The Death and Life of the Great American School System (part one)

All the bad crazy out of Wisconsin lately lines up really well with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was for a long time an enthusiastic supporter of the choice and accountability movement in education reform. Her book is a very public way of breaking with that movement. I’m not all the way through it, but I’ll try to lay out some of the themes of the book, and by extension the current reform movement, and why it’s on the wrong path despite some limited successes.

The reformers, for all their talk of choice, are often (though not always) obsessed with top-down reforms. Ravitch details the twin reform eras of San Diego (under Alan Bersin)  and New York City. It’s pretty galling how little those charged with reform care about the input of actual educators. This is because:

  • Reformers tend to think that only authoritarian, top-down leadership can ‘shake things up’. Knock enough skulls together and you get results. This is the shock and awe version of education reform. It’s also highly undemocratic.
  • Reformers tend to ignore the input of teachers, administrators, and parents. They find sympathetic voices in academia and in charitable foundations to bulwark their reforms in the intellectual sphere.
  • Reformers tend to blame teachers, principals, and others members of the ‘status quo’ for the problems with education. Most education reforms in the past decade and a half have been aimed at breaking up teachers’ unions.
  • Reformers do not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things. Rather than focus on curriculum, reformers focus on uniformity in pedagogy and strictly regimented ideas on how to teach (specifically to tests).
  • Reformers focus only on testable subjects, primarily math and reading, because accountability has become the golden goose of education reform.

I am about half-way through the book, so I’ll have more to report later, but it really is extraordinary to read about the reforms that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have foisted on New York schools (modeled on the authoritarian San Diego reforms that preceded the Bloomberg era) – and the very mixed results of those reforms. Bloomberg managed to gain total control of the school system, something that the mayor’s office hadn’t had in decades, and he passed that control over to Klein without oversight. Indeed, there is no oversight of the Bloomberg reforms.

The central theme of these reformers is not just to blame the teachers, but also to ignore them, spy on them, and undermine their autonomy. In San Diego there were public firings of school administrators who were escorted from their schools by the police. In both cities, money was filtered out of the classroom and out of support services like teachers’ aides, and put into professional development programs which were aimed at top-down pedagogical reform. Teachers and administrators who didn’t like it were fired or resigned. Turn over in both cities was enormous. Something like 90% of San Diego’s principals left in the course of six years. In both cities Balanced Literacy became the only approved teaching method. Dissent was not tolerated.

In New York, closing schools became a new fetish for reformers. If a school didn’t perform up to city standards it was closed. Some of its students moved to other public schools or charter schools. Often the lowest performing students were shuffled off to another low-performing school. New ‘small schools’ were created to replace the big schools. At first the admissions to these new schools were selective and the results were great; as more and more low-performing students landed in the small schools they began performing just as poorly (or worse) than the schools they had replaced. It goes on and on like this, with new top-down initiatives, poorly construed tests and a rating system for schools that was incoherent at best, and conflicted directly with state and national rating systems. Businessmen and politicians, often bringing in six-figure incomes, trying to implement top-down reforms on teachers and administrators without asking for input or buy-in, and punishing schools and educators for not meeting their arbitrary standards.

I’m currently reading about the history of the ‘choice’ movement which has its origins in both the writings of Milton Friedman and the desegregation movement in the south. Friedman’s ideas were based on his honest belief that choice would lead to better schools in the long-run. But white southerners co-opted these ideas and used them to keep schools in the south segregated. No surprise that when given a choice in the matter, white students stuck with white schools and black students stuck with black schools. Government money flowed to white pockets to move white students out of mixed-race schools and into private schools.

While the voucher movement has largely failed, the charter school movement has a great deal of momentum.

This movement is not consciously race-based, but it is certainly creating a two-tiered system and that inevitably leads to racial segregation as well as class segregation. Of course, we already have that to some degree – good neighborhoods produce better schools. There is a fundamental imbalance in how schools are funded that is nearly impossible to remedy. But choice undermines the public education infrastructure. A charter school may theoretically be open to any student, but unless that student can provide their own transportation they’re pretty much out of luck. Inevitably parents who have more time and money and who place more of a priority on education will be the ones who enroll their children in good charter schools. The very concept of a neighborhood school has been undermined.

Charter schools are not all they’re cracked up to be, either:

  • Reformers tend to gloss over the fact that charter schools are often heavily funded by private donors such as the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and other deep-pocketed groups and individuals. All this money makes apples-to-apples comparisons between traditional public schools and charter schools very difficult.
  • Reformers have forgotten that the original idea behind charter schools was to empower groups of teachers to experiment with new ways of teaching and reaching out to students, often from within traditional public schools. They were never intended as ways to bypass unions or school district control, though that is what they’ve become. Some early proponents of charter schools have withdrawn support from the movement after seeing how it has become captured by corporate and private interests.
  • Across the country, charter schools fair much worse than traditional public schools on national tests. Reformers use anecdotal evidence of high-performing schools to bolster their case while ignoring the broader data. Films such as Waiting for Superman and The Lottery focus on heartstrings stories of students trying desperately to get out of bad public schools into excellent charter schools.
  • One lesson you can draw from these excellent charter schools is that they do very well because they are very well funded. Perhaps if the big foundations put their money into failing public schools they could have similar results. This is a good argument for more education funding. Of course the big foundations want to fund new, exciting, glamorous ideas, not boring old public schools.
  • Still, the media tends to praise education reformers, glossing over the many problems these reforms lead to, and glossing over the authoritarian nature of many school reformers.

More on this later as I get further into the book. Ravitch has confirmed many of my suspicions, though I was not aware at quite the extent of authoritarianism in the current movement. The choice movement always struck me as a path toward division and the breakdown of the neighborhood school, and teaching to tests is perhaps the most wrong-headed idea education reformers have ever dreamed up.

I’m left with a few thoughts. For school reform to succeed we have to stop blaming the unions and the teachers while still tackling the cases of abuse we do uncover. The “Rubber Room” is used over and over again as a bludgeon against teachers’ unions, but examples like the Rubber Room are extremely limited; we should not use anecdotal evidence to condemn an entire system. Teaching to tests is utterly wrong-headed, especially when those tests are crafted at the state level and devoted almost solely to math and reading. NCLB was not only misguided in its aspirations but in its means of achieving its goals: asking states to create their own accountability standards to get federal dollars is just silly. Curriculum reform is a much better path; voluntary national standards plus a voluntary national curriculum should come before accountability to arbitrary testing. Reformers need to focus on the substance and quality of education, and that starts with a coherent and consistent set of standards and expectation. It also means turning to educators rather than CEO’s and politicians. Teachers and schools should retain as much autonomy on how to teach as possible, and will need to be a part of the reform effort if it is ever going to succeed.

These are just loose-fitting thoughts at the moment. More later.






128 replies
  1. 1
    someguy says:

    Fortunately in D.C., union arbitration has resulted in the re-hiring of most of the teachers batshit crazy Michelle Rhee fired under the Fenty junta. So it’s possible to stop these lunatics, it just takes time and there’s no telling how many kids are hurt by the so-called reformers.

    But you’re going to get more and more of the NCLB approach until you get the Fed Gov out of the education business. Criminy, the premise of “No Child Left Behind” is that all kids can be at least average. The only place that works is Lake Wobegon, and if you’re running for Congress.

  2. 2
    liberal says:

    Central problem with all this education reform crap is that it doesn’t seem very scientific.

    There are many factors that go into student progress. Let’s guess just a few:
    * Native intelligence
    * Socioeconomic environment
    * Teacher quality

    I would assume both of the first two would overwhelm the third.

  3. 3
    Dennis G. says:

    Ravitch is pretty amazing and more and more I find myself thinking she is the only honest voice in the school reform debate.

    Nice post.

    Cheers

  4. 4
    Bulworth says:

    The reformers, for all their talk of choice, are often (though not always) obsessed with top-down reforms.

    And with using private donor cash to implement their “reforms”.

    Also, too, what someguy said.

  5. 5
    Bulworth says:

    The “reforms” seem like just another case of hippy public teacher union punching.

  6. 6
    Ija says:

    @liberal:

    Native intelligence

    You are not going for that “blacks are naturally dumber than whites” thing, are you?

  7. 7
    LGRooney says:

    This is why we live in Arlington, VA. The whole school system is like the charter system. Each school is run by the principal as s/he sees fit and most of them seem to let the teachers run their classes as they see fit – although, the teachers do gripe about all the testing to serve NCLB. Good ideas are shared; bad ones tossed. And, we pay teachers well and seem to get damned good ones who care about the students. The students, in turn, learn.

  8. 8
    E.D. Kain says:

    @Dennis G.: or at least the only prominent one.

  9. 9
    LGRooney says:

    @Ija: I’m pretty sure native is confused with innate here… hoping.

  10. 10
    DougJ® says:

    Looking forward to reading through this stuff. I’ve always been skeptical about Klein and Rhee because David Brooks and Fred Hiatt love them so much.

  11. 11
    Athenae says:

    we should not use anecdotal evidence to condemn an entire system.

    This applies to basically all political debate ever.

    A.

  12. 12
    salvador dalai llama says:

    *That’s* why Ravitch seems much cooler than she used to! I had wondered about that. She’s actually changed her mind based on evidence. Whodathunk?

    It has seemed to me to be the case that the individual teachers we’ve run across in our kids’ foray into the public school system have been dedicated, concerned, and professional–and we live in a fairly rural area. It’s the state and local systems that muck things up.

