Thursday, March 18, 2010

Armchair Teachers

As part of a round table discussion on education reform at The New Republic, Kevin Carey responds to Diane Ravitch:
Meanwhile, you say the intensive instructional model used by "high-performing charter chains such as KIPP and Achievement First" is "inherently unsustainable because it discourages teacher professionalism and relies on a steady infusion of newcomers." If the schools are high-performing without teacher professionalism, what does that say about professionalism as you define it? And what's unsustainable about relying on a steady infusion of newcomers? If one thing is certain, it's that our colleges will graduate a fresh batch of them every year.

Kevin, Kevin, Kevin...

Let me just start by assuming that you have worked in a number of poor schools, have an intimate knowledge of the many struggles that face such populations of students and parents - where drugs, crime, prison, delinquency, and behavioral problems are manifest.  Let me also assume you've taught at schools where everyone seems generally contented, well rested, fed, secure in their homes and beds.  Let me also assume that you have worked with feckless administrations that have no comprehensive vision for a school, and fail to provide vital support where it is needed most - such as disciplinary policy, student intervention, or a basic level of staff leadership building.  And you've seen amazing principles that give powerpoint presentations to staff, check in on them frequently, make an effort to hear their concerns and make sure they are well supported, both inside the school and in the community.

I'll also assume that you have worked with classrooms full of students whose parents are unavailable for contact, either because they don't return calls or because their phone has been disconnected.  Or in some cases you've maybe found an older sibling who has promised to try and help a student with his or her homework because the parent works late and there is no one else around.  You've worked in buildings that are falling apart, where extra duties are arbitrarily assigned, or schedules are changed at the last minute, usually by memo.

I'll assume you've sat with administrators who have never taught in the kind of environment you have (if they have taught at all), have little content knowledge, have no rapport with children and yet are very comfortable filling in the bubbles on a little evaluation form that they base entirely on about 15 minutes total of your teaching.  You've smiled as they complimented you on how nicely you've displayed every single standard for your grade in letters too small to read further than 2 feet away yet somehow manage to take up half a classroom wall.  I'll also assume you've had a teacher next door who likes to bad-mouth students in racial tones, yet gets along so well with the principle that despite her daily yelling and obvious lack of management skills somehow manages to keep her job.

I'll assume you've struggled with the dilemma of how much to lower your standards in order to keep a student from deciding to give up completely.  That you've struggled with what to do with the student who you only see for brief periods of the day, who is grade levels behind, and whose sole mission in life appears to be to do the very minimum to get by, much less make any attempt whatsoever to answer the state tests correctly.  I'll assume you've given up your sanity in a daily effort to be the one constant a kid's life, in a world that keeps failing them, for the promise of a decent, salaried union job, with summers off, in which you can reflect on what to do better next year and not worry whether your asshole boss is going to fire you because his boss just didn't like you.

Let me assume that you have seen really good teachers, as well as really bad ones.  But for the most part they had their own unique style and that what worked for one didn't always work for another.  You saw amazing feats of courage and honesty, dedication and sacrifice, as well as depression, anger, panic, confusion and hopelessness.  You saw teachers have good years, then bad.  You saw some who were amazing in some areas - such as emotional rapport or enthusiasm, yet weak in others, such as discipline or routine.  And vice-versa.  You saw different classrooms bring out different dynamics.  You saw some teachers barely using any of the curriculum, yet achieving great results.  You saw others sticking to the script literally minute by minute, and never seeming to get much out of their kids.

And so what do you think when you hear the rhetoric of the new progressive reformers: accountability, high standards, incentives, charters, evil unions and all the rest?  Does any of it seem like it might make much of a difference?  Are unions really standing in the way of good teaching?  Are charter schools, with the same population and budget going to be any better at sustaining a positive culture of learning and success than public schools?   Just because some schools are able to be effective in the current model despite the odds, does that mean that we should continue that model and blame the majority of cases where the model has broken down for any number of reasons?

