Month: February 2014

Clueless in Secondary Education: How Standards Obscure the Lives of Students

If the key to fixing our lowest performing schools and helping our most underachieving students were simply a matter of raising academic standards, then these are problems that we would have solved long ago. The truth is, though, that creating healthy and sustainable schools and communities are reciprocal projects—ones that go largely unacknowledged by an appeal to higher standards.

Yet, despite this, raising standards is precisely what Gerald Graff, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, suggest we need to do. In his response to Diane Ravitch’s address to the MLA about the many, many reasons why the Common Core State Standards are a bad idea, Graff says he supports the CCSS and thinks it’s high time we let the neoliberal reformers have their day (as if these reformers aren’t the ones responsible for the continued narrowing of curriculum in schools, the de-skilling of teachers, and the all-consuming emphasis on standardized test scores that’s overwhelmed many of our public schools).

Charles Payne, in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistent Failure of Urban Schools, warns us that “most discussion of education policy and practice is dangerously disconnected from the daily realities of urban schools…most discussion fails to appreciate the intertwined and overdetermined nature of the causes of failure” (5). I urge Graff to read this book. And, I also invite him to spend some time in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

When reading Graff’s response to Ravitch, you might think that he’s spent half his career working in middle and high schools. Here’s a guy who seems to know quite a bit about what teachers should be doing, right? It turns out that like so many of the so-called education reformers, he’s never actually been a middle or high school teacher. Those of us who have taught or are still teaching in some of our most challenging schools are left to wonder just how well Professor Graff would fare teaching students in a public neighborhood middle or high school in Chicago.

According to Graff, the trick is to make sure we tell students that the college readiness standards are important. So I invite Graff (and other reformers like him) to take a shot at putting his plans into action by working as a teacher in the CPS for a few years. But, you know, he’s probably not going to do it. And, it’s precisely because of his lack of grounded experience in actual schools that one does not at all wonder how Graff can so easily dismiss questions about race and class. When it comes to these types of questions, he simply states: “I don’t buy it.” (Go ahead and picture the most dismissive wrist flick you can imagine while uttering this—i.e., I don’t buy it—statement.)

The truth is, though, Graff and reformers like him, will never take up the challenge to get in a classroom and do the hard work of teaching. Why? Because it’s so much easier to sit on the sidelines as an armchair reformer and tell others how to teach. I’m not saying that Graff isn’t a good teacher (his students at UIC may actually like him), but how much does he really know about teaching in our public schools? Let’s face it, it’s much easier to claim that the problems we see our schools are not about poverty (with no evidence to support such claims, of course), than it is to actually get your hands dirty working with kids from low socio-economic backgrounds—kids who may present unexpected challenges to the bright ideas that Graff and others like him cook up in their safe, well-heated offices 20 floors above the cold streets of Chicago.

Graff reduces education reform to a set of standards, but he’s not alone in doing so. He’s in good (loathsome?) company. In fact, he can now join the ranks of a long list of so-called education reformers, including our own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for whom the idea of actually teaching in our most difficult schools seems absurd. (His claim to his current post rests on the fact that his mother was a teacher.) This brings to mind a quip that made the rounds during the last CPS teacher strike: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, pass laws (or write essays) about teaching.

Of course, such a stance begs the question: How might Graff or Gates or Duncan feel if a group of folks, say a handful of successful people from outside their institution were to hijack their department or business or institution and tell them how they aught to run things? To take this a step further, why not apply the same logic that Graff deploys in his response to Ravitch to his own English department at UIC? According to Graff, in his own courses at UIC he sees evidence that the American education system has done little for  “the great majority of students who are essentially confused about how to do academic work, about how to analyze a text and summarize its argument, or about how to make an argument of one’s own.” If this is true, then why doesn’t Graff simply compel his colleagues to raise their standards? Why doesn’t he just raise his own standards, for that matter?

