Shut Up Jasons (and Sandra)!

When the Jasons think about talking about education that should look to this man for some advice. (Photo Courtesy justadventure.com)

Maybe it’s the deadlines. Maybe it’s the lack of material. Maybe it’s because they are working for a struggling newspaper, and education seems to be a hot button issue. Our favourite Jasons from the LA Times, who help start the infamous LA Times Project and justified it with their weak online chat, are at it again. I am not sure what their motives are. However, whatever they are, I wish they would just shut up!

The Jason’s (and Sandra Pointdexter – boy did she hitch a ride on the wrong wagon) have written another article just in time for the holidays to further justify their project that uses “value-added” data to determine teacher quality. In their “In reforming schools, quality of teaching often overlooked,” I found myself moving from angry to having pity on the two “journalists.” They were so desperate to make themselves seem on the right side of this issue that they contradicted themselves, use weak arguments, and glossed over important information in typical Waiting for Superman style.

“Despite the best efforts of…principals, and an army of well-intentioned reformers…[Markham has been considered one of the worst middle schools in California].”

While I was reading that line in the article I couldn’t help but hear the classical song the Funeral March playing in the background. The statement that is made here is that the principals and the “reformers” couldn’t do anything to turn that school around. That is a sad fact. However, does that mean it was automatically the teacher’s fault? Aren’t the principals responsible for maintaining their staff? If you are in it for the right reasons, aren’t reformers supposed to be there until the job is done? If the Jasons’ rhetoric reigns true, then no, these things don’t matter. The failure of the Markham Middle School is a function on the ineffective teachers that fill the classrooms in the building. (Sarcasm) What the Jasons failed to do (in their agenda riddled brains) is take a critical look at the principals and the reformers.

The more “journalism” that the Jasons expend on education the more and more it becomes clear that they are unaware of how a school should operate and how the stakeholders in the school play varying roles to make the school a success or failure. In the form typical of their “journalism” a seemingly terrifying narrative is set up:

In the last seven years alone, they tried changing the curriculum, reducing class size, improving school safety, requiring school uniforms, opening after-school programs and spending a lot more money per pupil.

In setting up this terrifying narrative they glossed over the fact that the school had nine principals in twenty years earlier in the article. Any good teacher or principal would know that in order for any reforms to come to fruition, there must be stable leadership. Clearly, this school was lacking stable leadership to make sure that the reforms were successful. Furthermore, seven years worth of various reforms isn’t going to change a school that is dealing with problems that are decades old. However, the Jasons rushed to say that:

“[T]he only thing they didn’t’ do was improve teaching – at least not until last year when layoffs swept away the school’s worst performers and test scores jumped.”

The expediency to make this point is supposed to set up in the readers mind that the kitchen sink was thrown at the problem, and at the end of the day the teachers were the ones that were the problems. Not the inconsistent leadership. Not the lack of time to see that the “reforms” were developed and implemented from leader to leader. NO! The problem falls squarely on the teacher. This is an absolutely disingenuous and weak argument that has the quality of a high school freshman.

You can add the Jasons to the legions of “edreformers” and “edpundits” that attempt to create this picture that political, historical, economic, and societal injustices and inequalities play a small role in schools and the lives of the students that attend them.

Markham, a maze of brick bungalows in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of south Los Angeles, was not always considered a failing school.

Tucked away in a dusty storage area above a sixth-grade science classroom are several boxes of trophies from the 1980s that honoured the school for its academic prowess.

By 1991, however, the school’s test scores had fallen far enough to inspire a turnaround effort.

It is quite hysterical that the Jasons are trying to compare the contemporary Markham to the 1980s Markham to make a argument about the “good old days.” (In their defence this is a sentiment shared by many “edreformers.”) The most ludicrous comparison is “1980’s plaque standard” to the “2010 standardized test standard.” In other words, plaques were enough to prove academic prowess in the 1980’s, but we absolutely need standardized test and value-added data to make that determination today. That is essentially comparing grapes to watermelons (in the scale of the hype giving to standardized tests.) The second fallacious comparison is historic in nature. It is no mistake that this school was doing well (using the plaque standard) in the 1980’s, but then fell behind by the 1990’s. The 1980’s were also the years of the Regan-Bush era, which saw the end of federal involvement in equalitarian education and focused on the rights of individuals rather than the needs/rights of minorities. Furthermore, they created an apathy towards “the common,” arguing that it was a threat to liberty. This ultimately translated into a severe scale back in government spending for education, which was historically the case from Regan to Bush and through the Clinton years. This is all while white-flight was at its highest, many cities/states were struggling to reinvent themselves politically and economically after deindustrialization, and the country dealt with trade policies that were not favourable to economic development. However, the Jasons didn’t mention any of this. The Jasons set up narrative that seems to blame the teachers for the decline of the Markham School. They left out that as a consequence to conservative fiscal policies, many schools (including Markham) had unfavourable work conditions, lack of resources, and by the Jasons own admission – inconsistent leadership.