    Case in point: every Friday, my son’s 2nd grade class had “Cherokee Day”–in the afternoons, they’d learn about traditional Cherokee customs and lifestyles. It was one of my son’s favorite activities, along with the science demonstrations. All that came to a complete halt, of course, so that they can devote more time to preparing for the state standardized tests. Result? As the tests approach, my son’s “boredom with school” rating increases. Good job, Tennessee!

  13. 13
    Guster says:

    Nice post, thanks. V. interesting take on a discussion I’m only halfway aware of.

  14. 14
    negative 1 says:

    If charter schools were unionized Republicans would give up on education reform tomorrow. They. Do. Not. Care. It is not a matter of how best to educate the children, they truly don’t care. They care about breaking the union. They can’t go after public employee unions without going after the teachers, so they have to say that public education has failed and we need a new method.
    Even reformers with an eye on the big picture hit one wall pretty quickly: no matter how you model the school, the richer the kids, the better the performance. You can’t fix that without touching the 3rd rail of American society – class and capitalism. So one will not change until the other does.
    In terms of actual education (not education performance), kids learn far more quickly today. Look at the math a 5th grader does and look at what math 5th graders were expected to perform 50 years ago. They constant is how the students do against each other. With few exceptions, socio-economic status mirrors educational performance.

  15. 15
    Walker says:

    Reformers do not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things. Rather than focus on curriculum, reformers focus on uniformity in pedagogy and strictly regimented ideas on how to teach (specifically to tests).

    This is describes each and every post that Yglesias ever makes about educational reform. It is why I do not take him seriously.

    Everyday, you hear people mutter about applying productivity advances such as technology to education. They willfully ignore all of the pedagogical research we have about technology in both the classroom and pure online education.

  16. 16
    PurpleGirl says:

    Gonna make some popcorn and sit watching the thread…

    As a graduate of the NYC public schools of the 1950s and 1960s I remember how things were done back then. (They were not the golden years so many people claim they were; at least not in working class neighborhoods.)

    I worked for close to 16 years with an educational non-profit which was involved with the NYC public schools; I watched much of the current reform movement very close up as we had to get grant money from foundations and individuals.

  17. 17
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    Good post.

    When I got to this part:

    But choice undermines the public education infrastructure

    the sick, cynical voice in me said “mission accomplished”.

    I don’t know if the reformers are merely misguided, or if they are intentionally trying to destroy public education in this country because they view it as a power center hostile to their ideology. The old stupid or evil? conundrum, as it were. But at some point the only thing which matters are the results. I don’t care if they are trying to poison us or are merely horrible cooks but either way these folks need to get the hell out of the kitchen.

    But where are the voters/consumers in these school districts and states? Once again we have an example of an important piece of domestic infrastructure going to hell in a handbasket because nobody cares enough to pay attention or vote in a responsible manner.

    Yesterday in one of the threads I pointed out that during the 1950s our economy benefited enormously from the brain drain of highly educated people fleeing war torn Europe during the 30s and 40s, as a result of which we harvested benefits from the massive investment which an entire generation of Europeans had made in their system of higher education. They paid for it, we got the benefits. I think this taught Americans a very bad lesson: that high quality education is free and the benefits of it will just fall into our laps out of a clear blue sky, because the Magic Edumacation Fairy loves us.

  18. 18
    Walker says:

    Reformers focus only on testable subjects, primarily math and reading, because accountability has become the golden goose of education reform.

    The focus on stuff that can be tested by standardized, multiple choice tests. This is one of the many reasons that even top students cannot write mathematical proofs anymore, and universities have had to devise “bridge courses” to help them make the transition in college.

    Well that and the boneheaded NTSM guidelines from 2000 (I think it was). The one that said to de-emphasize two-column proofs, and just about everyone read as instruction to stop doing proofs.

  19. 19
    Stuart Buck says:

    You shouldn’t trust Ravitch. She misinterprets, misrepresents, and ignores scholarly literature right and left. See http://jaypgreene.com/2010/04/.....eek-day-1/ (and all the other posts linked there).

  20. 20
    Ash Can says:

    The educational process is very complex, with many different and diverse factors comprising it. I have yet to see a systematic “reform” measure fully and sincerely take this basic fact into account. The only real and demonstrable “reform” I’ve ever seen since I was in grade school myself stems from the fact that the field of childhood education has advanced by leaps and bounds — teachers nowadays are far better equipped to communicate with kids effectively and facilitate their learning. I have a feeling that today’s grownups who are gung-ho “reformers” are just still smarting over their experience with some incompetent teacher they had in grade school a zillion years ago.

    ETA @ negative 1 #14: Also, this.

  21. 21
    Stuart Buck says:

    You shouldn’t trust Ravitch. She misinterprets, misrepresents, and ignores scholarly literature right and left. See http://jaypgreene.com/2010/04/.....eek-day-1/ and all the other posts linked there.

  22. 22
    bk says:

    Good post, thanks.

  23. 23
    celticdragonchick says:

    There shouldn’t be anything racial about the intelligence factor. If you like, call it inclination. Some kids are simply not wired to do well scholastically, and they never will. We used to guide those kids into mechanical arts or some such where they could prepare for a career. Ages past, we put them in apprenticeships.

    Now, we teach to tests, and screw over science, history and geography.

  24. 24
    Stuart Buck says:

    You shouldn’t trust Ravitch. She misinterprets, misrepresents, and ignores scholarly literature right and left. Google “rebutting ravitch” in quotes (I can’t seem to post links).

  25. 25
    Gin & Tonic says:

    From the parental side (at least as an involved parent) the problem is that the stakes in this game are so damn high. If my kids have a shitty second-grade teacher, as they did, that year of their lives is partly wasted, and there is nothing I or anyone can do about it. So we end up sounding shrill.

  26. 26
    Nathanlindquist says:

    As a city planner I subscribe to the view that “a school is only as good as the community it comes from.” Our education system is a reflection of our society.

    A related point is that so many of our cities are hurting because middle class parents will not live there to send their kids to urban school districts. We need “seed schools” that can attract these middle class parents which will then hopefully begin to heal these urban communities. I know this smacks of screwing the urban poor but I honestly don’t know how else you start.

    I also think all school distict administrators should be required to cycle in to a teaching position for one year out of five.

  27. 27
    Allan says:

    Excellent post, thanks for sharing. One homonym nitpick that jumped out at me:

    Across the country, charter schools fair fare much worse…

  28. 28

    @negative 1:

    It is not a matter of how best to educate the children, they truly don’t care. They care about breaking the union.

    A thousand times, this. These “reformers” don’t know shit about what goes on in a classroom, and they don’t care. It’s not a case of some reformers wanting to do certain things and the unions get in their way, so they have to fight the unions in order to implement their agenda. This is a case where busting the unions is their agenda.

  29. 29
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    I think the problem with Educational Reform is that, like religion, everyone thinks they’re a frickin’ expert in it.
    So every couple of years there’s get a new initiative from the Feds or the State where some genius creates reform. So we keep looking for revolutionary changes instead of incremental evolutionary improvement. And of course there’s regular 4-8 year cycles during economic downturns of shitcanning teachers and support staff because of the over-localized way we fund education in this country and the narrow tax bases of local government.

    Plus there’s curriculum political football wth sex ed and evolution. In the cities, you’ve also go defecting of the affluent into the private schools, which increases the proportion of poor kids in the publics. Research has shown that when the proportion of kids in low socioeconomic status is above 40%, those regular crises those kids experience, the resultant behavior problems, and the teacher’s need to act as a social worker cause the test scores to tank.

    We need to take funding of education away from school districts and place it more on a statewide basis, BTW.

    We’re lucky: we’re in a city with a good school district and whose diversity means that my kid can do immersion in a non-English language. But the budget cuts piss me off, ‘cos I see good, dedicated people getting shitcanned ‘cos some asshole GOPer from the California Central Valley believes raising taxes is a sin against the gospel of St. Ronaldus Maximus.

  30. 30
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    Reformers tend to ignore the input of teachers, administrators, and parents. They find sympathetic voices in academia and in charitable foundations to bulwark their reforms in the intellectual sphere.

    Finding evidence to fit their theories rather than explaining the evidence. I swear I’ve heard that recently in other areas. This is probably the biggest flaw in the human mind, and the one science has spent the last 100+ years trying to overcome. Which is why a lot of people, on the right especially, are so opposed to science.

  31. 31
    E.D. Kain says:

    @salvador dalai llama: and that same sad infuriating thing is happening all over the country.

  32. 32
    singfoom says:

    I can’t speak to this directly, but I have friends who are teachers in a large midwestern city. They’re hardworking and smart and they really care about the kids they are teaching.

    They’re grateful for the union they belong to, but they’re embarrassed at the same time because some of their fellow teachers in the union aren’t all that great and the union makes it harder for them to get rid of bad teachers.

    This doesn’t mean that they’re anti union in the least, but they don’t like how their fellow teachers make them look bad by sucking. They’re also horrified how they have been demonized in the media…

    It’s a complex system as many here have posted. Tweaking just one part of it won’t solve the problem. Everyone has to take responsibility for the system. Parents/Student/Teachers/et al. I think way too many parents take very little responsibility for their children’s education.

    Here’s to hoping that the teachers in Wisconsin stop the governor from breaking their union.

  33. 33
    PeakVT says:

    A charter school may theoretically be open to any student, but unless that student can provide their own transportation they’re pretty much out of luck.

    Real school choice is possible only where students are able to get to several different schools without additional effort. Otherwise, choice just ratifies the existing socio-economic segregation.

    I think if we really want to improve our schools, we will need to do several things: pay teachers more, spread out the school year (shorter summer vacation, longer elsewhere), move to explicitly teaching 8 subjects (first language, math, science, social studies, technologies, arts, second language, and h&pe), and acknowledge teenage physiology (start high schools later in the morning).

