Monday, January 19, 2015

The Work We Have To Do

Even if you've only read this blog once or twice, you're aware that I am a noisy supporter of traditional public education in this country. But that doesn't mean my loyalty is unquestioning.

As much as it pains me to say it, as much as I hate what modern reformsters have brought us in public education, if I'm being honest, I must admit that we asked for some of it. Well, maybe we didn't ask for it-- but we certainly left the door wide open for it to come waltzing in.

It's worth talking about these things because even if the entire reformster movement dried up and blew away today, tomorrow we would still be facing these issues.

Teacher Training

Much of what passes for teacher training is a joke. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that teacher training is in the hands of not-teachers. How many co-operating teachers help their student teacher stage a fake lesson to make the visiting drive-by supervisor happy? How many future teachers' careers have been decided for good or bad by the random luck of the student teaching draw? How many college hours are wasted studying teaching "techniques" developed but untested by somebody who has no idea what he's talking about? How many college ed programs wouldn't flunk a candidate unless he was caught on video feeding chopped up puppies to orphans?

How many teachers are good teachers in spite of their college training instead of because of it? The door for some foolish program like TFA has always been standing wide open.


Everybody knows that some teachers are better than others. But our line in the profession for decades has been, "That's hard. We aren't going to talk about it."

It's true that assaults on tenure and pushes for stack ranking teachers are all about the money, about making a school a more profitable enterprise for an investor. But those assaults would never have gotten traction if there were not a great untapped well of resentment and frustration out there over a system that doesn't seem to do anything about differentiating or improving when it comes to less-than-awesome teachers.

Equity and Justice

When civil rights groups spoke up last week in favor of keeping a federal testing mandate in ESEA, many folks were shocked and upset. But civil rights groups and community leaders in poor black neighborhoods have been supporting the reformster agenda for years.

Instead of exclaiming "How can they do that" rhetorically, we should be asking, "Why do they do that" critically and sincerely.

The promise of reformsters has been, "We will create a program that gets every kid ready for success, and we will make it federal law that every school in every city must have that program in place. We'll have a test that proves whether that program is in place or not, and we will give exactly the same test to every student, white or black, rich or poor, in this country."

Do not dismiss that promise because it's empty. Recognize that the promise is powerful because our country includes a whole lot of people to whom no such promise has been made before.

Look. If you offer someone a piece of spoiled tofu sculpted to look like a bad piece of fish, and they eat it up quickly, and then you start lecturing them about can't they see it's not really fish and the tofu is actually spoiled and did somebody pay them to eat that awful stuff-- you are missing the most important piece of information. That person was hungry enough to be excited about a bad tofu fish. You can take away the bad tofu fish and feel good about how you're protected that person, but she's still hungry, and until you get her some actual food, you're not helping.

Poor and minority schools need resources and support, the kinds of programs and materials that wealthier schools take for granted. They need support. Their students need to see teachers who look like them in the building (and, I would argue, people who live and grew up in the neighborhood). They need to be in a system that respects their culture and background. They need to be in a system that is neither overtly nor subtly racist.

We can bitch and moan about the reformsters and privateers and charteristas all pretending to care about equity and civil rights as a way to grab some power and money, but we should look in the mirror and ask what it means that Pretending To Care about Equity is enough to make someone stand out these days.

We can sweep the reformsters and their faux solutions away, but unless we're prepared to look for real solutions, we won't be moving forward. We supporters of public education must remember that even if the reformsters are thrown out and shut down, there are still problems in our schools-- problems that nobody was particularly working on when reformsters stepped in to take advantage of real needs. We must always remember that even when the conflict with reformsters is over, there is still work we have to do.


  1. You make great points, as always, Peter, but I would add one thing about many of the civil rights groups that are embracing the Endless Testing regime in the NCLB Jr. process. Many of them are receiving a lot of money from Gates and/or other reformy philanthropist organizations.

    In a recent Stephanie Simon article at Politico, the executive VP of the Leadership Conference is quoted as stating her organization sees NCLB Jr. as a "civil rights bill" and the testing as the "strings" to hold states accountable for equity for all.

    Okay, maybe.

    But just on a hunch, I typed in "Leadership Conference" at the Gates Foundation grants page and came up with these grants in the last few years:

    Now I dunno, maybe they'd be all like "Testing, we love it, it's a civil right issues!" without the Gates cash.

    And maybe the Gates cash was handed to them simply because they share the same vision for education reform that Gates does.

