Sunday, February 15, 2009

Shame on US

Nicholas D. Kristof has written an opinion piece, "Our Greatest National Shame," for the New York Times. I paused to read the piece fully expecting to read about dumping more debt onto future generations, ToddlerTate being my future generation. Instead, Kristof broadly sweeps through public education and labeling us as the greatest shame. Well, actually, the failure of some students who pass through our halls.
He tells us that other countries are better than us. He tells us that some schools and programs have had success.
He points out that an education degree doesn't make a better teacher--a point I fully agree with, as well as the corollary that a master's degree doesn't make for a better principal.
And then of course he finishes with:
One of the greatest injustices is that America’s best teachers overwhelmingly teach America’s most privileged students. In contrast, the most disadvantaged students invariably get the least effective teachers, year after year — until they drop out.

May I punch the screen, honey. We'll buy another one and thus support our economy.

What evidence suggests that the "best teachers" teach privileged students? Is it the test scores, the G.P.A.'s, the college admittances? Or could it be that those students will succeed in spite of mediocre teaching?
Yes, I'm defensive. I've taught privileged students and disadvantaged students. In both places I've seen great teaching, average teaching, and ridiculously poor teaching. The difference isn't in the number of quality teachers, the difference is in the students.
No, I won't say that our disadvantaged students can't learn. But I will say the task is much more difficult, and for a host of reasons:

A third grade teacher who formerly taught at a private school now teaches at a poverty school. She sends home newsletters, notes, and homework folders. When she finally is afforded a meeting with a parent of a student who is failing, the parent admits to never reading those letters, notes, or ensuring that the students has accomplished the homework.

With little money coming in from property taxes, and numerous budgets being rejected, young and fresh teachers are let go, professional development for brand new research based interventions get scrapped, windows stay broken, halls remain unkempt.

Every outside reform agency, from NEASC to Cambridge to the State, want you to implement their version of success, simultaneously and without collaboration. A host of new initiatives and meetings take away from the time a teacher has to prepare.

Theory tells us that wildly disruptive students should not get out of school suspensions. The State says that OSS is not an option in the future, find a new way to discipline consistent troublemakers.

Free will. That's right. Free will. If you've ever dealt with a toddler, you know what this is like. Now, add twelve years of firming that defiance, that mindset, and multiply that number by some non-researched or empirically sound number like 450 and that is what teaching at an urban school is like. NOT ALL URBAN SCHOOLS; I better get that out there before all of my detractors come hounding me.

You see, people--yes, the general public, come see what it is like. Come spend some time and observe the students, observe the teachers. What you will find is not what you read about in the NY Times op-ed page.
You will find wonderful teachers who are tired, worn down, from the constant test of wills. You will find wonderful students who are tired, worn down, from the constant pain of circumstance. And if after spending more than a glancing moment at these schools, if you still believe that public education is the shame of the nation, then okay, shame on US.

17 Comments:

At 5:56 AM , Blogger The Science Goddess said...

So let me play Satan's Little Helper here for a minute...

Kristof's sweeping statement about best teachers/most privileged students may not be so much about the system as a whole as it is about smaller pieces of it.

For example, how many high schools do you know that assign classes to teach based on tenure? The teachers who have been there the longest get the greatest proportion of the upper level classes while newer teachers get the "low classes."

There is a good argument to be made that "experienced" is not equivalent to "good" in terms of teaching, but this is how administration often treats things.

I agree that there (system-wide) there are outstanding teachers who make the choice to work in difficult situations instead of using their tenure to leverage them away from such frustrations, but on a smaller level, is that what is happening?

 
At 8:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am interested in your views on Classroom Management. I am keeping track of the "Time on Task" for a rural third grade Science class. (approximately 55 minutes long, divided into two days). I will be noticing Off-Task Behaviors, Management Strategies, Interventions, etc. Our unit is on weather. Do you have any ideas/suggestions?

 
At 11:02 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

By "time on task," I suppose you mean the number of students engaged at any given time? That is an important piece of classroom mangagement.
Also, pay attention to praise, both the frequency and type.

 
At 4:29 PM , Blogger Polski3 said...

Anonymous....regarding TOT, IMO, this is harder to achieve when students are in a group. There will almost always be someone in the group who does not pull their weight when it comes to the work, or will just want to mess around. For science grouping, does the teacher assign specific jobs to each group member ( team manager, recorder, gopher, etc.)?

Praise can also be a determet to some students. Be careful how praise is given. I have had students get grief from their current peer group because they were singled out for some sort of "school-boy/girl" achievement. Sometimes, praise is best given quietly and perhaps not in public.

As for the news article, many person in the media who hammer on teachers use this notion of the best teachers teaching the best students; the "worse/inexperienced" teachers teaching the poorer/lower achieving students" mantra as a way to blast the teachers union for holding up "reform" and denying what is in the best interest of the students.

IIRC, even the esteemed Jaime Escalente (Stand and Deliver), found his vehicle vandalized at his barrio/gangland school in east LA......Teaching aside, what person in their right mind would put up with a job with those sort of problems?

 
At 5:37 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

I agree with Polski regarding praise. The reason I would track praise is two-fold:
1. What type of praise is given?
2. How often and for what reason is praise given?

