On Michelle Rhee, Cyber Bullies and Teacher Pay: Excerpts from John Merrow’s The Influence of Teachers

Dear Friends,

This is a big week for us at Learning Matters, because of the unofficial release of The Influence of Teachers. It has received some wonderful advance praise, but I thought perhaps you’d like a sneak peek at what’s inside the book.

Below are excerpts from a few of the 17 chapters.

The book is available exclusively on Amazon, right here; I hope you consider going and getting your own copy.  I am donating 100 percent of the royalties to Learning Matters.



From Chapter Ten, “Following Leaders”

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” the young superintendent said. “Do you want to see that?”

In our world, see means videotape. Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was actually inviting us to film her as she fired one of her employees.

My colleagues Jane Renaud and Cat McGrath had spent the morning in Chancellor Rhee’s office, filming her meeting with parents, community groups and principals. A dynamo, Rhee moved easily from meeting to meeting, seemingly unaware of the presence of our camera.

Jane and Cat were stunned by her invitation, but not so much that they didn’t accept on the spot. As Jane recalls, “She told us to come back at a specific time, and so we got a sandwich, returned to her office, set up the equipment and shot the meeting.”

That event, shown on national television on the NewsHour, helped create the media persona of Michelle Rhee: the fearless and determined reformer who puts the interests of children first.

From Chapter Six, “Paying Teachers”

Picture the typical salary schedule for teachers.  It’s probably just a page of small boxes. One axis notes years of service; the other denotes academic credits beyond the basic Bachelor’s degree; as you go up in years and out in credits, you make more money.   In the upper right hand corner, in the last box, is the maximum you will earn.

It’s like having a crystal ball, because on your very first day on the job you can look well into the future and see just how much (or how little) you will be earning 25, 30 or 35 years from that moment; it won’t matter whether you’re the best teacher or the hardest working teacher — or the converse, the worst and laziest.  Your salary is set.

From Chapter Nine, “Leadership’s Revolving Door”

Just as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seem to play musical chairs with their coaches/managers, search firms recycle superintendents. No matter how long and hard these companies search, they inevitably seem to turn up the usual suspects: career educators, most of them white men.

In the fall of 2004, for example, only 16 of the superintendents in the 63 largest districts were women. Five years later, in the 2009-2010 school year, the needle had barely moved: Women were leading just 18 of the nation’s 66 largest big-city school districts. According to Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, “This percentage is actually way above national averages. While women are still a minority among urban superintendents, they are even more underrepresented in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas.”

From Chapter Thirteen, “Making Schools Safe”

Cyber-bullying can be stopped. Adults have to set the right tone in a school; they have to intervene instead of standing on the sidelines. They have to empower children rather than simply shutting down computers, for example. Above all, they must pay attention. And in order to know what to watch for, parents must understand that in many ways the face of bullying is changing.

Schools are supposed to be safe havens: physically, intellectually and emotionally. We don’t need anti-bullying laws (although about 40 states now have them) because of laws already in force that require school leaders to act.  Bernice Sandler, one of the forces behind Title IX (1972) holds that view. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment, and most bullying falls into that category, she explains.

“Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called ‘sluts’ and ‘hos,’ boys are called ‘fags’ and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent.”

Dr. Sandler says Title IX requires schools to act, no matter where the cyberbullying occurs.

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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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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Adolescent Connections

What causes young people to decide to end their lives?  That’s an important question, of course, just as suicide prevention programs and crisis hot lines matter.  But it’s equally important to examine the environment, to map the terrain that almost all of our adolescents occupy, because that environment may be harmful—and sometimes fatal—for our children.  I believe that some of our organizational structures, not just our behavior, are negative influences on children.  My particular concern is the way we isolate our children by age and grade, from kindergarten through senior year of high school.

Teen SuicideI’ve spent the last week in and around Palo Alto, California, where five high school students have ended their lives violently in the past two years—and more than a few others have been prevented from trying, often at the last minute, by observant adults.  That community is in shock but is determined to find out all it can and make whatever changes are needed to keep tragedy away.  Experts are conducting an in-depth ‘forensic audit’ of the community’s strengths and weaknesses, with that report due in next spring.

Palo Alto is a high-achieving community, and many parents expect their children to do as well or better than they did. Many kids face the pressures so powerfully depicted in “Race to Nowhere,” the film I recently reviewed here.  In one sense, that film is a “call to inaction” because it says to schools and parents, “’Back off!’ You are endangering your children’s health.” Continue reading

MOVIE REVIEW: Race to Nowhere

By now it seems we have all reviewed Waiting for Superman, but what’s surprising is that WFS is just one of four or five movies about education now out. A few weeks ago I reviewed WFS, and now I’ve decided to review the rest of them, beginning with Race to Nowhere, the 2009 film made by first-time director (and angry parent) Vicki Abeles.

Race to Nowhere is a film about how schools and parental pressure are affecting students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. WFS portrays our schools as undemanding; Race to Nowhere says the opposite—that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally.

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On learning to read

Why children want to be able to read is not open for debate. It’s for the same reasons that they want to walk: to control their own destiny. It’s purely pragmatic; children understand that, when they know how to read, they are better able to navigate their environment successfully, just as they intuitively understand that walking is better than crawling or toddling.

on learning to readIt’s the how and when, not the why, that are the issues. Again, learning to walk has some lessons for us. Some children are early walkers, maybe because of temperament, the presence of siblings or body development. Children who are heavier, for example, shouldn’t be pushed to become toddlers and walkers early, because that can put their physical development at risk.

Encouragement is a huge part of learning to walk. Think back to your own children, if you have them, and I am sure you can conjure up images of you and your spouse smiling, clapping and otherwise encouraging your toddler. You were there to lend a hand or prevent a serious fall, of course, but you also tried to keep ‘hands off’ when you could.

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Schools and Cyberbullying

In late June Jan Hoffman of the New York Times explored the tough issue of cyberbullying and the schools. She led her provocative piece with an anecdote about parents asking their 6th grade daughter’s principal to intervene in a particularly difficult situation involving abusive and sexually suggestive email from a boy. They didn’t want to involve the police, and they knew the boy’s parents socially. The principal’s response was cut and dried: “This occurred out of school, on a weekend. We can’t discipline him.”

CyberbullingAt first I thought that was a legalistic, hair-splitting response—until I read about a principal who did get involved, was subsequently sued by the angry parent of the offending child, and lost. That’s horrifying, but it’s the reality.

My takeaway, however, is not that schools are right to split hairs and decline to get involved. Instead, I think we need some redefinition, some fresh thinking.

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