Friday, January 30, 2009

Steelers > School

More ridiculousness involving football and education:

The Pittsburgh Public Schools will open two hours late on Monday morning to allow students and teachers to recover from the football game the previous evening.

Update: At least one suburban district (Penn Hills) and Catholic schools will open late too

Update 2: 57% of Readers agree with the decision, according to this ongoing poll

Tales from the Trenches: The Unpleasant Puddle

by Corey Bunje Bower

It was another ordinary February day at Middle School 135 in the Bronx (which is to say: chaos reigned and tempers flared). I took my class downstairs for gym class and then scampered off to grab a bite to eat. After wolfing down my turkey hero I hurried back to my classroom to prepare for the next period's lesson. A teacher I worked with happened to have just walked in as well.

Much to our dismay, we saw that three of the desks were covered in liquid. "Oh no" I moaned, figuring that some of the older kids had busted into my room during their lunch hour and sprayed Mountain Dew all over the place. I had filed a request months before for maintenance to fix the locks on my classroom doors so that something like this wouldn't happen. For the moment, though, there was only one thing to do -- we grabbed some paper towels and headed over to clean the desk in earnest.

As we surveyed the scene we noticed how wet everything had gotten -- folders, notebooks, backpacks, coats, etc. I wasn't at all happy about this, and to make it even worse the desks belonged to three of my hardest working students. The other teacher started to point out some of the damage while I unrolled the paper towels. I started to mop it up while she picked up a small container brimming with liquid. Then, suddenly, I heard her shriek: "EWWWWWWWWW!" And, with that, she ran out of the room.

"No," I thought, "it can't be." I bent closer to the desks and sniffed. It was! Somebody had peed all over three desks in my room. I soon followed in the run down the hallway.

After washing my heads I tried to figure out what to do next. The period was almost over, but I couldn't possibly let the kids back into the room while it was in this state. I found an Assistant Principal and informed him of the situation. For the first time in my year and a half there, action was swift: maintenance was called, my class was led to the auditorium, and a Dean watched over them until I could make it downstairs.

Rumors were quickly spreading among the members of my class when I reached the auditorium, including a crazy one that somebody's desk had been peed on -- convincing me that this was an inside job and not some rowdy seventh or eighth graders like I'd suspected. I spoke with the kids to see what I could learn while also steadfastly refusing to tell them why we were in the auditorium. In the middle of my Columbo imitation another AP walked in and told me she would watch my class while I spoke with the principal.

I walked into the principal's office and found the person I'd been looking for -- my supervisor, the AP for my section of my building. While seemingly every other administrator had been working to remedy the situation she had been sitting and discussing something with the principal. The principal addressed me: "Mr. Bower, what is going on?" Thinking that she wanted an update on the situation, I told her what had happened.

I was wrong; she didn't want an update of what had happened -- she had meant "what is going on?" in the parental sense, as in "what have you done?" Shocked, I told her that I failed to see how this was my fault -- I was not the person in charge (or, for that matter, even in the room) when it had happened. Apparently, she saw it otherwise. After a little venting, she told me that she would be observing me the next week and that there was a pre-observation letter in my mailbox.

Meanwhile, it didn't take long to get a confession from one of my students once he found out that they were reviewing footage from the security cameras. Apparently he'd asked one of the girls out at lunchtime and she'd turned him down. As retribution, he deemed it appropriate to urinate on her desk and her belongings -- the desks and belongings of the other two students were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (he'd asked to go the bathroom during gym class and, unbeknownst to the gym teacher, had headed for my room instead of the lavatory). For the first time that year, a student from my class was suspended. After five days of sitting at another school he entered my classroom again. One of the girls who'd been victimized grabbed a broomstick but, somehow, I managed to avoid a riot. Both he and the three girls remained in my class for the rest of the year.

Moral of the story: Children can take out their frustrations in odd ways . . . as can principals.
Corey Bunje Bower taught sixth grade in the Bronx from 2004-2006. He is now a Ph.D. student in Education Policy at Vanderbilt University.

Tales from the Trenches is a regular feature on the blog Thoughts on Education Policy that aims to illuminate what it's like to work in a school. All current and former staff members are encouraged to submit their own war stories. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]; submitters must identify themselves, but may remain anonymous or use a pseudonym upon publication.

