Do we need better parents?

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If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

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If we want our children to perform better academically, we need “better parents.” That’s what Tom Friedman wrote, perhaps ironically, on November 19 in the New York Times. The column provoked hundreds of readers to comment, and those comments provide insights into just how far apart we are as a nation, at least when it comes to public education.

Friedman cites an OECD study that reveals that “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.” (My use of the verb ‘reveals’ is my effort at irony, in case you are wondering.)

Friedman cites another study, “Back to School,” from the American School Board Journal, which says that, when parents are involved in children’s learning, the kids do better. “Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” the study reports. It adds that these things matters more than attending PTA meetings, volunteering in classrooms, or helping raise money for the school.

There is a certain “Duh” factor — yes, involved parents make a difference in their children’s education — but what struck me was the heat and intensity of the responses, some of which I am excerpting below.

A few readers responded to Mr. Friedman’s comments about ‘better parents’ by changing the subject and preaching about the need for ‘better teachers.’

Janet of Salt Lake City was an early responder who wrote, in part: We need to place the responsibility for teaching squarely where it lies — on the teachers. A great teacher can teach anything to any child. Rather than wishing to turn every parent into the perfect parent, a goal that can’t be achieved, we need to provide the training and salaries that will attract the best and the brightest of our college graduates into a career in public education.

Moreover, suggested another respondent from Salt Lake City, SThomas: It’s the fault of the schools that parents aren’t involved. He wrote, in part: Unfortunately, most of these uninvolved parents were educated in the same school systems that are now failing our children, so naturally they lack the kinds of skill sets needed to instill in their children a thirst for learning. And it’s a vicious cycle: these same parents will then go on to elect next year’s school board members who will determine next year’s under-performing curriculum when compared to the rest of the world, thus setting up their children for failure in an ever-changing world.

Many readers attacked Janet, often in a ‘what planet are you living on?’ vein.

Persam1197 of NY was pretty typical: Janet, you said: ‘The public school system of every community has the responsibility to teach every student, regardless of the quality of the home life.’ I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s why placing the burden and responsibility of squarely on teachers as you suggest is misguided. It takes a village to raise a child, and, until our communities accept responsibility for our children, expect more of the same.

Parents
Do mom and dad need to improve?

Predictably, teachers — like Malcolm in Pennsylvania — responded defensively to the being criticized. I have taught in public schools for more than 20 years, in an inner city and in a rural setting. I wouldn’t mind being held highly accountable for achievement in children I see for 150 hours a year (50 minutes a day for 180 days) if the parents who are responsible for them the other 8,610 hours out of the year were also held highly accountable. “Accountable” means more than showing up for a 10-minute parent conference once a year.

A more common response, however, was supportive of Mr. Friedman’s point, often with hand-wringing. Here’s what Judy C of Phoenix wrote:

It goes without saying that when parents are actively involved in their children’s education, the children do better. Unfortunately, for many reasons, a lot of parents are uninvolved, and the raising of the child is essentially left up to the school. Sure, there’s nothing better than a good teacher; but really, a child’s primary, and most important, educator is his or her parent. Parents need to step up.

Don Myers of Connecticut agreed: How the parent respects learning is the key to how the child perceives and respects learning. Learning is a 24/7 deal not just limited to the school and related activities. We treat the school with disdain and with no more respect than we do the baby sitter.

Dale, a former teacher in Idaho, suggested that parents actively instill anti-school attitudes in their children: Many students regard school and their teachers as adversaries.

Jim G in DC agreed: Hostility toward education does not come from the great teacher. It comes from the parent, or from the lack of a parent. We must break the cycle of poor student performance in economically disadvantaged homes, and we cannot expect the preschoolers in those homes to do the fixing. The parents must change.

Which prompted a question from Josh Hill in Connecticut:

Sure, but how do you improve the parents?

If the challenge is to improve parents, whose job would that be?

Susan of Eastern Washington noted that “Parents often do not acknowledge that they, and not any school, are ultimately responsible for their children’s educations.”

