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Teacher Interventions, Education Policy and Common Sense

There are some indisputable laws in our natural world – If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band, for example. One such law chiseled into granite over the last few decades is that if there’s one sector that doesn’t understand that relationship between the forest and the trees, it’s American public education.

I follow thousands of teachers, policy players, politicians and other interested parties on blogs (~600 subscriptions), newsletters, discussion groups and social media (namely Twitter). I don’t have to pore over mountains of commentary or content to compile a convincing list of proof; here’s a rundown exposing the blindness and general mark-missing – sometimes deliberate, sometimes not, and sometimes by simply not showing up – that came from 10 minutes of reading.

Teacher Interventions

Alexander Russo notifies us that A&E will introduce this fall a show called “Classroom Intervention” in which struggling, underperforming teachers are smacked with professional reality – namely that they struggle and underperform. Their work will be analyzed and presented to them with strategies/mechanisms to improve performance. I commented:

“From reading teacher-to-teacher discussions on blogs, chats, and events like the weekly Twitter #edchat, I had the impression that all teachers were motivated, future-thinking “lifelong learners” – along with most of their colleagues.

That A&E has rounded up a few teachers in need of improvement will be a difficult reality for many of the education cult leaders to deny.”

I poked around the internet and there’s remarkably little discussion of this show. As I said, it flies in the face of so much discussion I witness – hop on to hashtags.org and search for #edchat. Rhetoric, ego-boosting and back-patting rules the day – every day.

There’s a place for encouragement, but this show raises many fundamental questions about education in 2010:

  • Why are these teachers ill-equipped to teach effectively?
  • Did they go through a teacher training program at the undergraduate level? What faults in teacher education led them to underperform in the classroom?
  • If they were certified to teach by a state, how is it that they enter the classroom without the basic skills they need to succeed? Is the certification process that flawed? If so, how can it be improved?
  • Why is it necessary for A&E to do interventions when colleges, certification bodies and day-to-day administrators – from their department heads to principals to superintendents to school boards – are already in place to monitor, serve and improve teaching?

We know the answers to some of these – and there are many more basic questions. The point is that these are significant issues that aren’t being discussed by the education sector.

Bridging the Gap Between… Something

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute calls attention to the current divide between education research, policy-making and implementation:

“Bridging the divide between education research and education policy can be difficult, but we came one step closer this week when we co-hosted the first Emerging Education Policy Scholars program with the American Enterprise Institute. The program aims to cultivate emerging talent in the education policy sector.”

Yes, it’s difficult – and mostly because our public education players have failed to address seminal issues that lead to the difficulties.

The summit for budding ed policy scholars purports:

  • To enlarge the pool of talent and ideas from which the education-policy arena currently draws;
  • To introduce scholars to key players in the education policy arena; and
  • To increase understanding of how the worlds of policy and practice intersect with scholarly research in education and related fields.

TBF and AEI, for all their good works, shows their fundamental misunderstanding of the problem in the very first sentence: Enlarging the pool of talent is less important than recruiting more talented people. It’s not that all education policy folks are dolts – they aren’t, especially at those two outfits – but the goal doesn’t address education’s inability to attract high-level talent. Applicants to education-related fields are in the bottom quartile for GRE scores as reported by ETS. Do we really need more of the same – stocking the pond with third-rate fish? – or do we need to find out why the whoppers are choosing engineering and physics instead of education policy, and then find out how to change that pattern?

Aside from the quality over quantity issue, we need to call this what it is: A networking event poorly disguised as an analytical conference. Young folks in the D.C. area will get to shake hands with Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess and attend the all-important “cocktail hour”:

“The event will also allow ample time—during discussion sessions, meals, and a cocktail hour—for scholars to build professional connections and share research and ideas.”

Think the cocktail hour isn’t important to policy wonks? In April, I was at an education event in New York City in which a young gentleman stood up to ask a panelist to give him “talking points for cocktail parties” re: school reform.

That’s the education policy culture we’ve got, folks.

46,000 Hours of “Poker Face”

And, on the ground, we’ve got higher ed’s librarians re-writing and lip-synching Lady Gaga songs. There are quite a few students, employees and faculty in this video – I stopped counting at 16 – who I’d love to introduce to the kids on my block. 93% of them qualify for free/reduced lunch and only ~30% of the elementary school’s 5th graders read with any degree of proficiency (~100% are proficient in Gaga).

The librarians can’t be blamed for 638,000 people having watched and laughed through their goofy video (which includes a witty Boolean line), though the opportunity cost of it all could have been considered – roughly 46,000 hours have been spent just watching the thing. And that’s the rub – On Our Minds at Scholastic asks:

“There are librarians, future librarians, shelves stacked high with books…and Lady Gaga! What’s not to love??”

