Friday, May 30, 2008

Defending the Indefensible

Sometimes I do stupid things. And today seems like a good day to do something stupid.

This story recently broke about a teacher who said some pretty harsh things to a 5 year-old in her kindergarten class. I won't copy the whole transcript but, in part, she said:

"I've been more than nice to you all year long and you've been ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed, the whole thing! I'm done! . . . Something needs to be done because you are pathetic! If me saying these words to you hurt, I hope it does because you're hurting everyone else around you."

Joanne Jacobs immediately pounced, writing, in part, "I don’t care how aggravating this boy was. He’s five years old."

Robert Pondiscio followed that up by highlighting one of the comments on Jacobs' blog that reads “I wonder how prevalent such abuse is; could this be more widespread than it looks?”

So, back to the plan for doing something stupid. I'm going to defend the teacher's actions. She may or may not deserve it, but I'll give it a stab anyway.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not arguing that it was okay for her to say these things. I thought berating students like this was over the top in my school -- and our kids were two to three times the age of this kid. She clearly shouldn't have said these things, and I'm assuming she realizes that as well.

That said, I'm also going to stick my neck out there and argue that what she did doesn't prove that she's the worst person in the world. To answer the question highlighted by Pondiscio, I firmly believe that such verbal abuse is more widespread than people realize. And not just in schools. I've heard worse things said by teachers, administrators, and parents (not to mention from students as well -- directed at both other students and at adults). I certainly said things that I now regret while teaching, and I know many others who have as well.

Granted, the fact that other people say things that are just as bad or worse doesn't excuse her actions (I can hear my Dad saying "If everybody else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge does that mean that you would too?"), but it does lend some context. Why do people say things like this? That's the question that I'm not hearing asked.

In my case, and I'm guessing in others as well, one has to be pretty frustrated before they would say something like this. It takes a lot to make me frustrated enough to say something mean to somebody or yell and scream but trying to teach in my school was enough to do it. I can say with utmost confidence that trying to teach in my school was, far and away, the most frustrating thing I have ever tried to do. And discipline problems were, far and away, the most frustrating thing about trying to teach at my school.

Now, I have no idea what her school is like. Maybe her school is idyllic and she didn't like that he asked for strawberry milk even though she only has plain and chocolate. I'm not going to eliminate the possibility that she's simply a monster, but I'd say the odds are against it.

Anybody out there who's reading this and had kids, has taught kids, or has otherwise spent a great deal of time dealing with kids: have you ever snapped and lost your temper? Have you ever said anything you regretted? You probably realized that it was mean and counter-productive after the fact, but you can't go back and not say those things.

In the case of teachers, they snap . . . they lose their cool . . . they say things they shouldn't. And it's because they're human. Some do it more than others, some never do it, but it's something that I think we should confront. And I don't think vilifying teachers who happen to be caught on tape is going to solve the problem. Certainly what she said was over the line and her suspension is deserved, but let's not pretend that this is an isolated incident.

If we really want to prevent things like this from happening, we need to take a closer look at discipline issues. In my school, kids were out of control and teachers were expected to control them virtually single-handedly. If a teacher had a problem with a student, it was generally considered the teacher's fault. That's not an environment conducive to kindness and understanding on behalf of teachers. We have to realize that being a teacher can be frustrating and that discipline problems are a large source of frustration for many teachers. Personally, I think we should try to create systems that intervene in these types of situations before either the teacher or the student reaches the boiling point.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Role for TFA

I was intrigued by an interesting suggestion that Robert Pondiscio made over at the Core Knowledge blog the other day, and the discussion surrounding it has me thinking. Here's a rundown for those of you who haven't been following along:

1.) Pondiscio writes that Wendy Kopp should consider a different tact for Teach For America (TFA) -- putting the new teachers they recruit in wealthy schools as fill-ins and taking some experienced teachers from these wealthy schools and putting them in poor urban/rural schools that TFA currently helps staff. This way the kids in these schools would be getting experienced teachers instead of recent college grads.

2.) Kopp takes the time to reply to Pondiscio's post and basically argues that the people she recruits are at least as good as the experienced teachers in wealthy schools.

3.) Eduwonkette calls out Kopp for some weak arguments and encourages Pondiscio to run with the idea.

The way I see it, everybody's points have some merit. Let me start with the fatal flaw of the idea and then make some suggestions on how it could be slightly modified into a one that even Kopp might like.

There are two reasons why Pondiscio's current idea will never work (other than the fact that Kopp, the head of TFA, doesn't want to implement it):

1.) Very few of the people who currently apply to TFA will volunteer to go serve in a wealthy suburban school as a placeholder while the experienced teacher from that school spends two years in a high-poverty school. I might be wrong about this, but I think the biggest draw of TFA and similar programs is the chance to make the world a better place. I'm willing to bet that almost every new TFA enrollee plans on transforming their class (if not the school) ala "Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver," "Freedom Writers," etc. Serving in the suburbs for two years just doesn't have the same allure or romanticism.

