The Real Victims in School Reform Battles Are Kids Who Can Be Taught and Aren't

Categories: Schutze

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The response to my article here last week about school reform proves one thing. I'm doing a poor job presenting school reform.

The entire issue, in fact, is being framed in the responses to the article as a kind of combination civil rights question and job security dilemma for teachers and principals. I'm not saying those are not significant corollaries. But they are not what school reform is about.

See also:
- Carolyn Davis Comes Out Swinging Against School Reform, in Defense of Principals' Jobs

Two days ago on my show on KNON Radio (Get Off My Lawn, 10 a.m. Saturdays), my guest was a DISD teacher who has come up with his own way of teaching math in language comprehensible to poor kids who have no resources or backup at home. Far be it from me to suggest that my guest has invented a new Rosetta Stone of mathematics instruction. That's not why I had him on.

He was on the show to convey one idea. It's a simple one. And it's huge -- way bigger than any of us. It's this:

They can be taught.

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That's what school reform is about. It's an explosive concept that turns the whole social logic of our nation inside out. It blows up the protective armor of apathy we all hide behind. And by we, I'm talking about arch-conservatives who say they can't be taught because they have lousy parents; I'm talking about liberals who say we'll teach them right after we abolish poverty; I'm talking about white people hiding in enclaves; I'm talking about successful black and Latino people hiding in the same enclaves. And those are just the easy targets.

Here's the really trough painful one for me. I'm also talking about the young female teacher who called in, her voice leaden with grief, pity, compassion and despair. She talked about her students who come to school not just unable to read but not knowing what reading is, barely able to speak. She loves them because they are splendid. But at the end of every school day she must turn them out again to parents who will stagger the streets all night searching for crack. In her voice was great sadness but also horror.

Those children can be taught.

The rock on which the new school reform movement stands is massive statistical evidence, no longer even considered controversial, that children from the very worst beginnings and environments can be brought to full literacy and math competency by the end of third grade. From that point on, their destinies are changed. They are now students instead of prisoners in training.

My experience with people on this issue has been this: Once they see that single truth, once that torch appears before them in the night, they can get a little crazy.

Think about it. Every year we funnel thousands of children straight from school to prison. The statistical determinacy of their fate is so absolute that we could prowl the maternity wards and rubber-stamp it on their foreheads: PRISON. This newborn child is hereby sentenced by statistics alone to spend the rest of his or her life in hell.

Once we know that we can defeat that fate, that we can save that child, then we should all be driven little bit crazy by the fact that we're not doing it. Think of it as children floating past us in an open sewage ditch. We are standing on the banks. We could pull them out. That we fail to save them should make us all stark raving mad.

The school reformers tend to fortify themselves behind some tough rhetoric, in part because they know what kind of war they face with all of the people whose jobs are on the line. But that rhetoric -- and apparently a lot of what I have offered here on the subject -- flies right past the truth.

If it can be done, why is it not done? What does it say about us that we fail to make it happen, no matter what the costs in human dislocation?

But, wait. What about the people who fear that dislocation, the teachers who have been out there trying? Don't they have a lot more standing and a lot more credibility than anybody else?

Maybe. But this is not about you or me. There is only one question for any of us to answer. If it is possible to bring these children to full literacy by the end of the third grade -- and it is -- then why is it not getting done?

This is what I wish the school reformers would do: stop talking to suits. Get out into the neighborhoods. Get out on the street. Tell the parents. Yeah. The crack-heads. The drunks. Or maybe the hard-working poor people who are not crack-heads or drunks but move to a new address just ahead of the bill collector every two months because their minimum wage jobs won't pay for food and shelter.

Tell them that there is a way for their children to be lifted out of this misery. Convince them that their children can be saved. And then, fine, turn back at me. Point back at the principals and teachers. Turn back and point to the conservatives and the liberals and everybody else you can think of and tell those parents, "These people are arguing with each other instead of doing what needs to be done to save your children."

Maybe the grief and the horror in that teacher's voice on my radio show Saturday should be in all our hearts when we ponder these questions. But you know what's even more powerful? Hope. We can't be mastered by grief, because grief misses the truth. The real truth is hope. It's the gleam in the eye of that child who gets it for the first time, the first glimmer of hope in the eye of a parent. That's what school reform is about. One truth.

They can be taught.



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39 comments
texasdave601
texasdave601

what's the deal with the comments? I can't view them...