My answer: 46,000 wasted hours within and without the ed community while kids struggle with the basics – the basics those in the video have likely committed themselves to, at least in theory, improving. Harsh, but true.

“No, Really!”

Over at The Educated Reporter, Linda Perlstein advises that we spice up the summer by focusing on the insignificant:

“No, really! One of my favorite pieces to write on the ed beat was about an odd policy on the books of the Montgomery County Public Schools, encouraging teachers to mix up alphabetical order so as to not discriminate against the Z kids. The article took only an afternoon to report and write, and would have been even shorter and sweeter were it not for the Metro editor’s superfluous insistence that I include an expert comment and find out—on deadline, natch—whether every other D.C.-area had such a policy on the books. I got more feedback on that piece than anything else I wrote all month.

Maybe you too should look for some archaic or offbeat policies on the books of your school system, if you can’t figure out anything better to do before pitchers and catchers report.”

I commented on the piece:

“As a guy, I’ve been a “T” all my life. In most of my elementary school years, we lined up for lunch alphabetically. This meant that in a period ~40 minutes, I spent 10-15 minutes in line and had the balance to eat. Those at the front of the line didn’t have to wait for their meals or eat them on a deadline. Hungry 8-year old alphabet cellar dwellers appreciate switching it up now and then.

That it’s policy is the part worth noting. We’ve got such an absence of common sense that we need it to be explicit policy to appear at all – and that’s troubling.”

Believe it or not, Montgomery County Schools has bigger fish to fry – nearly a quarter of the County’s Hispanic students don’t graduate, for example. (In fairness, perhaps it’s an alphabetical discrimination issue?)

At ParentHood.org, Wondermom3 opines on the issue:

“Wondermom3: I always dismiss my kiddos to lunch by who is sitting criss-cross applesauce, but what do I know? LOL.”

LOL, indeed.

Education as a House

If those involved in public education were instead building and developing a household, we’d have the #edchat, ed school and teacher back-patter folks discussing issues like, “What is a house anyway?” while ignoring their inability to produce heads of household who can ensure that the thing actually functions.

We’d have think-tanks talking about how best to build the house while paying too little mind to who’s in the construction crew and too much mind to holding impressive neighborhood barbecues.

We’d have the media specialists giggling over drapes, carpeting and design accessories while the roof leaks, the basement is flooded and the foundation crumbles.

And we’d have the journalists – our home inspectors and code enforcers in this analogy – musing about all the goings-on while dodging the charging 800lb gorillas that lay waste to the neighborhood.

We’ve got some basic questions that need answers.

Stanford’s STEP Teacher Education Program, Social Justice and Dressing in Drag

Mission High School logo

It’s no secret that if you don’t toe the philosophical line in many teacher education programs, you encounter hindrances that range from brick walls to ambushes to professional punji pits. Sometimes it’s the administration; sometimes professors; sometimes peers. And sometimes all three work together to make sure you get the message that freedom of thought is fine – as long as you think the same way as the School of Education.

It plays hell with one’s career in education.

Occasionally we hear about a student whose worldview isn’t as malleable as the EduWeenies would like.

Michele Kerr is a 40-something who applied to Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program and was admitted. After letting it be known that she wasn’t on board with every element of the Program’s ‘social justice’ tenets, the problems quickly mounted. She was threatened with having her offer of admission revoked, including planning legal action to see that through. She was railroaded into being an enemy of the program, with administrators citing that students even felt uncomfortable sitting near her in classes because of her anti-progressive stances. The final straw was when the Program demanded a login and password for the blog on which she wrote anonymously about her challenges both with the program and the school environment in which she was training.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE] – a champion of freedom in academia – stepped in. As they have so many times, they set the offenders straight and Kerr was guaranteed fair treatment. Adam Kissel of FIRE summarized the issue:

“Like STEP, too many education programs today are teaching by words and deeds that only one orthodoxy or ideology is acceptable in future teachers,” Kissel said. “This refusal to accept alternative views is no way to prepare teachers to cultivate effective citizens in our democracy. Fortunately, senior administrators stepped in to set things right for Michele Kerr.”

You can read FIRE’s press release about the case: Victory for Freedom of Speech at Stanford: Student Graduates Despite Ed School Efforts to Revoke Admission, Investigate Private Blog, and Declare Student Unfit for Teaching.

That an outfit even has to investigate an issue warranting a title like that should make you balk – and it’s more common than you think.

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews should also be praised for swallowing that most bitter pill and highlighting Kerr’s case even though he’s on a different philosophical track. He gives a well-detailed account of Kerr’s saga in “They Messed With the Wrong Blogger.”

