Another Whiny Self-serving Essay About Teachers in the Morning News Sunday

Categories: Schutze

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On Sunday The Dallas Morning News printed an essay on its op-page by Austin writer John Savage about teaching in what he calls "the worst school in Texas." It's a piece that has been making the rounds from Salon to the blog of Diane Ravitch, a former champion of school reform who has become a born-again critic of most test-and-teacher-accountability reform efforts. The point of the piece is that most reform efforts are bullshit.
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Justin Hardner/Claus Studios
Anyway, if this guy did show up to teach your kids, you'd call 911, right?

Savage taught at a middle school named Pearce in Austin 10 years ago. His essay offers a tensely wrought diorama of really bad poverty and really bad kids doing things like not paying attention, frowning all the time and fighting, not to mention not learning squat. Savage taught at the school briefly and then decided to quit after witnessing too many fights.

I read his essay closely. Two things leaped out at me, probably because I find these same two elements often in the angry cynical criticism of school reform efforts that show up here a lot in the comments. The first was that, in this essay which is at least nominally about teaching, Savage says nothing about teaching. The second is that in his drum-roll what-we-gotta-do section at the end, all of the solutions Savage proposes have nothing to do with teaching.

Forgive me, but when I go to the trouble of closely reading an essay about teaching written by a guy whose claim to authority is having been a teacher, I really do want to hear something about teaching. I would like to know if Savage was allowed much freedom in devising lesson planes, for example, or was confined to an inflexible test-driven regimen of knowledge bites taught on a stop-watch. I'm just curious. I hear that's an issue. I wonder.

Or maybe I'm too dumb about teaching even to ask the right question. Maybe lesson plans aren't really important. So I would like it if somebody who is a teacher-essayist would maybe tell me what the truly important instructional issues are when you're teaching in a really tough school in a really poor neighborhood. A hint would be nice.

Savage's solution to his school being the worst school in Texas is threefold: 1) end poverty, 2) end racism, 3) end class bias. Anyone who thinks the solution has to do with instruction, he says, has fallen for what he calls rather sneeringly, "the myth of magical teaching." For evidence he refers to some teacher movie I never saw.

By the way, I agree with him 100 percent about teacher movies. My own aversion to the genre goes back to one made before Savage was born called, To Sir, With Love -- a title that still makes me want to call 911.

But, c'mon. End poverty, end racism, abolish class bias and then and only then you're willing to talk about issues at your school? Say, this isn't a trick is it? Like we do all three, and then you say, "Well, no, man, obviously you've got to do world peace, too. I thought that was understood."

I agree with Savage in another area -- his disdain for the idea that we can solve the problems of hard-nut disadvantaged schools by flooding their faculties with untrained and untested recent college graduates from the middle and upper middle classes. I agree we need to give those bright and beautiful kids a good five years on the street to deal with their own frustrations and disappointments in life -- the stuff their parents did such an excellent job of protecting them from -- before we throw them into the lion's den with people who have real problems.

But here's my problem and the reason I wish Savage had been willing to pony up a few more specifics about his teaching methods: When he even mentions teaching, Savage conflates two contraries by suggesting that teacher accountability based on student testing is tantamount to belief in magical teaching. But teacher accountability based on student achievement is the opposite of waiting for Superman.

The teacher accountability movement is based on research showing that all of those other factors external to the school -- especially poverty and family -- are indeed very important in predicting student success but not as important as teaching. Decades of research confirm that nothing is as important as the teacher -- and not the magical teacher, either, but the trained experienced teacher.

In a 2004 research paper, Leslie G. Vendevoort, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley and David C. Berliner looked at four years of scores from the Stanford Achievement Test for students in 14 Arizona school districts. They found that students whose teachers had been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards surpassed students whose teachers were not certified in three-fourths of the categories measured.

Their paper was another few pages stacked on a mountain of research showing that good teachers, while they may not be able to overcome the effects of poverty, can nevertheless move a poor kid up the scale several more notches than bad or poorly trained teachers. And testing is both the proof and the celebration of that fact.