Why is this happening? Do parents not know they are responsible, are they aware but incapable, or are they willfully ignoring their responsibilities to their children in their mindless pursuit of money and status? (Those were all popular explanations, by the way.)

None of the comments I read addressed what to me is a critical issue, and that is a false distinction between ‘education’ and ‘schooling,’ a distinction that I believe has been perpetuated and reinforced by many educators. That is, too many educators act as if they are in charge, a kind of “Leave your children — and your tax dollars — at the schoolhouse door, and don’t bother us.”

(Many superintendents and principals then set up ‘parent involvement committees’ and other patronizing activities that actually reinforce the barriers between parents and schools. It’s like saying ‘yes, we will let you be involved in your children’s education, but only through channels and by serving on committees.’ No wonder so many parents are fed up with educators!)

So what’s to be done? Ken of Hobe Sound (FL) suggested that “One powerful change a parent from an at-risk family can apply to transform their child’s defeatist approach to school is to become very involved in their student’s education on a daily basis.”

Bingo! But how can that happen? Mr. Friedman quotes from his conversation with Andres Schleicher of OECD:

“Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

Sure, every parent can do that if they know they’re supposed to, but I believe that schools and teachers can actually make that happen, organically and naturally, with a carefully designed curriculum in the early grades that continues up through secondary school.

I have written about this elsewhere but here’s a short summary: beginning in kindergarten, teachers should create ‘homework’ that involves the parents or guardians of their students. It can be as simple as asking Mom or Dad about their favorite movie for the first-grader’s ‘show and tell’ the next day. Early writing assignments can be on family-connected topics: What was Mom’s favorite food growing up, and why? What was the first trip Dad or Grandma took? Why is XX your favorite (athlete, actress, political leader)? And so on. And this is not a one-off but a routine, at least once every week.

This works for math as well, with shopping and cooking and anything else that involves numbers.

When ‘homework’ is organic, the families cannot help but ‘fulfil their responsibilities, but not in an ‘eat your peas’ way. Parents will want to see what their children write, and what the teacher writes on the paper. More connections emerge.

I am thankful that we live in a country where we can speak freely, but in public education the ‘them versus us’ approach isn’t working. We all can and must get better, but finger pointing won’t get us there.

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With testing, where do we go from here?

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Forget cheating on tests for a minute and think about the concept of ‘teaching to the test.’ Just what does that mean? The usual line (which I have used myself) goes something like this: “It’s OK if it’s a good test,” and that may be correct. Unfortunately, most of the tests that I have seen are not ‘good’ tests.

Think about teaching students to write, and then testing their skills. Clear writing is important. Employers want to hire people who can write clearly, accurately and well — but learning to write takes time and requires rewriting and more rewriting, under the guidance of a good teacher. There are no shortcuts. However, our obsession with numbers subverts both teaching and learning. Teachers are told that their students must be able to pass bubble tests and write a lot of short so-called essays (usually one or two paragraphs!) There’s no time for reflection or rewriting.

Instead, students are drilled in the ‘constructed response’ process: write a declarative statement and then add three or four details to support a statement, such as: “I always use sun block when I go to the beach.” And so they follow the formula they’ve been given and produce something like: “I always wear sun block when I go to the beach because too much sun can cause cancer, and because too much sun will make me all wrinkled when I get old, and because cancer can kill you. My mother makes me use sun block too.”

That ‘essay’ would get a passing score because the student supported his statement in four ways. The teacher (or machine?) grading the ‘essay’ could simply count the supporting reasons. Everybody — teachers, principal, superintendent and school board — would pat themselves on the back, but is Microsoft, GE or Hilton likely to offer someone who’s been trained to write that way a job?

That’s what we are doing to our children. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that we are lying to our kids.

Cracking down on cheaters — which we should do — won’t fix our problem. Think about it this way: You are sitting in your living room when drops of water begin falling on your head. Clearly, you have a problem. If you move your chair, have you solved it? After all, you no longer have water falling on your head.

