Mixed Messages


Lately, I have been living a bipolar life. Here’s why: Our production company, Learning Matters, has two editing rooms, and the sounds emanating from them couldn’t be more different.

“You want to become a civil rights leader? Become a teacher. You want to get involved in the greatest chapter in the American civil rights movement, dedicate yourself to the education of our young people.”

I hear those rousing words almost every day as we work on our film about New Orleans. They were delivered, sermon-like, by Paul Vallas, then the Superintendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana. That message, and similar ones from Barack Obama, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and Richard Barth of KIPP, have resonated, and thousands and thousands of idealistic men and women have answered the call.

Meanwhile, in our other edit room I regularly see these video clips of school leaders in another city, from another film we are editing:

MERROW: If you had your druthers, what percentage of your staff would you replace?
PRINCIPAL: Probably somewhere in the range of about 25 to maybe 50 percent
MERROW: You said you have a number of teachers who really need to be fired.
MERROW: How big is that number? What’s the number?
ADMINISTRATOR: I’m not sure I should say that number. (pause) At least 50 percent. I think there are many of us who have said as high as 80 percent.

You see what I mean about my bipolar life?

However, I am fortunate, because I am only living it vicariously. Unfortunately, for our country’s 3.1 million teachers, this mixed message isreality: they’re called upon to sacrifice and serve — and they are vilified.

Is the tide changing? Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Washington DC School Chancellor Kaya Henderson have now come out against publishing student test scores grouped by teacher, joining Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp. But Henderson doesn’t need public demand to remove teachers. DC’s controversial teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, has allowed her to fire hundreds of teachers in the past two years. IMPACT relies heavily on how students do on a test known as the DC-CAS, a standardized test that has been plagued with a high rate of erasures (almost always from wrong to right) for a number of years.

What is the future of the American teacher?

Secretary Duncan’s change of heart (he supported releasing scores in 2010) is easily interpreted as evidence of the Administration’s awareness of its shaky standing with teachers. Expect more olive branches going forward, because President Obama probably cannot be re-elected if teachers sit on their hands.

But those are what might be called ‘headline changes’ that probably do not affect the bipolar conditions teachers face. However, on the ground, ordinary citizens are questioning the wisdom of putting so many eggs in the basket labeled ‘high stakes tests.’ The recent fiasco in Florida, where the state lowered the passing bar on the writing test because so many students failed, must be food for thought at school board meetings and around dinner tables across the country. And the continuing flood of cheating scandals –cheating by adults — is eroding support for high-stakes testing. In fact, hundreds of school districts in Texas and elsewhere are publicly objecting to the amount of time being devoted to testing and test-prep; here in New York City and elsewhere parents are organizing to keep their children home when standardized tests are being given.

Being against “too much testing” is not the same as being supportive of classroom teachers, however.

The war that I wrote about in The Influence of Teachers continues, between those who want to “fire and replace,” and those who want to change the working conditions of teachers to let them have more say over the curriculum and assessment.

“Fire and replace” is pure folly, because who is going to want to step into a profession that vilifies its practitioners?

If we believe that education is “the next great civil rights issue of our time,” then we ought to be enabling the ‘human capital’ now in the profession to succeed (while weeding out those who, after help, cannot cut the mustard). That approach will send the right message to the large pool of young Americans who want to contribute to our country.

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18 thoughts on “Mixed Messages

  1. I’m an academic advisor at the University of Arizona and a former education reporter. And, for a blink of an eye, I taught high school 18 months ago. Every day I see students who would be great teachers and are interested in it. And every day I’m told by same students that they can’t go into education because 1. the pay is too low to support a family; 2. the stress and hours are too high in the first three years to have a family; and 3. “no one respects teaching anymore.” It is heartbreaking but, my short experience tells me, quite true.


    • I was a teacher of students who were awaiting trial for expulsion as well as an elementary school teacher. Both times I saw the same thing. Teaching would be best served by doing away with Tenure and holding the teachers accountable for teaching kids. The pay will always be to low for those who are in it for the money. The stress is taken away after three years because you are granted tenure and no longer have to do anything that resembles work. But for those few teachers that want to be there the hours are great, the vacation time is great, the money is enough and they love their job immensely because of what they do!