So, back to the essayist and his bruising encounter with a bad school early in his professional life. Savage might even have been able to persuade me a little bit with his list of things teachers cannot control if he had been willing to balance it with a short list of things they can control. In the story he tells, the only person who ever believed in magical teaching was him, in his own magical powers. He learned the hard way that he didn't have those powers. Tough lesson for any magician.

But none of that speaks to or about teacher accountability. Teacher accountability is based on the belief that teachers have a job to do and their success or failure is measurable. Nobody ever said they were magic or should be magic. Their job involves hard work, dedication and training. If they're working hard and they're dedicated and they've had the right training and they still can't get student achievement up a notch, then they're just in the wrong business.



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41 comments
juiceharder
juiceharder

That's my drawing of Superman up there, at least give me credit for it! Or link my site, fer cryin' out loud. 

rusknative
rusknative

I know that we were PROMISED in the late 60s, early 70s, that integrating schools and busing kids all over to make that even out the misery, would SOLVE all those problems cause white kids would get the bad teachers and books too, and the black kids would get to eat in a clean cafeteria and play football with pads and stuff.   WHAT HAPPENED? DID BAREFOOT SANDERS LIE TO US?

bruce.levy1
bruce.levy1

JIm:  You increasingly seem like a parody of yourself.  You have always been a snarky guy, as reflected in your writing style.  In the past, that has been enjoyable.  Now, you write as a man embattled; these days, your writing is 95% snark and 5% content. Clearly, it is important to evaluate the success a teacher has in the classroom. There are bad, lazy teachers out there.  In my experience, many of them are coaches.  And, as a sidebar, I find it interesting and curious that the deleterious impact of high school athletics (football!) on education is never discussed by Mike Miles or others.  The issue isn't evaluations, it is what is going to be evaluated and how. As has been recently pointed out, one of the reasons numbers for ACT tests have gone up for Mile in Colorado and here is that, low performing kids aren't taking the tests anymore.  Miles has a history of ginning the numbers, as is common under the new assessment regimes. Many of these assessment models do not measure learning at all. They don't measure if a teacher has taken a C- student and gotten him or her to perform at C+ level, which would be a job well done. On the other hand, I glad to see at long last you are interesting yourself in education policy rather than education politics.  But, try to be more thoughtful--and bring down the snarkiness a level or two.

VolunteerMom
VolunteerMom

When I use to volunteer, I treated all children as if they were my own. If they need to be redirected, because of inappropriate behavior or rowdiness, you do that, with the teachers permission, of course.  

Over the years, there were times when a childs Mother wouldn't do anything to correct their child, even if she was standing right there, so I would. On a few occasions, a Mom would ball up her fist, clench her mouth, and flair her nostrils at me. The Moms who did that were always lower income parents. 

The middle class and upper middle class Anglo, African-American and Hispanic Moms, did not mind and were glad you were there. Nor did I mind if they redirected my kid, if they needed it.

When certain people will not allow the teacher or volunteers to guide their children to appropriate behavior, what do you have?  Not so subtle messages that certain kids are untouchable and everyone else works around their bad behavior, which leads to an inability to learn and sometimes teach affectively.

The kids with bad behavior, desperately want someone to care enough to treat them with respect, and require them to tow the line. Their parents cripple them because they teach them, "no one can tell you what to do".  So no one does.

Many of the parents I'm talking about were 14, 15 or younger, when they had these kids. What we need are parent and job training classes, at the school during the day, for these parents. I personally believe many of these kids would act nicer, if their parents were there, on campus, learning too.

I also believe strongly, we definitely need to teach, using multi-age curriculums because not all children are at the same level in every subject or have the same creative abilities.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

What teachers?  It seems the DISD has let experienced teachers walk and decided to replace them with Subs.   They've announced 700 teachers quitting in the last two years, rather than another editorial, how about figures for the new permanent hiring?