Bubble Test
Tests aren't going away. But where do we go now?

Of course not, because the problem persists, although now the water is falling on your living room rug. Suppose you get a large pot and place it where it can catch the falling water? Have you solved the problem? Of course not, because you still have a leak somewhere.

You get the point. I think it’s time for those of us who are attacking bubble testing and the intense pressure to ‘produce’ to back off and ask, “Where do we go from here?”

Unfortunately, we haven’t asked and answered that question in the past. Subverting the testing system is an old story that we don’t seem to learn much from. Remember Austin, Texas, where most of the school board was implicated in test score deception? How about that small town in Connecticut with its ‘miraculous’ test score gains a few years ago? Not miracles, just plain old cheating.

Sometimes the system aids and abets the deception, as in Florida, where a loophole in the state law allowed districts to counsel low-performing students to drop out to go into GED programs. By law, the districts didn’t have to count these kids as dropouts as long as they suggested the GED alternative, no matter that no one had to follow up to see if the kids actually enrolled.

How about the so-called ‘Texas Miracle” that turned out to be the ‘Texas Mirage?’ Houston had great test scores, and Superintendent Rod Paige eventually became U.S. Secretary of Education. Then we learned that an inordinate number of low-performing 8th graders were simply being held back, often for more than one year, because high-stakes testing didn’t begin until 9th grade. Some find the seeds of No Child Left Behind in that misadventure.

Atlanta may actually be the proverbial tip of the cheating iceberg because evidence that suggests major cheating has also occurred in D.C., Pennsylvania, Florida, Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Some consultants, test security companies and even the test makers themselves are licking their chops right now, expecting to make a lot of money designing what they will claim will be better defenses against cheating, because ‘firewalls,’ ‘fail-safe’ steps, ‘erasure detection software’, and other ‘technical fixes’ are a big part of the conversation. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“The technical fix is very simple, and they need to put that in place. The job for a new superintendent coming in after a crisis is to rebuild public confidence with absolute integrity, transparency.”

I respectfully disagree, because cheating is not the real problem; it’s a symptom of a larger problem, and the solution is not simple. Not by a long shot.

The problem in Atlanta, in D.C., and wherever else cheating is occurring proves Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Live by the test, die by the test.

We rely too heavily on the scores of relatively simple (and relatively cheap) machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests as the measure of educational accomplishment, and that invites deception, cheating and criminal behavior.

So where do we go from here? Well, we aren’t going to ‘get rid of testing,’ that’s for sure. Anyone who wants to throw out that bath water ought to recall the New Orleans high school valedictorian that could not pass the Louisiana state graduation test, despite being given multiple opportunities!

Nor is it enough to endorse “multiple measures” of achievement. It’s more complicated. We have to ask ourselves what we want young people to be able to do upon graduation and figure out how to teach and encourage those behaviors. Then — and only then — do we figure out ways to measure them.

What if we were to ask large employers like Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Carol Bartz of Yahoo, the heads of Hilton, Hyatt, Avis and Hertz, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Steve Jobs, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, the provosts of some major universities, top advertising agencies and so on what they look for in potential employees? What would they say?

Or maybe you hire people for your company. What do you look for?

Life is not all about work, of course, so we ought to ask what we want our youth to be: good parents, concerned citizens, informed voters, discerning consumers, and so on.

Then let’s figure out what sort of school-based experiences teach or sharpen those skills and attributes. My hunch is that group activities and project-based learning will figure prominently. I think we will be reminded of the truth of the late Ted Sizer’s observation that “Less is more.”

Tests drive public education right now. But what should be driving the enterprise are agreed-upon goals that come from the real world.

Where do we go from here? That’s up to us, isn’t it?

The play’s the thing

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.


How did you get through high school? If you are at all like me, your extra-curricular activities were the best part of the deal. The fun stuff — often what we worked hardest on — didn’t really count as far as many of the adults were concerned, but it kept us sane.