2.) Wealthy suburban schools wouldn't hire uncertified TFA enrollees with no classroom experience. Many of these schools get hundreds of applicants for each open position and very few would have any problem finding a teacher they find qualified, motivated, and experienced to fill in for their teacher who's jaunting off to help save the world for a couple years.

That said, I still like the idea. I think Kopp was wrong to, essentially, summarily dismiss it. I'm maybe most disappointed in the fact that she cited a flawed study as definitive evidence that TFA shouldn't make any changes. Here are the tweaks I would make to the idea:

1.) For the reasons above I'd scrap the exchange part of the program. Why not recruit both recent college grads and experienced teachers to serve in underprivileged schools?

2.) I'd create a separate branch of TFA for experienced teachers. Similar to the Jennifer Steinberger Pease's idea of an "urban teaching corps" that I discussed earlier.

3.) I'd find some sort of incentive to draw these teachers into serving in these schools for 2+ years. TFA is quite adept at fundraising, so maybe they could raise some money for bonuses or something. I have little doubt that they could find a few thousand mid-career teachers to sign up to spend 2 years doing some community service if they pitched it correctly, could somehow guarantee them a job in their home district when/if they finished, and had some sort of incentive to boot.

TFA prides itself on its ability to select and train high-quality individuals and teachers. I see no reason why they couldn't do this with experienced teachers as well as recent college grads. If TFA is serious about upgrading high-poverty schools I think this is an idea they need to get behind.

Three Months

Since I already linked to an article quoting me today, I figured I'd write one more self-serving post before bedtime. Don't worry: I won't be mentioning myself much for the rest of the week.

I realized that today is the three-month anniversary of the start of this blog -- and that I received my 2,000th hit yesterday.

Sure, Jay P. Greene's blog has received like 14,000 hits in about half the time -- but I'm more than happy with where I am. Heck, it's about 1,900 more hits than I would've expected by this point in time.

I'm going to celebrate by going to bed early.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Another Queston about News Coverage

EdWeek published an article at the top of their website yesterday titled "Reading Scores Get 'Bump' From Student Incentives, Study Finds." The blurb under the headline reads "School-based reward programs that offer students such incentives as cash, free MP3 players, or other gifts appear to produce improved reading achievement across grade levels."

Meanwhile, if you read the article you find out that the this particular study found no effect of incentives on math performance.

So, here's my question: why do the headline and blurb beneath only mention half the story? Sure, the effect on reading scores is more newsworthy -- but that doesn't mean that math scores shouldn't be mentioned. How about this: "Study Finds Student Incentives Boost Reading Scores, Have No Effect on Math Scores."

Updating A Couple Recent Items

1.) The NYC cell phone ban was mentioned in an article in the Spokesman-Review (Spokane) today, and I was given the job of explaining how the ban played out in NYC. My favorite quote from the article, however, is not one of mine -- it's a quote from a student that serves as the final sentence of the article: “A rule that says you can’t use your cell phone whatsoever – I can guarantee you students are going to break that rule.”

2.) Regarding charter schools and "exit doors," there was an interesting piece in the Boston Globe yesterday. The article describes the recent exodus of a number of seniors from the MATCH charter school. It's unclear exactly what happened, but it appears as though the students were afraid (or were told) that they wouldn't meet MATCH's graduation standards, so they transferred to Boston public schools right before the end of the year hoping to earn a diploma. That particular case is interesting, b/c I'm not sure that the charter school gains that much even if they advised the kids to leave (other than upholding their high standards, I guess). Mike Petrilli says that this is evidence that Boston's schools' have standards that are too low. Possibly. But it also might be evidence that some charter schools are dumping their most problematic students on local public schools. A few seniors wouldn't help them much in this regard, but the article says that the school has a 60% graduation rate -- meaning that a number of people must be leaving before senior year as well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Best Recent Line from an Academic Paper

I love it when a random amusing line is slipped into an academic paper. This one comes from "Rethinking School Reform: The Distractions of Dogma and the Potential for a New Politics of Progressive Pragmatism," by Jefferey R. Henig and Clarence N. Stone and was published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Education:

"The Teachers at most schools present more personalities and skill sets than a Baskin-Robbins does flavors."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Charter Schools and "Exit Doors"

Comparing public and private schools is difficult; in part b/c private schools are allowed to select their students -- both before and during enrollment. Having taught in a school overrun with discipline problems, I tend to believe that the ability to "get rid of" students (having an "exit door," if you will) has a potentially large influence on the climate of a school.

Charter schools are much more similar to traditional public schools than are private schools; but we still run into some of the same problems when trying to compare them -- particularly regarding selection of students. The vast majority of charter schools select students through a lottery, so they can't just select the top x number of students, but parents still have to take the extra step of applying to the school. The differences, if any exist, between parents that apply and do not apply for enrollment in charter schools is another topic for another time. What I hear mentioned less frequently is the extent to which charter schools have exit doors.