  34. 34
    Stillwater says:

    The central theme of these reformers is not just to blame the teachers,

    Along those lines, young Conor recently wrote

    Unions exist to protect the interests of their members. … Saying that there is a conflict between the common good and the ends of teachers unions isn’t a condemnation of the latter. It’s just a fact.

    He’s a genius! Each sentence sounds like English, and seems so reasonable, how could anyone disagree?

  35. 35
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Actual education might lead to critical thinking, and the last time that happened, we had the 60’s.

    So we can’t do THAT…

  36. 36
    Chris says:

    Authoritarian reforms just end up teaching authoritarian values. I have been writing (and ranting) about that effect on my kids’ school on this blog. For all the talk about “accountability,” there is virtually no democratic accountability for anything that goes on in the “public” schools. If you have a complaint about the educational approach of your local public school, your only recourse is to complain to the President of the United States and the 535 members of Congress. That’s where the values of “top-down reform” and “uniformity” leave you, and that’s why my school district — here in the very liberal town of Iowa City — feels as if it were being run by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. (Because it is.)

  37. 37
    Nylund says:

    @liberal: The research on schooling is actually pretty darn complex. All three of those things are in every research paper (although the first is usually described as “innate ability.” But you’re right…those first two things explain quite a bit of the variation in school outcome.

    Another way of saying that is that the kids themselves (and their families) are often the most important things. Put a “good student” from a good school into a bad school, and the kid usually still does well. Put a “bad student” in a good school and the student usually still under performs.

    The exception to this seems to be peer effects. That’s the idea that if you surround a good student with bad students, the bad habits rub off and the student starts to do worse. Or, conversely, surround a bad student with good ones, and the kid will pick up some of the good habits. A similar story can be told about the influence of siblings.

    Teacher quality, evaluation policies, funding, etc. are all secondary or tertiary in their effects. So its really the student, the surrounding students, and the families of the student that seem to drive the results.

    Unfortunately, these are the things its hardest for policy makers to affect so policy makers who are under pressure to DO SOMETHING, often waste time mucking about with issues of lesser importance (like funding or teacher evaluations). And, as a policy maker, you can’t come out and place blame on the kids and their parents. That is bad politics.

    There have been some interesting experiments though. I recall one where the school would fine parents if they didn’t participate in the PTA, etc. (I think this was in Detroit) as a way of addressing the family aspect. But, its usually poor parents, sometimes single parents, parents with two or three jobs, etc. that need to get involved more and fining them for not showing up to meetings that they can’t get to (due to life’s other obligations) doesn’t seem like quite the right way to tackle the problem.

    Another school system (I think it was a very poor area of West Virginia?) had some Libertarian type try to give monetary incentives to the kids by paying them in “Kid Bucks” that local stores agreed to redeem at dollar value. He paid them “Kid Bucks” to prevent parents from stealing the money (stores would only accept it as payment if a child used it). But there were issues with parents forcing kids to buy their own Christmas presents, etc. and keeping the savings for themselves, so the parents, in essence, were able to just take the kids money anyway. Nevertheless, if memory serves, the monetary incentives to the kids did seem to have a positive effect, but this effect differed across the distribution of the kids ability (ie, it did not affect good students and bad students in the same way).

    Point being, once you control for innate ability, family background, socioeconomic variables, etc. the facilities, faculties, funding, teacher union status, etc. don’t turn out to be very important.

    Kids from poor neighborhoods who are surrounded by drugs, violence, gangs, etc. and who are raised by parents who didn’t get an education themselves, and who don’t participate in their children’s schooling (either because they are too busy working two jobs, because the don’t care, or because they don’t know how to help since they are uneducated themselves), and who are surrounded by other bad students just don’t seem to do too well. For a rare few, a great teacher or a great school may help, but for the majority, the teacher or school can’t overcome the influence of the kids themselves, the kids they are surrounded by, their parents, siblings, and neighborhood life.

    At least that is my take from what I’ve read of the literature. Admittedly, its a bit of a depressing result.

  38. 38
    eyelessgame says:

    Inevitably parents who have more time and money and who place more of a priority on education will be the ones who enroll their children in good charter schools.

    This. This this this. Charter schools skim off the most-involved parents.

    We are privileged to be able to live on a single income, so my wife is very nearly a full-time volunteer at our childrens’ schools – including the K-3 school all three kids have grown past and no longer attend.

    We fight hard against the establishment of local charter schools. It is the presence of the most-involved, most-passionate parents that makes a school good, as much as any other factor. Competition with charters ends up diluting (at best) the efforts of these parents, but it inevitably makes the public school worse.

  39. 39

    @celticdragonchick:

    Some kids are simply not wired to do well scholastically, and they never will.

    This is false. Some kids have different learning styles. When taught in a manner that connects with them – which, yes, will involve hands-on work for a significant group of students – they will thrive in an academic setting.

    Yesterday, I had a truly eye-opening experience in a classroom. I was in an English intervention pullout class – working with the kids who make the most trouble and the least effort – and my task was to read them a couple of chapters from the novel they’re reading while they work on posters they had started about the book. I thought it was going to be the biggest waste of time in the world – that the kids would tune me out as they sat and colored.

    I could not have been more wrong. Something about having that poster to work on clicked with those kids. They were drawing and coloring, but they were also paying close enough attention to follow the story, not interrupt or act out once, and answer the questions I’d throw out. One kid – the worst kid in the class – stopped drawing entirely about halfway through and just stared at me in rapt attention, soaking in every word I read. I know this kid, and that is absolutely not how he would have reacted if he’d been told to follow along in the book as I read, or read himself. Something about the visual and mechanic stimulus, or about having something that kept their hands busy, primed their brains to learn, understand, and think.

    Unless we’re talking about the disabled, there are no students who lack the brain power to achieve at grade level. It’s just a matter of teaching them well. It’s good that NCLB recognizes this, but the ever-greater standardization and dry instruction goes in exactly the wrong direction.

  40. 40

    @Nathanlindquist: As a former city planner, I agree with a lot of what you write here.

    I also think all school distict administrators should be required to cycle in to a teaching position for one year out of five.

    I think that the head of a school should be called the Principal Teacher, and should teach a course every semester.

  41. 41
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Unless we’re talking about the disabled, there are no students who lack the brain power to achieve at grade level. It’s just a matter of teaching them well.

    Sorry, that sort of thing can’t be measured on an assembly line basis, can’t be easily put into a round hole, can’t be easily exploited by politicians looking to score some political points.

    Therefore it’s just not a viable approach. Never mind that it works. THAT’S NOT THE POINT, DAMMIT!

    The preceding was, in fact, snark.

  42. 42
    Koszmic says:

    As a middle school science teacher, I found E.D.’s post to be very reflective of my own thinking, even as the teacher climate in Indiana appears to be turning for the worse at the hands of Mitch Daniels and the state legislature. I will watch for E.D.’s more developed ideas, and intend to read the Ravitch book. Thanks, E.D.

  43. 43
    bemused says:

    The wealthy suburbs in MN have the tax base to support all the bells & whistles such as offering many languages while inner city schools and out state rural schools are barely hanging on. I don’t know what the answer is to that but our public schools across the country are showing the widening gap between the haves and the have nots like everything else.

  44. 44
    geg6 says:

    @someguy:

    Yeah, Rhee is simply a nightmare, just a nightmare. It was so obvious to me at the start that she just hates and has no respect whatsoever for teachers. None. And that stupid “Waiting for Superman” is nothing but a propaganda film. I wouldn’t be surprised if some anti-teacher bunch like the Kochs funded it.

    There is a very large, very wealthy charter high school here, one devoted to performing arts and with the academic subjects covered via their sister online charter school. My niece, a very talented dancer, decided that she would like to attend it when she was going into her freshman year. My sister insisted she be allowed to go, even though her husband (and niece’s father) is a public school teacher and she knew his feelings on charter schools. So the niece starts at the performing arts/online charter school that fall. Niece immediately reports problems, especially with the academics. The performing arts classes are fine, but her freshman schedule has her taking geometry that first semester even though she has not yet taken Algebra I. Once my sister learns of this, she contacts the school several times and even makes several trips there, but no one is willing to change the class as “the Algebra I class is closed and every student has to take math, so she will just have to take the math that is open.”

    Needless to say, niece was back in her public school the next semester. Her awful grades from the first semester of her freshman year are still on her record, but she has worked hard to overcome the setback they gave to her record. She’s in her junior year and is in AP classes for English and science. She’s a cheerleader and still taking dance at a private studio. I’m thrilled that she has overcome her difficulty, but with two secondary teachers, a college professor, and a university administrator in the family, she had a lot of support and advice. I worry about the kids who don’t have that network who still attend that school.

  45. 45
    Joel says:

    I happen to know a certain conservative professor who has a huge vested interest in charter schools. Needless to say, I’d like to read this book and have an honest dicussion with him (if he can handle it).

  46. 46
    Commenting at Balloon Juice since 1937 says:

    It surprising how much school reform is ‘shoved down our throats’ by so called experts. My kids’ school changed to ‘block scheduling’ which consisted of having A,B,C,and D days. Notice how that fits nicely into a 5 day week? Me neither. The public discourse consisted of being told this is how its going to be so shut up. The ‘educational reform experts’ got to publish many papers, and had a privately chartered airplane so they could make their many highly paid presentations around the country. They just couldn’t answer any of the parents’ questions about why this was going to be better.