I bring this up because the Yale School of Music asked me to talk to 50 of the country’s best public school music teachers earlier this month. Perhaps foolishly, I accepted the invitation — but then had to figure out what I (not a musician) could say that might make sense to them. That got me thinking about the centrality of school’s ‘non-essential’ activities like music. And then I remembered how another ‘non-essential’ activity — drama — had rescued my own teaching. Here’s part of what I had to say:


You are music educators, but because I don’t have the bona fides to talk to musicians, I will try to say something worthwhile about education. But what? Well, Last week I arrived at a recording session early, before my producer got there. The sound engineer and I had some time to talk, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him that I had been invited to speak to some of the nation’s best music teachers and was grappling with the challenge — what to say.

‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Thank them for me.’

What do you mean, I asked?

‘Well, I wouldn’t have made it through high school or college if it hadn’t been for my music teachers.’

Tell me more, I said.

‘I played an instrument, but that wasn’t what made it matter. In music, the rewards are right there for the taking. You work with others and are only as good as the group. But you can get better — and know you are getting better — by practicing. In other classes, the rewards are external and symbolic (letter grades) but not in music.’

So, from 40-something Richard Fairbanks, thank you. I am certain there are hundreds of thousands of Richard Fairbankses out there, adults who survived school — and later prospered — because of you.

From me, congratulations. I am proud to be here with you.

I have read your biographies, and all I can say is ‘wow.’

Why teachers matter….

I think schools are teetering on the edge of a cliff marked ‘obsolescence.’ In my new book, I argue that two of the three reasons for having schools no longer apply. Now I realize there’s a fourth reason, one that involves you.

Here’s the story: I taught high school in New York in the mid-60s right after graduating from college. I write about that experience in The Influence of Teachers. One story I didn’t write about in the book I’d like to tell now, because it’s about how we turned to the arts — even then officially a non-essential activity — to energize our class. Looking back, I think it was the best teaching I ever did.

As a rookie teacher in a rigidly tracked school, I was not allowed anywhere near the kids who were on track to go to college. They were the ‘ones’ and the ‘twos.’ Instead, I was given five classes of ‘threes,’ the borderline kids that no one really cared very much about. They were Italian-Americans or working class Jews, with one or two Hispanics. For one class I was assigned to team-teach with an older Social Studies teacher named Patty Ecker (she was perhaps 24!). We struggled to interest the kids in the two subjects, without much success, until one day Patty said, “Let’s have them write a play.”

John Merrow teaching in 1966
John Merrow teaches at Paul D. Schreiber HS in Port Washington, NY in 1966.

Bingo! We told them that they had to come up with a story, explained plots, talked about ‘beginning, middle, end’ and all that stuff. They could decide on characters, action, plot, and so on. Once they realized that they had a blank slate, they took off.

Maybe predictably, the main characters of their play were tough but misunderstood teenagers, kids the adults looked down on because their hair was slicked back and they wore leather — girls and boys alike.

The plot involved shoplifting from a store in town. Cigarettes, maybe. The owner accused the greasers, of course, and I think the football captain actually fingered them.

You can guess the plot twist pretty easily. The goody-two-shoes guy and his perfect girlfriend were the thieves, and so on.

Word spread that Miss Ecker’s and Mr. Merrow’s class was writing a play and acting it out in class. Which we were. Kids would say their lines, and other kids would critique. Is that what Rocco would say? Is that how Vinnie would say it?

As enthusiasm built, someone suggested actually staging the play in the auditorium. That meant building at least two sets, because some of the action took place in a kid’s garage, some in an official office, maybe the principal’s, maybe the police chief’s — I don’t remember. They scrounged up props, including one kid’s chopped and lowered and louvered hot rod, if I remember correctly. Costumes. The whole nine yards.

For Patty and me, it was heaven. We were having — for the first time — the kinds of experiences that you have enjoyed throughout your careers, because we had engaged our kids in real work that both respected them and challenged them.

