xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Don't Forget South Central: 2013

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reign of Error Affirms That We Are Not Failures

As a career classroom teacher, it has been a surreal experience to live trough the transformation of my profession. Where once upon a time teachers were vaunted, valued and respected, we are now the primary culprits for society's ills such as poverty, unemployment, and crime.

In this blog, I have written about the folks who have let schools down long before education reform came along, the same folks who blame teachers for "failing schools" yet who never lifted a finger to intervene against budget cuts, layoffs, the siphoning of higher performing students and resources to charters, etc.

There is one national figure who has consistently pointed out the contradictions in the education reform movement and battled valiantly against the education reformers. That person is education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch and her latest book, Reign of Error, is a must read for anyone interested in knowing the truth about what is happening in public schools today.

It was with great anticipation that I received a copy of the book the week before its release so that I could do a review on my blog. It did not let me down and it won't let you down either if you are looking for the truth about schools in America today.

One by one, piece by piece, Dr. Ravitch deconstructs the myths surrounding education reform:

  • high school graduation rates are dismal (false)
  • poverty has no effect on achievement (false)
  • merit pay improves achievement (false)
  • value added methodology can improve teaching (false)
  • education is in a crisis as demonstrated by our ranking on international tests (false)
I want to address the issue that our schools our failing and that is why we must move toward privatization in order to save them. Over and over through surveys, conversations, studies, parents have indicated that they support the public schools their children attend. Do they want to see improvements, of course. So do teachers. We share the same learning/work conditions. We thrive together and we suffer together.

But the message parents are receiving, along with the broader public, is that parents are wrong. Schools are in the worst shape they have ever been in, students won't be employable in the future, and teachers are causing them a life of poverty. We as teachers instinctively know this is wrong, but Reign of Error devastates the myth firmly and completely.

Dr. Ravitch can't be fooled by numbers because she is a professor of education. Something as simple as different methodologies of calculating a statistic can lead to wildly different conclusions on issues such as high school graduation. Are schools dropout factories, or are we helping students earn high school degrees in greater numbers than ever before? The latter is closer to the truth.

As a teacher who has participated in teacher delegations to Asian countries I can attest to what Dr. Ravitch discusses in the analysis of international test scores. Yes, Confucius did a great job preparing his students and entire civilizations for The Test. But today, Chinese and Japanese schools look to us for guidance on creativity and innovation. Why do we want to give up one of our greatest assets: the ability to produce thinkers, artists, and creators? Can't we learn from each other?

Reign of Error concludes that disparaging schools makes it easier for the public to accept their destruction and re-creation as private entities. Schools are being closed in cities nationwide and its all based on a false premise, that schools are failing. We are not failing! We are working with children that come to school under the most difficult circumstances in recent memory. Has the Great Recession affected you? It has affected families from poverty even more so. Yet our graduation rates are up. More children can read and do math. We outscore students from other countries when you factor for poverty. Reign of Error rejects the labeling of schools as failures and rightly assigns responsibility to district administrators who fail to act when they become aware that a school is under-resourced and all they offer is labels and blame.

Just as the Chicano art mural above rejects the label of minority, we educators reject the label of failures. Hold us accountable for what we is within our reach and fix what isn't. How to start doing this? Read the book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Willful Defiance...

It is the dream again. The one where you're standing at the front of a classroom and a roomful of defiant students is disobeying your every instruction, laughing at your every command for order. It's a nightmare actually, and many teachers have it on a recurring basis. I'm sure Freud or any other psychoanalyst would have something to say about the root causes, but I think it boils down to fear. Teachers have an enormous responsibility for the welfare and education of each and every one of their charges. But when it comes down to it, the vast majority of time, teachers are alone in the classroom, outnumbered 35 to 1.

In real life, most would not guess that I suffer from this nightmare as I am one of the stronger presences on my gritty, urban middle school campus. I am a veteran of the curse-outs, pushes, shoves, death threats and punches. Flying doors that smack you in the face? Not me, I keep a three foot distance from the range of doors. Water bottles thrown down the stairs and hitting you smack on the head? Not gonna happen, I always look up before climbing to the second or third stories. And as for suspending students for not bringing pencils or talking back? Well, lets just say the consequences I impose on my students are less desired than suspensions.

Yet I support respecting the discretion of teachers to issue a suspension for willful defiance.

The truth is that over my 20 years as an educator in an urban district I have seen student behavior get worse, not better. Teachers are being asked to take on the roles of counselors, therapists, disciplinarians, and now food servers, as we implement Breakfast In the Classroom next year. Which is fine. I'm up for the challenge.

But don't take away my tools for behavior modification.

Counselors disappeared years ago. Psychiatric social workers are a luxury most schools can't afford. Administrators are carrying the largest loads ever, and support staff is severely limited. Budget cuts have left schools with skeleton staffs and the students know it. No one is there to help me. It is my nightmare come to life.

I have many tools at my disposal as a seasoned educator. Even the most defiant of students tones it down when it comes to my classroom. But every now and then you have to show students you can and will remove them from the classroom and even the school if they are unwilling to maintain the integrity of the classroom. I'm not talking about defiance toward me exclusively. It could be a student that won't stop calling your daughter a female dog, or your son a homosexual. One boy could not stop making sexual remarks in spite of getting a primo counseling spot with our school's only therapist and the parents were not able to stop him either. So when he got into an argument with a girl and said she needed to be raped, he had to go!
The counseling didn't work. The parents were ineffective. It's me, the defiant student, and 34 other children. And now I'm supposed to keep him in the classroom? I do not agree.

Most suspensions I've been involved with have to do with other teacher's students. I have no connection with them, cannot teach them the value system we create in the classroom. These are the students that say F you when you ask them to go to class, or blatantly tell you they are ditching when you ask them where they are supposed to be. Just yesterday I called for assistance on my radio in one such case, and the student laughed all the way to his next ditch spot. What can we do to help students understand how to respect authority? I do not have the answer to that. I think it lays with parenting. I think it has to do with the lack of follow through by burned out teachers who have had to deal with years, decades of troubled students with little support, and certainly no respect. Those kids know they can wear a teacher out and only the crazy ones will hunt you down to give you your consequence.

I believe that removing the right to suspend students for wililful defiance neglects the reality that the role of teachers has changed. I'd give anything to not have to discipline students, but no one else is taking care of that for me. And the truth is that the smartest of the defiant students (and many of them are very smart) will figure it out and take it as an approval of their sometimes horrid behavior. And as this policy is set to start next school year,I hope with my deepest of hopes to be wrong.