New Feature: Tales from the Trenches

Update: Until I figure out a better way to do this, I'm going to keep an index of all Tales from the Trenches at the top of this post

February 2nd: The Early Bird Can Stay at Home
January 29th: The Unpleasant Puddle

or see all posts here

Original Post

This is probably my best idea yet. Today marks the introduction of another new feature on this blog -- Tales from the Trenches. Tales from the Trenches will consist of some of the most memorable stories from current and former teachers. I expect that most of the stories will be from teachers who taught/teach in high poverty urban schools, but submissions are open to anybody. I hope that this can help me and the readers of the blog connect with life inside schools -- and put my ivory tower pontifications into context.

The first tale will be posted tonight, and I hope to post at least one a week from now on. I'll occasionally regale you with a tale from my teaching days, but I expect most of these to be from other teachers. If you have a war story that you'd like to share with the world, you can submit it for posting at corey[at]

Here are the rules for submissions:

1.) Remember that this blog is supposed to be thoughts on education policy. As such, stories should be intended to provide insight to outsiders as to what working in a school is like and, as such, provoke thought. This is not a forum for simply venting about how you were wronged or how awful your job is.

2.) Try to let the story speak for itself as much as possible -- if you want to offer an in-depth commentary on what's wrong with schools there's another forum for that.

3.) At the end of the story you should provide a very concise analysis of what's to be taken from the story -- preferably in the form of a "moral of the story"

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Spend Money to Make Money

Interesting article on Sports Illustrated's website regarding the escalation of salaries among assistant college football coaches. Seems that Tennessee has lured away the top recruiters from four other schools and, combined, their assistant coaches will make almost a million dollars more than any other SEC school. Why is this interesting if you're not a sports fan? Because of the rationale for the move:

"Coach Kiffin has done a tremendous job assembling one of the best staffs in the SEC and the country," said [Athletic Director Mike] Hamilton. "Our funding model requires football to be successful in order to fund other sports and not detract from the University's mission. This team of experienced coaches understands that vision."

For Hamilton, the spending spree was a no-brainer. Tennessee has a 102,000-seat stadium to fill and an $87 million athletic department to fund. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, football revenue accounts for 85 percent of that budget. The Vols can't afford 5-7 seasons (last year marked their second losing season in four years), and the best way to right that in a hurry is to bring in better players.

Today's Random Thoughts

Some interesting news items out there today:

-According to USA Today, a recent study found that students with recess behaved better in school. They don't describe the research very well, so I'm going to have to track down the actual article to see what it says. That breaks improve attention makes sense to me but, at the same time, when I was teaching the hardest times to get students under control were immediately after lunch and immediately after gym.

-An appeals court ruled that four teachers in Lansing, MI cannot sue their district over their perception that four students were not punished severely enough for major offenses including slapping a teacher and throwing chairs at another. The teachers claim that school-safety law (I think state law, but it's not clear) mandates that students are expelled after such actions, but the students in question were all suspended. I can sympathize with both sides on this one. On the one hand, any signal from above that such behavior is anything other than absolutely unacceptable makes teachers jobs more difficult (and potentially more dangerous). On the other, giving these students long suspensions doesn't exactly send the message that their actions were okay and, furthermore, the intervention of courts in school decisions always has the potential to really mess things up. Besides, if the teachers wanted to grab headlines with a lawsuit over atrocious behavior they should've sued the kids' parents.

-Houston handed out its performance bonuses today. Here are the two things I found most interesting about this:
1.) Bonuses for the 2007-08 school year were handed out sixth months after it finished. From what I've heard, research on extrinsic incentives find that they're much more effective when the time frame behind rewarded is shorter and the bonuses are given in short measure after the performance is completed.
2.) 90% of eligible employees received a bonus. Usually when merit-pay schemes are publicized they aim to reward only the best and brightest. I could see this going either way, though. I'm sure the number of people who receive bonuses makes this plan more acceptable to the union and possibly more popular among teachers, even if the trade off is that some below average performers are receiving bonuses. At the same time, a lot of places in the business world give bonuses to virtually all their employees -- with the size dependent upon both the performance of the business and the performance of the individual. Maybe it makes sense to think of bonuses as a regular part of one's pay that varies rather than something only a few special people receive.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Schools Counteracting Families

We've been reading The One Best System, by David Tyack, for class. Here's on interesting tidbit I came across (about nineteenth century schools):