If credit is to be given to the Jason’s for their acknowledgment of history and the conditions upon which students live, it could all be boiled down to these two sentences.

“Research has shown the [standardized test] results are largely a reflection of socio-economic status: poor and minority students often start school well behind their wealthier counterparts.”

“When Watts has the same things as Breattwood does, then you might have equal scores,” said Markham English and Social Studies teacher Teresa Sidney.“

However, just because they mentioned it doesn’t mean they particularly believe it or really understand it. That became clear in their very next sentence:

Short of that, those students need to learn at least 1 1/2 years’ worth of material for every year of schooling to erase the achievement gap, experts say.

In this statement the words that should cause the most pause are “short of that.” They are essentially saying that short of making sure that two schools have the same number of resources and opportunities, the student need to learn at least 1 ½ years worth of material. That is like saying short of the fact that one baker has spoon and another has a mixer both must make 50 delicious cakes in the same amount of time, and that this precedent if acceptable. The Jasons are right; the students probably do need to learn 1 ½ years worth of material. However, is it not a valid statement that schools should receive equal funding/resources? Isn’t there an injustice that some schools get more than others, but all schools must “perform” at the same level? To the Jasons I guess not. To the Jasons, finding a score that “largely controls for socioeconomic status” is a better solution that finding solutions to helping students improve their socioeconomic status. Moreover, the omnipotent teacher must teach 1 ½ years worth of information with resources largely reflective of the students socioeconomic status.

The Jasons are simply beating a dead horse. They have decided to take the oldest marketing trick in the book and doll up inaccurate, unsupported, and in some case ludicrous arguments in the “stories sell” motif. It doesn’t matter how many stories they tell of individual “success,” there is still a problem around the country that is deeper than what the Jasons try to make believe is easily corrected. While I believe that everyone involved has to take a “no excuses” stance towards fixing the problems with America’s schools, that mantra has to be consistent in understanding, unveiling, and addressing ALL the issues that got us here in the first place. This includes teacher quality. I am convinced that the people involved aren’t ignorant to this; I believe what George Carlin is saying in this video:

SHUT UP JASONS!

I Hate When You Put on the God Costume

Omnipotence – an agency or force of unlimited power

George Sr. - Arrested Development - Wearing the God Costume

I was told at a forum that I went to on education reform by a man who had a PHD in Education Policy that, “teachers are the most important factor in aiding whether or not a student succeeds.” I was struck by this comment. Not because I haven’t heard it before, but because someone with a PHD in education policy would ever utter those words. I thought to myself, Me? The most important factor in student success? I must be God.

Rhetoric regarding education reform is full of this level of unrealistic omnipotence. There is an alarming level of complacency in the idea that the teacher is the centre of education and the answer to failing schools is centred on addressing the inadequacies in the teachers across the country. Moreover, the omnipotent rhetoric doesn’t end with just attacking teacher “ineffectiveness;” it also exists in discussing the solutions to fixing failing schools.

Education reform will not come to past if there is a continued filter of omnipotence that guides rhetoric and policy. Rhee argued in her Student’s First Mission Statement that “[o]nce inside the school, a great teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education. While there are many factors that influence a student’s ability to learn, a great teacher can help any student overcome those barriers and realize their full potential.” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how they are supposed to help a student “overcome” living in a home with lead paint and being subjected to lead poisoning through their developmental years? Can Michelle explain to a teacher how to help a student “overcome” the barrier of a father who is sexually abusing her, and the local child protective services say, “There is no evidence to prove that this child has been abused, because she is sexually active?” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how to help a student overcome the “barrier” that is in place for a student who is so exhausted when he comes to school because his parents get in physical altercations that keep him up nightly? These are all examples of students that I’ve had in the past, whose “barriers” stifled their “full potential.” The student with lead poisoning had to be placed a severe learning-disabled self-contained classroom, because he only read at the second grade level (he was in 10th grade). The student, whom was being abused by her father, killed herself because despite my (and other teachers) best efforts, she felt that no one could save her. The student, who witnessed daily domestic violence, watched his mother being killed and went into a deep depression because he was essentially an orphan. As much as these situations pained me, and still do to this day, I know that I did my best to help these students. It is my awareness that I am not omnipotent that keeps me going to help the students who have a lesser degree of personal circumstances. However, to Michelle Rhee, I am an ineffective teacher because each of those students was failing my class when their lives changed forever.