  47. 47
    quintillian says:

    fywp and spotty airport wi-fi …. The most subversive, meaningful, and long-lasting reform would be if people saw schools as places where teachers learn too (from colleagues, from students, from the community, etc), rather than places where teachers deliver information. It fights notions of learning and understanding that are incomplete and outdated, but that are behind many “reformers’ ideas. The questions should be about more than just what people learn, but how and why they learn it … what it means to “understand.” (full disclosure: teacher educator and ed researcher)

  48. 48
    matoko_chan says:

    You know….i dont want to hear this shit.
    i dont care if you can trim enough dishonest/crazy off to appear reasonable to mistermix and the cudlips contingent here.
    i want to hear you say….THERE ARE NO GOOD IDEAS LEFT in conservatism.
    i want to hear you say ….FETUS=SLAVE is NOT a REASONABLE POSITION.
    i want to hear you say….DOUGJ TROLLED MY SITE AND REVEALED US ALL TO BE ANTI-SCIENTIFIC ASSCLOWNS.
    I want to hear you say…..CONSERVATISM IS A FAILED PARADIGM.

    safe off you fucking glibertarian whanker.

  49. 49
    sublime33 says:

    It sounds like a well balanced critique, which is sorely lacking in this emotional debate where combatants often have their own agenda. One of the biggest fallacies of “market based” approaches for public schools is that in a free market, the provider gets to pick and choose the market it gets to serve. McDonalds is not required to put hamburger, chicken, pizza or tacos on its menu, but it chooses to serve hamburgers and chicken and not the latter two because they feel it isn’t cost effective to serve pizza and tacos.

    Public schools don’t have that luxury. They become the educator of last resort, so they get stuck with the non English speaking, handicapped and behavior disordered students that the private and chartered schools took a pass on. It isn’t cost effective to educate the handicapped, but unfunded mandates require public schools to do so. Then tax payers wonder why public schools are more expensive to run than charter schools.

    And teachers need to realize that some specialties like math and science should be paid more than others. And some form merit pay needs to be implemented, but with proper evaluation which is usually non-existant.

  50. 50
    different church-lady says:

    ZOT!

    Conservatives are control freaks!

    Control freaks hate what they can’t control. And they hate the idea that anyone else would have any input.

    And it all make sense when you think about it on a broad national level: love the laws that control OTHER people (dirty hippies who have babies out of wedlock), hate the laws that control them (taxes).

  51. 51
    different church-lady says:

    @matoko_chan: I want to hear you say “I like pie.”

    Say it.

  52. 52
    Davis X. Machina says:

    ….empower groups of teachers to experiment with new ways of teaching and reaching out to students, often from within traditional public schools

    If you are a ‘failing school’ and take the King’s — or Arne Duncan’s but it works out to the same thing — shilling and undergo ‘transformation’, you get money, lots of it — and are forbidden to spend it on anything except outside consultants. There’s no way to get it down to the people already in the school to spend, no matter how good their ideas are.

    It’s “Not Invented Here” raised to public policy — and we know how well that works in business.

  53. 53
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @celticdragonchick:

    A thousand times meh.

    The problem is that some kids are just late bloomers, and alas all too often the future academic careers of teenagers are stalled at an early date.

    For example, in order to take calculus in my high school, you had to (at a ridiculously early age-6th grade) score high enough on math placement exams in order to take pre-algebra starting in junior high in seventh grade…which eventually leads up to being able to take calculus your senior year of high school. Some people *cough* simply mature intellectually at different rates, but that doesn’t mean we should be held back-if anything, students need to be pushed forward and challenged.

    For the record, I had to take pre-calc at a community college the summer prior to my senior year of high school, and I ended up being one of the best students my senior year in calc.

  54. 54
    Carol says:

    One thing I’ve always felt would make a difference is if at least we had statewide funding for education. With a more even distribution of funds, perhaps we could at least subsidize the poorer ones to the point where they would have modern infrastructure.

    Encourage self-learning as much as possible through online and extension learning. Shorten the school week and lengthen the school year.

  55. 55
    Aquagranny911 says:

    A good question to be asked is Cui Bono? The testing industry is a multimillion dollar a year business in both the design and evaluation of standardized testing. They have a vested interest in keeping “teaching to the test.”

  56. 56
    Ryan says:

    Really solid post.

    I taught for seven years and had extremely good results. At one point, my inclusion class (mixed special-ed kids with mainstream kids) outscored every other class in the school on the standardized test at the end of the year.

    The problem was that I didn’t follow the same curriculum or teaching styles that the administration did. At one point, the principal had all my textbooks removed because I was teaching Shakespeare instead of test-prep. The kids were halfway through “Julius Caesar.” At another point, the principal actually had two policemen come to my room and escort me down to her office for a conference.

    Now I work doing boring administrative work for the government. The pay is better, I work far few hours (I’d average 80 hour weeks as a teacher) and I’m given respect by my bosses. I still miss teaching, but don’t want to work in DC again. Maybe I’ll move to the suburbs, but I’d really like to help the kids who really need the help.

  57. 57
    meh says:

    @matoko_chan:

    Seriously, go away. You are the actual embodiment of fail.

    Mr. Madison Matoko_chan, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response babbling were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room thread is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points pie, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  58. 58
    Ash Can says:

    Thank you, matoko-chan, for demonstrating the results of an ineffective educational experience.

    @Davis X. Machina: Not that I think Arne Duncan is all that, but I don’t understand the gripe against him per se. CPS funding is messed up, to be sure, but I’m under the impression that that’s because of state regulations, not CPS ones. What am I missing?

  59. 59
    RSR says:

    People generally like to ask things like “are our schools failing our children?” But the real question should be “are our children (and their families) failing our schools?”

    Family life in poor neighborhoods, whether urban, suburban or rural, can be harsh. Children are ill prepared to learn. They’re hungry, cold, tired, abused. They’re often fighting, both figuratively and literally, for survival on a daily basis. The best instructors with the best practices are no match for the life they’re living.

    Students spend less than 10% of their childhoods in grade school. You cannot convince me that what happens in that 10% span is not most affected by the other 90% of their lives.

    The real irony is that if public education wasn’t a nearly trillion dollar annual enterprise largely run by and employing liberal union democrats, very few people would care about reforming the system.

    But that much money attracts the skimmers angling to get their hands in the till, and as usual, they leverage the useful idiots meddling do-gooders and their political agendas to blow up the system.

    Just look at this quote from a PA state senator likening public education to communism and voucher opponents enemies of freedom: “There is a Berlin wall around our failing schools and proponents are clinging to that wall, attempting to wall out freedom,” Piccola said.

    http://philadelphia.cbslocal.c.....ous-start/

    It’s positively Beckian. I wonder if he brought a blackboard to the hearing?

  60. 60
    DougJ® says:

    @celticdragonchick:

    Some kids are simply not wired to do well scholastically, and they never will.

    Define “wired”.

  61. 61
    Ash Can says:

    @Ryan: Good lord, that’s criminal. And kudos to you for being such a great teacher.

  62. 62
    suzanne says:

    I love that Ravitch’s title is such a clear reference to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Another book that set the established thinking on its ear.

    Another big issue for poorer families w/r/t the school schedule is that it is completely not aligned with any typical work schedule, making expensive before- and/or after-school care a requirement. Add in all the various breaks during the school year, and sick-kid care, and it’s still very difficult for families that don’t have one adult at home full-time to function.

  63. 63

    -2432482″>Aquagranny911:

    A good question to be asked is Cui Bono? The testing industry is a multimillion dollar a year business in both the design and evaluation of standardized testing. They have a vested interest in keeping “teaching to the test.”

    This is an especially good question to ask when reading about the issue of education in the Washington Post, which is owned by the Kaplan corporation, which makes the majority of its money from Kaplan test prep materials.

  64. 64
    Citizen_X says:

    Great post, E.D., and great discussion. Thanks for actually looking at the evidence and LEARNING.

    Which a certain critic of yours seems unable to do.

  65. 65
    Josie says:

    Any non public school–charter, private, whatever–can pick and choose which kids to take. If the student doesn’t perform or the parent doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, the student can be sent back to his or her public school. Public schools don’t have that privilege, so comparing them is apples and oranges. Also, I find it ludicrous that we require a five year degree to be able to teach and then treat our teachers like aides who are not able to make decisions about how to present subject matter.
    Thanks, E.D. Kain, for this great post and for the tip on a book I certainly look forward to reading. I hope you do more research and writing on this subject. It is sorely needed.

  66. 66

    @RSR:

    The best instructors with the best practices are no match for the life they’re living.

    Screw that. The best instructors with the best practices are a match. It’s hard to teach those kids, but it’s not impossible.

    They can succeed, and their success in school can be the ladder that helps lift them up, both the individual students, and the neighborhoods they go home to.

    It takes great teachers, visionary administrators and leaders, and a lot money – but it can be done.

  67. 67
    RSR says:

    @Ash Can: oops, different ryan

  68. 68

    @Herbal Infusion Bagger:

    So every couple of years there’s get a new initiative from the Feds or the State where some genius creates reform.

    I think it’s worse than that. Almost any system of radical education reform can be shown to be more effective than the current system. That’s because the new system will almost always be done by a group of dedicated teachers who are excited to try something new and are convinced that they’re doing something great. But teacher dedication is a far more important component of education than teaching methodology, so the method with excited teachers will always look better. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula for making all of our teachers as excited and dedicated as the ones in the studies, so we wind up chasing a chimera.

  69. 69
    Josie says:

    @Aquagranny911: I can tell you one little detail my son discovered while working for a foundation involved with reading remediation in Texas a few years ago. One of the major investors in a company that sold remediation materials aligned to the tests (and pushed by the foundation) was Neal Bush.