We had kids enthusiastically writing and rewriting. We heard from parents who had never been in touch with the school before. I remember a lovely letter I got from Joe Levy’s mother. Written in a loopy scrawl with a couple of minor mistakes, that letter touched me as very little has since, because she said that her Joey had been ready to drop out because he hated school but now he was jumping out of bed, eager to go.

When they put on the play one afternoon, those kids became heroes to a pretty sizable segment of the school, the large group of students who are barely visible to the adults. Their play stood up to the in-crowd, but that was only a small part of their triumph. They had flexed their creative muscles, something that hardly ever happens for most kids in “curricular” stuff.

Why these classes and activities are ever called ‘extra curricular’ is beyond me.

What we discovered, quite by accident, is something you know in your core: kids are not afraid of work, not if it’s work of value. Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best work that he or she can. You know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem. Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut corners. They may grumble that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

So how do we save ‘extra curricular’ program like art and drama and music? I don’t believe that special pleading (“Save The Arts”) will work. We need a national conversation about our children, and I challenge you to help lead that.

(That’s my bumper sticker for you: DON’T PLEAD. LEAD.)

We have to ask a number of questions: What do we want our children (grandchildren, in my case) to be able to do? What kinds of people do we want them to grow up to become? What values matter? Are test scores a valid surrogate measure of our hopes for children, our own and those of others?

Then ask how we get there? Ask what the role of the school is? Ask what kinds of programs help kids grow in those directions?

If we ask those questions and if citizens and business leaders and politicians answer them honestly, the inevitable conclusion has to be that the arts in all their forms are fundamental, as important as — maybe more important than — the so-called basics.

When that day arrives, when we finally get our priorities right — and I believe we will — I hope you will be magnanimous and keep English and math and history on the list of ‘basics.’

But if you don’t, I will understand completely.

Again, my congratulations on your richly deserved honor, and thank you for the privilege of speaking with you today.



Does any of that ring a bell for you? What on earth can we do to get the people in charge to wake up to the importance of art, music, drama, journalism and even recess? They’re all being cut in the name of ‘academic rigor.’ And that insane policy is hurting children and youth everywhere.

In education, a lack of response to basic demand

I started writing this blog entry on a flight to California from New York; I’m headed there for another book party and a meeting of the Learning Matters board.

For the last 30 minutes or so, I have been listening to a father talk about his two young children, ages 7 and 10.  He’s an older Dad with at least one adult child, and he radiates child-like enthusiasm about what amounts to a second go-round of childrearing. He’s been telling me about their endless curiosity; they always are asking “why?” and “how does this work?” and so on.

As I listened, a dark cloud flickered across my eyes and I wondered: what would their schools do to their spark?

Nurture it, tolerate it, or extinguish it?

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E.D. Hirsch, Mike Smith and Linda Katz offer insights on reading development

If journalism is history’s first rough draft, then perhaps blogs like this one are journalism’s notes and outline. For me, this blog continues to be a wonderful learning opportunity, largely because of thoughtful readers who question my assumptions and provide me with information I have either forgotten or never seen.

In the few days since I posted my thoughts about early reading, I have received several (welcome) wake-up calls from E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith (former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton), and Linda Katz (Director of the Children’s Literacy Initiative in Philadelphia).

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On Teachers: Let’s Stop Bashing and Get Proactive

Last week in this space I wondered why the President had singled out for high praise a school in Denver where the teachers had taken on their own union to get work rules relaxed. Was he, I asked, sending a not-very-subtle message to teacher unions, “Put kids’ interests first. Stop with the trade union behavior”?

I asked Peter Cunningham, the Department’s uber-capable Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, how that particular school was selected. He responded in an email that he had had nothing to do with it.

So if it wasn’t the Department of Education, then who? The likely suspects are on the President’s White House staff or in the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps someone is off the reservation.

Or perhaps a speechwriter didn’t perform due diligence. That happens.

Or maybe eager staffers who work for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (former Denver Superintendent of Schools) did their job—promoted their boss—effectively. (We saw the Senator and others from Colorado give their own standing ovation at that point in the speech.)