  2. Here’s my question: of those 50-80% that principals want fired, how many have they actually communicated with about their teaching? I’ve seen it time and time again in multiple schools. Administrators give acceptable evaluations to those who need to be on growth plans. Teachers can be fired for doing their jobs poorly–just not every administrator is willing to do what it takes to make that happen.


    • I have seen it time and time again. Administrators that try to fire a teacher spin round and round an impossible maze of litigation and paperwork only to find that there was some loophole and the teacher is reinstated with raises and back pay. Out of all of the teachers who I have seen do really crappy things and be put on this track I have only seen 1 that actually made it to being fired. Parents up in arms! Administrators in tears! Teacher gets a raise and at worse a transfer to a different location!

      Teachers unions are great at what they do. But a Teachers Union is exactly that. They represent the teacher against all other agents. So where is the Student’s advocate when the teachers do wrong. Why don’t they have a Union? After all, school is not for the teacher… is it?

      Isn’t it about time we start making the hard decisions and stop turning the blind eye?


  3. Education will remain bipolar until we recognize that teaching must be a team sport. Rather than gamble everything on aligning instruction and assessments, we need an equal effort to align our human capital. We need teams to create learning cultures where being a good teacher is enough to be effective. In the inner city schools that I know, an individual teacher has to be a superstar to be effective.

    Part of the problem, as you imply, is that the contemporary “reform” movement is bipolar. In the final days of the New Deal/Fair Deal coalitions of the 90s, data-driven reformers came across a system with roots in the Good Ol Boy system/urban Machine, where of course, a big part of the system was a jobs program for adults. The culture of compliance meant that bureaucrats checked things off the “to do” list and teachers threw out knowledge “feed the chickens” style.

    Accountability hawks deputized teachers to do what the Great Society failed to do, redefined management as educational leaders, and consultants became social engineers, as they told the “status quo” to become the civil rights movement of the 21st century. When all these stakeholders did not transform themselves in a generation, “reformers” blew a gasket.

    A similar bipolar aspect is that data-driven “reformers” are very smart people, often with an academic background, who adopted the trappings of social science in order to devise pedagogies that go up against a huge body of social and cognitive science. Ultimately, they opted for “earned” or differiented autonomy” which offered engaging instruction in selective schools and top down command and control for neighborhood schools.

    When they adopted data-DRIVEN, as opposed to data-INFORMED policies they started down an anti-intellectual path, and ran afoul of some of education’s most cherished values. Peer review of evidence was rejected as too slow.

    So, John, your recent work reminds me of Lincoln Steffens as he explained where the technocratic and moralistic wings of the progressive movement went astray a century ago. Just as devotees of the assembly line became impatient with the foibles of workers for not seeing the wisdom of their efficiency experts, today’s neo-liberal reformers have tried and failed to create a 21st century assembly line. They did not realize that education is politics, teaching and leadership is politics, assessments is politics, and the process where featherless bipeds learn to get along is politics.

    Creating educational teams would be a political challenge. To do that we need a politics of inclusion. We’re not going to get there by flip flopping between extolling educators as saints and then condemning them as the status quo. We need happy educational political warriors, not vengefulness. Just as the best of the NewDeal/Fair Deal reformers were politicians who loved being with people, we need education reformers who love being with flesh and blood teachers and students inside schools. When we see educational improvement as being an imperfect process, where we can enjoy the democratic adventure as we struggle with the problems, then we won’t need the bipolar process where we have to continually define educators as saints or sinners, but as partners in an endless but exhilarating struggle.


    • “When we see educational improvement as being an imperfect process, where we can enjoy the democratic adventure as we struggle with the problems, then we won’t need the bipolar process where we have to continually define educators as saints or sinners, but as partners in an endless but exhilarating struggle.”

      Flat-out brilliant, John T. The entire range of technocratic fixes–the point at which Thorndike trumped Dewey–is where we first went wrong, and the path we continue to follow. Typically American. And now we seem to feel we can’t turn back. We can and must–because of that observation of Merrow’s: “if teachers sit on their hands…”


  4. After 15 years in the classroom I am a successful and happy teacher DESPITE my school and district administration, not BECAUSE of them. I’ve taught in “right to work” states and “union” states. In both situations the administration seemed “out to get” teachers instead of guiding them and supporting their success.