At my school, a number of kids went through every disciplinary procedure possible (reprimand, phone calls, detention, parent meeting, classroom switch, suspension, etc.) and continued to harass and disrupt both their teacher(s) and classmates. At that point, the school essentially had its hands tied behind its back. I believe a couple eventually went to alternative schools, but most hung around and continued to cause headaches. You could imagine the effect it might have on the climate of the school if we could simply say "you are no longer welcome here." The child, and his/her behavior, would no longer negatively influence the school -- and other students would know that they would no longer be welcome if they chose to behave the same way.

The problem with this, of course, is what happens to the child once they're disinvited from that school -- they still have a right to an education.

Anyway, I've always wondered whether charter schools have their hands tied behind their backs to the same extent in these circumstances. I've seen video of a new cohort of kids at a KIPP school being told by the principal that they should leave if they don't like the way the school is run -- so I suspect that at least minor differences exist. My guess is that, legally, a charter school has no more right to expel a student than does a traditional public school but, given that the student is there by choice and has a free fallback option, I'd also guess that a charter school would have an easier time convincing a student to leave.

Imagine the following scenario: a principal tells a parent that their child is not doing well in their school and would probably do better in a different environment. In a traditional public school, it's going to be tough for a parent to find another place to put their child. They're either going to have to pay for a private school, apply to a charter school, or move (or apply to enroll in a different public school if NCLB says they can and seats are open). In a charter school, meanwhile, the parent has the option to enroll their child in the local public school for free -- and probably the next day.

This whole explanation is a long-winded way of saying that I find the statistics in this post about KIPP schools around San Francisco very interesting (hat tip: Education Policy Blog). The author breaks down the attrition statistics of the three Bay Area KIPP schools. I remember reading about this in the news, and thinking that it was interesting but far too early to conclude anything. In short, the three schools all enrolled about half as many students in eighth grade as originally started out in fifth grade -- a pretty high rate of attrition. That statistic, in and of itself, however, isn't all that meaningful. The students were from the first cohort to enter the schools, and there are growing pains everywhere. The students could have left for any number of reasons.

What I find interesting is the attrition rate of African-American males -- which far exceeded the overall attrition rate in all three schools. Given that, nationally, African-American males are both the lowest achieving and the most likely to be disciplined, this raises important questions about whether these schools weed out certain types of students.

The first cohorts to enter the three schools had 13, 24, and 35 African-American males enrolled in 5th grade. By the beginning of 8th grade, they had 3, 8, and 8 left -- meaning that, across all three schools, 72 started and only 17 (21%) were left by the start of 8th grade (I don't know how many actually finished).

This, of course, proves nothing -- but it's circumstantial evidence that merits further investigation.

Ok, so let's say that these three schools are, in fact, weeding out the weakest and least-focused students. A charter school that regularly makes use of their "exit door" will never be comparable to a traditional public school that doesn't have this option. So what? Maybe if all charter schools did this, and we created more charter schools, then more excellent schools would exist. In other words, maybe it's an advantage to charter schools that merits more of them rather than hand-wringing. Though somewhat perverse, I don't think that argument is without merit. But I see a major problem:

The kids that are "asked" to leave have to end up somewhere. In a scenario where more charter schools exist, maybe they simply end up at another charter school -- and maybe they learn their lesson, or simply fit in better . . . or maybe they continue to wreak havoc. But in our current situation, I have to believe that it's most likely that they will end up back in the public school for which they're zoned. In which case, it's likely that the other students in the school suffer from the disruptions that this new student creates. This not only creates a competitive disadvantage for the school, it also punishes all students who choose to enroll in the traditional public school rather than a charter school. And that's simply not fair to those students.

Granted, this is mostly speculation -- so don't read this and then decide that charter schools are evil or that expulsion is the ultimate solution -- but it's at least logical to assume that this problem might exist.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ping Pong Balls and Children's Fates

Thomas Friedman weighs in with this op-ed today about a lottery to enroll in a charter boarding school in Baltimore. Friedman's wife is on the board of the SEED Foundation, which runs charter boarding schools in multiple cities, and is opening the new one in Baltimore. The one in D.C. has, apparently, been quite successful, and the new school had 300 applicants for the 80 spots. Friedman attended the lottery through which enrollees were selected and argues that it's sad to see childrens' fates determined by ping pong balls - and that it shouldn't be this way (not in the sense that charter school enrollment shouldn't be determined by lottery, but in the sense that everybody should have access to a high-quality school).

I have a number of thoughts about the article:

1.) Boarding school. Interesting. Evidence seems to indicate that a lot of things about the home-life of inner-city students hold them back, so I guess this is one way to potentially overcome that. By my calculation, a student who attends 180 7-hour days of school spends about 14% of their time in school over the course of a year -- about 22% of their waking hours if they sleep 8 hours/night. A boarding school could potentially oversee kids for a majority of their time. I'd like to know more about how they use the extra time they have with the kids as a result of this set-up.

