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.”

Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

I have become desperate. Desperate enough to write a letter to the president. I decided to post the letter that I will be sending him and CCing to Mr. Duncan. The recent news day about the one error that New Jersey made on such a high-stakes RTTP application, which will resulted in a $400 million lost to students, has shown that something is wrong. I hope that Mr. Obama listens to some of my concerns.

President Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

This is my plea to you. I am quickly losing hope in your education agenda, and so are many of my colleagues. My state applied for Race to the Top funds and lost. That’s fine, but you have fundamentally changed education to become what author Alfie Kohn says is a “quantification mania.”

I have one question for you Mr. Obama.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning?

Albert Einstein in On Education argued, “[the] crippling of individuals I consider [is] the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Who knew that Albert Einstein had such a viewpoint on modern education even during his time? Mr. Obama, in your “truce to teachers” you said that your loosening up on some of the “quantification” rhetoric has nothing to do with politics; rather “it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into [your] plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.” Why wasn’t your message about learning, developing as an individual, or enhancing upon a democratic society? Mr. Obama with all due respect, whether or not you toned down the more inflammatory rhetoric of your agenda, the underlying tone is still prevalent – using market based tactics in education.

“The advent of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, with its reliance on test scores to measure student performance, gave economists the tools to gauge the effectiveness of schools in a more nuanced way.” (Harvard Education Letter, Sept. 2009) There are two important elements in regards to the advent of the standards and accountability movement. First, the 1980s saw the surge of ECONOMISTS in education. Mr. President, this is a far cry from the early days of curriculum and learning development that centred on the advice of psychologists and educators. Secondly, the use of the same tools that economists use to understand the markets and labour has created a nuanced way of looking at educational issues.

I understand for better or for worse economists are part of the group of people offering their perspective on education especially in a 21st century global economy. However, it is important that policymakers (like yourself and Mr. Duncan) exercise pause when developing the techniques that will be used for economic reform. The “nuanced way” that economists use to look at education reform has muted or silenced the various different issues that exist in school districts and more importantly AROUND school districts. The more disturbing element is that the reforms developed by economists are being implemented where the help is needed the most. This is why it is important that you remember your constituents (educators, parents, teachers, and the union) and stand up against unyielding adoption of market tactics in education reform.

Mr. Obama, I agree with you 100%. We absolutely must fight against the status quo. However, who or what is your definition of the status quo? One of the most ubiquitous terms used to describe people who fight against market tactics in education is the STATUS QUO. A study of history of the status quo will yield that depending on the particular decade/era, this group of people has changed. The status quo has been the government, districts (in the 80’s), parents & students (in the 90’s), schools (in the 00’s) and now the new decade has ushered in teachers as members and perpetuators of the status quo. In each of these decades there has been propagation that reforming whomever the status quo entails will be the “step in the right direction” towards improving education. “With knowledgeable scholars (like yourself) uncritically embracing broad generalizations about the relationship between [the status quo] and academic achievement, it is not surprising that we also find widespread acceptance of this perspective among educational practitioners and the general public.” (Noguera, 2003)

It is the “knowledgeable scholars” who side with the “nuanced view economists” that have allowed the skewing of the discussion of education reform for the last thirty years. There are many people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the specific reforms, however I am aware that the US has been working on education reform for more than thirty years (i.e after deindustrialization). I would venture to say that working on anything for thirty years should yield positive results. However, we still deal with chronically failing schools (especially in urban/rural school districts). How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to place the blame on a new group of people? How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to take a nuanced view of issues about AND surrounding education? How are we going to change this paradigm if our “knowledgeable scholars” do nothing to fight against the cycle of blame and the tunnel vision view that has become ubiquitous in education reform?

No Child Left Behind and your program Race to the Top are the most contemporary “nuance view” reforms that have come out of the White House. Both have contributed to the cycle of blame and both have gone in with unproven tactics that so far have yielded little results. NCLB and RTTT have adopted market tactics like performance pay, longitudinal data systems, and choice/competition among schools. Even on face value, do you think that this will improve LEARNING for students? I agree with Alife Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes who said, “I have yet to meet an economist who understands the nuances of how children learn, [and all] the messiness of learning is reduced to data points observed from a mountaintop.” I think the key word in that quote is “messiness.” There is no way to control the messiness of learning, especially the messiness of learning of so many populations of students with different abilities, languages, customs, and experiences. Albert Einstein astutely said it best, “the education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

Mr. Obama, please reconsider your role in education reform. You are not only alienating teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders, but you are also hurting students. Learning is messy! Data, incentives, and competition cannot solve that messiness. However, working with qualified teachers to develop strategies for learning is the best way. That, Mr Obama, has been proven.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Martin Palamore

Concerned Educator from the Great State of Illlinois