Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Diet Soda: The Devil's Work

I drink a lot of diet soda.  Well, probably around 2-3 cans a day.  So my ears perk up whenever I hear anyone propose that it is unhealthy.  For some reason, there is something about diet soda that really bothers people.  Given the high levels of skepticism in the general public, despite the fact that not only have millions of people have been drinking it for decades and no good evidence that it causes real harm, I'm suspicious there might be something deeper going on.  Diet soda can actually be harmful to your teeth, because it contains citric acid, which corrodes enamel.  But no more so than anything else containing citric acid, and can be controlled by drinking with food, so that salivary glands are stimulated, restoring the mouth's natural pH.

But no, the real skepticism isn't about tooth enamel.  It is mainly about cancer.  The biggest fear is the artificial sweeteners used.  Some have a vague notion that the carbonation is dangerous, something about CO2 is seemingly problematic.  However, considering it is a naturally occurring byproduct of human cellular respiration and therefor critical to our survival, I'm not sure they really understand what it is. 

The cancer concerns have a kernel of truth to them.  A derivative of coal, it didn't take long after its discovery for people to worry over its safety.  A reasonable enough suspicion, however coal itself is indeed a "natural", quite literally "organic" substance.  In 1906, when Roosevelt was promoting saccharin as a healthy alternative to sugar as part of his fitness promotion, vice president Sherman begged him to avoid it, calling it "a coal tar product totally devoid of food value and extremely injurious to health."  Despite further studies over the following decades showing it to be harmless, suspicions held.  In the 1970's, rats were found to have developed bladder cancer after being exposed to saccharin, leading to attempts by the USDA to ban it.  However the findings were controversial, and eventually in 2000, it was discovered that rodent biology was actually quite different from humans in that their bladders had very different metabolic reactions to certain substances.

Comparing biological reactions across species is always tricky (as is cancer epidemiology in general).  I happened to find a fascinating demonstration of this on the website of the Carcinogenic Potency Project, until recently headed by a highly respected cancer researcher.  The basic point is that almost anything can be poisonous, or even carcinogenic at the right doses.  No where is this more true than with rodent population.  Essentially, if one were to go by cancer rates in rodent exposure, we would need to ban everything from coffee to lettuce to hamburger meat.  By the way, highest on the list of rodent-cancer causing "natural" chemicals?  Symphytine, naturally found in comfrey root.

There are probably many reasons why people cling to suspicions about artificial sweeteners.  The idea of anything "artificial" seems worrisome to many (even though plenty of "natural" chemicals are extremely deadly, and synthetic chemicals are just as safe as naturally occurring ones.  Many people have a basic mistrust of science in general, worried that they are being manipulated by industry.  This is always a real concern, but one easily overcome by simply looking at where the study came from.  If mainstream, respected institutions staffed by authoritative, published and peer-reviewed experts are then distrusted, well, we're off into conspiracy land and the epistemological loop is closed anyway.

My own favorite theory is that many people don't like diet sodas simply for the unconscious, puritanical intuition that is suspicious of enjoyment for enjoyment's sake, and especially if one has not earned it.  Unlike regular sweets, which are high in calories which must be paid for either through exercise or self-denial, diet sodas are essentially "free" happiness.  And any deserving soul can't possibly have that without making a deal with the devil - paid for in cancerous tumors no doubt...













Saturday, June 8, 2013

Beyond the Message

Ta-Nehisi Coates is posed an interesting question by one of his readers.  As a black man who struggled in his youth, yet who is now a successful, senior editor at the Atlantic, what kind of address would he give to a class of graduating seniors at a poor, disadvantaged high school.  His reply emphasizes that - and he has given a number of talks to schools - he doesn't think stern admonitions or cliches about working hard would find much traction.  Instead, he writes that what is most important is speaking of a sense of personal interest in education, of ownership.
I am doubtful that I could have been shamed into making better choices. Some people probably can be. There's was plenty of shaming around me as a child. But I did not take education seriously until I saw something in it for me, aside from what everyone else thought.
Some people are great speakers, and great speeches can be given, and I won't begrudge anyone for putting out a positive message.  But I can only be reminded that these kids need more than messaging. 

I've recently given up teaching because after a handful of years of teaching at schools with screwed up priorities, where my classes have been filled overwhelmingly with students with severely dysfunctional attitudes towards authority and their own education, I came way too close to having more than one nervous breakdown. I had to leave for my own sanity.