EastDallasDad
EastDallasDad

As long as the "reformers" define success as passing a standardized test, nothing will change. We are training test takers that lack critical thinking and problem solving skills. We are also doing a tremendous disservice to the thousands of children that will never test well but have amazing talents and abilities in other areas. We should be identifying our children's unique abilities and interests and gearing their education toward them. The one size fits all approach is doomed to fail.

mcdallas
mcdallas

This all sounds strikingly like the story of the Good Samaritan...

ruddski
ruddski

Kids can learn,  the system can't.

DISDTeacher
DISDTeacher

Yes, low-income kids from chaotic homes where they are kept awake half the night and sent to school without glasses can learn.  They can and do learn despite so many obstacles; it's humbling to behold.

The problem with the reform movement is that it exists to enrich the testing companies and vendors like TFA.  Think about it:  a poverty-level 3rd grader who never had the experience of preK, who has moved schools 5 times by 3rd grade, who may live in apartment complex where police are routinely called for domestic violence, issues, drugs, etc is given THE SAME state test as a kid from the suburbs.  And when the low-income child fails?  The teacher is blamed, the principal is fired and the child gets to repeat 3rd grade.  And the reform movement crows that the children aren't learning and we must pay them millions to "fix" the problem.

In response to such ridiculously high stakes for teachers and administrators in low-income areas, poor kids end up getting taught LESS.  Their whole year becomes test prep to pass that 1 almighty test.

Low-income kids deserve what private school kids get:  Recess.  Art.  Music.  Field trips.  PE.  And most importantly:  FREEDOM FROM THE PEARSON TESTS.

Every year, private schools in Dallas send hundreds of kids off to elite colleges.  And none of the private school kids had to waste a moment of learning on test prep for a Pearson bubble test.

If you aren't in the schools, you just don't realize what it has become.  We want to but cannot do writing, handwriting, cursive, real book studies--there isn't time.  The kids in private school get that.

Poor kids work for Pearson; poor kids work for the "reformers."

Metroplexual
Metroplexual

Jim,

I agree with you.  Many of these kids have the intelligence and the will to learn arithmetic and reading but for some reason don't respond to traditional education methods.  I had a couple of years experience teaching high school dropouts from mostly Southern Dallas basic literacy skills to prepare them for GED.  Many of the students in the class could not grasp writing, not even basic paragraphs.  They could read at an OK level but could not put their ideas down on paper in a coherent manner.  These students were NOT lacking the smarts for this.  A few of them could produce rap rhymes with no problem but couldn't write a simple letter to an employer or city department..  They paid attention in class and worked hard on the same exercises week after week but showed little progress.  In class discussions on reading comprehension they did excellent.  In analyzing poems they could discuss the imagery, structure and meaning.  

Of course some were better than others and some of the students did great.  My theory was that there has to be alternative methods of teaching children to read and write.  We don't all learn the same way.  It's so easy to get behind in a class and just give up when a student sees others gaining language skills and themselves not.understanding anything.

I was only a part time volunteer and shortly moved on to other subjects.  Try as I may in my classes I  was unable to help so many.  Surely there are teaching universities that have worked with alternative  learning models.  How can this go on for so long without evidence of our school system implementing something other than one size fits all.



bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

Of course the children can be taught.  The question is who cares whether they learn or not?  I have a lot of respect for teachers that care day in and day out about whether their students learn and stay in the profession.  It's easier to give in, allow a free day since everyone else is doing it, or just getting out of the profession, since there are other more financially rewarding professions with incredibly less stress.  Parents that care have children that care.  And principals, well they tend to get the right metrics above all else.

Michael.MacNaughton
Michael.MacNaughton

Jim, it took a small determined group of parents two years to convince the Trustees to start an all day PreK program in the midst of the $5B in cuts to public education by the state.  But we did it..and now, in the second year of that program, we have added more TAs and teachers.  We have to flood the PreK through 3rd grade kids with much needed resources while, somehow, not disenfranchising the rest of of the students.  How do you propose we do that?  Trustee Ron Price said it best four years ago "We ain't gots no more monies."  True that.

Teachers are the heart and soul of the district and take on the roles of counselors, mentors, disciplinarians, psychologists and friends to these dispossessed kids.  A new study concludes that this non-cognitive support is a better predictor of student success in life than grades...

http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&context=c_kirabo_jackson

If Jackson's research and methodology is sound, current educational policies - which prioritize test scores when measuring a teacher's value - are incentivizing the wrong behaviors.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

feckless article, Jim.  sorry, I appreciate the sentiment, it's important to remember the children we let float by; but...  feckless    to quote that venerable sage Sir Mick Jagger, "what 'cha gonna do about it?  What 'cha gonna do?"