 
At 7:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For my lesson that I will be monitoring Time on Task, I will have 3 groups of 6 students each learning about Weather Forecasting. We will be planning indoor vs. outdoor activities for an imaginary camping trip. First we will have a class discussion on 1) Cloud Forecasting 2) Wind Forecasting & 3)Senses Forecasting. Then we will go outside in our groups & write down our observations. Each group will draw conclusions on the 3 types of Weather Forecasting. When we come in we will discuss our findings, talk about Modern Forecasting & have a 10 question multiple choice quiz. I like your ideas about praise. When I comment on how much I like what a student is doing, the others usually do the same thing.

 
At 3:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In our rural town of 9000 people our school budget is being cut by $775,000 next year. One thing to go is $100,000 in our SAGE Funding. This is a federally funded class reduction program. Additional teachers are needed to meet the class size mandates and currently the district is forced to provide a local match. Do you think class size has much to do with Classroom Management? I have seen some very well run large classes and wild small ones. Do you think it has more to do with how the teacher runs the class?

 
At 6:31 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

I have taught Pre-College English classes with 36 seniors and little off-task behavior. The students came in motivated and trusting that I could help them achieve their goals. So, the size of the class shouldn't matter too much. Certainly the teacher plays an important role in setting the tone.
I have learned that my casual style works well with some classes and is disasterous with others. Successful Classroom Management begins with evaluating student personalities.
More than anything else, I believe the teacher must adjust to the needs of the class, no matter the size. If he can do that, along with connecting with the students, he will succeed (or she).

 
At 6:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is important to take the different learning styles of the students into consideration. Do you feel you can have a better connection with your students because they are Seniors and you may have seen some of them around before? In our high school we have AP classes in the same subject taught by more than one teacher. There is a common thread that seems to help students choose which teacher to pick. We have some teaches that have few assignments which are graded at high percentages and others who give many smaller assignments at lower percentages. The ones who give more assignments almost always gets picked. I think the students are more relaxed if they think they may have more chances to get things right. As parents, we didn't know what extreme differences there were in this area until we were given access to our student's WebGrader accounts.
(I'm sure there are many other reasons students favor one teacher's class over another, but this seems to be a common theme.)
I also like WebGrader to send comments and questions to teachers on. Some here do not check their email often. Do you use WebGrader or something like it? Do you find it helpful? My daughter has always wanted to go to UW-Madison. When she was a freshman I took her there for a tour. I reminded her that she needed to take AP courses and do well in them in order to get there. I think she actually needed to see what was available to her if she did well in school.
Having goals in life is important. I have seen Classroom Managment put into action by peers. Kids get tired of others who are goofing around when they are trying to learn.

 
At 4:54 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Certainly teacher familiarity can breed a degree of respect. That year I did not have a reputation yet because it was my first year at the school.
Programs like WebGrader are excellent at allowing parents access to their child's education.
In general I agree that students eventually want to learn. So when others are goofing off it bother them. However, in too many schools, those students who want to learn do not have the social capital to shun the misbehaving students. The majority of the class will defer to the clowns.

 
At 10:48 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sooial Capital? I like that term. You are correct. It is important to make sure that the students who are doing what they are supposed to be get as much of out times as those who are behaving negatively.I am still evaluating Time on Task for my science class. Do you have any good strategies for handling students that are disrupting others or when they are visibly disengaged such as daydreaming? I need both verbal and nonverbal suggestions to compare to my own reactions to these incidents.

 
At 4:31 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

For off-task behavior, the basic non-verbal cue is proximity. Your presence next to a daydreamer is often enough to get them to focus. I have mixed results with proximity and regular talkers. As soon as I move away, the talking continues.
A question directed at a student near the daydreamer can get his attention without making him feel embarrassed.
From there, you can try redirection, which requires you to address the student by informing him of what you want them to do instead of noting the off-task behavior.
A directive statement, like "Mikey, we need you to stop talking," can also be used.

 
At 6:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your ideas show respect to the student. That is very important. I like positive interventions and nonverbal management strategies. I agree about proximity and talkers. They usually just start talking to me about something off task.
I have a problem with 4 of the 3rd grade girls being very verbally mean to each other. They really get nasty. Their parents, the principal and in 1 girl's case social services has been involved. It doesn't seem to end and it disrupts the whole class.
Any ideas on this one? The principal is there 1/2 days or every other day because he divides his time between schools. The parents are not supportive. Each seems to be sure the other child is starting it.

 
At 2:21 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Wow, that sounds like a difficult task. There is an excellent book called Crucial Conversations which I suggest every teacher read. The book helps with having the difficult yet critical conversations in life.
I am a go getter, an upfront person, so I would start with a group meeting with the students invovled. From there, I would include the parents in the conversation. The important piece would be to moderate and facilitate a discussion with your specific goal in mind: harmony.

 
At 7:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds like a interesting book. Do you remember the author? I'd like to read it.
I know of 2 meetings with 1 of the parents where the mom didn't show up or even call to say she wouldn't be there.
I will keep your suggestions in mind. Thanks.

 
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