I feel like I have my own idea of what those teachers might say, but I don't know. Maybe they were terrible teachers who were disrespectful to their students and had no compassion. Maybe, like me, they were too forgiving and let the students walk all over them - despite my best efforts, I am just not that strict, authoritarian. Such a style would seem to be the only way of working in such a dysfunctional institutional structure.

I worked for two years at a continuation school, where kids got sent after essentially failing the first two years of high school, and demonstrating they couldn't be productive members of a general population environment (fighting, talking back, doing drugs, etc.). On a hierarchy of needs, these kids needed something much more basic than content: they needed emotional healing, a quiet place to escape negative social norms (parents and peers were often sociopathic), and someone to listen and talk with them.

Unfortunately, the NCLB/reform movement has been all about destroying the old ways teachers might have had to dealt with such students (who, let's be clear, are the real drivers of the achievement gap and are by and large a product of poverty and social dysfunction at a structural level - neighborhoods, jobs, etc.). My principal wanted to see over 90% "engagement" during direct instruction lessons to students who hadn't earned credit in years, and who spoke openly in class about been abused at home, daily hardcore drug abuse (often in the hands of their parents), violence, and wave after wave of teen pregnancy. And yet, the principal literally had us analyzing test score data in staff meetings!

So as a teacher maybe of similar students myself, I wonder if my comments wouldn't come in the form of an apology for a royally fucked up system which doesn't really care for them, in terms of actually trying to offer help to them that they would need. Words? They need more than words.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Treating Pain

A doctor in the New York Times today writes about the difficulty in treating pain.  He's caught between a pain rights movement that pushes for more humane treatment and the prescription of needed medications, and the dangers of users and addicts.  He frames his article with a patient of his who has a history of  substance abuse, and seems to be malingering.  I have no doubt that this is a serious concern for doctors, who don't want to feel like they are being taken advantage of.  Yet how much of a problem is this, and how many genuine sufferers of chronic pain are living in misery because of  overly cautious doctors?

I recently had a horrible experience in finding a new doctor.  After 20 years of chronic neck pain, and having tried nearly everything - from physical therapy to chiropractic to rolphing to wacky supplements, and ultimately a suicide attempt - A pain specialist covered under my previous insurance finally got things manageable.  Unfortunately,  aside from effexor, and over the counter ibuprophen and acetaminophen, the one pill that was a real breakthrough was the sleeping pill temazepam, which ended years of agonizing, restless, painful sleep. 

Two doctors, after a brief consult, determined that I shouldn't be taking it, and that I simply had "insomnia".  The first didn't want me taking anything at all, and the second told me that "people in the 3rd world didn't have the luxury of taking pills to get to sleep".  

Great, now looking for my 3rd doctor made me feel like I was doctor shopping.  Well, I was, but I simply wanted to get back to the treatment that I had been on for a few years and had been very effective.

My current doctor has no problem with temazepam for my neck pain, thankfully.  But  in looking for a doctor who would prescribe what I wanted I can't help but feel like I was manipulating the system, subverting skilled, trained authorities in favor of my own lay judgement.  Of course, it is my body and I have 20 years of experience with what has and has not worked. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Amazing Employee (tm) or, If This Is How You Ran Your Business...

I have a business dilemma.  I have this great service that I am promising to be able to provide to customers.  It is incredible, and everyone wants it.  The problem is, I just don't have the resources to do the job at the price they are willing to pay.  Key to my business model has been the concept of the Amazing Employee(tm) - someone who will be able to do twice the work, for the same pay, under conditions that are twice as bad.

See, I know what you're thinking.  He's crazy.  But I have a secret.  What I offer is something so amazing that prospective employees will be lining up around the block just for the chance to "be a part of something profound".  Don't worry.  I have recruiters all over the country and we get a lot of juice.  People get really excited about our service and want to be a part of the team.

Now, the hard part has been in finding people who can really do the job, and won't just quit right away.  So far, in tests, we haven't been able to find very many people who can do either, much less both.   No matter how much training we give to current employees, nothing really seems to be helping.  We're looking into attracting only the best and brightest from top colleges, but even they seem to really struggle, or leave after a couple of years.