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

Learning is what children do naturally.  If you just leave them alone, they can't help but learn.

It takes a special kind of incompetence to STOP children from learning, and our public school system seems to have mastered it.  It's like selling crack that is so bad that crackheads clean themselves up rather than keep smoking it.

observist
observist topcommenter

Hey, all I care about is precious little fetuses.  After they're born, well, screw 'em - not my problem. Well, I take that back, they're my problem insofar as their education costs me taxes.  There's no reason my hard-earned tax dollars should be spent on some other lazy bastards' kids.  I should get that tax money back so I can give it to a good church school where my kids can be taught to crusade for the rights of the unborn.

leftocenter
leftocenter

Thank you Jim.  I am sending this to my Congressman and Senators.  Unfortunately, they are ... well ... not easily taught.  This article needs to go viral. 

Yes, they can be taught.

baker24
baker24

@EastDallasDad Regrettably, this is true. My son and I happen to test quite well, and perhaps we even test out at a level above our actual abilities. My daughter, on the other hand, did not test well. I said once, when she had graduated from a pre-law curriculum with a 3.5 GPA, that based on her SAT scores, she couldn't have gotten into SMU if she had been a 7-foot tall basketball center with real talent. She now works as a GS-14 in a US government agency, and got there solely on the basis of her work ethic and actual ability. I am very proud of what she has done, but based on her test-taking results she would have been left by the side of the road a long time ago.

kduble
kduble

@DISDTeacher  You still teach cursive? How are their skills on the abacus and slide rule coming, by the way?

DISDTeacher
DISDTeacher

@Metroplexual You're right that we don't all learn the same way, but when all kids have to take the same test, whether they are Little Lord Fauntleroy in HP or an immigrant from Guatemala who's exceeded their time limit to learn English (a couple of years) there is no flexibility in either the curriculum or the methods teachers may use.

Additionally, Mike Miles has decreed that every single one of our lessons must include the methods he believes in (the same methods that did not transform his previous district in any way), regardless of the children in our room.

There are fantastic alternate methods; we just can't use them.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@Metroplexual seems if they were able to discuss readings in  serious manner, they've got the ability to put paragraphs together.  Teach grammar by not teaching grammar, but getting to express those same ideas on paper, where they get to refine and improve their work

gradehound
gradehound

@Michael.MacNaughton What a small group of men who have no children in the district (morath, mcnaughton, williams) accomplished was taking money from middle and high schools to fund low level day care for prek. Our high school teachers of excellence in our comprehensives are leaving because they cannot keep up with the daily paperwork and meetings and the quality of instruction keeps falling.

Now every part of the instructional program is underfunded which includes preK looking more like daycare.As far as the reference above, this research has been taught in undergraduate education classes for 50 years. The author of the book dropped out of college and is no expert, just a reporter, just like the pompous asses who lobby board members for their pet projects when the effects on the rest of the district are disastrous.

Until our schools are run by highly trained professionals, not faux educators like Miles or a bunch of "reformers" who lowered new hire salaries, quality will continue to decline. By the way, who elected McNaughton and Todd Williams to make policy? How unbelievably corrupt is the present system of allowing money rather than content expertise determine policy.

observist
observist topcommenter

@scottindallas  Even if Jim were a total feckhead, what would you expect him to do about the schools?  Or the problems students face when they're not in school?  If doing something is a near-herculean challenge for the various people who've dedicated their lives to doing something about it, I think you're expecting a little much from a daily columnist.

Reformer
Reformer

@everlastingphelps There was a great article in The Atlantic a month or so about a computer programmer in India who set up a computer monitor facing outward from his building to the street. 

Hordes of curious street children gathered around it -- and within a few months they had taught themselves English and were learning on the computer. When he asked how they did it, they said, "You gave us this computer but it was only in English so we taught ourselves English."

He won the grand TED prize for this, incidentally. Of course poor children can learn. But how do you reform an entire system? And how do you get rid of the whiff of condescension and white-man's-burden that comes when you march into the streets, as you suggest, to tell hardworking working poor parents that "we can lift your children out of this misery! We can SAVE them!" Uh, maybe they don't all think they're that miserable.

observist
observist topcommenter

@everlastingphelps Of course kids learn stuff - the issue here is kids are naturally learning the things that help them get along (or stay alive) in the ghetto, not the things that prepare them to be productive, employable members of society.  Implying that public schools are somehow getting in the way of these kids learning to read is a trite load of Randian horseshit.