2.) Friedman reports that SEED schools are funded by both public and private funds. I know in most places that charter schools receive less funding per-pupil than other public schools, but I wonder how much money some of these schools raise from private sources and how their total funding (private + public) compares to other public schools in the district. If anybody has seen these figures anywhere, please let me know.

3.) I wonder how the parents of the children who applied to the lottery compare to others in Baltimore. Are parents who want to send their kids to a boarding school more concerned about their education, more eager to get rid of their kids, or no different from others?

4.) I agree that children's fate shouldn't be determined by a ping pong ball, but what's the solution? Obviously, high-quality schools for all; but is the SEED Foundation moving us toward this goal? We'll assume for the moment without further investigation that their schools are, in fact, wonderful places. Given this, are they replicable? Do we have the personnel and finances to replicate these schools for every student in Baltimore and other cities? I'm guessing not, but I'd also guess that not every student in Baltimore wants to attend a boarding school. In that case, can SEED schools be part of a system that provides excellent options for all? I don't see why not.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How Small is Small Enough?

I'm short on time today, so I'm allowing Mike Petrilli to do my thinking for me. He asks a very good question:

"Will teachers ever think their classes are small enough?" (to which his answer is "Doubtful.")

When I was teaching, my classes ranged from 23-29 students over the course of the year (due to student mobility). And, yes, I thought they were too large -- if for no other reason than because it was quite difficult to effectively monitor that many students at the same time. I was pretty convinced that my classes would have been fundamentally different if I had 10-15 students.

I don't know of any feasible way to fund a 50% reduction in class size, but let's say it happened. If I were teaching a class of, say, 13 students would I think that my class was small enough? I'm not sure what the answer to that question is. I have little doubt that I could teach 13 students more effectively than 26, but I also have little doubt that I could teach 6 or 7 students more effectively than 13 -- so I'm not sure I'd have a strong incentive to think my classes were small enough even with only 13 students. Even if I had two students, I'm not sure that I would say that my class was small enough because I might be able to do a lot more good with only one of the students at a time.

So maybe he's right, maybe teachers would never say that classes were small enough.

But maybe that's not quite the right question. I can't imagine not wishing for fewer students in my class, but I can imagine thinking that other policy ideas would do more good than reducing class sizes. Let's say, for example, that somebody provided me a list of 10 reforms and asked me to rank them in order of which reforms might do the most amount of good. I could imagine "reducing class size" falling down that list as the size of my class shrunk.

Then again, my perception of the size of my class would probably rely largely on the size of other classes that I saw and experienced. If I had 13 students and the average class size in the country was 8, I'd probably still complain.

Anyway, enough rambling. Back to the question. At what point would class sizes be small enough?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Teaching and Barriers to Entry

Depending on whom you ask, there may or may not be a teacher shortage. I think everybody would agree, however, that there is a shortage of quality teachers and that there are certain positions that go unfilled each year. My school, for example, was short 2 science teachers, a special ed. teacher, and a Spanish teacher my second year -- and a Chorus teacher (after the original teacher and her replacement both quit in the first two months) for most of the year during the second year I taught.

So, in some way, shape, or form, more teachers are needed. What's interesting is how this problem has been addressed. A variety of strategies have been tried: bonuses, fellowships, cutting red tape on hiring, etc. But the most prevalent one seems to be simply lowering the barriers to entry. In other words, making it easier to become a teacher.

I, personally, would not have started teaching if the policy hadn't been in place. Even though I had no training in education, I was allowed to spend one intense summer (supposedly) learning the basics and then jump right into a classroom. Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, and who knows how many other local, regional, and national programs have popped up as alternative routes to certification.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this strategy, you have to admit that it's interesting. And I wonder what it says about the field of teaching. What if we had a shortage of doctors; would we address that by lowering barriers to entry? I can't imagine we would b/c nobody wants a doctor operating on them who is smart but knows little about the human body. What if there was a shortage of lawyers; would we shorten law school? If we had a shortage of bus drivers, would we let them finish the training courses while driving routes full-time? If we had a shortage of police officers, would we give people temporary badges while they figure out how to do their job?

I don't know the answers to above questions. I guess people used to be temporarily deputized in order to form posses to track outlaws in the old days (at least in books and movies anyway), so maybe there is some precedent for this. But I wonder which fields we'd be willing to lower entry requirements for and which we wouldn't. And why.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"No Excuses" . . . Except for College Professors

Finally, the post everybody's been waiting for (Make sure you read this first) . . .

Earlier today, I posted a bunch of random quotes from a commentary written by a teacher (see above). So, what prompted this?

The much-discussed Atlantic piece by "Professor X" is finally available online. Since I'd already mentioned it in a previous post, I decided I should read it and see what all the fuss is about.

Most of the discussion has centered around the theme of the article -- that "The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth" -- but I was struck by something else.

If a K-12 teacher said half the stuff that Professor X did, they would be crucified . . . and by many of the same people who've been agreeing with him.

The article, in essence, says that although he is a very talented and hard-working professor, that he simply cannot teach many of his students to succeed because they're too far behind and have too many obstacles to success.