The answer, of course, to anyone who takes a second to think about it, is that the assumption that the majority of teachers and professors are somehow purposely holding their students to the lowest possible standards is ridiculous. Yet, this is precisely the assumption on which the standards-based reform argument relies: bad teachers and low standards are preventing kids from succeeding.  In other words, these reformers seems to be saying that we can trace all student failures to a lack of standards (or poor standards) on the part of professors (and teachers) that have kept these students from excelling in academic contexts.

One of the problems with this view (i.e., we need to fix the bad teachers by raising standards) is that all of us (even, presumably, Graff himself) have had a bad teacher or a bad professor at some point in the past. Our experience with these poor performers is, perhaps, what makes this narrative so powerful. We all tell stories about sitting through a lecture given by a drunk or incoherent professor or making phone calls in a class when the teacher fell asleep at her desk. The image of the incompetent educator is pervasive in popular culture, too.

But for most of us, an experience with a bad teacher or professor didn’t ruin our lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending professors or teachers who do their jobs poorly. But that’s why we have tenure review and teacher evaluations. How many of Graff’s own colleagues would believe for a minute that the way to solve the problem of poor student performance is by raising standards and holding professors accountable for how students perform at the university? This is sort of like asking the gym teacher to teach snowboarding all year and then punishing him when he doesn’t produce 30 replicas of Shaun White.

Ultimately, Graff and others like him (e.g, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, David Coleman) rely on the logic that bad teachers are the problem and good teachers are the solution, since its the bad teachers who would be teaching to low standards and bringing all our students down. Yet, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. My own experience as a high school teacher on the South Side of Chicago suggests a quite different story. The vast majority of teachers I worked with were honest, hard working, and caring educators. But, please don’t take my word for it.

Take, instead, the example of the school district in New Haven, Connecticut. The teacher evaluation program implemented in New Haven, described by the New York Times as “an urban district with a high poverty rate” that “has faced enormous challenges in improving the quality of instruction.” Again, the assumption here is that teachers (euphemistically referenced here as the “quality of instruction”) are what need to be fixed. What happened next is instructive.

The author of the article decided to focus on what can happen when the two sides (i.e., the teachers’ union and politicians) come together to work out a rigorous teacher evaluation system. But, in doing so, the article misses something important. Out of the 1,846 teachers in the district 75 were targeted for remediation. For those of you attempting to do the math, that’s 4% of district teachers. In other words, 96% of teachers were doing a good or excellent job. Of the 4% identified with the new evaluation system, 34 were eligible for and elected to take early retirement. That means that only 2% of district teachers who chose to remain on the job needed additional supports to improve their teaching.

Yet, the myth of the bad teacher persists.

It’s true that no one will argue for lowering academic standards, and I’m certainly not trying to make that case. But, this just means that the argument for raising them is kind of beside the point. It’s something that almost goes without saying. It’s like saying that we want good teachers for all students. It’s something that’s so deeply engrained is all of us that it feels like common sense. Saying that we want to raise standards also appeals to our most deeply held beliefs about merit, competition, hard work, and success. And, it’s why we keep coming back to this argument.

Yet, focusing on standards alone is a losing proposition; it diverts our attention and resources away from exploring ways to create healthy and sustainable communities, and, instead, encourages us to see success in narrow, individualistic terms. This approach also lets us off the hook and allows us, as Graff does, to ignore the role that poverty and inequality play in our society. This is a version of saying that wealth and privilege don’t really matter to an individual’s success. Putting the problem this way, of course, just shows how silly this view really is. We all know wealth and privilege matter. So, why do we insist that poverty and inequality don’t?

The real question in the education reform debate should not be about how to make the contest for jobs and more education harder—doing so just ensures that more people will fail; we should be asking questions about how to improve the conditions for all those who wish to participate and contribute to society in meaningful ways.

