goal for every kid in the U.S.  If we stopped the runaway testing, we might even have enough money for it.

It would do more than merit pay to attract and retain gifted teachers– and it’s our best shot for the next generation who constitute our future.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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