Too few people, both inside and outside of the education game, understand how common this is – and how pervasive social justice theories are in schools of education. But we’re not just talking about pointy-headed academics who regard 1968 as the high-water mark of American life; it shows up in everyday classes, too.

You know, like “frequently” discussing sexuality in your kid’s geometry/trigonometry class.

Taica Hsu is a 2006 alumnus of STEP. He teaches math at Mission High School, part of the San Francisco Unified School District, in the city’s Mission District. The setting:

“Mission High School has the distinction of being the first comprehensive high school in San Francisco and the first such school west of the Rocky Mountains. The first building was formally dedicated in 1897. Mission High School is proud of its rich history and we have our very own museum on campus which highlights the evolution of Mission High over the past 100+ years. Located in the heart of the Mission District in San Francisco, Mission High is proud of its ethnic diversity and we try to instill positive social values, acceptance and tolerance in our students.”

And “in [Hsu's] world, trigonometry points to justice.”

A MissionLoc@l article about Hsu’s classroom offers an inside view into how STEP students/teachers – and those in similar programs – approach education:

“On one wall, of his purple-painted classroom, posters proclaim the ills of war and social stratification. On another, algebra students’ projects statistically break down the injustices of homeless, drugs and teen pregnancy.

“My ultimate goal is to make students aware of the inequities in society,” he says. “I want to make them want to change their place in society.””

I’d rather they just learned math, but such trivialities are increasingly displaced by the pet projects of the education game’s social engineers.

“And in his class, where a rainbow flag hangs in the back of the room and the teacher wears a “No on 8? pin more than a week after the measure has passed, sexuality also comes up.

Gilberto [a student] had never met an openly-gay person before coming to Hsu’s class, he says. He thought homosexuality was “weird,” and he balked at the idea of having Hsu as geometry teacher.”

I’m pleased that Gilberto is more accepting and tolerant than he was on day 1 – after all, he’ll encounter people of all sorts throughout the course of his life. But Hsu’s efforts impinge on the authority of parents to address these issues at home. Simply put, I’d rather talk to my child about the merits and drawbacks of Prop 8 than have it woven into a lesson about trigonometric proofs.

Extracurricular clubs and events provide opportunities for students to go beyond rigid academic disciplines – and for Hsu to extend a social justice program that includes fostering a ‘them vs. us’ strain of victimization:

““He knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, just like us,” Gilberto says, with “us” meaning all undocumented immigrants. “He relates to us. He understands. So even though it doesn’t look like it, we both have something in common.”

Discrimination is everywhere – perhaps Mr. Hsu would allow me to come in and talk to the kids about Southwest London’s contempt for American, George W. Bush-supporting Republicans who enjoy country music and operate with a decidedly-rural panache?

It’s not all serious, thoughtful curriculum, though – sometimes he and the kids just dress up in drag:

“Hsu encourages awareness of queer issues on campus. He is the faculty sponsor of the gay-straight alliance, which hosts a drag show to honor the Day of Silence in the spring.”"

Surely Mission High School has so much time and so many resources for these forays because they’ve outperformed every other school in the SFUSD, routinely topping the charts in academic performance?

No. Mission High is one of the lowest-performing schools in the District, having received a rating of 1 out of 10 – with 1 being the lowest possible score – in the 2008 Academic Performance Index Report from the California Department of Education. The June Jordan School for Equity competes with Mission High for that last rung on the SFUSD ladder. And the problem isn’t that Mission High has a large population of non-native English speakers and English Language Learners [ELL] – Moscone Elementary, which, according to Mission Loc@l, has a majority population of ELLs, scored a 9 out of 10.

It isn’t necessarily Hsu’s fault – we have no idea how his efforts contribute to those scores. What we do know is that STEP and its graduates would do well to re-evaluate their priorities if they want to institute the fairness and commitment to academic achievement that they purport to uphold.

Or they can marginalize the Michele Kerrs of the education world, mix homosexual marriage rights with Euclidean geometry, dress in drag and retreat from abysmal test scores. Our students won’t be prepared for college, but at least they’ll be ready for the Folsom Street Fair.

Public Education Discussion on RFC Radio, Wednesday, June 17, 10pm EST

There will be an hour of talk radio dedicated to discussing the general state of public education in the US airing tonight, Wednesday, June 17th, at 10pm EST on RFCradio on Dr. Melissa Clouthier’s “The Right Doctor” show.

The Right Doctor has an exciting guest for the evening – me – and we’ll be talking about all sorts of topics related to education: a bit of legislation, some teaching, some local school administration/governance.

You can listen to the show by going to www.rfcradio.com and clicking ‘Listen.’