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

So, Smallberries, Cliffhanger, et. al: Let's do an experiment here.  Here's a classroom full of poor tough kids. You're the teacher. The kids start off thinking you're shit. List for me the things you can control, the things you can do to move them up a notch in achievement. Just for grins.

Cliffhanger
Cliffhanger

There are a number of studies that show the very things you discuss in this article, Jim--autonomy, the ability to devising lesson plans--as well as encouraging teachers to cooperate, rather than compete, etc. is far more effective than so-called accountability. Yet you seem to consistently support reform that demands so-called accountability.

Ravitch and her supporters quite correctly argue that the last thing bad teachers want is more autonomy because that means more work and responsibility. Hack teachers loved centralized lesson plans that come in a shrink-wrapped packet and let them plug-and-play and if it doesn't work, well, it's not their fault, they followed the curriculum.

MikeWestEast
MikeWestEast

Everyone that works on making changes in results evaluates major and minor drivers for that desired change.  Increasingly teachers' skill looks to be a minor driver.  It is a driver that most understand and one that most could see how we push it in right direction.  Those two conditions, however, do not make it something to spend a lot of time or money.  Accountability has a role, but it won't move the dial very much.  Proper change management process dictates you stop wasting time on it.

PerryMoore
PerryMoore

When we were in school, those of us that were sharp enough to excel did so in classrooms with good teachers and terrible teachers. The difference was that we didn't learn as much under the tutelage of lousy teachers. At the same time, we knew the difference between the two types of teacher. I am curious as to whether the low achievers could tell the difference, or even cared. I do know that Roy Vansickle stole a good teacher's purse in the fourth grade and a lousy teacher's purse in the fifth grade.

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

 When you have Compulsory Education, compulsory is always going to be the operative term.  Education will always play second fiddle.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

Bah. This is nothing that Jim Belushi couldn't solve with some good humor, stern advice and an old Japanese motorcycle.

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

Jim obviously didn't read this piece either. He is running 0 for 2 coming on the heels of his silly commentary on Lamster's review.

Jim claims to have, "read his essay closely." I guess he missed this...

Savage wrote, "In the last decade a new species of educational reformer has captured the public’s attention..... have gained fame by blaming teachers for the achievement gap between poor students and middle-class students."

That's the point of the essay. Obvious to anyone with any grasp of logic, he isn't necessarily going to discuss teaching skills. He is going to discuss things outside of that because his essay is polemical toward the claim that teaching is *the* problem is poor performing schools.

d-may
d-may

The problem with "Teacher Accountability" is that we don't even know what we want a teacher's job to be or, really, the purpose of public school in general. We present two choices:
1) Provide each person in the nation with a basic level of education that they need to be a functioning member of society.

2) Provide challenging and enriching education for the future lawyers, engineers, doctors, and leaders of our country.

Both are great goals, and I can make a sound philosophical argument for either. The problem is that teachers and schools can't do both at the same time. They can't make EVERY student a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. That's unreasonable and impossible.  Nor even preferable. 

The fact is, we need two school systems. One for the highest achieving students, and another separate system with completely different goals for the other 75-85%. 

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

Very good response. Teachers make a difference, both good and bad. I am many years from grade school but I do not see the problem with testing in September and May to determine what students learned, and did not learn. After a couple of years of this the tests should begin to provide data on which teachers are good, can be approved, or should be dropped.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@bruce.levy1 

If you'e going to go after Miles, which certainly is our right, then at least try to pay attention to some of what Miles has done. One of his early initiatives was to stiffen up academic rigor requirements for football coaches, which you either missed or ignore willfully. Your assertion about ACT scores, taken from Michael McNaughton's piece, is unproven. McNaughton was responding to Morath. Morath says his piece was based on a statistical concept that took the number of test-takers into account. The assessments on which school reform is based are all measures of the amount of progress per student can be attributed to the teacher, never on absolute achievement level for all. Let me repeat my challenge here for about the fourth time: you tell me, to what degree should a teacher be held accountable for the progress or lack of progress of his or her students. Simple question, isn't it? 