I wish I could say that these are unique problems that many teachers, who work in the toughest schools in this country, deal with. The problems that plague our schools are so much deeper than any one inadequate teacher, the bureaucracy of the teachers unions, the layout the teacher evaluation system, and the rigour of the state standardized tests. The problems that plague schools are historic, economic, racial, and societal. This is why I am confident that Michelle’s “RHEEforms” aren’t omnipotent, regardless of the number of billionaires, media outlets, and filmmakers that are on her side. There is no simple solution, and the mere fact that the Student First’s mission statement is nonchalant in “the factors that influence a student’s ability to learn” implies that solutions are omnipotent.

Principals? Administrators? the Federal Government? Angels?

The Student’s First blog featured a video that was a compilation of teachers, who were concerned about school reform, and one teacher’s comments gave me pause.

“When we have to contract out how many hours a teacher spends, how many hours they get paid after school…how many hours they have to be on school premises…that is not putting kids first.” – Barbara, Learning Specialist

Additionally, in an interview with nj.com, Michelle Rhee argues:

“I don’t think we need to reform tenure. I don’t think there is a need for tenure. Teachers need to understand they are not going to be discriminated against. If they feel they’ve been unfairly terminated, they need to have a process by which they can address that issue. School districts need to ensure firings are not happening in an unfair manner. But all of those things can happen without tenure being in place. [T]here are federal protections in place against discriminatory firings.”

In both the statements by Barbara and Michelle Rhee there is an “air of omnipotence” that seasons their rhetoric. The “air of omnipotence” is demonstrated here in three forms:

• Teachers are not human; therefore they should give all of their time, effort, and energy towards educating students with little to no compensation.
• Principals and other administrators are infallible; therefore they will not subject teachers to any practices that may be deemed discriminatory.
• If a non-infallible principal happen to slip through, then the omnipotent anti-discrimination laws by the federal government (you know…the law that makes sure that women and men are paid the same) will protect them and their reputation while they go through the courts.

I am sure most of you reading this are thinking that these statements are ludicrous. Nevertheless, this is the nature of their rhetoric. This is what happens when you scapegoat one group of people in a system with a lot of players. There is an unrealistic precedent created that will not lead to the reforms needed. This is why the Due Process (pejoratively known as “Tenure”) and teacher’s unions are important. These two elements of the educational landscape do their best to level the playing field for the people who work with STUDENTS day in and day out. While I will never assert that teacher’s unions are infallible and omnipotent, stripping the landscape of these two entities only serve to leave unrealistic expectations for all players. When I was unfairly fired from a charter school a couple of years ago, I created/adopted a mantra that I will always believe: “As long as schools are run by people, we will always need unions.”

Texas Textbook Standoff

Texas School Board of Education

I have been monitoring the Texas Textbook Standoff for the last couple of weeks. It all came to an end today with a majority vote of all of the standards from elementary school through high school for social studies/history (specifically American History) be changed for the next ten years. Watching the television shows and reading the op-eds about this has really enraged me. People on the left and the right claim that each side has supported a “revisionist” philosophy towards history. The left argues that the right is using history to push their conservative or “Tea Party” agenda, while the right claims that history has always been slant to the left and the current actions are used to just evening it out. It is unfortunate that politicians are fighting these battles, especially in the wake of an important election in November. Many times their “policies” are a regurgitation of “talking points” surrounded by esoteric words left to the media to decipher. As a history teacher myself, one of the things that I pride myself on is working towards offering my students various perspectives of history. It is not only important politically, but is one of the integral tools of history. I have a responsibility to make sure that students have the opportunity to use the same tools that historians use to draw conclusions. Additionally, I was quite surprised about all of the hoopla surrounding this debate. It begs the question what the Texas School Board was trying to accomplish? Finally, as an educator it made me think about the need for a national curriculum for students, and this debate on “whose history are we going to teach” has once again pushed that initiative to the background.