Imagine a K-12 teaching saying the same thing, with the conclusion being that the students simply didn't belong in school b/c they were incapable of passing. They would be branded as subscribing to the "myth of helplessness" and blamed for all the problems of our schools. They would be told that they're either not qualified to be teaching or need to work harder. They would be told not to make excuses and that every child can succeed. And there might be a grain of truth in some of these statements.

But, somehow, Professor X's essay is proof not that he's a miserable teacher but that the students aren't qualified to be taking his course -- and that we should stop pushing so many students to take similar courses.

I continue to find it odd that K-12 and higher education are so similar but are treated so differently.

Working with Failures

Before I say where this is from, I'm going to start by pasting a few passages from a recent commentary written by a teacher.

For many of my students, [passing my classes] is difficult . . . their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught . . .

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do.

Over the course of 15 weeks, some of my best writers improve a little. Sometimes my worst writers improve too, though they rarely, if ever, approach base-level competence.

I had responsibilities to the rest of my students, so only when the class ended could I sit with her and work on some of the basics. It didn’t go well. She wasn’t absorbing anything. The wall had gone up, the wall known to every teacher at every level: the wall of defeat and hopelessness and humiliation, the wall that is an impenetrable barrier to learning. She wasn’t hearing a word I said.

[The student] had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified

One of the things I try to do on the first [day of class] is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture.

Based on these statements, what do you think about this teacher? Is he working hard enough? Is he a good teacher? Does he give up too easily? Should he be doing more to ensure the success of his students?

I'll reveal the source of these quotes (in case you don't already know) and why I think this is important later in the day.

Update: The follow-up post is here

All Research is "Mesearch"

So says my roommate, who heard it from a friend. As a relatively new member of the research community, I have two thoughts on this:

1. There's a lot of truth in that statement
2. "All" is too strong

I don't really have a rooting interest in any particular intervention, but I would be lying if I said that my personal experiences hadn't shaped my research interests. I'm a private person -- when I talk about myself, it's not usually about personal things. Education is, to me, however, very personal. Particularly my decision to quit teaching. I know not everybody quit for the same reason as me. I don't know exactly how the exit of people like myself affects schools. But I've been convinced by my experiences that it merits further investigation.

I'm in an unusually pensive mood b/c TMAO has started to expound a bit on his decision to quit, and it stirs up a lot of memories for me. He makes a list of all the reasons he didn't quit and, oddly enough, these are mostly reasons why I did quit. Here are all the reasons he lists that he didn't quit:
  1. I wasn't prepared - I certainly wasn't. It's not really the reason that I quit, but it certainly hindered the amount of success I had.
  2. I'm not successful - I certainly never felt successful. Maybe I just set the bar too high for myself, but I always felt like I was trying to preside over chaos.
  3. I'm not supported - TMAO says he doesn't know what this means. In my school, it meant that when I struggled I was told I was a bad teacher rather than helped. When a student flipped out, I was berated and the student remained in my room.
  4. I can no longer stand to work with the disastrously declined youth of today or their apathetic, uninvolved families - I'll agree with him on this one -- that had nothing to do with my decision
  5. I'm not paid enough - Of course I wasn't paid enough for what I went through, but that had very little to do with my decision to leave.
  6. I really want to teach at a KIPP school - That was probably the last thing on my mind as the kids ran out the door on my last day.
  7. I'm burnt out - TMAO wrestles with whether or not he was burnt out. I have no such quandary: I was burnt out -- badly.
Considering that these are the reasons he didn't quit, I'd very much like to hear more on why he did. Personally, I'd add discipline problems and the overall hostility level of the school at the top of a list of other reasons why I left.

But enough about me; back to my point. Just as everybody has experiences that define their lives, this one has defined mine. And these experiences define not just who people are but also what they research. Part of me feels that this is a bad thing -- in which case I plead guilty -- but part of me isn't so sure.

On the one hand, it means that people have more personally at stake in their research than we might like to believe (I'm guessing that most people who are interested in merit pay or teacher education believe that they are potentially powerful interventions). But, on the other, it also means that people have some context for the questions they ask and, for that matter, that they are motivated to spend time on the topic.

I know that my experiences have shaped my interests (and probably always will), and I think I can be ok with this as long as I start a project answering questions that I genuinely believe can be answered in either direction. It's the difference between starting off saying "I'm going to prove that discipline problems influence teacher retention" and saying "I wonder if discipline problems influence teacher retention and, if so, how much?" I'm not perfect, but that's the goal for which I'll aim.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Is High School Too Late?

Bob Herbert has another woe are our schools piece in the Times today. In it he decries the performance of our high schools -- particularly our low graduation rates. He argues that we need to intervene in order to ensure that our high schools are on par with the rest of the world's. The most interesting statistic he cites (and I'd like to see the source for this) is that the U.S. ranked second in the world in four-year college graduation rate in 1995 while we now rank 15th.

I buy the premise of the op-ed: too many students are leaving our schools unprepared for college and/or the workforce, and change is needed. But I have on question: is high school too late?