    But the cynic in me says the philanthropy money from reformy sources is helping some of those civil rights groups with their "Testing=Civil Rights" embrace.

    None of this undercuts any of the points you make in your post - and they're good ones and important ones.

    But in the end, non-profits are hungry for dollars, Gates is hungry to monopolize policy and, well, that just seems like an opportunity for a skewed vision, if you know what I mean.

    1. Absolutely. I do think that reformster money is not always given in simple quid pro quo. That's not because I'm idealistic-- it just seems less practical to hire someone to fake agreeing with you than to find someone who already agrees with you and fund them. And yet, getting a million dollars would certainly make you feel that you were on the right rack, and that these people are really your close allies, so when they give a little nudge here or there, you'd be inclined to trust them.

      So, way too simplistic to say that a group's voice is bought and paid for, but way too naive to think that a million dollars don't change anything. And, as you said, none of that really changes the point I'm trying to make.

  2. Peter, parents in my neck of the woods sometimes choose charter schools over our large district schools because they offer a more robust, comprehensive education including, project based learning, art, choir, band, drama, robotics, athletics, coding, ASB, yearbook,etc.

    Our district schools are so beholden to "test scores" that they have limited our own students options because they think students need an extra hour of language or math every day. The upper half students are bored and the lower students are tired of the same old thing every day.

    I am waiting for someone high up say "F*uck the test scores, let's give our students a comprehensive education and it is up to them to succeed".

  3. Dennis G.
    As Peter posted 2 days ago, here is your chance to tell them.

    Time To Speak Up
    Posted: 17 Jan 2015 04:15 AM PST
    This week the Big Noise About NCLB kicks off in DC with a hearing on Wednesday, Jan 21 entitled "Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability." Heaven only knows who will be speaking at it-- the featured guest list will be one more set of tea leaves we can look at to see which way this new wind is blowing. But of course, we already know whose voices will not be prominently featured at the hearings.


    So why we're all busy doing the actual work of educating America's children, a bunch of folks in DC will talk about how we ought to be doing that job.

    However, that doesn't mean we can't put our voices out there.

    Sen. Lamar Alexander has issued a press release that gives you all the tools you need. There's a link to the draft version of the legislation and an email address to send your comments to.

  4. Peter, who is this "we" of whom you speak? The we who "asked for some of it"? The we who "left the door wide open"? The we who "offered someone a piece of stinking tofu"? The we who have NOT spent our lives offering the real solutions you despise, in real schools, to children in front of us, every day?

    Or is it the "we" who made the promise, again and again, face -to-face, and who stood up for it with every nerve of our bodies, day after day? We are in our communities now, still fighting to build the schools our communities deserve. I'm an original education reformer and agent of change, BA Biology, UCSC 1984. I'm a graduate of the UCSC teacher training program that asked me for the stamina and commitment to reform public education. Othere are the first generation of black Americans to walk across the stage, who teach to pass along the gift. We're still here, with the families in real communities, defending real schools, and struggling to build real visions with the communities we serve. The actual choice isn't between your indifferent bogey-teachers and your predatory reformsters. Even though the systemic solution we're fighting for is still elusive: it is democratic governance of our schools, with equal opportunity for all our children.

    Your refusal to acknowledge our existence speaks volumes about who your "we" really is.

    1. I'm stumped as far as what exactly you are responding to here. Democratic governance with equal opportunity for all children is not the solution I despise-- it's what I consider the ideal. It's what I work for in my own community, and I would hope for nothing less for every other community in the country.

      Nor do I doubt that there are people in those communities who are fighting with every drop of blood and sweat they have.

      But we-- as a nation, as a culture, and as a large monolithic educational system/institution have failed to stand up for those ideals every time we should have, and in our failure we've left a marketing opportunity for reformsters to take advantage of.

      I could just adopt the usual language that blames these failures on those others, but that seems too easy. I can't take credit for the work and struggle that you're doing, but I can shoulder some of the responsibility that you have to do it.

      I see too many people on the traditional education side who seem to think that once the reformsters are gone, the culture and the institution don't have to think about what's happening in schools that are supposed to serve poor and minority students. And so I say "we" to remind myself and others that the challenges and struggles of those communities won't be erased by a good ESEA rewrite, and we all own some of the responsibility for them. It's just that some of us, like you, are doing something about it, and some of us are willing to shift the blame to powerful others.