We've also got the problem of the union.  They keep demanding that the working conditions are terrible, and that the job isn't fair.  They're constantly threatening to strike, hampering our ability to turn the screws any tighter.  They point to other areas of the company where the job is half as hard and employees get the same pay.  They think that it isn't fair to demand twice the performance for a job that is hardly possible.

I'm not sure what to do at this point.  I'm really beginning to question my business model.




Saturday, April 13, 2013

Taking Education Seriously

A recent op-ed piece in the NYTimes by Jal Mehta, professor of education at Harvard, asks if we can ever "fix the teaching profession".  The answer, the author argues, is yes, but not by following either pole of the current debate: neither the Michelle Rhee model of laying blame squarely on the teachers, nor the Diane Ravitch model of blaming corporate profiteers and social ills.  Instead, what we need is a mixture of accountability and recognition that social ills drive inequity in schools.  By properly training teachers, we can overcome things like poverty and academic unpreparedness by getting teachers into the classroom who know how to overcome such difficulties.  A rigorous exam, for example, would make sure only the best and brightest enter the profession:
A rigorous board exam for teachers could significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and strengthen the public’s regard for teachers and teaching. 

Unfortunately, this is all bullshit.  And it comes from one of the greatest myths in education, the idea that student performance in general has very much to do with the teacher.  

While it is true that a teacher can make a big difference, this is only marginally true, and when compared with similar demographics of students.  To understand this, you must first look at how education actually happens in the classroom.  In any school there is a great variation in student preparedness, i.e. their emotional, cognitive and behavioral readiness for learning. At the elementary level, you see this as a spectrum within the classroom.  But as children enter middle and high school, you see it both within the classroom as well as across subjects, with some same-age students taking low-level classes, and others taking high level classes.  At both ends of the spectrum, you have special education and gifted programs taking the very top and bottom students.

What's interesting is that at almost every level, the "preparedness" of the student is entirely dependent on the home from which they come to school each day.  Aside from genetic anomalies (special ed or gifted), students are basically products of their environment and will perform as such.  Families with high levels of societal capital with produce children with high levels of preparedness, and families with low levels of societal capital will produce children with low levels of preparedness.  You see this across schools and districts, the measurements of societal capital correlating directly with student performance.  

At the macro level, generalities are easy to predict, as the data sets are large.  For example, income correlates in general with societal capital, and so neighborhoods on hills have high test scores, while neighborhoods near industrial zones have low test scores.  Yet when the data sets are smaller, generalities are harder to make, and evidence becomes less clear, even if larger trends still hold when small data sets are included in wider arrays.  For example, at one school, there might only be 10-20 kids whose parents both have graduate degrees.  It is therefore difficult to make any generalizations about the highly educated school population at that school.  But if we combine what we know about students with highly educated parents, we can make rather strong predictions about the preparedness of such children.

This is not a new phenomenon; it is a basic reality of human development.  What is odd, however, is the idea in education that a student's preparedness can somehow be markedly changed by a single, highly trained teacher.  This isn't, after all, how we actually approach the problem in schools.  We don't give kids Calculus when they haven't mastered Algebra I.  Education 101 tells us about the "zone of proximal development", a basic psychological principal that one's knowledge must necessarily grow by degrees, not giant leaps.  New knowledge must be applied to old knowledge for it to be meaningful.  

And yet this is exactly what is being asked of teachers of disadvantaged students, who by definition are lacking in academic preparedness.  Remember, of course, that there will be highly prepared students in poor schools, but less of them.  Their dilemma, of course, is that they must suffer through an education in which so many of their peers are so disadvantaged.  In a way, it would be like forcing Michael Jordan to play on a team where few know how to dribble the ball.  Charter schools have been able to gain great moral favor by promising to provide just these sorts of students an "out", their poor parents no longer being constrained by the relationship between their income and real estate values.  (Of course, going to a "good" public school is as easy as being able to afford an apartment in a nicer part of town).

This larger theme of social inequality, disadvantage and the reality of property markets is a tough sell.  What is it, after all, that one is selling?  How do you solve a problem as complicated as all that?  Next thing you now we'll be talking about more redistribution and that means more taxes and moral arguments.  So much easier it is to simply emphasize the technical aspects of the problem and go after the low-hanging fruit, especially when examples of lazy teachers, intransigent unions, and arbitrary seeming tenure-ships can score big political points. 