In other words, are high schools really creating the problems, or are they just where we're noticing them. High school teachers I've talked with tell me that students come to school woefully underprepared and far behind in their abilities. In these cases, is high school really the right point of intervention?

I'm under the impression that most problems take root much earlier than high school. For example: one research article found that, in Baltimore, each absence in first grade was related to an increased likelihood of about 5% that the student would drop out of high school. Does this mean that intervening in first grade might be more fruitful than intervening in high school?

American Citizens First

An article in the Times yesterday discussed some actions that districts and schools have taken to immerse their students in more international knowledge. The article has some interesting parts -- it's worth reading -- but what really caught my attention was this:

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cautioned that American schools were already giving short shrift to American history and government and could not afford to layer global studies on top of already stretched curriculum.

“In some of these trendy schools, there is an ethos that we are all citizens of the world, and that’s all that matters,” he said. “Students need to be taught to be American citizens first.”

I've read a number of Petrilli's posts over the last month, and I don't usually find him that reactionary or anti-world. I'd like to hear more from him about the context of the quote.

Maybe he didn't realize he was playing right into the hands of these Dutch cartoonists:


Update: Thanks for providing some context

Friday, May 16, 2008

Blog Posts In Need of Improvement

Alexander Russo has his "Best of the Blogs." The idea occurred to me a few weeks back to create a "worst of the blogs" list as a counterbalance, but it seemed far too judgmental and condescending for my taste. Given my espoused distaste for some of what passes as dialogue in education policy, however, the idea rattled around in my head for awhile. I've finally reached a compromise.

Today I'm starting a new section titled "Blog Posts In Need of Improvement" -- a title I deem tongue-in-cheek enough for others to know that I'm not taking myself too seriously. I have no desire to put myself on a pedestal or scold others, but I would like to encourage more thoughtful and productive dialogue. Here are the rules and criteria:

1. Blog posts will be classified as "in need of improvement" when they fail to productively advance discussion and, instead, root for one side over another. Posts that are accusatory without evidence, thoughtless, derogatory, or fail to take the good of society into account are all eligible. Selection will not be based on ideology or poor grammar.

2. Blog posts that are selected will be accompanied by the selection of a productive and thoughtful post from the same blog. I'm not out to get anybody, I just feel an odd desire to point out when people aren't helping.

I'm going to lead off my list with a couple of oldies-but-baddies:

BPINI 1: I Pity The Fool!, Jay P. Greene's Blog
Why: Greg Forster chooses to revel in the "smackdown" of teachers who wrote letters to the Wall St. Journal, despite the fact that there's no possible way to tell whether or not the letters are evil given their brevity. He chooses to take sides and root for the downfall of others rather than working for the betterment of schools. In response to my criticism of the post, he defends his right to criticize "the blob" -- a derogatory term used to refer to teachers with whom he disagrees.
Better Post, Same Blog: The Devil's In the Implementation
Why: A thoughtful post analyzing the recent analysis of Reading First and what might have gone wrong.

BPINI 2: P.U. to B.U., Flypaper
Why: Chester Finn decides, without ever having met the man, that the new dean at B.U. will ruin the school -- apparently based on a glance of his resume and the fact that he currently works at Wisconsin. Finn writes that "He is reportedly hostile to charter schools and high-stakes accountability and just about everything else worth being in favor of nowadays." In the future, I hope Finn bases his judgments on facts rather than what somebody is "reportedly" like. I further hope that we can stop viewing education reform as a series of separate ideas, some of which we should root for and some which we shouldn't.
Better Post, Same Blog: Quizzing for Reading Data
Why: In her inaugural Flypaper post, Amber Winkler delves into the numbers in the latest report on reading -- examining why the numbers are they way they are rather than simply reacting to the table.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Should Everyone Attend College?

In a previous post, I disagreed with Kevin Carey. This time, I'd like to defend him. A recent article in The Atlantic (which I haven't read since I don't have a subscription, don't feel like sitting in Barnes & Noble, and it isn't online) described the life of an adjunct professor who teaches adult ed classes in the evenings and finds that most students don't have the skills to complete college coursework. Apparently the point of the article is that college isn't for everyone.

Kevin Carey writes

One thing's for certain: this piece will be catnip for those who like to adopt the contrarian too-many-people-are-going-to-college-these-days position. This is an especially attractive stance for elitists and/or people who spend a lot of time searching for opportunities to loudly begin sentences with some variation of the phrase "I know it's not politically correct to say this, but..." as if this denotes intellectual bravery of some kind.

he continues on to argue that perhaps it would be more beneficial to put more effort into these programs rather than loudly complain that these students don't belong in college.

Liam Julian, on the Fordham Institute's blog, apparently disagrees. He criticizes Carey for "impugning motives" and "name-calling" and then goes on to mock ("The blatant rejection of reality inherent in Carey’s sentences is astounding") his position. I have an avowed dislike for unproductive, thoughtless, side-taking blog posts and while both posts touch on this territory, Carey's (with the exception of the above paragraph) is much more thoughtful and much less accusatory.