  5. I agree with you and I have so many ideas on how to change the system for the better, but it's so discouraging when you look at the system and how hard it is to change the structures when you have no power.

    We have to get people to listen to us. That's the first thing. In the face of all the denigration of teachers that's been going on for some years, and now made worse by business people who have no clue what we do, coming in to use their business models to "fix" us, along with the politicians and other profiteers who want to exploit the situation, somehow we have to get people to see that we are intelligent professionals who are the best sources to look to in order to figure out what needs to be done.

    It's true that some teachers are "less awesome" than others or less professional than they should be. However, I think the majority of teachers are dedicated, caring, and professional; a few are brilliant and a few are bad. How do we determine which are bad and can't be helped? And whose place is it to figure that out? None of us want unprofessional teachers in the profession, giving the rest of us a bad name, but it doesn't seem right for it to be other teachers who decide that. We need to collaborate with each other, and different teachers have different styles of teaching. That doesn't mean one way of teaching is better than another, although sometimes a certain style can be better for certain students. But whoever decides these things with whatever method has to be careful not to assume that different is bad.

    I think that, mostly, bad teachers are ones that are lazy and don't care, and I don't think that's as much of a problem anymore. I think most of the lazy ones came into the profession so long ago, when standards for admittance to teaching programs were lower, students were more docile, and being able to coach was more important than how well you taught, and I think most of them have retired by now. Nowadays the standards for admittance to the program are higher and they do a better job of preparing teacher candidates. Which is not to say that training programs are as good as they could be and don't need to be re-thought. And teaching today is so difficult and complex, I think, as you've said, a lot of them who aren't cut out for it realize that early on and auto-eliminate.

  6. Some ideas that I think would help to improve the system:

    Teacher trainees should be more well-versed in cognitive psychology and sociology.

    Education professors should have actually taught at the elementary or secondary level for five years so they're not just theorizing.

    All teacher trainees need a course in special ed and learning disabilities.

    A Master's in field should be necessary for completion of a teaching degree. (At least for secondary. I can't speak to what elementary needs. Maybe more special ed and reading specialist courses)

    Teacher training programs need to figure out a way to teach classroom management. Maybe a lot of videos showing different situations and mistakes or resolutions. Maybe an accompanying computer program where you're given a situation, you think about what you should do, then click and it gives you a menu of possibilities, you click on one and it gives you possible reactions and leads you to something else...I don't know if something like that could be done, but it would give practice thinking different things through; we have to make so many split-second judgement calls every day.

    Clinical training should be set up more along the lines of the way it is for health care professionals. Trainees should spend a lot of time as paras.

    Beginning secondary teachers should be assigned only one prep. Ideally they should teach each prep solely for a year before combining it with more.

    Kindergarten and first grade classes should have a limit of 15 students; second and third grade, 18; fourth and fifth, 20. No class at any level including secondary should have more than 24. No, we don't want to just "throw money" at schools; this is what the money should go to.

    Instead of four principals, two deans, and four counselors, an urban high school should have one principal, eight counselors, and one social worker. An elementary principal should have 15 years of teaching experience at the elementary level; a high school principal should have 15 years teaching at the secondary level.

    In states where the supreme court has deemed that there is inequity in funding among districts, the legislators need to get on that.

    Maybe Randi's not all wet about teachers writing their own standards. National unions should make a push to do this in the summers, starting at the local level, and granting credits toward renewal of licensure for doing it.

    Maybe curriculum needs to be re-thought. Should there be more vocational, hands-on classes at the junior high level where the kids could be active since they can't sit still? Does everyone really need to take algebra II? What purpose does it serve?

  7. As a person who has worked to improve teacher preparation for most of my career, I would take issue with "what passes for teacher training is a joke". We have been observing budget cuts and increasing federal and state mandates that undercut the substantial changes that we have worked to build. We are also seeing Arne Duncan proposing to use the magic potion of VAM to grade programs that prepare teachers. In short, I would suggest that, like teachers, teacher educators are doing their best to prepare competent teachers while dealing with the same band of merry reformers who whisper sweet nothings (and dollars) into the ears (and purses) of our so-called "professional organizations". Also (for state institutions) experiencing the same budget cuts as K-12 schools.

    1. I have no doubts at all that the same forces arrayed against public ed are taking their toll on teacher education. I also believe that some schools are doing a superlative job when it comes to preparing tomorrow's teachers. But not all have been really trying for a while now-- at least not in my neck of the woods.