The problem is that accountability doesn't seem to be working.  Sure, we're only ten years into NCLB, and we still haven't been able to break the unions, end tenure, develop top-tier education bar exams, tie employment to student performance, or fully roll out charter alternatives to public schools.  Maybe by 2022 we'll have done so. 

But it isn't going to work, for the simple reason that performance has little to do with the teacher.  In the end, if you still have classes of 25-30 unprepared kids and one teacher, you are not going to be able to meet their needs.   At the end of the day, the reason the students are unprepared is that their home lives have been, are, or will be shitty.  The reasons are too many to list, but they are created from inequality.  Single-parenthood, incarceration, menial-wage work, mental and physical health crises - all at various levels of severity and impact, feeding on each other to lower societal capital - will forever be conspiring to devour the child's preparedness.  A system designed around a teacher overcoming these problems, alone in the classroom is destined to fail.  And if our current course is any indication, it is will bring everything else around down with it.

You might be able to find a few rare teachers who can do some amazing things, but they will be the exception, and in the process of finding them - if current reforms are any indication - you will have severely damaged what could have been a much more humane, nurturing, creative profession. Ending tenure will create a climate of fear and remove a promise of job security that compensates so greatly in a profession that requires so much sacrifice.  Designing accountability around tests principally designed to improve scores of the least prepared, ironically, will reduce education across the board to a numbers game.  It will promote a pedagogy that might increase scores in the short term, but will create a fog of lifelessness in the classroom that in the long term will drive the disadvantaged student to feel even more trapped and cornered by a less and less flexible institution in which he can only succeed by repressing his natural impulses.  Those that can buckle under to authority will do so and those who cannot or will not will be sent down a punitive road leading to further discipline and eventual expulsion or other exit.

So what would one propose as an alternative?  We must start by radically changing our course.  We must throw out the idea of the teacher as the solution and instead look at how we can go after the problem in a structural way.  Special education is a great place to start.  Landmark law in special education was rooted in the notion, often seen as enshrined in the 14th amendment, that all - including those with special needs - have the right to an equal education.  Not only were they to be offered the same education as everyone else, but their special needs were explicitly required to be taken into account and remedied for.  As recently as the Americans with Disabilities Act, students with special needs have been promised in the courts an education that takes into account their special needs.  Within reason, such students are given aids, support materials, special teachers or special classes designed to supplement their education so as to ensure that they can be accommodated for.

This is what disadvantaged students need; their disadvantage must be accounted for.  Currently, we do this in only the smallest of ways through income-predicated funding that provides for extra meals at school, and a small portion of special serves.  In general, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you get some extra food.   But extra food doesn't begin to make up for the level of under-preparedness that disadvantage creates.  For some, it is surely important, but would you give a kid with severe disabilities a sandwich and expect him to be able to function fine in a regular classroom.  What if half of the other kids in the class were in wheelchairs as well?  What if some had autism, some had troubles with speech, some had problems toileting and some had a mental impairment?  What kind of teacher would we expect to be able to provide a proper education to them?  

Disadvantage in is this regard invisible.  It is hard to see on the outside, but is no less real.  When a child grows up without a father and learns from his friends that school is for chumps, he doesn't walk into a classroom with a sign declaring so around his neck.  Instead, he might simply choose not to listen to the teacher, do as little as possible to get by, or - God forbid - only pretend to fill in the bubbles on his standardized state test.  What happens when half the kids in his class are just like him?  67% of black kids grow up in single-parent families.  What if they have other issues at home, such as physical, emotional or substance abuse, or if their parents simply don't know how to prepare them for school because they were never shown how themselves?  Again, the list of issues associated with poverty and disadvantage is almost endless.  But suffice it to say that in poor neighborhoods, classrooms are filled with them.  Issues then become ever more concentrated as children age, until high school were the entire is usually spent with under-prepared, under-achieving peers who are frequently delinquent because they've simply lost all respect for the institution of education.

But what if we found a way to identify, track, and provide targeted support to these kids and their families?  In special education, there is a specific model called Child Finder, which actively seeks out children whose special needs are affecting their school performance.  A process is created in which a panel is formed to evaluate the needs of the child on a regular, ongoing basis.  It is not simply left up to the teacher to do his or her best in the classroom, making phone calls home when possible.  Specialists are called in, paperwork is initiated, goals are established and necessary accommodations are made.  The child is not given everything under the sun.  But what is offered is substantive and supposed to be reasonable.