Anyway, Julian continues on to write that college isn't for everybody, that it's not supposed to teach remedial skills, and that pushing underqualified students into college will accomplish nothing other than cheapening college degrees.

I have a number of problems with these arguments:

1. It's easy for us folks with college degrees to sit at our computers and say that not everyone belongs in college, but self-interest precludes any sort of impartial judgment on this matter. If fewer people graduate from college then my degree looks that much better (and vice-versa).

2. I'm not sure that Carey ever made the argument that colleges should teach remedial skills to underqualified students. The fact that students graduate from high school unable to read or write at a college level doesn't mean they shouldn't go to college, it means that they should have learned more while they were in their previous schools. Since it's too late for them to learn more in elementary, middle, and high school then it's entirely appropriate for them to enroll in some sort of classes that will adequately prepare them for college. If colleges choose to make promises they can't keep in order to make money off these classes, then shame on them.

3. Despite the fact that I've previously informed him he was incorrect about this, Julian still assumes that the number of people graduating from college is skyrocketing at an alarming rate. If one looks at the statistics (look at the second category, third column) it becomes readily apparent that this isn't the case. The percentage of 25-29 year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree has remained virtually flat over the past decade. Below is a list of this figure for each of the past 10 years for which data are available.

1997: 27.8%
1998: 27.3%
1999: 28.2%
2000: 29.1%
2001: 28.6%
2002: 29.3%
2003: 28.4%
2004: 28.7%
2005: 28.6%
2006: 28.4%

4. Even if we assumed that this figure was on the verge of increasing rapidly, exactly what would that harm? Let's say that 50% of the population gets a bachelor's degree and the percentage of people with a graduate degree also doubles. Other than the amount of student loan debt that the population has, I fail to see how this is a bad thing. In 1910, 13.5% of the population had a high school diploma. The figure now stands at 85.5%. Has this ramp-up in educational attainment had some sort of detrimental effect on our society? If so, what?

5. Julian assumes that anybody who thinks more students should attend college thinks that everybody should go to college. It's quite apparent that this is a willful exaggeration. We are so far from a 100% college graduation rate (heck, most high schools graduate significantly less than 100% of their students) that it's a completely unrealistic goal even for the most optimistic pundit. Arguing that more students should be able to enroll in college and arguing that everybody should enroll in college are not one and the same. I, for example, think more people should enroll in college; but I don't think everybody should. In other words, it is possible to have a somewhat nuanced position on the issue.

Update: The article is now online here. After reading it, I posted some more thoughts on the article here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

A sad day in the world of teaching. The writer of the blog Teaching in the 408 has announced he's resigning. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but it sounds like he was frustrated.

I've never seen him teach, but it sounds like he was an effective teacher in a tough school. A smart, determined, dedicated Teach For America alum. In other words, just the type of teacher that we should be trying to keep.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The NYC Cell Phone Ban

Anybody who follows news on the NYC schools has heard something about the ban on cell phones over the past few years. For anybody unfamiliar with NYC policy, students are technically banned from bringing cell phones into schools. The ban is, of course, nearly impossible to enforce unless a school has metal detectors -- but it's still district policy and Mayor Bloomberg has been a staunch defender.

The ban seems to have mostly received negative press (Alexander Russo calling it "idiotic-sounding" is what jogged my memory on this), and legitimate complaints certainly exist. Chief among them are parents who want to stay in touch with their kids on their way home from school (some kids have to travel quite a ways via public transportation or have other complicated arrangements) or in case of emergency.

But I have one problem with the people who criticize the ban, and that is this: what's the better solution?

Allowing students to carry cell phones with them has at least as many downsides. My school had a "we see it, we take it" policy, but most teachers are wary of taking students' property (I was nearly assaulted by a student after taking his cell phone) and it's impossible to see a cell phone every time a student takes one out anyway. Meanwhile, students waste time in class, send risque photos, cheat, spread word of fights, and otherwise participate in un-academic or dangerous behavior.

To me, at least in the school where I taught, the costs of having cell phones outweigh the benefits. The alternative would be some sort of compromise -- students are allowed to bring their cell phones to school, but have to check them in with an administrator when they arrive, for example. I'm not going to argue that there's not a workable solution out there, but I haven't seen one proposed that adequately solve the concerns of both sides. My ears are open.

Friday, May 9, 2008

What Happens When All Punishments Fail?

I still intend to offer more comments on the teacher survey in addition to some other issues, but this post on the Fordham Institute's blog caught my eye. In it, Jeff Kuhner rightfully condemns the actions of a Vice Principal who punished students by making them eat while sitting on the floor (which, by the way, I don't think means the food was actually on the floor).

While it's probably not the end of the world, the punishment was clearly over the line and the Vice Principal should've known better.

What really caught my eye, however, was Kuhner's claim that we don't need to resort to these types of punishments b/c we have other options that are "tried and true," including calling home, detention, suspension, and expulsion. This raises two questions for me:

1.) Are we really sure that these methods work?