"Schools, like other institutions, were supposed to counteract or compensate for indulgent or neglectful families." (p. 72)

I can't say with any authority to what extent this was true throughout the twentieth century, but the current movement toward "paternalistic" or "no excuses" schools seems to echo that same philosophy. Indeed, I presented that as one logical policy option given that we know that non-school factors influence achievement more than in-school factors.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Sad Day in the Education Blogosphere

I've said many times that I consider Eduwonkette to be the best education blog around, and I'm not the only one: Jennifer Jennings' creation had the highest Technorati rating among ed policy blogs. People who know me know that effusive praise doesn't often come out of my mouth, but I could gush all day about her blog. That's why I'm deeply saddened that she's decided to hang up her cape.

I'm often dismayed at the careless and inflammatory rhetoric I read around the blogosphere, and I could always turn to Eduwonkette for a breath of fresh air -- not to mention some insight and wit. I hope this blog can live up to the standard she set.

Before people move on with their lives full of inferior blogs I hope they remember the five wishes with which Jennings and Aaron Pallas left us:

5.) Education Policy Based on Averages, not Outliers
4.) Better Alignment of Accountability Systems to School Outcomes
3.) Asking More "Why?" Questions
2.) The End of Proficiency Only Accountability Systems
1.) Taking Kids' Out of School Time Seriously

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Excuses, Defeatists, and the Reality of Low Achievement

by Corey Bunje Bower

In-School vs. Non-School Factors

If there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. But, for some reason, saying this merits serious criticism in some circles.

On July 4, 1966 the government released what came to be known as "The Coleman Report," a comprehensive study that was commissioned in order to prove that more funding would improve the plight of African-American students. Instead, Coleman found that non-school factors were far more important than in-school factors -- which is why they attempted to minimize publicity by releasing it on a national holiday.

Seymour Martin Lipset, a fellow at the Hoover Institute, was overheard summarizing the results to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan thusly: "Guess what Coleman’s found? Schools make no difference; families make the difference."

Indeed, the liberals in Congress were devastated at the results -- they had expected to find that achievement gaps could be solved through more school funding. Meanwhile, conservatives beamed -- the report proved that a strong family was the root of a strong society and that government could not spend its way out of the problem.

Today's Version of the Dispute

At some point between 1966 and 2009 the sides seem to have flipped. The more conservative position now holds that schools can close achievement gaps if people work hard and don't make excuses, while the more liberal position is that we need to fix the underlying causes of the achievement gap (which mostly lie outside of school) before we can truly solve the problem. This is, of course, an oversimplification -- but what's struck me is the reaction of those who argue the latter.

In the original press release announcing the release of David Whitman's book (the new version has been toned down) the Fordham Institute included a passage that lumped together "defeatists" like Charles Murray and Richard Rothstein. I must say that it had never struck me to lump together one of the authors of The Bell Curve, (a conservative who essentially argues that many kids just can't hack it and we should train them for careers instead), with Rothstein (a liberal who argues that we need to address inequality in society as well as in schools if we want to close the achievement gap). I later found out that Fordham wasn't the first to characterize these two as "defeatists -- Jay Greene beat them to the punch.

This classification of people as "defeatists" seems to be a running theme in rhetoric surrounding education policy. Increasingly, many are describing ed policy people as belonging to one of two camps; those who believe that everybody can achieve if we work hard enough and those who make excuses.

In a December op-ed, David Brooks, characterized the battle as one between reformers and defenders of the status quo and pleaded with Obama not to hire Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education so that the world might not come to an end. He's far from the only one to characterize the split this way -- David Whitman penned an op-ed in the Huffington Post a few days prior using much of the same terminology, and referring to the latter position as "the defeatist view of school improvement." The inflammatory rhetoric has led others to retort that the rift is really one between deformers and realists.


But, back to my original contention: if there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. If you know an education researcher who would disagree with this statement, I'd like to meet them -- because I don't know any. Over the 42 1/2 years that have elapsed since the Coleman Report those findings have been replicated countless times. That non-school factors are, on average, much more important than in-school factors is simply not up for debate.