To a degree, this has begun to go on, but in highly inappropriate and misguided ways.  Owing to special education's history clinical history as targeting children with obvious physical disabilities, when a child presents negative behaviors that are severe enough, they are being classified as needing special education.  But the model is limited.  Merely being disadvantaged certainly doesn't qualify, and a special classification comes with a highly negative stigma.  

What would need to happen is the creation of a new system of identification and classification that is as least restrictive as possible, but that still allows for appropriate interventions.  Because the issues in disadvantage are much less clear than low-order physiological issues in special education, the program must be flexible and allow for students to move fluidly in and out.  For instance, a student might be going through a rough period, and require only very temporary intervention.  Others might face more severe problems and require multiple years of intervention.  The intervention model would also need to be broad enough to incorporate a wide variety of emotional, cognitive and behavioral deficits. 

What would the program look like?  At the most basic level it would be a dramatic reduction in class size.  This would primarily serve to facilitate a more differentiated, nurturing environment.  Academically prepared students can handle much larger class sizes.  Their developmental capacity allows them to be more independent, more able to follow directions, and be more self-directed in their learning.  But under-prepared students need more help.  In education, this would be called "scaffolding"; the process of supporting students as needed, with the ultimate goal of removing scaffolding as they reach new levels of proximal development.  The differentiation would be effected both in delivery of curriculum, but also in provision of specialized services.  The child's family would be brought in to his or her education in w much more forthright manner.  Not only would there be time to do so, but there would be trained staff on hand to do the proper outreach and support required to meet the needs of the family.  

As in special education, this support would range anywhere from the child being placed in a mainstream classroom, with ongoing special support by outside specialists, to small day classes.  It would be entirely goal based, with mainstream teachers setting the pace for their academic subject standards, and the individual child's placement and level of services be rendered accordingly.  For example, if a student is regularly scoring poorly in an area, or is becoming a discipline problem, special support services would be alerted, and the child would be targeted for interventions.

All of this would cost money, much more than we are spending now.  But the difference is that we would be holding ourselves morally accountable for the reality of our society.  Special education also costs money, but we don't call it "throwing money at a problem".  Instead, we consider it our responsibility to fellow citizens.  Tragically, while there will always be students born with special needs, there will also be children born to families that for whatever reason haven't been able to prepare them adequately for school.  As a society, we have agreed to maintain an economic system that keeps large sectors of society impoverished.  We have tacitly agreed upon a system of property that forces people to live in communities segregated by income and societal capital. 

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that human development doesn't happen in a vacuum, and that families matter in the preparation of a child throughout his school years.  Just as we decided decades ago not to ignore students with disabilities, today we must decide to stop pretending that teachers are the solution to social inequity, and to stop ignoring the problem of academic preparedness.  

Students who come to school prepared don't need "good" teachers.  Neither should students who come to school unprepared because of their disadvantage.  What they need are special services that take their development seriously.














Saturday, March 30, 2013

Miguel's Window

As the tagline at the top of this blog suggests, I am a bastard.  Well, now it has become more official than ever.  For the second year in a row, I have been given a rating of "unsatisfactory" by an administrator, and asked not to return next year.  Try as I did to do everything right, to do everything they wanted me to, in the end I could not do the job.  As I have argued on this blog for years, the job was incredibly difficult, and only the most amazing teachers had any hope of pulling it off.  I must now admit that, at least in this particular type of classroom, I am not an amazing teacher.  That might sound like I'm making excuses for myself by hiding behind inflated expectations.  But the expectations didn't feel inflated.  They felt crushing, demoralizing and impossible - the kind I'd agonize over as I drove home each day, as I played with my daughters, as I sat at the dinner table, as I tried to unwind in the final hours of the evening, as I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, haunted in my dreams.

For three years I have taught what can only be described as juvenile delinquents.  First, for two years at the continuation high school, where stories of substance abuse, physical and sexual violence, and mental illness were the norm.  Then for the past year at a regular education high school, teaching the students whose grades were so poor that they were placed into lower-level science courses.  These students weren't nearly as bad, with about 40% of them failing all their classes, another 40% in serious risk of failing, and a final 20% managing to quietly do their work and behave themselves.