  70. 70
    catpal says:

    You need to be reading about the Severe Inequality in Education in the US. It is very sad and disgusting, including the “ReSegregation” of schools in the US.

    Reading Jonathon Kozol Savage Inequalities and his “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” is chilling.

    Its not about teachers – it is about Purposely De-Funding Public Education in the US.

  71. 71
    RSR says:

    @joe from Lowell: on a case by case basis…maybe. But system wide? No.

    A good kid in my wife’s school died last month in a house fire. No working smoke detectors in a crappy rental house with apparently faulty wiring. Best practices doesn’t do electrical work.

    My wife’s school, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, does, in fact, send some children every year to the top public high schools in the city. The staff possess the skill to teach to that level.

    But a lot of the kids there, their lives suck. Their parents don’t care. Hell, their parents are basically just kids a lot of the time. And the politics and policies of our leaders at all levels of government seem unhelpful, and downright spiteful most of the time.

    My wife loves her job (most days) and is privileged to help as many young people as she does. But it’s going to take more than great teachers.

  72. 72
    Ryan says:

    @Ash Can:

    Thanks. The examples actually come from PG County, which abuts DC. Then I went to DCPS to a place that was within walking distance but it wasn’t much better.

    In DCPS, I had 54 students in my first period class. I had 30 seats in my classroom, but it was never a problem due to chronic absences.

    The embarrassing thing is that I didn’t do as good a job in my 6th and 7th years because I was so tired of the fight. I’m not sure what we can do to fix it, as the problems come from poverty as much as they come from bad policy, but I can tell you this: It is ridiculous that I had 54 students in my class when my school spent over one million dollars on Administrative salaries. Couldn’t we have lost one of the four principals or half-dozen VPs so we could hire more teachers?

    Bah.

  73. 73
    gwangung says:

    Folks should also check out Coates’ perspective on this, pertaining to Cathie Black, here and here.

  74. 74
    Triassic Sands says:

    @Dennis G.:

    …I find myself thinking she is the only honest voice in the school reform debate.

    That’s not really fair. After all, Ravitch has changed her mind, but that means that she now agrees with people who have held those views all along. As I said above, Ravitch deserves credit for her intellectual honesty, but her change of mind says nothing about the people with whom she now agrees. Surely, they aren’t “dishonest” just because they have no reason to change their own minds.

    Sadly, just as Ravitch is acknowledging the error of her previous ways, along comes President Obama to throw his weight behind the accountability agenda. Ted Kennedy came to regret having joined with the Superintendent of Stupidity, George W. Bush, to create No Child Left Behind, and the day may come when Obama, perhaps after reading Ravitch’s book, will begin to realize that he too is on the wrong track. For many years, I despised Ravitch’s conservative agenda, and the appearance of her latest book both startled me and caused me to re-evaluate my opinion of her. It is rare indeed for a person in any academic field to come out and publicly admit error — not about a minor detail, but about an entire body of work. Ravitch deserves respect for her intellectual honesty.

    I haven’t read “The Death and Life…” yet. I have heard a long interview with Ravitch discussing the book and her own change of heart (change of mind really), and after hearing her, I immediately requested that my local library acquire the book. It should arrive within a couple of weeks — I’ve already been waiting more than a month — and I am eager to read it.

    I don’t know whether Obama supports things like charter schools out of genuine conviction or if he does so for political reasons, but it is sad to see such an intelligent person supporting such ill-conceived ideas.

  75. 75
    Efroh says:

    I can’t believe this post was written by E.D. Kain. Maybe Balloon Juice is finally starting to rub off on him.

  76. 76
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Josie: I remember the story. Didn’t the foundation also have ties to the Bush family?

  77. 77
    Josie says:

    @PurpleGirl: I don’t know about that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The other thing my son noticed is that the people who headed the foundation and were training teachers on these materials were PHD’s who had never been in the classroom and, in his opinion, would have been rather poor teachers. Such is the state of education under NCLB in Texas. I’m glad my boys are grown and out of it.

  78. 78
    Sly says:

    I attended a conference recently in which Ravitch was one of the main speakers. After the conference, I had a conversation with another one of the main speakers, a guy who’s been working in public education for decades and has been saying, for all that time, all the stuff that she’s saying now. I asked him what he thought about the talk she gave, and he only offered this:

    “She should have just come out and said, ‘I’m sorry I helped destroy public education. Please buy my book.'”

    I understand that there’s something magical about a person who has changed their mind (which is a rather pathetic state of affairs, but whatever). The thing is, what you’re reading in Ravitch isn’t new. To a large extent, it isn’t even her own analysis. She’s basically the David Brock of the School Choice movement and, while there’s value in that, I guess, it’s no where near as valuable as listening to the experts in the first place.

  79. 79
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Roger Moore:

    Unfortunately, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula for making all of our teachers as excited and dedicated as the ones in the studies, so we wind up chasing a chimera.

    Actually, we haven’t found the secret to doing that anywhere. The belief that “Fire the bad ones” because “that’s what businesses do” doesn’t actually align with the experience of those of us who actually work in the corporate world much of the time.

  80. 80
    techno says:

    I have spent time in Finland–a country whose students regularly score best on those international comparisons (you know, the ones where USA students finish like 32). The rankings must measure SOMETHING because I have never been anywhere in the world where the general level of scholastic achievement is so astoundingly high.

    So now the rest of the world has discovered Finnish schools–they even have special tours for visiting pedagogues. There have even been some USA visitors–which is quite amazing considering how seldom ‘Merikuns actually think the someone outside their borders knows anything. But of course, the articles I have read about Finnish schools written by ‘Merikuns are uniformly absurd. They will write about lack of fast track classes, the late start for first grade, the advanced degrees held by teachers–in short, all the things that fit the thinking of the typical teacher’s union bureaucrat.

    So why are Finnish schools so excellent and ours suck so badly?

    1) The teachers know why they are teaching a subject and can explain why a student should learn it–not merely to pass a test.

    2) They TEST to find out if their students actually learned anything. In the last year of high school, they let the kids out for the second semester to prepare for the monster exam. The only hint the student has is that if he was ever taught something, he might be tested on it. It’s a killer–I would bet money that a Harvard Valedictorian (if a product of USA schools) could not pass the exam a Finnish kid must pass to get his high-school diploma.

    3) And speaking of tests–no multiple-guess exams–EVER.

    4) Their students are taught that Finland is a resource-poor country on the edge of freaking nowhere. Everyone else on the planet probably has something to teach them. The only way they could escape from their grinding serf-like historical poverty was to educate themselves. It is their patriotic duty to learn as much as they are able. (NOTE: the Finns currently have one of the highest living standards on earth.)

  81. 81
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    are forbidden to spend it on anything except outside consultants.

    I don’t have children, so I didn’t know that. Who is doing this consulting?

  82. 82
    Mike G says:

    Reformers do not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things.

    This is the classic authoritarian corporate ideology.

    90% of the origanization’s energy is spent on admin issues, and the actual work of the organization is marginalized and devalued. Everything is management-centric — the management is all-knowing, vitally essential and incapable of error, and the frontline workers are considered easily-replaceable, paid-too-much peons.

    Top-down procedural issues are in management’s control, so now they become all-important — if they admitted that substance was important that would be admitting that the frontline worker wasn’t an interchangeable cog, and would limit their power and authority.

    I’ve worked in corporations like this. They feature mediocre performance, and are even worse as places to work, but they perpetuate because they offer appealing power relations to managers who are control-craving freaks and authoritarian bullies.

  83. 83
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    All the carping about shitty teachers ignores the fact that parents can usually move their kids to other classes if there is an issue with a teacher. In 4th grade, my son was chafing under an authoritarian teacher so we moved him to another class with a different teacher.

    This year, my sophomore daughter was flunking algebra/trig because she had a demanding male teacher that could barely speak English. We moved her to another algebra class with a female teacher and she is carrying an A now.

    Yeah, there are bad teachers but they are rare and if the parents of children were involved in their education to the degree they should be, even that would be mitigated.

  84. 84
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @techno: I have seen data indicating that the better schools in the US are comparable to schools anywhere. (Not in a position to find the link right now) It is the bad schools that are so bad that they really bring down the average. Us school that participate in the IB program tend to do as well as schools in other countries. As a result, I do not think that the US education does not know how to do the job. I think they are prevented from doing it.

  85. 85
    Hawes says:

    @techno: Most Harvard valedictorians don’t speak Finnish… So, yeah they would fail the test.

  86. 86
    matoko_chan says:

    @DougJ®: bioluddite

  87. 87
    Hawes says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: This is a really important point that gets lost in the discussion about America’s “failing schools”. American schools have always been failing by the way. Go back 25, 50, 75 years and read about how awful American education has become.

    But the fact is good public and private schools in America are some of the best schools in the world. I teach at an (allegedly) top tier New England boarding school. In terms of yield, we are as selective as an Ivy League school. We get a few of the top high school students from Shanghai each year.

    I teach a young woman this year, her father is the head of the American Studies program at the main university in Shanghai, and she is a remarkable student. Tops in the class. But not always. On any given assignment, an American student can be at or above her ability. She is much more disciplined than American students, but my American students are also pretty strong.

    And let’s remember that the Chinese selected her to come to America, and they don’t select the scrubs.

    Asian schools work much more on memorization and rote discipline, but those same Asian students want to come to American universities (and increasingly American boarding schools) in order to really develop creative thought and other forms of learning.

    One other thing: I teach four classes. One is a remedial research seminar for post-graduates. The other three are AP courses. Enrollment in each class happens to be 13 students. That means I know each of my students’ abilities and limitations, I can authoritatively discuss where they excel and where the struggle. Despite needing to prepare them for an AP test of multiple choice, I can assign essays on every assessment.