One of the things that troubles me about this debate is that the people who are making the decisions aren’t educators nor historians. “A historian customarily displays a certain diffidence about trying to influence events, knowing the unanticipated developments often lead to unintended consequences.” However, the people on the Texas School Board on both sides of the aisle did very little show anything but their pure ideological bias. Frankly, I am not surprised, “A policymaker…[has] as theory of action, even if they can’t articulate it, and they implement plans based on their theory of action, their guess about how the world works.” (The Death & Life of the Great American School System; Diane Ravitch, 2009) The board’s “guess” is exceptionally alarming. There were no large group of historians (from a variety of institutions) in the audience debating the rhetoric in the textbooks. The members themselves didn’t have a collection of primary source documents, videos, audio, pictures, etc. that would support their idea. They literally took a guess about “how the world works.” A student’s understanding of history should not be a reflection of the political waves of the time, rather it should be a reflection of solid scholarship from both sides of the aisle. The limitations that are put on the curriculum as a result of the board’s decisions to adopt their draconian changes to the standards will hinder students ability to offer a balanced perspective to historical scholarship in the future.

Your Typical History Book

As a history teacher, I am sure to present my students with as much primary source information they can get their hands on and interpret. That is especially important. A REAL historian would say that is not the place of the teacher, the president, or the Texas School Board to tell a student what he/she should or should not believe regardless of what side of the aisle is on/from. Students should be required to look at the information and draw conclusion, ideas, thoughts, and criticisms on their own. So while most may say think that I would be on the side of the “liberal bloc” of the Texas School Board. I say SHAME ON ALL OF THEM You let your ideology stand in the way for students to be able to do what history is support to do for students: give them the ability to apply historical patterns from the past to their lives today, analyse and criticise elements of history (with the teachers providing them the tools to do so) and increase their cognitive skills using history as a backdrop.
SOLUTION Once again it falls back in the hands of the teacher. Whether you are from the left or the right your job is to make sure that students are getting both sides of the discussion. A history teacher should be a teacher/historian first then an ideologue second. That means constantly reading and challenging their findings and giving their students the materials to do the same.

One of the other elements of the debate that troubled me was all of the hoopla around the debate. Unfortunately, most television news shows, newspapers, and other media outlets know very little about how this plays out in the educational context. The reason why I was surprised by the hoopla is the idea that students will finally be analysing history, but at the same time there is a test be developed to measure their learning. This is terribly contradictory. You cannot claim that students will analyse history and that putting and/or omitting information is going to hurt student learning of history, but in the same breath ask for an exam that puts historical events into small snippets and ask them to regurgitate information. Did the Texas School Board forget where the state of the educational landscape really is? So once again, this makes me think that his debate was NOT about the education of children, but another chance for politics to reign in something that is supposed to be apolitical.

At the end of the day this debate really tells me that it is time for a national curriculum. What a national CURRICULUM does over NATIONAL STANDARDS is set up the learning goals articulated by each year. Here is the difference: (I am going to use the Illinois History Standards)

16.C.2c (US)
Describe significant economic events including industrialization, immigration, the Great Depression, the shift to a service economy and the rise of technology that influenced history from the industrial develop- ment era to the present.

This ask a teacher to have students DESCRIBE economic events in American history. Not only is this horrifically limiting it doesn’t tell me anything and leaves it open to interpretation by the teacher or the school board.

Here is an example of what I think a national CURRICULUM goal should look like:

Event: The Industrial Revolution

1st-3rd Grade
-The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society in the tools that they used.

4-5th Grade
-The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society with reference to tools and the development of cities during the time.

6-8th Grade
-The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society with reference to the development of tools and cities and evidence of labour and labour policies.

One may ask what is the difference? The difference is it leaves the teacher in control of choosing how they plan on getting this information across to the students. Are they going to describe it? Are they going to analyse it? Are they going to compare and contrast it? It leaves the LEARNING skill ambiguous to the needs of the students . Secondly, the framers of the curriculum can only write down specific events and group them appropriately across the grade level. When you focus on the events and not the learning skills it makes something like history standards more apolitical.

At the end of the day, I am disappointed by the debate and the outcome of this measure. It is shameful that we are having a textbook discussion and not a curriculum discussion because it assumes that teachers are going to solely rely on their textbooks. It is time that we look back to the purpose of learning and not your own personal intent behind it.