Is the problem really that all the bad teachers just happen to be at the poorest schools with the most difficult, disadvantaged populations the farthest behind academically, while all the good teachers just happen to be at the nicest schools, with the wealthiest parents and best behaved, most prepared children?

Because I assumed the former, I'll also assume the answers to the latter.  To the extent that this wasn't reflected in your piece, I'll pretend that it represented some kind of satire about how out-of-touch wonks who graduated from college and went straight into some think tank, read their copy of education week cover to cover and have a completely idealized and unrealistic impression of what goes on in the classrooms they pretend to write about, much less the actual neighborhoods in which these classrooms exist, and who sit in their cozy DC offices and pen odes to some newfangled Utopian scheme that simply won't work on a national or state-wide basis.  Because surely, the cognitive dissonance would be just too much to bear.  It would be like Orwell climbing out of the coal muck and then writing about how those lazy miners just need to pep up a bit and work a bit smarter in order to avoid those pesky injuries.

I'll end with a prescription you seem to think is required of Ms. Ravitch before she goes poking holes in your grand new theories.

The achievement gap in America is entirely structural.  Our current system basically acts as though there is no such thing as socio-economic status, and that it has little bearing on education outcomes.  The new reformers never tire of presenting examples of schools which do with public money what other schools can't.  That's fine as far as it goes, which isn't very far.  These schools often get outside money, require excessive and unsustainable, non-market-scalable sacrifices from their teachers, or simply enjoy the tidy convenience of having their stars align.

The long of the matter is that we are expecting to get similar outcomes with very different populations.  If you know the first thing about early childhood and SES in education, you know that poor kids are disadvantaged in many ways, and that shows up in their ability to perform at school.  The website shows rather neatly just how wedded SES is to API, giving a detailed look at the geography of achievement.

Title I funding is a drop in the bucket.  While some of it is good, and targeted, it needs to be ramped up tremendously, and expanded beyond the school walls.   These are community problems after all that we are talking about.  Susan Neuman has done good work on determining what kinds of targeted community programs have produced results in early childhood.  The Harlem Children's Zone has incorporated much of this philosophy into its plans.   Literally, direct intervention needs to be happening in hospitals - actually sooner.  Poor mothers need to be enrolled in parenting programs.  Environmental monitoring needs to be done to check for lead and other toxins.  Community initiatives need to be created that expand on the public library model, into technology and learning clinics, where parents can learn everything from English to nutrition, to discipline and cognitive behavioral training.  Home nurse visits need to be made an integral part of every poor child's life.  Academic progress can be monitored, as well as emotional and health check-ups.

Because as it stands right now, the kid shows up in Kindergarten out of the blue.  He gets a free lunch, and is shunted into a class with 30 other kids.  The teacher is then expected to get every body at or above grade level in a positive, rewarding and healthy manner so that school is a place they actually enjoy.  But then they're out the door and on their own until tomorrow.  Neither the school nor the teacher has the adequate resources to guarantee that every single kid that comes through that door - and then leaves 13 years later - can be adequately said to not have been "left behind".

Society has simply not made the commitment, either because of a lack of will or understanding that what we are talking about is nothing less than ending generational poverty as we know it.  All this talk of reform is mere diddling around the margins, promising the world and delivering little change at all.  In fact, the further the new reformers go towards burning teachers at the stake, the harder it will have become. Because no one in their right mind will be attracted to such a failing, dysfunctional system that offers no promise as a respectable career (I think that's what Diane meant when she referred to "professionalism"),  or advocacy for a job that already requires such emotional sacrifice already (remember, it's called "teaching"), let alone being asked to single-handedly end poverty and social immobility.


  1. I can't thank you enough for leaving this comment on TNR. I deal with the same things you've written about every day. Keep up the good work!

    Let me add that Kevin Carey is an arrogant, babbling dunce and should be ignored by everyone forever.

  2. I was all ready to comment on the very same paragraph when I read your brilliant and incisive post. Thank you, thank you.