I wish the President had singled out a successful school that also models what many of us would like to see everywhere: teachers and their unions working with management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn. That would have been a great lesson for his audience, and it would have helped tamp down the teacher-bashing and teacher-union bashing. Instead, he added fuel to their fire, which is already hot and getting hotter, as more governors go after tenure and seniority.

But what matters more right now is what the Department and others are actually doing. Lots, it turns out. For instance, later this month the Department will host 150 school districts (in Denver!) for two days about ‘labor management collaboration.’ In the press release, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying, “Union leaders and administrators across the country are finding new ways to work together to focus on student success. The leaders from these 150 districts are committed to bold reforms and are showing the country what is possible when adults come together, particularly in tough times, to do the right thing for kids.”

This event is sponsored by the two teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools. That is, just about everyone.
The Ford Foundation is picking up this tab, according to the press release. Elsewhere, the Gates Foundation is putting serious dollars behind collaborative efforts in Hillsborough, Florida and other districts.

The skeptic in me wonders about two phrases the Secretary uses: ‘bold reforms’ and ‘student success.’ If by the latter he means higher test scores, this meeting won’t amount to much. If by ‘bold reforms,’ he means ‘turnaround specialists’ and other half-hearted changes, the meeting will probably be a waste of time.

I hope he (and Peter Cunningham) insist that everyone prepare for the meeting by reading or re-reading the two most recent surveys of teachers done by Met Life and Scholastic/Gates Foundation. Use those documents as the foundation, and something great could come out of these two days in February.

Stopping teacher bashing is not enough. Nor is “better communication” between labor and management. What’s needed is a proactive effort to make teaching a better job.

NB: “Better Job” does NOT mean shorter hours or higher pay, if you trust what the teachers themselves say. What they want, according to MetLife and Scholastic/Gates, are opportunities to collaborate, involvement in curriculum, trust and respect.

The State of The (Teachers) Union

2011 SOTU address (photo NY Times)

Was the President sending a strong message to teacher unions last night? Sure looks that way in the light of day.

What most of us saw and heard was high praise for education. He put it #2, behind ‘innovation’ on his list. Five of his 23 guests were students, and a 6th—Jill Biden—is a community college teacher. That’s all good. Mr. Obama praised “Race to the Top” and called for rewriting No Child Left Behind, and that’s all good too.

He went out of his way to praise teachers and remind us all that parents must do their job—turn off the TV, and engage with their children. That provided a welcome relief from all the teacher- bashing going on now.

And—icing on the cake–he made an eloquent plea to young people: become teachers!

Friends of public education had to be smiling and may still be today. The National School Boards Association and others have issued press releases full of praise, for example.

You may remember that he singled out one public school for high praise.

Here’s what he said:

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said ‘Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.’ [The reference is to principal Kristin Waters.]

I confess that the significance of the President’s choice went right over my head, but Andy Rotherham didn’t miss it. He provided context on the NY Times blog. Here’s what Andy wrote:

The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that’s a strategy the two national teachers’ unions don’t want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times’s Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today. Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it’s a fascinating choice.

Andy’s op-ed (March 10, 2008) provides more background:

When teachers at two Denver public schools demanded more control over their work days, they ran into opposition from a seemingly odd place: their union. The teachers wanted to be able to make decisions about how time was used, hiring and even pay. But this ran afoul of the teachers’ contract. After a fight, last month the union backed down — but not before the episode put a spotlight on the biggest challenge and opportunity facing teachers’ unions today.

This morning’s Denver Post explained further:

The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules. The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.
In its transformation, Bruce Randolph changed from being a straight middle school into a school serving grades 6-12. Its first class graduated last spring into the open arms of a tearful Waters.

Bruce Randolph had been on the list of schools to be closed. Today it’s not the slam-dunk success that the President implied. It’s still on the ‘watch list’ and ranks 66th out of about 150 schools in Denver, but it clearly has improved dramatically.