    If 50% of the graduates of medical school stopping practicing medicine within five years of starting the profession, we would think there was something seriously wrong with medical training. Instead of looking at the training, induction, and support for teachers, current policy condemns teachers for not doing enough. If the teachers are “failing” it is because managers, policymakers, and district leaders are failing in their role.

    It makes me sad that I’m disappointed when students tell me I’ve inspired them to become a teacher. I want to feel excited that I’ve inspired another generation of teachers, but I worry for the profession and their future.


    • When Pokemon first came out they started a craze throughout the US by introducing a cartoon that the kids could watch for 30 minutes once per day. After a month the kids most fans could identify 100 out of the 150 creatures, tell you what type of element they used (water, fire, electrical, etc.), cross reference the evolution and plausible powers that were available to each and which ones were stronger. The same kids still could not tell you what 8 times 7 was based on twelve numbers cross referenced against themselves using base symbols (numbers 0 through 9) that they had learned birth. How can they learn thousands of abstract facts in a month and still not be able to memorize 144 simple facts in 3 years (based on current standards of teaching multiplication from mid second grade through fourth).


  5. For what it’s worth, Mitt Romney just called education “the civil rights issue of our era.” That makes this officially a bandwagon, doesn’t it? But what is his platform?


  6. Paul Valas was also the person who (in a Learning Matters interview) stated that – teaching should be a job for young people without families. In other words, get them young, chew them up, and spit them out. So, in a way, the two quotes do go together, in a very condescending way.

    It certainly seems that the reformy crown envisions teaching, not as a career, but as a volunteer option for college graduates (although another mover and shaker – Michelle Rhee – contends that more years of education does not matter for teacher quality – so perhaps high school or grade school graduates.)

    Young volunteers in combination with online courses seems to be the vision for what was once a wonderfully fulfilling, invigorating and creative profession. So one can infer the plan: when the teachers are all fired, there will be no need to hire new ones. Thus, I continue to try to talk my lovely and smart daughter out of her plans to become a teacher.


    • Understand that this is the type of talk that is the reason half of the good teachers leave the profession rather than trying to improve the system. What is left are the people who want a job and get burned out after a few years of teaching. I agree that more years of teaching does not make you a better teacher. Not because experience does not matter, but because the spark and drive is beaten out of the teachers by the system. I was one of those teachers who left for private sector. I went to a non-profit job that paid less and helped more because the profession was one that was all about the kids. While teaching, the pay was great as well as the idea of advancement through hard work. I hated watching what seasoned burn-outs were doing and failed to stand up for what I believed in.

      Let your daughter try substitute teaching for a while. Give her a good taste of what it is like. She may agree with you… she may find that she loves it. More importantly, she may be one of those great teachers that cares and inspires a love of learning in the kids.


  7. “You want to become a civil rights leader? Become a teacher.” The very teachers that attempt to become the civil rights leaders are the same 50% of teachers that most administrators would like to fire. These administrators just want teachers who stick to test prep for high-stakes tests, prescribed learning, and test-score based accountability. This is exactly what Valas, Rhee, Barth and the other “reformers” want. So I don’t think there is any bipolarism….. just double talk.


  8. Two readers have called me out about my casual use of bipolar, and they were right to do so. I used the term as shorthand for a contradictory existence, not stopping to consider that those who suffer from bipolar disorder endure conditions that are often beyond their control and often agonizingly painful.
    The headline of my piece, Mixed Messages, made my point appropriately. I regret my error and apologize to all.


  9. “Secretary Duncan’s change of heart (he supported releasing scores in 2010) is easily interpreted as evidence of the Administration’s awareness of its shaky standing with teachers”

    No, it is not. Duncan doesn’t care about his “standing with teachers.”

    It is evidence that he doesn’t want the public to find out just how shaky the actual statistics are. When the scores are publicized, it is easy for the public–including the parents of children whose teacher’s scores are published, who have had _direct dealings_ with those teachers, to realize the scores are unreliable.

    See this blogpost from someone who’s done the math. (Very enlightening.) http://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/more-value-added-comparisons/

    Also, is it possible you haven’t read about the “worst 8th grade math teacher in NYC”?: http://gothamschools.org/2012/05/15/the-worst-eighth-grade-math-teacher-in-new-york-city/


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