rusknative
rusknative

@VolunteerMom sounds racist to me.  most of those flair nose type momma bunnies are used to getting slapped up aside the head by their granny when growing up, and they just don't want to hurt their own hand hittin on their own kids....and granny don't live with them no mo cause she is on medicaid and in a nursing home of her own.

rusknative
rusknative

@scottindallas I have seen much more qualified substitute teachers without "certification" come into classrooms and be much more effective on short notice than the old guard tired crowd that are just not going to do traffic and car pool duty or cafeteria monitoring.

rusknative
rusknative

@JimSX go stand in front of them at their desk, ask to see their work, give them a special assignment with a short duration timing. stand close and hover. ask them to read aloud to the class from the back of the room so they are not getting to act out for the other kids. have the other kids take notes and go around the room and ask questions about the reading....engage engage engage...look them in the eye...and learn their name and call them by their name.

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

@JimSX 
Thank you for the question.
Next you will ask me if I have stopped beating my wife yet. 

I have a simpler and fairer experiment. Just ask: Are teachers primarily to blame for educational difficulties in urban schools?

VolunteerMom
VolunteerMom

@JimSX

Oftentimes it's the worst behaving kid that needs to be treated as a leader by the teacher and given additional responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, reading or math.  The reason the other kids mimic their behavior is because they are natural leaders. By making them leaders and mentoring them in leadership, they typically step up academically. It's simple but it works. Unfortunately, many teachers may be great at teaching, but they are  not trained socio psychologists, which we need more of, in the classroom.

How long has Miles been here?  A year?  I find it hard to believe that this much pent up rage, by the teachers, stems from one year and one man. 

PerryMoore
PerryMoore

The things that I can control should include some leeway as to curriculum and classroom discipline. I'm not sure how that works in DISD, but it sounds like the typical classroom teacher gets cut off at the knees. Just for grins, how would the Mr. Schutze ISD handle those items?

I know we have the state mandated balogna to absorb, but--let's face it--other Texas ISDs continue to outperform DISD and have very similar obstacles. Perhaps the DISD disease is specific to the organism. I speak as a person that has actually taught a classroom of poor tough kids that thought I was shit. We did just fine, but then, those weren't poor tough DISD kids.

Cliffhanger
Cliffhanger

@JimSX Well, if I worked in an situation where I felt like my fellow teachers were my support group and mentors instead of my competition, I'd get some advice from experienced teachers.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@MikeWestEast 

Mike,  you're not coming in clearly. Have you tried charging your battery? 

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

 @d-may They can't even make every attendee a student, which is where the problem really lies.  The one gumming up the works aren't students by any stretch of the term -- they are simply attendees.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@bruce.levy1 

Whenever I ask this question I always get either unhinged ranting or radio silence. That's because the people I ask it of know better than to say out loud what their real answer is. They think there is nothing they can do. Maybe I should have more sympathy for that point of view. But leaving children in a classroom with somebody who feels that way is surely a sin.   

VolunteerMom
VolunteerMom

@rusknative

Racist? In what way? I said they were lower middle class. I did not define the status of their ethnicity or race because it is across the board of all races and ethnicities, including white, so who is the racist?  The 13 and 14 year olds who are being raised by Moms who are 26 or 28 is real.  Their grandmothers are not in nursing homes.They are  in their 40's. The children are not only competing for the affection of their Mother, who most certainly is smacking them around, they are in competition with her, because she is so close to their age and has no idea how to parent.  Get off this blog if you aren't going to offer anything constructive or intelligent.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@PerryMoore 

Good questions. All Texas ISDs are required by law to teach to a core curriculum, so the first thing the Miles people did was make sure that the curriculum in DISD is aligned with the core curriculum. That's the law. It also gives the teachers clear guidance: teach anything else you want, but you have to teach them this stuff. Then the Miles system tells teachers they are not only free to devise their own lesson plans and figure out how to do it: the are expected to devise their own plans tuned to their specific students.