Schools should be about more than just competing for slots at the right colleges in order for the select few to get high paying jobs in urban centers. This current approach—developing and extracting human capital—simply drains much needed resources from high need communities and does nothing to address our social problems. Success for students becomes an escape narrative, where leaving one’s community is seen as the ideal outcome.

In December of 2012, NYT reporter David DeParle wrote a story about three girls from a low-income community in Galveston, Texas. These girls were remarkable not only for their drive and ambition, but also for their ability to do college-level work. In fact, these are the types of low-income students that Graff and like-minded reformers imagine they will help create when they say that all we need to do is raise standards in schools.

But, these girls faced another set of challenges—ones not directly connected to academics—that Graff seems unwilling to acknowledge. According to DeParle, “the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.” In a nutshell, the girls had the skills, but not the supports to survive the transition to higher education. Class played a big role in all of this. The article goes on to describe how our education system does more to preserve, rather than break down class divisions.

So, it would seem that the evidence is all around us—over simplified, one size-fits-all solutions like raising standards don’t work. Good schools emerge from healthy and sustainable communities (it’s not just about recruiting, supporting, and retaining great teachers–though this is important). Raising standards won’t solve our social or our academic problems. Poverty and inequality are the best predictors of academic success (as are wealth and privilege).

Whether we want to do something about these things or not is another question.


Disorganizing Schools: What Diane Ravitch Could Learn from Saul Alinsky

They arrive at a time when American public education and its teachers are under attack. Never have public schools been as subject to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today. Unlike modern corporations, which extol creative disruption, schools need stability, not constant turnover and change. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal and state policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools. –Diane Ravitch on the Common Core State Standards and education reform.

The first step in community organization is community disorganization. The disruption of the present organization is the first step toward community organization. Present arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced by new patterns…. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new. –Saul Alinsky on organizing for meaningful change.

When I was a classroom teacher on Chicago’s South Side, I had a series of three principals in five years. One of the principals I worked with embraced a version of the “creative disruption” idea that Ravitch references above. (As if having three principals in five years wasn’t enough of a disruption, she wanted to add more.) Our new instructional leader—that’s what we are told to call our principals in Chicago—wanted every teacher to move in to a new classroom at the start of the school year.

If you’re a public school teacher then you’re probably nodding your head and smiling a little warily right now, because you’re all too familiar with the process I’m describing. For those of you who aren’t public school teachers, this type of creative disruption meant taking all your teaching materials, including papers, books, art supplies, anything on the classroom computer hard drive, small classroom libraries for some of the English teachers, as well as all the other supplies that teachers accumulate over the years, and then moving them (without help, of course) to another room, and, often enough, to another floor in the school building. Some teachers even moved furniture, like old wooden desks they’d been using for years and to which they’d grown attached. This was going to spur innovation and shake us out of complacency, of course.

What it actually did was something quite different. It made us feel small and powerless. I guess teachers were starting to feel too respected in Chicago. It was time to take us down a peg or two and put us where we belonged (and where a lot the general public felt we deserved to be): right next to overpaid babysitters. It made many of us feel uneasy and uncertain—like we were dealing with a leader that was capable of doing anything at any moment, rationality be damned. If even the smallest things, things that once seemed the most stable (like where to go each morning when you arrived at school), could be taken away or changed on a whim, then what could we count on? One story I heard from another teacher was that the new principal wanted us to understand that this wasn’t our school and these weren’t our rooms. She was trying to rattle us a bit, it seemed, perhaps make us feel the way real employees feel: easily replaceable and of little value. More importantly, maybe, she wanted us to know she was in charge: that she could disrupt and disorganize our lives.

But if we weren’t part of this school (the one where we were taught our students), then what, exactly, were we a part of? Many of us wondered how this strategy was going to help improve instruction, school culture, or morale? This was a tough school on Chicago’s South Side, and teachers and students faced some serious challenges every day. Now they also had a principal that seemed unpredictable and hostile toward teachers. Sadly, this is the sort of thing that passes for reform in many schools today.