Both administrators' main concern was my inability to adequately engage my students.  At the continuation school, this was a joke.  Teachers were evaluated on their ability to deliver direct instruction to a class of quiet, engaged, obedient learners - despite the reality of who the students really were and what they were capable of.  (What they really needed was out of the question).  I did my best to pretend to give the principal what he wanted, but ended up spending too much time talking to the students about their problems and trying to simply provide a safe, positive environment away from the chaos of their young lives outside school.

Expectations could be higher at the regular high school.  These students were much higher functioning.  There was a broader range of abilities.  While many of the students could do little more than highly scaffolded, fill-in-the blanks worksheets, their emotional and behavioral problems getting in the way of higher-order participation and self-directed learning, many others were genuinely interested in the subject at hand.  My job was to meet the needs of both these types of learners.  On the one hand, I had to deliver quality, meaningful, engaging instruction while at the same time making the curriculum accessible to the majority of students for whom simple, repetitive tasks were all that was within reach of their emotional and hence cognitive zone of proximal development.  It was a forgone conclusion among all the other teachers that, in regard to this specific student population, "they love worksheets". 

The sad truth of this is that it reflects the institutional, structural bind the students and teachers are in.  Of course the students don't "love" worksheets.  But given the practical limitations of the classroom environment, this is how they can at least be successful, even while hating school and feeling trapped in its Kafkaesque, social Darwinist chains; unable to have developed the proper emotional and cognitive capacities for success, they are forced to bow their heads and plow ahead with little understanding of where they are headed, from lash to lash, all the while being reminded of the seemingly futile existence they and their peers share.  For them, disobedience is an ongoing political act, the only dignified response they have to a system in which they feel unable to participate effectively.  The bargain on offer is that if they simply stay within the lines of respectable behavior, they will earn their freedom.  Because they are so poorly developed, and so fraught with emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems which the institution cannot hope to begin to address, school becomes not a place of inspiration but control. 

So the dynamic is set: an authoritarian teacher keeps them in line while delivering unto them simplistic, rote behavioral tasks designed primarily to keep them quiet and obedient until graduation.  The company line is that the students are choosing their lot in life.  The poorly performing students have no one to blame but themselves.  The teachers are expected to hold them to this, delivering consequences as needed.  As a practical matter, this is what the students need to hear: they have choices, there are consequences for their actions, and they need to become aware of them. 

But from a larger, sociological standpoint, the system is failing them miserably: socio-economics is responsible for their underdevelopment, public institutions have not been designed to properly intervene, and the simplistic model of authoritarian teacher keeping them in line while delivering a curriculum that can only be designed to fit into a narrow range of cognitive and behavioral limitations facilitates a model of education that ignores the development of the totality of a student in favor of scoring a few points on academic memorization and self-control for some, while killing inspiration and ignoring real student needs of most.   One might call this "Miguel's Window": the explicit design of educational programs to make the most of a poorly-developed, poorly-resourced student population through the use of authoritarian, control-oriented instruction. 

At the beginning of the year, when I had not yet realized the reality of the developmental lack in my student population, I had attempted to engage them with more student-centered, higher-order thinking curriculum.  It immediately became obvious that the students wouldn't be able to handle such instruction: they were frequently off-task, using the independence as an excuse to not do their work.  For them, schoolwork was something to avoid as much as possible in favor of socializing with their friends, destroying class materials, pranking each other and generally avoiding any and all academic pursuits.  Rigor was impossible.  Studying was out of the question, as homework assignments would simply be ignored.  Keeping expectations high was resulting in failure rates of 80-90%.  (At the semester, I was told at an evaluation that a 40% failure rate in my classes was unacceptable, primarily because they didn't have the staff for that many summer school classes.  But, I was told, I needed to maintain high standards).  Phone calls home with this population are nearly useless.  So far this year, I've made at least a hundred calls, mostly unreturned messages, wrong numbers, or conversations with exasperated parents who tell me they don't know what to do with their child anymore.

On this blog I've mentioned the notion of "Rambo Escalante", the illusive master teacher who is able to overcome his student's disadvantages and inspire them to greatness.  Administrators regularly argue that the teacher is indeed the number one factor in a child's education, despite the fact that either the evidence proves them wrong, or that in thousands of schools across the country, where socio-economics is by far the biggest determinant of student success, most teachers are not doing their job.