Why? We know that a large achievement gap between races and classes exists before students start kindergarten. We know that this gap widens during the summer and stays pretty stable during the school year. We know that attainment and achievement are much more strongly associated with SES level, race, parental occupation, etc. than any in-school factor. We know that when we control for so-called background variables that there simply isn't much variance across schools. We know that students spend only about 22% of their waking hours in school. In other words, we can come a lot closer to guessing how well a student will do on a standardized test if we're given their background information than if we're given information on what type of school they attend.

And this makes logical sense. If the student bodies of a wealthy, Suburban school and poor, inner-city school switched places we'd expect the inner-city school -- with the same staff and resources it previously had -- to out-achieve the Suburban school.

Somehow, in their determination to improve schools, some people seem to have gotten lost. I know when I started teaching I believed very firmly that I could turn around the life of just about every student with whom I came in contact -- regardless of what else was happening in their life. I believed very firmly that improving schools would fix a lot of society's problems. And when I started hearing research findings indicating how difficult it is for schools to dramatically affect students, I balked. But, eventually, I came to understand why this is.

Every student responds differently to every aspect of a school -- who their teacher is, what sports are offered, what color the wall is painted, etc. The worst teachers still help a few students grow exponentially while the best have some students that don't progress. So attending a school that is "bad" or "good" won't magically affect every student in the same way; students succeed at the worst schools and fail at the best. And it became painfully obvious the more I taught that what was happening at home (or at least outside of school) influenced the lives of most of my students more than I ever could.

In NYC, a very strong correlation (r = .8) exists between the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch and the percentage of students passing state English tests. Why? The obvious answer is because the students in these schools come from families and neighborhoods that are often in disarray -- they don't have shelves full of books to read; their parents don't have time to read to them every night or take them to the library; they're exposed to far fewer words and different grammatical norms; they have no quiet place to do homework; they miss days of school to look after younger siblings; they have more health problems; and so on.

But, according to some, this isn't what causes low achievement -- it's poor-quality schools and teachers that make excuses rather than teach. In order to make a serious case for the latter, you'd have to believe that the worst, least-dedicated teachers and administrators systematically distribute themselves so that there are more of them in schools with more kids from poor families; that teachers in the South Bronx routinely put forth less effort than teachers in Chelsea, and that their level of effort and competency correlates almost perfectly with the number of kids from impoverished families at the school. This is simply not plausible.

Reality vs. Rhetoric

Now, where it gets interesting is how people react when others say such things. One of the reasons that I reject the notion that there's truly a firm divide between two camps of education policy is because people on different "sides" often believe similar things -- they just use different rhetoric. To be sure, different people believe different things: some believe that charter schools are the way to the promised land, while others claim that choice solves nothing; some believe that unions cripple schools while others believe that unions create a less abusive environment -- and so on. But I reject as false the current dichotomy that many pushing as an accurate description of world of education policy world; the largest split is rhetorical. People on both sides agree that:

Schools are important, but are not omnipotent. All students can succeed, but not all will (depending, of course, on the metric being used). Hard work and dedication can improve schools, but effort and success will not correlate perfectly. We should do everything possible to prevent students from being left behind, but me must also realize that there is no silver bullet.

I value the insights of many people across the spectrum, and I truly believe that the jury is still out on most of the reforms that are pushed by various groups. But it's clear that one side is winning the rhetorical war despite the fact that when you take their rhetoric to the logical end that it simply doesn't stand up to reality.

Regardless of your preferred school reform, let's tone down the rhetoric: When somebody argues that we should improve students' lives outside of school to improve their performance, they're not making excuses or being a defeatist. Likewise, when somebody says that schools can make a big difference, they're not being wholly unrealistic. Rather than calling each other names we should be working to improve schools. And everybody needs to remember that although a school is not usually the largest influence on the life of a child that it doesn't mean that a school cannot do an awful lot of good.

What too few people are willing to admit is that we can start with the fact that non-school factors are more important and build on it in multiple ways -- none of which involve simply giving up. The fact that non-school factors are currently more important could be used as an impetus to radically enlarge the role of schools in the lives of many children. A number of the most successful inner-city schools dramatically extend the school day and year -- the SEED Foundation has even created boarding schools in Baltimore and D.C. In other words, one way to address the situation is to increase the influence of schools on students' lives. Another direction we can go with this is to attempt to improve the lives of children outside of school, whether through the construction of health clinics, the improvement of housing conditions, the creation of tutoring programs and such, or in other ways. Both are fundamentally trying to do the same thing: provide students with a different life experience, expose them to different societal norms, and subsequently improve outcomes.