But the story is not how much the school has improved; it’s how. Union rules were in the way, and so teachers took on their union. With the support of the superintendent, they forced union leadership to back off.

It seems pretty clear that last night the President was firing another shot across the union bow, much as he did last year when he sided with a Rhode Island school board that fired its high school teachers when they wouldn’t go along with a reasonable ‘restructuring’ plan.

“Stop with the trade union stuff,” the President was saying. “Start putting the interests of students first.”

Unions don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn’t shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

[Click here for the full text of President Obama’s address]

Teacher Bashing

Teacher bashing is all the rage these days, unfortunately.

Teachers are leaving the profession, and I am hearing from teachers I trust that the exodus would be greater if the economy were better. While I think that aspects of the profession ought to be criticized, particularly the ‘trade union’ mentality of some—but not all—union leaders, the bashing is way out of line.

I write about this in my forthcoming book, The Influence of Teachers, but here today I am simply presenting the words from one veteran teacher, a woman I know to be dedicated to her students and the profession.

Please read and reflect.

I teach in a public high school whose students reflect the full socio-economic range of our county.  But rich or poor and regardless of the educational backgrounds of their parents, many of my students seem to need me to parent them as well as teach them. 
On any given day, in order to teach I must also address the results of this kind of parenting:

–The gay teen whose mother tells him she wishes he had never been born and refuses to come get him when he cuts himself in the school bathroom;

–The-15-year-old whose smell makes us wretch because his clothes aren’t washed and he doesn’t bathe regularly;

–The 15-year-old girl who is shoved through a pane glass window by her mother’s boyfriend when she asks him not to smoke around his new infant daughter (her half sister);

–The affluent boy whose parents’ acrimonious divorce (his father’s 3rd) forces him to quit the tennis team this spring because the shared custody arrangement (alternating homes nightly) leaves no way for him to get home from school after practices and games;

–The mother who corners me in the parking lot at Safeway to challenge a grade on her son’s paper, saying it’s because he rushed that he didn’t clean up the evidence of plagiarism in his essay, and I have to re-grade the paper because his IEP entitles him to extended time (the plagiarism itself didn’t trouble her);

–The 14-year-old boy who cannot stay awake in class because he is out until after midnight most school nights; his mother says, “he doesn’t listen to me,” and add that, in her opinion, he’s “too old to have a bedtime;”

–The mother who tells me to stop calling her about her child’s behavior and says, “When she’s at school she’s your problem.  Stop expecting me to do your job.”

–The phone that does not ring when report cards and interims go home showing failing grades.

–The father who berates me for chastising his daughter (who has 3 Es and 2 Ds) when I find her hanging out with her friends in the hallway rather than participating in an optional after-school Exam Review session which the teacher is running voluntarily and on his own time.

  I am not alone. Many teachers feel like punching bags and crash test dummies.

Now, dear reader, ask yourself: would you trade places with that teacher? Could you last in the job as long as she had and still be as effective and caring as she is? Does she have a right to be upset?

For reasons I don’t understand, many powerful people are defining public education’s problem as “Bad Teachers.” That’s simplistic and dangerous.

Your thoughts on what we can do to make things better?

MOVIE REVIEW: Where Do I Stand?

I have a new favorite film about education. This one is NOT about school but rather about the moral dilemmas we all face, in this case a matter of life and death.

Where Do I Stand? captures the reactions of seven young people living in South Africa during the xenophobia attacks of 2008 in which 62 foreigners were murdered and about 100,000 driven out of their homes.


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MOVIE REVIEW: The Lottery

Put one notion to rest: The Lottery is not a poor cousin of Waiting for Superman.  In some respects it’s a purer and more honest film, ferocious in its anger.  And although an NPR reviewer called it “a devastating piece of propaganda,” the filmmaker begs to disagree.

Madeleine Sackler, not yet 30 years old, says The Lottery simply tells the stories of the lives of four families as they struggle to find better educational opportunities for their children.  “That word, propaganda, has a negative connotation,” she said. “This movie is true.”


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