Wednesday, March 17, 2010

No Uncomfortable Questions Left Behind

I liked pilgrim99's blog on education issues the other day. I also laughed at spacejace's posting of Bill Maher's "Fire the Parents" rant. Like them, I am ambivalent about the Obama administration's proposed changes to No Child Left Behind, despite what is still -- for me -- much admiration and high expectations for the president.

However, some thoughts, if not exactly disagreements, of my own. I'll work backwards.

Regarding Obama on holding teachers responsible and the wisdom of wholesale firings, like the one that occurred in Central Falls, Rhode Island: the key word (or buzzword) has been responsibility. If students fail, the argument goes, someone must be responsible, someone must be held accountable. Would that this were true! But failures occur all the time and only sometimes is anyone held accountable. So I will quibble with the imperative, the word must in that statement. Crimes go unpunished, mistakes are orphaned, lies go unchallenged, secrets go to the grave -- all the time. Whether someone is held accountable for the failure of children or not, this truth persists: schoolwise, too many children have failed. I would prefer a world in which this were not so, but for now, can we recognize that this failure, this particular kind of failure, belongs to us all? And belong is not the same as the fault of? Because until we recognize this, there will be no progress toward the world I’d prefer. When the president points his finger at the Central Falls faculty and staff, it is not that he's wrong, it is that he is only so very partially right. He has stopped pointing too soon. His grade on this test is Incomplete.

Bill Maher’s standup routine begins to fill the gap between where Obama points and where he failed to point. Certainly parents also need a good talking to. But Maher's rant is, finally, only a routine, the more or less funny work of a funny man. He doesn't really know any better than the president seems to know about how to stop failing children. For instance, when he says "According to all the studies, it doesn't matter what teachers do," this is flatly untrue. ALL the studies? It doesn’t matter at all what teachers do? Really? That statement on its face is so stupid, so plainly false, that it can only be a joke. And what follows in that paragraph is the crafted patter of a talk-show comedian, ("Although everyone appreciates foreplay," is the next line), the comic exaggerations of a licensed buffoon going about his buffoony business. In short, don't take your talking points from Bill Maher any more often or seriously than you would want to hear someone dittoing Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.

Pilgrim99 gets much closer to the heart of the problem than Obama or Maher, as we would expect from someone who has worked close to that heart. (Maher probably hasn't been near a classroom since the Carter administration. He doesn't impress me as someone who actually reads books -- though he might skim a guest’s ghostwritten pages in preparation for his show. Obama, however, is not only a famously adept student, but he was an accomplished law professor at a prestigious college -- what's his excuse?) But I hear two notes of uncertainty even in Pilgrim99's post. First, the refrain is posed as a question -- rhetorical, perhaps, but still: "When [the student] failed, was I the reason?" Every teacher, I think, when dealing with a failing student, will ask himself or herself this question -- and not rhetorically. My own college teaching experience only infrequently confronted me with this problem literally – I had no shortage of C students, but rarely an honest-to-god F -- but when I did, I would ask myself, with the pen poised above the grade sheet, did it really have to come to this? Do I really have to fail this student? Sometimes the answer was, yes. However, I also supervised and trained teachers for several years. And I had to confront teachers all the time with the question regarding the failure of students to learn: Were you the reason? But in a properly run school, the answer to this question is never alone a basis for terminating a teacher’s employment. Rather, it is a tool by which teachers and their supervisors and peers can evaluate their practice of their profession. Criticism and self-criticism and improvement are an important part of the job. What saddens me in Pilgrim99’s post is that he was apparently not allowed to ask himself in a useful way whether or to what extent he was a reason for each failing student’s failure.

Second, Pilgrim99 points out that his own solution to the problem was to leave an under-performing, dysfunctional school system for the presumably better-funded exurban district. This is the solution for many teachers and educators. And thank goodness! It is very good news for me and my children, living in a famously well-supported public school district. Good teachers and administrators give our search committees plenty of sound candidates for any open position – even though they are rarely paid enough to afford to live in the city where they wish to work. This is a system that is good for me but encourages exactly the opposite of what Obama tells us it should. Who can believe that the teachers qualified to fill vacancies in my city will be eager to take the newly-opened vacancies in Rhode Island?