EastDallasDad
EastDallasDad

@baker24 Congratulations on raising a successful, productive daughter. I am very concerned that our intense focus on standardized tests not only neglects students who may have exceptional skills in areas that are hard, if not impossible, to test but it also demoralizes and discourages the students. We act surprised that students hate school after we've stripped all creativity and exploration away to make room for more test prep.

DISDTeacher
DISDTeacher

@scottindallas @DISDTeacher Hours and hours of test prep for the SAT or any other test are not what I consider education.  The private school kids don't even have hours and hours of SAT prep--they get actual instruction so they don't really need the test prep.

EastDallasDad
EastDallasDad

@kduble @DISDTeacher Cursive is also an advantage for timed writing tests such as many of the Advanced Placement exams. If you can only print you will never be able to write as fast as I can in cursive. 


DISDTeacher
DISDTeacher

@kduble @DISDTeacher It may seem silly to you, but the kids can't read anything written in cursive.  Lots of primary sources in history are written in cursive and the kids can't read them.  

Don't worry, though--the kids who went to private school will get to go into the scholarly libraries once they are in college or graduate school, don a pair of white gloves and read original documents and sources as part of their classwork.  Not DISD kids, though.  Silly cursive; who needs it?

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@DISDTeacher @Metroplexual All the data we read was that teaching should be student centered, get them working on something and use the editing process to teach grammar and the like.  But these flexible styles directly conflict with the micro management districts and even the educators insist on.  Dumbed down materials don't help either. 

Michael.MacNaughton
Michael.MacNaughton

@gradehound

1. I was appointed by the Trustees to serve on the public budget commission.

2. My son spent 8 years in DISD and got a great education, albeit at a magnet school.

3. Your argument that PreK funding came from secondary is specious. Yes money had to be allocated but it didn't come at the expense of an increased student/teacher ratio per se - blame the state for that.  The PreK program actually created/saved some teacher positions.  A new study released this week says that kids who are behind in math at the first grade never catch up.  We need to pile resources into PreK through 3rd grade and those parents and students in fourth grade and on may feel that they have resources taken from them - I understand - but blame the state for under-funding...not the district for trying to do their best with less resources or parents like me who want to be involved to make sure my tax money is being spent properly.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@observist @scottindallas But, what does he expect any of us to do?  He gives a rah rah go get em speech with little course of action.  I agree with his sentiments, but all he wrote was the prelude or preamble to... what?  Waiting for Godot?  When Godot gets here, we're gonna give it the REAL college try. 

baker24
baker24

@EastDallasDad @baker24 This is so true. I find history to be fascinating - all the threads that weave together and make the whole picture, and I wonder how the schools can make it so boring the kids drop out. Must take talent.... Stadardized tests are nothing new of course - I took the NY state regents tests well over 50 years ago. Good thing too: they got me a full scholarship for college, without which I couldn't have gone.

DISDTeacher
DISDTeacher

@scottindallas Umm...I disagree, but whatever.  In any case, the SAT gets kids into college.

Pearson tests given to public school kids gets the kids nothing.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@DISDTeacher @scottindallas no, they get hours and hours of in school SAT prep time.  They go to college roundups where all the quint Virginia private schools come to Hockaday, or where-ever they're doing that this year.

gradehound
gradehound

@observist @scottindallas Jim has made this into a morality play where teachers are to blame for kids leaving third grade who can't read. The lack of morality is refusing to fund the resources necessary to make sure kids can read.

Jim wants to pretend that teachers are intentionally refusing to teach when he has never analyzed the lack of resources in our schools and when he had never left his pulpit to visit schools.

Jim also apparently can't read the research that states holding kids back at third grade does no good, but carry on unskilled journalist. This must be the biggest ego pump for you to continue to tell teachers with overloaded classes and substitutes that they are not committing enough to the cause.

By the way, when has Jim volunteered to read to kids in our schools?

observist
observist topcommenter

@scottindallas @observist   I think what Jim expects any of us to do first is give a shit.  Second, he wants us to think it's a solvable problem.  Not that he or anyone has the answer, just that an answer is possible so we shouldn't just throw our hands up and say "what does he expect any of us to do?"

 I expect him as a journalist to point out problems for people to solve, not devise and implement a solution.  That's our job as citizens and voters, right?  The Waiting for Godot problem is exactly what he's pointing out.  We can't wait for poverty to go away and we can't wait for below-average parents to become above average as a precondition for teaching kids to read.  If there was an answer so obvious that a journalist could come up with it in the 10% of his time he devotes to school issues, then it wouldn't really be a problem

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