    I’m amazed at the work public school teachers do with classes of 50 students. I can’t imagine how that would work. My students are all goal oriented, some of them are good at school, some are good at other things, some are the children of people who can afford to pay. But they all want to get into college, and I don’t have to worry about attendance or long term motivation.

    And still, public school kids will get into colleges that my students are left on the outside of, looking in.

    We do a lot right in education – outside of the poorest schools. We need to remember that.

  88. 88
    matoko_chan says:

    @Citizen_X: where has he learned? he lies like Douchebag nd McMegan and there is no penalty for it.
    you cudlips just lap up the drench.

    c’mon, EDK …….ONE GOOD CONSERVATIVE IDEA.
    you can doooo eeeet.

  89. 89
    Thad Nugent says:

    Geg 6 – it sounds like your niece was unprepared for the rigor and discipline of a private school education, hence her inability to finish it out. My brother and I had a similar experience. I went from a private school (12 yrs – primary through HS) to a public school and found it to be really, really easy. It was a good school for a public school, good community and all of that. My brother did just the opposite. He was coddled in public schools up until high school, and like your niece he suffered a rude awakening upon going the private route. Everyone in the family anticipated this. We have more experience with private schools than public, but we also know enough about the latter and are honest enough about the public private divide to admit that there really is a difference. He didn’t wash out, and his grades didn’t suffer, but he acknowledged the fact that his private HS was more demanding in every way. He worked harder. He’s taking a break now by going to our state’s big flagship university – still getting good grades as and doing the “honors” track, but not working as hard as he would’ve by going to a more selective private university or an Ivy. He knows grad school is going to mean time to buckle down again. Good on him for having his priorities straight and using the safety net of a public school to kick back and relax for a few years. No shame in that.

    For all of you who want to tell yourselves that public schools are every bit as demanding and rigorous as top private schools are, keep telling yourselves that. It’s a moot argument. The private school model thrives on competition. In larger cities that have great, long lasting private schools these schools compete against each other for the best faculty and the best students. Those that don’t innovate and grow wither and lose out over the long run. Anyone who’s given a chance to escape the mediocrity of a public school almost always does, and for good reason. Anyone whose parents have the means and place a priority on education makes sure that their kid has a chance to go to the best school possible. A good education in many cases provides a permanent edge in the marketplace. If you all want to perpetuate or contribute to a growing stasis in socioeconomic mobility in this country, by all means do whatever you can to keep poor and middle class students locked into mediocre public schools. The rich will keep investing in education, and as a result will keep getting richer. The poor will stay stupid and locked into a rut.

    My guess is that most defenses of public school mediocrity and teachers’ unions are more a result of an inferiority complex on the part of underachieving public school grads than an honest attempt to improve a student’s future prospects. And for those of you bitch and moan about “defunding education” – that’s bullshit. Every year we spend more per student, and each year students in public schools fall farther and farther behind. Public K-12 is just another bureaucracy now, another place for risk averse jerk-offs to collect a stable, if small salary that comes with job security and a pension.

  90. 90
    matoko_chan says:

    NCLB was not only misguided in its aspirations but in its means of achieving its goals:

    No, EDK you useless glibertarian assclown…..NCLB WAS IMPOSSIBLE to implement.
    NCLB mandated that all children in america should be ABOVE AVERAGE.

    the No Child Left Behind Act, which had this as the Statement of Purpose for its key title:
    The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.

    the latest conservative eumeme is that by some conservative magic, all teachers in america can be made ABOVE AVERAGE.
    thats your homies right there EDK.
    if you dont support “conservatism” anymore, please let me know and ill lay off the junkpunching.

  91. 91
    Stillwater says:

    @matoko_chan: if you dont support “conservatism” anymore, please let me know and ill lay off the junkpunching.

    It’s pretty clear at this point that he doesn’t support conservative politicians or their policies (Teatards, GOP). And it’s pretty clear that he’s rethinking his views on fundamental issues in the liberal/conservative divide – eg., labor, regulation of corporate practices, an expansive vs restrictive role of government interference in markets, that taxes promote the general welfare, etc.

    So, I would say lay off the junk-punching and take a wait and see attitude here. I mean, you don’t want to drive off a potential convert, do you?

  92. 92
    Arclite says:

    I attended Waterford High in CT. We have a nuclear power plant in the town, and the taxes from that resulted in very well funded public schools. We were one of the first schools to have a high-tech rubber track, indoor Olympic sized pool, and huge auditorium. We had some excellent teachers from Ivy-league schools, and fairly recent textbooks. Waterford is an average sized town of about 20K with no special features or industries beyond the power plant, although there are some nearby tech companies like General Dynamics and Pfizer. With a graduating class of less than 200 students, we had graduates who attended Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Tufts, BU, and many other highly regarded colleges and universities.

    Money can really make a difference.

  93. 93
    Svensker says:

    @RSR:

    My wife loves her job (most days) and is privileged to help as many young people as she does. But it’s going to take more than great teachers.

    More anecdote about good teachers and what happens to them. A friend was an English teacher in a very poor urban district (although their school budget was high) filled with poor black kids and recent immigrants who spoke no English. Because the school district was always trying to save money, they would move the teachers around based on their length of time working. The longer they had worked, they more the administration wanted to get rid of them, because their pension costs got so high. So they put my English teacher friend with bad knees on a 5th floor walkup classroom, no air conditioning, teaching high school math. When she didn’t give up on that, they moved to her another school known for having really tough aggressive kids, and had her teaching art. This war on her (she wasn’t the only one going through this) lasted 10 years, before she finally retired. But in the meantime, there were 10 years where an English teacher was teaching classes she was not credentialed for — they wanted to get rid of my friend and basically didn’t give a shit what was happening to the kids who were the pawns in this game of whack the teacher.

    I have no idea what the answer is, but I think aimai had the best idea the other day — work on the communities, getting jobs there, so the parents have work, money and some self-respect. Once the parents are able to take care of themselves, perhaps they’ll be more interested in seeing their kids get a good education, which will lead to a job, as well.

  94. 94
    liberal says:

    @Ija:
    No. I’m going for the “certainly within groups, there’s a lot of between-individual variation in intelligence, personality, etc, which is genetic in origin.”

    You can think traits are somewhat genetically determined without claiming it explains between-group differences.

  95. 95
    Arclite says:

    A couple of anecdotes:

    The public elementary school where my 3rd grade daughter attends was ranked last year state-wide as #4 out of 350 by the state magazine (test scores AND survey). I’ve seen two “bad” teachers there. One was just lazy, and the other tried hard, but was ineffective. Both lasted a year and were gone, despite this being a unionized school. Alternatively, when my daughter’s 2nd grade teacher went on maternity leave, they brought in a substitute who was amazing. They subsequently hired her the next year full time to teach kindergarten. A well-run public school can be done. My daughter tests a full grade level higher across the board.

    My state also has a geographic exception system. The elementary school is just awful in our district. We applied for a geographic exception to get my daughter into the above mentioned school. It’s a lottery system, so we weren’t guaranteed, but I was glad to have the opportunity and applied to several different ones to maximize our chances. The system is partly in place b/c of changing demographics: there are fewer children in the district now, so they need to import them to fill the building. My daughter thrives at this school where lots of other bright, hard-working students have also applied for exceptions and the families that live in-district are well educated. I’m not entirely comfortable with this, though. I think that all schools should be improved, and I’m contributing to the brain drain at the local one. On the other hand, I’m really maximizing my daughter’s potential, creating the best future citizen that I can.

  96. 96
    Jason says:

    I don’t understand the construction “the government should get out of the business of […].” I’ve seen this here, today, on TPM, elsewhere. Is it meant to mean that education or energy or whatever is a business, and that government should exit as a means of safeguarding capital (here seen as “investment”)? Or that the government has no “business” in education, as in “it’s none of your business”?

    As for the larger discussion, one thing I’d like to add is that American schools need to re-conceptualize infrastructure and classroom space. Say all you want about native/inherent intelligence, but nobody is wired to walk down a hall, sit for 50 minutes, listen to an outsider with expert knowledge, and then repeat. There’s got to be some other nation or industry with a white cinderblock deficit; knock all the schools down and start over on the grass.

  97. 97
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “But a lot of the kids there, their lives suck. Their parents don’t care. Hell, their parents are basically just kids a lot of the time. And the politics and policies of our leaders at all levels of government seem unhelpful, and downright spiteful most of the time.”

    But…but…the teachers must be failing if they can’t educate poor children! Never mind that the kids are focused on surviving. Oh, and let’s cut those nutritions and afterschool programs too, those are just sohcialist social engineering and waste.

    The rate of free/reduced lunch in the school district in my city is 54%. 54% In one of the country’s most expensive cities. The school district does a great job, IMHO, given the hand it is dealt – despite the high poverty level in its intake, it scores above other large cities in the state and similar to suburbs with much lower poverty levels. But I’m constantly amazed at clueless upper-middle class folks surprised when they walk into a public school and *shock* it doesn’t look like their +$15K/year preschool. Yeah, you’re not getting the frills. But my kid went to the symphony yesterday, and is getting a damn fine education.

  98. 98
    iriedc says:

    I went to a few shitty neighborhood schools growing up in NY and MD. I did go to an excellent county-wide public high school in upstate NY — but it took a big move. And having grown up in the ‘burbs I’m quite happy to never live in one again. We didn’t want to leave DC.

    So based on my personal experience of said shitty public schools, I wasn’t going to send my kids to our lousy neighborhood school in DC. So they go to a solid DC charter. I haven’t had a qualm.