People who advocate either of these positions have a ton of evidence to support them; they are both eminently reasonable positions. But for some reason, people who support the latter are under rhetorical attack. And this attack is both unproductive and illogical. The reality of the situation is that the problems facing low-income children are huge and small solutions are not enough; this is reality, no matter how badly anybody wants it not to be. And it's possible to both face this reality and help children.

Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty, urban schools including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.
Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]

New Feature: Sunday Commentary

Today marks the roll-out of a new feature -- the Sunday Commentary. The first commentary will appear shortly and will be written by me. In the future, I hope that I will share authoring duties with others who have insights into the worlds of education and policy.

In other words, I am soliciting contributions from outsiders -- possibly even from you. Yes, not all thoughts on education policy will be my own in the future. I'll still do most of the day-to-day blogging on the latest news and whatever pops into my head, but I hope that others can help me lift the dialogue to a new level.

Here are the rules:
Sunday Commentary will feature pieces that are a little more in-depth and polished than what normally appears here (in other words, I'll proofread before I post). Sticking with the theme (and title) of the blog, pieces will only appear if I deem them thoughtful -- just because they are commentary on an issue does not mean they need to sink to inflammatory or overly one-sided rhetoric. Some pieces will take a firm position while others will simply explore a number of options, but all will do so in a manner befitting polite discussion.

I welcome submissions from all who are involved in or knowledgeable about education policy and have some thoughts to share with the rest of us. I envision that most will run the equivalent of about 1-2 pages in a word processor -- enough to explore an issue in some detail without turning into a novel. I'm not big on word counts, but I'd say in the range of 500-1,500 would be a good. Feel free to e-mail submissions (or ideas for submissions) to me -- and please encourage anybody from whom you'd like to hear to submit a commentary. And, yes, I'll consider publishing contributions under a pseudonym or anonymously -- as long as you have a reason and it's made clear if there's a conflict of interest.

Update: You can read all of the past Sunday Commentaries by clicking here

Friday, January 23, 2009

More Random Thoughts

-Maybe I was right -- maybe an Obama presidency will shrink the achievement gap. A recent study found that the black-white achievement gap disappeared right after Obama's nomination and election but was present at other times during that period when Obama was not in the news. And African-Americans who watched the events had a bigger boost than those who didn't (NY Times article here).

-If there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. But Eduwonkette took an awful lot of heat from commenters when she made a policy wish based on that evidence.

-Alexander Nazaryn has an interesting post about teachers and alcohol on the NY Times "Proof" blog. I'm not sure it's possible for non-teachers to understand just how draining teaching is. I didn't drown my sorrows in alcohol, but happy hour was definitely a popular place on Friday afternoons for teachers at my school as well.

-Stay tuned for a new feature this weekend. Next week's topics will include the piece on Michelle Rhee I promised a month ago.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Random Thoughts

I've gone AWOL as I've been absorbed in a few different projects, but here are a few things I've noticed lately:

-The Economist randomly slipped a section on school discipline into this week's column on America, which reads in part: "In New York City, where more than 60 bureaucratic steps are required to suspend a pupil for more than five days, teachers are so frightened of violating pupils’ rights that they cannot keep order."

-In a travesty, the 2008 Weblog awards for Best Education Blog includes neither Eduwonkette nor Bridging Differences, which I consider to be the two best education blogs around (the former for its quick-hitting insights and the latter for its unsurpassed thoughtfulness).

-I was, however, sent a link to this ranking of education blogs (which I'm 50/50 on whether or not it was spam intended to get me to click on their ads) that includes both Eduwonkette and this blog.

-Social promotion is often villified -- and I find it hard to disagree with much of the criticism -- but I have yet to come across a single piece of research that finds benefits from holding back students (note: I have not conducted an exhaustive search, so this doesn't mean it's not out there). Has anybody else seen something?

-The absurdity of the rhetoric from some people who consider themselves part of the "no excuses" crowd seems to increase on a consistent basis and is really starting to irk me (which is part of the reason I've taken the last month two off from reading most of the education blogs). I might just insert this into every post from now on: if there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. Please don't call me a defeatist for saying that if you want me to take you seriously.

-I plan on rolling out a few new features this year and hoping to start the first one this weekend. Stay tuned.