There will also be a live chat as the show airs – I’ll be in the room, along with the Doctor and many others, to discuss elements of the show or any related topic that comes up. You can access the chat by going to www.rfcradio.com/chat .

See you there – and if you can’t make it, I’ll link to the podcast [which includes about 15 minutes of additional content] when it’s available.

RFC Radio - Radio for Conservatives

NEA’s Teacher Thank You Card

I rarely speak or write of the NEA in a way that would warm the cockles of that organization’s heart. Their lobbying efforts don’t warrant it.

Individual teachers, however, shouldn’t be punished for their union’s misgivings. That’s why the NEA-sponsored Thank a Teacher website is worth a moment:

On May 4th, NEA unveiled the [teacher thanks] mural at The Cannon House, the oldest congressional office building in Washington, DC. NEA and national leaders joined hundreds of local public school students, their teachers and teachers of the year for the event.

It’s a simple thing – a mural of thank you notes and cards to our teachers, specific and general. Leave one for a teacher you know or for teachers in general.

Praise is a funny thing. I don’t think much of effusive praise for the simplest, most mundane achievements. Teachers shouldn’t be patted on the back for pulling in $60,000 + full benefits, as many middle-of-the-road teachers in my local district do, for showing up to work [summers not included, obviously] and fulfilling the obligations of their contract. As professionals, they shouldn’t want praise for doing the bare minimum. Teachers aren’t heroes for choosing the profession; they’re heroes when they do their job well.

But everyone needs a ‘thank you’ or show of appreciation now and again, no matter the profession. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a parent who thanks his kid’s teacher for communicating well or for your kid having an all-around good day, or you’re just a taxpayer who appreciates that your school taxes are paying the salary of an asset to your community. It doesn’t need to be much – just thank a teacher now and again.

And you can start ye olde thank teacher project by hopping over to the NEA’s site.

Scoundrel Al Sharpton, the Bad Penny Happily Spent By EduWeenies

Yes, yes – ‘education is the civil rights issue of our time.’ If the 40,000 variations on that theme didn’t sink in during the 2008 campaign season, I get 140-character reminders often enough via Twitter.

And when was the last time we saw any sort of civil rights crowd that didn’t have a well-coifed Al Sharpton at the front – or trying to muscle his way to the front – with one eye searching for the media and the other eye searching for a mirror?

Get used to Al in Education, folks. That ‘Strong Schools’ bit last year was the calm before the annoying, prolonged, ineffectual drizzle that’s a Sharpton storm.

Here’s a press release/e-mail I got the other day. I’ll parse it.

Hi Matthew,

Did you see that Al Sharpton, Mike Bloomberg, and Newt Gingrich came together today — and at the White House of all places?  The meeting was to discuss education equality and how to improve our nation’s schools.  It was a remarkable gathering and you can read about the event here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2009/05/07/gingrich_bloomberg_and_sharpto.html?wprss=44

Trios are good. Sometimes individually great men combine to make something greater – like the Three Tenors, or even Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and Sting singing “All for One [and All for Love]” on The Three Musketeers soundtrack.

This combination – unlike the two cited above – has a weak, embarrassing link. Gingrich could be a classic Kenny Rogers and Bloomberg one of those successful but ever-evolving David Bowie types. Sharpton, however, is not to be taken seriously. He’s a bit like the ukulele player Tiny Tim, God rest his soul.

Can you imagine what song we’d get from Kenny Rogers, David Bowie and Tiny Tim?

And you can see footage of the event here: http://www.politico.com/politico44/perm/0509/unlikely_trio_at_the_w_h_444542bd-4539-431b-abf6-f06fca3f1f77.html or here http://www.edequality.org

I’d rather hear the song.

The meeting was in advance of education equality day, which will feature thousands of people coming together to demand education equality in Washington DC on May 16th:  http://edequality.org/page/s/eepday

Let me know if you have any questions.

Here’s one: Why does anyone in education take Al Sharpton seriously? How quickly we’ve forgotten his actions in the Tawana Brawley case, his outright racism and his lifelong defense of his actions. Don’t bother Googling for Sharpton’s apologies to Stephen Pagones, the others he accused of rape, defilement and hatred, New York State or the public. He’s never uttered any.

And how spineless we’ve become, especially in public education, not to hold a man like Sharpton to account. Sharpton’s prominent involvement in education issues shows how weak the field of education leaders really is – and how badly we need some respectable, heroic leaders.

I’m getting tired of scoundrels like Al Sharpton, but I’m more tired of the milquetoasts who let it slide. I’ll pass on “Education Equality Day” in lieu of celebrating “High Standards and Integrity Day.”

Some of us celebrate that one every day. Do you?

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