2.) What happens when they don't?

I'm under the distinct impression that most schools don't have to worry too much about the latter -- the "tried and true" methods certainly seemed to do the trick in the middle-class public schools I attended -- but I've seen schools where there seems to be no answer to #2.

What happens when these methods don't work? A teacher calls home . . . the behavior continues. A student is given detention . . . the behavior continues. A student is suspended . . . the behavior continues. Now what? Should the student be expelled? Moved to another school? Receive a psychological evaluation? Should we just fail them and hope they drop out?

I'm not sure what the answer is or, for that matter, that there is an easy answer. But I know that teachers and administrators across the country face this dilemma on a daily basis. Inhumane treatment is no solution, but I don't envy their position.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Someone Asked What Teachers Think?

As a former teacher, it is my personal bias that teachers are not frequently enough included in the policy-making process. It seems like we often analyze everything except for what teachers think. Meanwhile, it seems like an awful lot of reforms fail b/c teachers don't adopt them.

Well, a team from Education Sector just released the results of a national teacher survey. More than one blog post will be devoted to this, but for this one I'd like to look at the opinion questions that resulted in the most lopsided responses (>70% agreeing with one side). For the sake of brevity, I'll summarize each question, but I'll put the actual number from the survey next to it and you can read the full question from the report if you want more information (and let me know if my summary is unfair).

-81% of teachers agree that negative press coverage prevents the most talented people from entering teaching (9)

-80% agree that teachers are "rarely consulted about what happens in their school" (6)

-86% agree that teachers are required to do too much paperwork

-85% say that more prep and planning time is a good or excellent idea to help recruit better teachers into the field (14)

-78% of teachers say the same about easing rules on coming out of retirement (15)

-71% say that offering "substantially higher starting salaries in exchange for smaller pensions when they retire" is only a fair or poor idea for helping to recruit better teachers (16)

-80% strongly or somewhat favor giving "Teachers who work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools" financial incentives (23)

-79% said the unionization of the teaching force was not a consideration in choosing a career (37)

-84% say the same about the considerable job protection in teaching (38)

-75% agree that "Teachers facing unfair charges from parents or students would have nowhere to turn without the union" (46)

-75% agree that "Without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse" (48)

-77% agree that "Without a union, teachers would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power" (49)

-76% say that unions "Effectively negotiate contracts, salary, and benefits on behalf of teachers"(54A)

-84% say that unions "Protect teachers through due process and grievance procedures" (57A)

-79% say that unions "Regularly inform teachers about their benefits, rights, and responsibilities" (60A)

More on this later but, at first glance, it appears that teachers think that:

1. they aren't given enough respect
2. their time isn't allocated in the best way possible
3. unions are doing some good things

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Is This What I Signed Up For?

When I signed up for the New York City Teaching Fellows, I was a young, idealistic college student. I wanted to make a difference in the world, and NYCTF offered me that opportunity.

NYCTF is one of a number of local organizations run under the umbrella of The New Teacher Project, a sister organization of Teach For America. I'm not sure how the programs are run in other cities, but in NYC they focus on recruiting idealistic college students, young professionals, and mid-career switchers to fill some of the hardest to fill teaching jobs in the city (i.e. positions that certified teachers have chosen not to take). They do so through ads that emphasize how applicants can make the world a better place. Here are some of the slogans with which they cover subway cars and put on their website:

"What will New York be like in 20 years? Pick up the chalk and decide."

"Picture their eyes lighting up when you explain electricity."

"There are a million kids in NYC who could use your talents. Think outside the cubicle."

"Don’t think you can change the world? Spark the minds that will."

"You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?"

So, when I signed up for NYCTF I had every reason to believe it was an organization similar to TFA -- one devoted to social change. Nothing in my training while in the organization indicated that I should think of it any differently. When I decided that I should pursue a different career path in education, I was still under this impression. And then I read their research reports.

Regardless of whether you think that their research is good, bad, valuable, worthless, or whatever, it strikes an odd chord with me. Their first research reports focused on the hiring systems in big cities -- more specifically, that too many teachers are hired too late. Their latest report, which is getting an awful lot of attention (see here, here, here, here, and here among others) focuses on the cost of NYC teachers who have been "excessed" (lost their job when a school shrunk or was closed) and remain on the payroll despite not having found another job.

I don't want to minimize the size of these problems, but is this really what TNTP is about? I thought they were an organization devoted to social change. That's what I signed up for. These reports, however, strongly indicate that they are a consulting firm devoted to streamlining bureaucracy, especially around hiring, in big-city school districts. Something about it strikes me as incongruous. This is not to say that you can't be in favor of both making the world a better place and dislike bureaucracy but, rather, that their research department and recruitment departments seem to be on different pages. And I can't help but wonder if I was duped. I'm no longer sure whether TNTP is a social organization or a business firm. In other words; do they really believe all those subway slogans, or is it just more efficient to hire talented idealists that way?