So, maybe I could have been that teacher.  Maybe my lessons could have been so exciting and engaging that behavior wouldn't be an issue and my students would all be successful.  Or maybe I could have been at the very least the teacher who keeps his students so frightened and buckled-under that all do their work and are engaged in every single lesson.  (In one critical comment on my final evaluation, one student was observed drawing a picture of a boat instead of writing down my notes, and I didn't catch it.  Shame on me.)

I accept full responsibility for not having the best classroom management.  My students frequently took out their phones, had side conversations, through things, drew on their desks, cursed, or didn't take their notes.  I did my best to correct them.  I picked my battles.  I wrote "incident reports", I wrote referrals, I made calls home.  I tried to catch them all, but there were so many, and I would get tired.  I would get angry and yell at them when they wouldn't listen.  I would sometimes smack my hand on the table to communicate my frustrated irritation and seriousness.  The worksheets are so depressing.  The constant reminders to behave were depressing.  The resentment my students felt towards me, towards the school, towards their friends, towards life - it was all so hard to take day in and day out.  It was so hard to know that I was merely acting as a conduit through which socio-economic inequality was being perpetuated through benign neglect and practical moral compromise.  The worst students had the worst lives, were the poorest, the darkest, while the best students had the best lives, were the least poor, were the whitest.

This will have been my seventh year in education.  What began as naive optimism eventually decayed into disappointment, anxiety, confusion, fear, anger and depression.  I loved my kindergarten students - who couldn't.  With them, at least, I felt I was doing good.  But even that job became impossible when I was asked to teach a combination class of kindergarten students who didn't know what letters were and first graders who were ready to take of reading and writing.  At one point I was designing 16 rotating "centers" a day - reading in the morning and math in the afternoon, so that I could juggle 4 different direct instruction lessons and maintain some semblance of classroom order.  (Imagine teaching a group of 7 students on the carpet to write paragraphs while overseeing the rotation of thirteen five-year olds through four different academic subjects via independent learning stations, then switching grades.)  After that, the years deteriorated into the charade of teaching the process of protein transcription to emotionally disturbed high-schoolers.

So, the news I got this week was somewhat of a relief.  I mostly agreed with the administrator who told me that my classroom management wasn't good enough.  I could not be the teacher he wanted me to be.  But the truth is, I do not want to be that teacher.  I hope he is able to find someone who is willing and able to do it.  But me?  I'm done playing that game.  I refuse to sacrifice any more of my time and emotional well-being - on which I have a dependent family - in the service of a system that is actively harming students by pretending to offer them what they need.  It may need to tell itself it is because there is no alternative.  But unfortunately, the process of telling the story binds it to a model that does not work, and keeps it from exploring or championing alternatives.

At this point, I don't feel qualified to say what those alternatives might look like.  If we had the funding, a good start might be to take the disadvantaged, under-developed kids and give them more of a special-education model, segregating them into small intervention groups in which their needs can be met on an individual basis, without the absurd expectation that they will all prosper in mainstream classrooms.  But I'm still to close to the system to see around it right now.  I need to back away and get some perspective.

I don't know what my future will look like.  It may or may not involve education.  If it does, it will be with very young children, where I can still effect change within the system.  I'd like to work with poor families, providing real support and effective intervention.  I might explore special education,where there might at least be more realistic models for supporting a students needs.  But wherever I end up, I need to be me.  I'm not a stiff, strict man who tucks his shirt in tightly and issues rigid orders, and I'm not a man who takes orders I feel are impractical, misguided or would otherwise have me ply my skills to ineffective ends. 

I went into education because I believed I could make a difference, that I could find a place in a system that seemed so central to our democratic values of giving every child a reasonably equal shot at life.  I've come to see the futility of this vision, that my commitment, creativity and capacity to empathize with children was simply no match for the vast number of forces arrayed against them from birth, and the severe limitation of public schooling to effect real change in their lives.  In the end, the best I was expected to offer them was soul-crushing, mindless routines designed for control, inspired by fear and domination.  The only light being let in was through "Miguel's Window", and it was a cold, cruel light.  For me to continue to shine, I'll have to look elsewhere. 