Here's the part that pisses off the pissed off ones: when they get up in front of the class, they have to have in their own minds what it is they are trying to teach, what fact or concept or value. Here is what I am teaching right now.  hey also have to have in mind some way they are going to measure which kids get it and which kids do not when they are don with that point. It might be a quiz, it might be a thumbs up, whatever. The teacher has to have some concrete notion of which kid gets it and which kid doesn't. Then it's back to the lesson plan. How many kids need special homework, a makeup session, brain surgery, whatever, and how many can I take ahead as a group tot he next lesson.  

Miles' system is not taking away a teacher's freedom or creativity in deciding how to get the lesson over. But it is saying don't get up in front of the class without a lesson in your head (they call it a learning objective or something). And don't leave the point without measuring which kids get it. 

In other words, don't be slack. Don;t think you can just sit there and talk or  read magazines while the kids watch another movie. There is a  lot of emphasis on engaging the kids, which means looking at them and trying to get them to look back at you when you're talking to them.

Discipline is a tough one. There has to be discipline. But please note that the get-Miles crowd criticized him a few days ago because there has been an increase in disciplinary incidents. If you have ever been around a DISD school, you know that disciplinary incidents are enforcement incidents. A lack of disciplinary incidents usually means they're just letting the kids get away with it.

The horror stories -- and there are horror stories -- are about the experienced sophisticated teacher trying to get a subtlety across to the class, and some 27-year-old headquarters whip-cracker comes in and starts prattling about what's your l.o. and what's your measurement and so on. I would hate that. You would hate that. At some point, adjustments must be made to cure that problem and save the best teachers.

But look at the overall institutional entity. It spends $1.7 billion a year teaching the vast majority of its students how to go to prison and be illiterate. I don;tn see how a reasonable person could look at it and not come to the conclusion that the whole thing needs a serious kick in the ass. 

Guesty
Guesty

@Cliffhanger @JimSX What competition?  Because if you give certain teachers a little more money than other teachers, based on an evaluation of their performance, suddenly teachers will become all Machiavellian and undermine their coworkers?  You have a very low regard for teachers.     

MikeWestEast
MikeWestEast

@JimSX @MikeWestEast Spending a lot of time worrying about teachers is the same as looking for your dropped car keys under the lamp because visibility is better.  Yes, it makes a small contribution to finding keys and sometimes you might actually find them.  Otherwise you waste time (money) on something with small chance of solving problem just because you find it easier to do.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@VolunteerMom 

Your points are compelling. Rusknative above is a type we get here sometimes: a morally obscene racist. Sorry. They're the cost of doing business on a public blog.

guest
guest

@JimSX Jim - Your last paragraph sums it up. The DISD teachers who complain about Miles would have a point if they were actually doing their jobs well. THEY AREN'T. The teachers want business as usual while they continue to fail at their jobs.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@JimSX @scottindallas 

Less than 1%. LESS THAN 1%!!!!

This is an extremely relevant statistic that gets glossed over continuously by the pitchfork mob.

700 Teachers!  Oh! The humanity!

ChristianY
ChristianY

@JimSX @scottindallas  Schutze, You are putting on a clinic. Please write a book about all of this because your deep understanding of the political, racial and educational issues are so on point. Thank you for all that you are doing and for helping me become more informed on the realities of the situation. 

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@scottindallas @JimSX 

And may I point out that not one of you mad-at-Milesers has responded to my dare to offer at least some shred of thought about teaching and what teachers can do, instead of what teachers cannot do. C'mon. What are you afraid of?

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@scottindallas @JimSX 

So 700 "who walked," in a faculty of 10,276, that's a churn of less than 7 percent. For the first year of a major overhaul addressing everything from the classroom to the administration to community politics, I'd say that's an amazing record of stability. 

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@JimSX all BS Jim, how many permanent hires have replaced the 700 who walked?  All that is a non-sequitur when the teacher is a revolving door


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