And Pilgrim99’s point about the redistribution upward of educational wealth is only part of the bad news. Consider this point:

In the 1950s, smart women, except for truly determined trailblazers, had few professional options beyond teaching. Ditto for blacks and other minorities. If you had a particularly smart and ambitious daughter, people would say, "I bet she grows up to be a teacher!" While many things have happened to public schools over the last 50 years, one of the most important is that this low-cost captive labor pool of extremely talented men and women has evaporated completely—and along with it the respect that was once automatically accorded to those who entered the profession. Today, with so many more (and better-paying) careers to choose from, it's unclear [why any bright person] would be a teacher at all.

This is from a Slate review of Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I’ve not read it yet, but it is making quite a splash because Ravitch, for years a fairly reliable ally of social conservatives and Republican administrations, now rejects the articles of faith on which is based much of No Child Left Behind and Ravitch’s advocacy for those and similar policies. Among people who follow such things, Ravitch’s conversion against the gospel of standardized testing and data-driven administration and merit pay and standards-based evaluation and charter schools is truly unsettling. (I have this book on my to do list. So more later when I've read it. Meanwhile, I’m following a forum on with Ravitch and several critics.) What’s striking in the Slate review is that the reviewer dares to mention one of the most grim truths about our society: There were people willing to teach our parents who, given it to do over again, would not teach our children -- much less the children of Central Falls, Rhode Island.

The problem -- how to teach children, how to make them smart, how to make them ready to live in the world we’re leaving them -- is so damned hard. Way too hard for a cable TV comic, too hard maybe even for our very smart president and his very smart Secretary of Education. Pilgrim99 tells us he can only resolve, sort of, his own little corner of the problem – and Allah bless his efforts! Diane Ravitch (it seems) tells us that after forty years of wrestling with the problem, she only knows that what she has tried has also failed. For me, ten years after having abandoned my own career in education, I still feel compelled to serve on the local School Councils and volunteer for city committee work and help, whenever I can, any high schooler who will sit still long enough to take some help. I don’t know whether merit pay or mass firings or portfolio evaluations will solve the enduring human problem of how to teach. But I think that the equally inextinguishable desire to learn is our only real resource in this struggle. If that’s true, then the questions we should all ask -- ceaselessly, relentlessly, ruthlessly -- are: How many impediments can I remove from a student’s desire to learn? How can I not fail the children in my charge?


spacejace said...

excellent, Chip - great to have you aboard dude; for real, for real! awesome post. very well written. great stuff. not sure they the overall font is bigger, but totally fine. How did you get the review excerpt indented on both sides (a feature on blogger, while u were posting)? You found the link feature, tagz. nice dude. thanks a lot for coming along for the ride! I'll be adding a 2 to 3 more contributors in the next few months, a smooth move to the new WPress format, and connect/link this blog to every damn thing in cyberspace possible; and we'll see where we are this time next year. if nothing else, it will continue to be a hobby, and an awesome place to share things that we can get more in depth with, than on FBook. I'm lovin' it. Except for you comparing my man Bill Maher to to Rush and Beck!

pilgrim99 said...

Awesome, Chip! Great post.

To clarify why I left Y-town after a year for a wealthier job disappeared. I was a one-year hire for a job that was eliminated after that year. I knew going in that I more likely than not would be unemployed by Spring, so I kept sending resumes and, frankly, got lucky because I had certification in two curricular areas.

Would that all districts were equal...

And the questioning about failures. Yeah, every time. Thankfully not terribly often for me now, but it does happen, and it is mind-boggling. For example, I currently have a student with a 15% total grade in my class; s/he has straight F's in all classes, actually, and the parents' only real concern is athletic ineligibility. Sadly, that's not one I've been able to resolve (nor my colleagues).

For my own part, my children attend a Montessori school precisely because of the emphasis on what you mention as the "inextinguishable desire to learn" that all children have before our over-programmed efforts to promote that inevitably kill or cripple it (Fodder for another diary here).

Thanks for the props, though, and great to have you on board here. I'm looking forward to the new format and the new community blog effort.

Gaudiori said...

Really enjoyed the post - having done some teaching myself, it definitely resonated. Look forward to hearing more from you!

Gaudiori said...

Really enjoyed the post - having done some teaching myself, it definitely resonated. Look forward to hearing more from you!