Friday, March 22, 2013

The Complexities of Poverty

Chicago just announced it was closing 50 public schools.  Of course, these were the "lowest performing" schools.  Of course, these were the poorest and blackest.  Citing budgetary constraints as the primary issue, nevertheless it was an opportunity for the neo-liberal, reform-minded officials to apply their particular brand of educational ideology.  Closing schools has been a key pillar of the reform movement, which views teacher/school quality as the root of the problem.  Better schools and teachers, so it goes, will close the achievement gap and provide equality for all.  A more radical progressive argument says the problem of poverty and disadvantage is far larger and more pernicious than can be handled simply better teaching and curriculum.  However , the neo-liberal reformer apologizes for the ravages of an economic system which inflicts intense social destruction on families, and deligitimizes their disadvantages by assuming them to be so minimal as to be solved merely by better teaching.

One of the tropes regularly offered in support of this illusion is an example of how one family in poverty outperforms another when simply offered the same chance at success.  This argument is ancient among conservatives, the classic Horatio Alger story of someone pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps as proof that if they can do it, anyone can, thus disproving structural inequality as an oppressive force.  Similarly, education reformers point to the success of certain charter schools, saying essentially, "if they can do it, why can't other schools?" 

Yet the problem with these arguments is that they rely on faulty comparisons, ignoring the complexity of large data sets in favor of narrow, cherry-picked results.  Both examples take a view of poverty, which no one can argue doesn't correlate with disadvantage, that misses the specific qualities of poverty that actually cause disadvantage to begin with.  By excluding these causal relationships, they are able to emphasize cases in which the causal relationship doesn't exist, and people are able thus to free themselves from its shackles.  For instance, a Horatio Alger who while poor, has not been molested since the age of 11 is a very different young man than the Horatio Alger who has not.  Or grew up without a father.  Or grew up with a mother who didn't know how nurture him.  Or was bullied because he was gay, etc.

In the reformist film Waiting for Superman, a portrait was painted of a community of poor parents whose children's success was determined merely by whether or not they won a lottery to get into a neighborhood charter - ostensibly a "good" school.  Yet the reality of good vs. bad schools is that they are overwhelmingly determined by SES.  That is, the families themselves.  This seems contradictory.  These are all highly motivated parents, who want the best for their children, so what gives?   The simplistic answer is that they are being held back by "bad" public schools.  There is some truth to this.  But the bigger picture is more complex.

In any given classroom that draws from a heterogeneous population of poor students, you are going to have a range of family stories.  Statistics bear this out, but I can personally attest to witnessing this in my own classrooms.  The higher performing students are well behaved, come from relatively stable homes, and are motivated to learn.  These are the students whose parents show up on parent night, and are generally involved in their children's education.  The middle-ground students are less stable, often experiencing a variety of stresses in their lives that impact their academic engagement.  Their parents are harder to get a hold of, and generally less available.  The lowest performing students have a variety of behavioral issues, and their home-lives tend to be the most unstable.  Their parents might have substance abuse problems, issues with the law, and are frequently very difficult to get a hold of.  These students take up most of the teacher's time, and generally place a heavy burden on the rest of the class.  Some of these students will of course be successful despite their backgrounds, but it is a daily struggle.  Just the other day, I overheard one of my students tell a friend that, when she told her mom about another student who was causing problems with her, that she should "beat that bitch's ass".  "But Mom, I said, "as the student went on to describe the conversation, "I can't get in trouble again for fighting because of my probation!  I don't care, she said - that bitch deserves it!"

In the film Waiting for Superman, you can guess which parents are clamoring to get into the exclusive charter schools.

Too often, we see such a simplistic model of how SES relates to a student's human capital, or their total abilities to be successful. SES is a powerful general predictor, but it is just that - general. Too often it is assumed to represent more than it should. As it is mostly used in education, it refers only to parent income. But that is only one measure of what is a much more complex picture of SES.

A proper measure of SES would include not only family income but things like parent education, whether the family is intact, are there health issues both physical and psychological, neighborhood safety, substance abuse, etc. The number of factors is almost endless, and there are limits to what can reasonably be measured when designing policy. But that doesn't mean that confining ourselves to a simplistic model frees us from being limited by our data. Just the opposite, it means our data is superficial, and any conclusions we derive from it will be limited.

So, by looking only at parent income, two families could look similarly disadvantaged on paper, while in reality having wildly different levels of disadvantage.