    BTW — This Charter doesn’t teach to the test, hope you all know that it’s a myth that all do.

  99. 99
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “3) And speaking of tests—no multiple-guess exams—EVER.”

    As an immigrant from the UK, I’m surprised how much multiple-choice exams are used in the US even at the college level. At my UK university, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, were multiple choice exams used. Some of the physics questions were, frankly, finely crafted works of art. Nor on the public exams after age 16.

  100. 100
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “Ravitch deserves respect for her intellectual honesty.”

    Well, she’s just responding to the . Twenty-five years ago, Charter Schools were a bright shiny new idea for experimentation. So we tried them and…when you adjust for demographics, Charters perform marginally worse than publics. In my district, where there’s a school choice/lottery system, the charters schools do worse than the publics even without adjusting for demographics.

    (It isn’t surprising that they perform a little worse than the publics given the internecine political backstabbing that seems common amongst boards of charter schools and their staff.)

  101. 101
    Arclite says:

    @Ryan:

    Now I work doing boring administrative work for the government. The pay is better, I work far few hours (I’d average 80 hour weeks as a teacher) and I’m given respect by my bosses. I still miss teaching, but don’t want to work in DC again. Maybe I’ll move to the suburbs, but I’d really like to help the kids who really need the help.

    Teacher pay AND autonomy are huge issues. Increasing both of these could really go far in solving a lot of the issues we have with our school system. I’d rather spend on education than more Predator drones or nuclear subs.

  102. 102
    Arclite says:

    @Efroh:

    I can’t believe this post was written by E.D. Kain. Maybe Balloon Juice is finally starting to rub off on him.

    Really? It seems to be that EDK has always been less about ideology and more about practicality. He’s pretty much always been this way since he joined that site, as far as I have seen.

  103. 103
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @matoko_chan: I’m going to regret this, but

    NCLB mandated that all children in america should be ABOVE AVERAGE.

    this is simply false, and the blockquote you provide is not evidence for it. I am not a defender of NCLB, but being “proficient” in a subject is not equivalent to being “average” or “above average” or anything of the sort. While it is tautologically impossible for everyone to be “above average” it is not at all impossible, and in fact can be desirable for everyone to be “proficient” or better. The fact that you conflate the two is either laziness or tendentiousness.

  104. 104
    Arclite says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    I have seen data indicating that the better schools in the US are comparable to schools anywhere. (Not in a position to find the link right now)

    Do you think you could find that link and post it when you get home? I’d really be interesting in read that, as it would confirm what I’ve seen anecdotally living both in the US and abroad.

  105. 105
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Arclite: I can try, but I am going to the Wisconsin protests when I get home. Hopefully Scotty won’t send the Staties in to bust heads while I am there.

  106. 106

    @matoko_chan:

    How incredibly worthless you are. You blather endlessly about Salam/Douthat cognitive stratification and how conservatives are stupid but your grammar, spelling and the formatting of your posts is no better than that that of the average frothing-at-the-mouth wingnut over at FreeRepublic or RedState.

  107. 107
    geg6 says:

    @Thad Nugent:

    it sounds like your niece was unprepared for the rigor and discipline of a private school education, hence her inability to finish it out. My brother and I had a similar experience. I went from a private school (12 yrs – primary through HS) to a public school and found it to be really, really easy.

    Your private school education obviously didn’t give you very good reading comprehension skills. There is nothing of rigor and discipline in assigning an unprepared student to a math class beyond her abilities. Geometry is Chinese if you haven’t ever taken algebra, dimwit. And this is beside the fact that the charter school she attended IS a public school in that it steals taxpayer funds from the local school and gives it to a school that is more interested in and provides more resources to a dance class than in its academics (which are ALL provided online) or guidance counseling.

    My guess is that most defenses of public school mediocrity and teachers’ unions are more a result of an inferiority complex on the part of underachieving public school grads than an honest attempt to improve a student’s future prospects.

    If anything sounds like a result of an inferiority complex on the part of an underachiever, this statement would be it. I work at a large public university and see students from both private and public schools. My experience has been that there are more good, well-prepared, intellectually curious students coming out of public schools than from privates and the students who come from the cyber school (and it’s sister school, the performing arts school) are the least prepared of all. The only public schools that have trouble graduating college-ready students are the ones that are serving low income and rural students. You know, the ones that have little to no funding and a social/economic atmosphere that makes teaching and learning difficult, if not impossible.

    But go ahead and think you’re special because you went to private school.

  108. 108
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Arclite: FWIW I think I first saw something about it at CAP.

  109. 109
    Arclite says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Okay, cool. Thx. I’ll try and track it down.

  110. 110

    @Gin & Tonic: Actually (and I dislike being MC’s defender) that is exactly correct.

    The NCLB requires that by 2014 all students be proficient. The key, however, is knowing what “proficient” means in the context. Simplifying, it means they’re all B to B+ students.

    The four scores are the NAEP standards of below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced.

  111. 111

    @Thad Nugent:

    Baa, baa, baa Public schools baaaad. Baa, baa, baa. Private Schools Good.

    Yeah right. Private schools are so great. Like Philips Andover, which counts George W. Bush, the dumbest and laziest son-of-a-bitch to ever get elected president, as one of it’s alumni. Here’s the thing that you don’t understand about private schools Thad, they’re not a meritocracy. If junior gets flunked out of someplace like Philips Andover the school isn’t getting a tuition payment from Mumsy and Daddy any more, so they have a real incentive to make sure that morons like George W. Bush graduate. Conservatives bitch about social promotion, but everything else that conservatives bitch about it turns out that the reason they’re upset about social promotion is that they do it themselves.

    As far as Ivy league schools go, well fuck the Ivy League. The fact that George W. Bush was able to graduate from Yale, and get an MBA from Harvard says everything that you need to know about the quality of the Ivy League schools (and the fact that Megan McArdle has an MBA from the University of Chicago says everything you need to know about the Booth school). The Ivy League schools also have a dirty little secret, and that secret is called legacy admission preferences. If the Ivy League were the meritocracy it claims to be then legacy admissions wouldn’t exist, but they do because legacy admissions are a great way to raise money from wealthy alumni.

    So yes, the rich will do better because they spend money on their children’s schooling, but not necessarily because they’re spending money on their children’s education because it’s not about making sure that your kids are smarter, it’s about making sure their children get into elite institutions and that those institutions then graduate their children, regardless of their ability to perform. The movie Trading Places is much closer to reality than a lot of people would like to admit.

  112. 112
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Kirk Spencer: A lot of ink (electrons) has been spilled on defining “proficiency” in the NCLB context and I won’t rehash that here, but proficiency at grade level is not the same thing as “average.” An average, by its definition, has to have some members of the sample set below it. However, it is not arithmetically impossible to have every child in a fourth grade group reading proficiently at a fourth-grade level. The stupid m_c argument, which you hear often, is “they want everyone to be above average, see how stupid that is”? The goal may be unrealistic in a pedagogical sense, but it is not theoretically impossible, and using the term “above average” reduces the real argument that could be had to meaninglessness.

  113. 113
    iriedc says:

    @Kirk Spencer: you beat me to it.

    Part of the problem with NCLB rigid definitions is that all students in a public school — regardless of learning disability — are expected to reach proficiency. Some schools (and school districts) work to get around this by declaring kids ineligible to take the test, or they give them a *special* version of the test. Lots of murky business happens around test taking time.

    Not to mention that many school experience up & downs over the years, even the best ones. And especially ones that don’t “teach to the test.” Scores are useful, but not the only meaningful measure. That’s one of the reasons teachers in LA and DC object to “value-added” scoring as a sole measure of their work and competence.

    As someone who attended 7 different public schools in 5 different districts I can tell you: look at the scores, by all means, but ultimately walk into the school see how it’s run and find out what the teachers, kids and administrative staff say about the teaching. THEN ask the principal. It’s the only true way to know if the school is any good.

    ETA — same goes for private schools. I don’t buy the Private > Public crap.

  114. 114
    Dr. Squid says:

    @matoko_chan: Based on everything you’ve said, that it’s only the identity of the arguer that matters, that it’s only you that determines who and what is legitimate, you’re already a conservative, nipplechips.

    Piss. Off.

  115. 115
    Dr. Squid says:

    @techno: Finland rokks. Even their goofballs are fairly well rounded.

  116. 116
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “For all of you who want to tell yourselves that public schools are every bit as demanding and rigorous as top private schools are, keep telling yourselves that.”

    My kid’s public school is an immersion school: 90% of my kids day is in Chinese.

    The private Chinese immersion alternative, with a 1:15 kill ratio in applications and costing north of $25K teaches only 50% of the day in Chinese.

    I was checking out the private school’s chinese immersion summer camp a few days back, thinking to help my kid with learning Chinese, but realised for his age he was ahead of where the private kids were. So he’ll do something more fun instead this summer. At least for language immersion education, the publics beat the crap out of their private alternatives in my district. (Partially because more kids whose native language is Spanish or Chinese go to the publics.)

    Similarly, when touring schools back in the application stage, I saw kids work on the walls for 2nd and 3rd graders which was half-a-year behind the work in public schools I’d visited the day before.

  117. 117
    bostondreams says:

    @Thad Nugent:

    Wow. All kinds of fail here. When controlling for SES, the best public schools are the equal to or better than the best private schools (here is a brief summary of the Lubienski research).

    I also wonder: did your private schools accept all students? Did they take the child who was in 9th grade but reading at 3 grade levels below because he was homeschooled horribly? My school does.
    Does your private school take the student who cannot help losing her temper at the littlest thing and throwing a tantrum in class, and you cannot kick her out because it is in her IEP and part of her disability? My school does.
    Does your private school have to take a student who has suffered massive brain damage and will never graduate, yet her parents want her in the classroom? My school does.
    So take your elitist crap and try the real world of public schools. We do damn freaking good, considering that we have to take everyone and anyone who wants an education. And most of our public schools do it far cheaper than private schools, on average.

  118. 118
    bostondreams says:

    @iriedc:

    Part of the problem with NCLB rigid definitions is that all students in a public school—regardless of learning disability—are expected to reach proficiency.

    This, a thousand times this. Picture it like, say, oh, a race to the top. You have some students starting twenty feet from the FINISH line, thanks to innate skill, effort, socio-economic advantages, experiences, whatever. These kids will rock the exams. Other kids start ten front in front of the start line. They will do great too. Still others begin at the start line. They should do well, as long as the teacher does quality work with them. Other students..other students start 20 feet behind the line and will barely make it to the start line as the other students are finishing. And yet they all are supposed to finish at the same time? Insane.
    And in Florida at least, it has become harder to ‘hide’ these students who start way back. A certain percentage of the students HAVE to test, or the school is penalized.

  119. 119

    @Koszmic: Retired middle school teacher here. I agree that the points are exactly the ones that my colleagues made over and over to little effect. It makes no sense that we require a teacher to start with a master’s degree and continue to take classes for the rest of his/her natural life so we can totally IGNORE the people who have the education & experience to understand the problem. The joke in our building was that the teachers were treated like mushrooms – they were kept in the dark and had manure dumped on them.

  120. 120
    vanya says:

    “there are no students who lack the brain power to achieve at grade level.”

    Of course there are. The problem is that schools don’t do a very good job of sorting – many intelligent children simply tune out or are considered “stupid” by incompetent, lazy or vindictive teachers for any number of perceived failures that may have nothing to do with the child’s ability to learn. Still, I remember quite well from actually being a child in school that there were other kids who simply did not get it, could not get it and never were going to get it. A true education system would neither write those kids off nor demand that they learn advanced algebra, but would try to teach to their aptitude.

  121. 121
    tam1MI says:

    It isn’t cost effective to educate the handicapped, but unfunded mandates require public schools to do so.

    Am I the only person who finds the implications of this statement vis a vis the poster’s ideas about education policy to be deeply disturbing?

    Yeah right. Private schools are so great. Like Philips Andover, which counts George W. Bush, the dumbest and laziest son-of-a-bitch to ever get elected president, as one of it’s alumni.

    Fun fact: Yet another “alumni” of Philips Andover (he dropped out a few wees before graduation to pursue an acting career) was the wonderful actor James Spader (he wasn’t a rich kid, his parents taught on the school so therefore he was able to attend). One of his early, most memorable roles was as uber-snobby rich preppy bastard Steff McKee in the movie PRETTY IN PINK. It’s enough to make you wonder – was Mr. Spader’s fantastic performance informed by close-up observation of the creature in it’s natural habitat? ;)

  122. 122
    mclaren says:

    @DougJ®:

    Defining “wired” is simple and has a great deal of peer-reviewed science behind it. Different people have different modalities of intelligence and consequently different learning modalities.

    Start with Howard Gardner’s book Multiple Intelligences. You’ll find lots of case histories in that book of extraordinary individuals later recognized as outstanding who were dumped into remedial classes by school administrators because their learning style didn’t fit the left-brain mathematical-verbal memorize-and-recite modality obsessively favored by Euro-American K-12 school systems.

    Martha Graham, for example, was diagnosed as mentally deficient. The list goes on.

    Then you can move on to the book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less by Guy Claxton. This isn’t some woo-woo New Age fantasy — the author of that one is a neuroscientist and he cites reams of peer-reviewed cognitive research.

  123. 123
    mclaren says:

    @Thad Nugent:

    The rich will keep investing in education, and as a result will keep getting richer. The poor will stay stupid and locked into a rut.

    Marvelous. Absolutely insightful. And so true.

    Those magnificently educated supergeniuses who become wealthy, like George W. Bush, honor us with sublime insights like:

    “Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?” –Florence, South Carolina, Jan. 11, 2000

    “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on –shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” –Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002

    “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” –Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

    “You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.” –to a divorced mother of three, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 4, 2005

    “For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It’s just unacceptable. And we’re going to do something about it.” –Philadelphia, Penn., May 14, 2001

    “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” –LaCrosse, Wis., Oct. 18, 2000

    “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” –Washington, D.C. June 18, 2002

    Magnificent minds like George W. Bush and Dan Quayle rightly signal that these elite individuals deserve their wealth. They got their money by working hard and getting stellar grades at the best Ivy League universities. All those news stories about how Dubya and Quayle partied and got drunk throughout college and brought in mediocre C plus grades are obviously propaganda by envious and stupid poor people. Meanwhile, being poor is nature’s way of telling you that you’re stupid — and stupid ignorant impoverished people like Conlon Nancarrow, who spent their lives in penury, obviously won those MacArthur “genius” grants by some bizarre mistake.

    Yes, the rich are rich because they’re smarter and better than the rest of us, and the poor are poor because, like Albert Einstein when he was thrown out of graduate school to work as a patent clerk, they just can’t cut it.

  124. 124
    Dick Hertz says:

    @Thad Nugent: George Walker Bush.

    Your argument is invalid.

  125. 125
    Daulnay says:

    @Roger Moore:

    But teacher dedication is a far more important component of education than teaching methodology, so the method with excited teachers will always look better. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula for making all of our teachers as excited and dedicated as the ones in the studies, so we wind up chasing a chimera.

    The principal of my daughter’s high school revealed his secret to great teachers (my daughter has two); second career teachers. Her chemistry teacher was formerly a biotech researcher (PhD). The drama teacher was in professional theater for years. Etc. They’re teaching because they want to share their love of the subject, and their enthusiasm rubs off on their students. They also have a better grasp of their subject, keep up on it, and can bring it into the students lives more readily than first career teachers.

    My kid hates math, and is really struggling in Chemistry, but she comes home and one of the two classes she talks about is chemistry. (Auto shop, where the teacher is also a second career teacher, is the other. He is also great. But it doesn’t count, she’s interested in tinkering with cars.)

    My high school chemistry was not nearly as fun or as demanding as hers. A constant theme she brings home is that the teacher knows what’s important, so they breeze over some stuff (“you’ll never need to know this after this week”) and learn other things that aren’t part of the normal requirements (like memorizing 66 common anions and cations). In contrast to normal classwork, where you take a quiz on the material and move on, the students re-took the ion quiz again and again until their scores were decent. It’s the only example of mastery learning I’ve personally seen in American primary and secondary schools.

    Because the teacher kept her passion about chemistry, and she stays up on the field, the kids get to see it as more than a dry academic subject. They get real science, and sometimes the chance to see the cutting edge. Last week, some of the students went after school to hear a professional lecture on the latest prion/altzheimer’s research and then visited the labs at the teacher’s former employer.

    Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? In other schools in the same school system, there are some teachers that are vicious and some very incompetent ones: English teachers who don’t bother to spell or use grammar correctly, teachers who enjoy humiliating small children (one little boy had to wear a pink pacifier around his neck), one teacher sliding (maybe) into dementia.

    Second career teachers can help by bringing enthusiasm into teaching, but IMO there are structural problems in our educational system that far outweigh a lack of enthusiasm. Please note that I am not hinting that unions are the problem (although they insulate problematical teachers from consequences), but saying instead that our whole educational structure is very screwed up, from education degrees to authoritarianism to the hell that is middle school. I don’t think that improving teachers would fix our educational system, even if they all became wonderful, competent, enthusiastic ones.

  126. 126
    brantl says:

    @matoko_chan:

    i want to hear you say….DOUGJ TROLLED MY SITE AND REVEALED US ALL TO BE ANTI-SCIENTIFIC ASSCLOWNS.
    I want to hear you say…..CONSERVATISM IS A FAILED PARADIGM

    So, throw away half a loaf of bread and starve, because it’s not a full loaf, you ideological wanker.

  127. 127
    Bostondreams says:

    @Daulnay:

    That is awesome, and exciting for your daughter. But it doesn’t always work out that way for second career teachers in many places. At my school, for example, we had a biologist who decided she wanted to share that joy of biology with high school students. Unfortunately, her freshmen and sophomore biology students ate her alive. Close to 100 referrals in the first week was not a good sign. As long as the second career person is prepared and aware of what they are getting into, then like new teachers straight out of school, they will probably do well. It is unfortunate, but sometimes that passion and idealism can be ground away. It can be hard to share your passion for a field or for content when you have to make sure you cover all of the standards for the exam that could determine your job status. I’ve been ‘lucky’; I teach history in a state that has no end of course exams in the social studies, and has not valued us at all. This means that I get to pick and choose what I see as most important and relevant to the kids, and what will most engage them and build that love that I have for history. For some reason, the high school kids love learning about the Julian Emperors….

  128. 128
    Daulnay says:

    @Bostondreams: True, enthusiasm for the subject alone does not make a teacher. My point still stands — second career teachers bring an enthusiasm to the subject, a depth of knowledge, and real-world connections that can show their subject as something interesting and worth pouring your life into.

    Of course, if the second career teachers don’t learn how to handle a class or to teach, then they won’t be a good teacher. There are also some regular-path teachers who are enthused and excellent.

    You brought up another of the many things that are dragging down our schools, and I agree with you; the standards and exams have become an obstruction to learning, and a burden that saps the enthusiasm and passion of teachers. The good teachers, especially, feel ground down and frustrated by the current state of education. It is not just the students who have their interest and enthusiasm stifled by our current system.

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