It’s hard to imagine how someone came to believe in the idea that having teachers lug their teaching materials from one classroom to another was going to set the conditions for innovation and creativity in our school. This was going to be the catalyst for a spike in inventive and engaging instruction? Of course, creating positive change may never have been the intention behind the new policy. But, we’ll never know for sure. We never got an explanation about the new policy.

Yet, this type of top-down mandate cloaked in the scientific sounding rhetoric of “best practices” is an all-too-common example of what reform looks like in our schools. This is what happens when we try to translate ideas that originate in a for-profit business environment (often ideas that are neither good nor new to begin with) for our work in schools.

I have often wondered what might have happened had the new principal simply asked teachers and students what they thought could be done to improve school culture, encourage creativity, and spur innovation. Maybe room swaps would have been on the list, maybe not. But whatever made this hypothetical list could have been the starting point for more organic forms of creative disruption—of the kind that teachers, students, and community members plan, design, and implement.

But education reformers rarely consult those most affected by their reforms. Instead, we hear angry public appeals for harsher punishments of students and harder tests and more of them. Fire bad teachers. Raise standards. Test more. Raise scores. Hold parents responsible. Eliminate collective bargaining. Blame the teachers. Blame the community. Blame the students. Blame the parents. In our data-obsessed culture, it’s interesting to note that a comprehensive body of data to support these ideas does not exist. There’s nothing that definitely shows that firing teachers, raising standards, or introducing high-stakes accountability actually helps students or communities do better.

Yet, this is the common language of school reform today. It’s like a wheel of misfortune that stops each week on a different scapegoat, depending on who is doing the blaming and why. But these aren’t just bad ideas. These are ideas that fundamentally misunderstand the problem they are purportedly trying to solve. To make matters worse, these bad ideas drive many of the reforms that Ravitch references above, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top.

These kinds of knee jerk responses (what we might call common sense thinking) guide much of the public debate about schools. Anyone who has been in our public schools and spent any time being a teacher and thinking about the work of teaching knows how wrong-headed these ideas are for our children. No one I know doing the actual work of education in our pubic schools thinks these are good ideas.

The example I gave above—the one about moving teachers around from one classroom to the next—perfectly captures the spirit of the new reform movement: it was imported to our school and mandated by someone outside our school community; it was implemented by someone who saw themselves as a manager, rather than an educator; it demoralized and disempowered teachers; it appeared to the casual observer like something new was being done in the school; it tried to solve a complex problem with a one-size-fits-all solution; it ended up being an empty exercise that did more harm than good.

Our schools are awash in the rhetoric of innovation and reform, yet we hardly see any of it in practice. Like democracy, these are concepts we talk a lot about in schools, but don’t seem willing to put into practice. Instead, what happens is that many of our classrooms are reduced to test preparation sites where the only thing that counts is your score on a standardized test. Children and adults, students and teachers, are reduced to a number.

In fact, none of the common sense suggestions that are being promoted today as part of a well-funded, largely conservative reform movement do anything to support creativity or innovation in schools, not to mention help create healthy and sustainable communities. This is one of the reasons that Ravitch critiques them, of course. But it’s also important to understand that the current top-down reform movement, as Ravitch and others have noted, is not about helping our students, or our teachers, or our most underserved communities. If it’s about equity at all, then it’s sorely misguided. To use Ravitch’s phrase, this is a movement that can be best described as “failure by design.” At its core, this movement is about dismantling teacher unions and destroying public education.

When it comes to creative disruption in our schools, though, I disagree with Ravitch. I understand that there’s a place and a time for stability in school; I understand that teachers and students need a space where they can think for themselves about their lives and decide what to learn and what to do. But now is not the time to dutifully follow the mandates in order to preserve some sense of stability and calm. It’s precisely because of the current instability in our schools that we have an opportunity to turn the tables on these reformers. By creating more disruptions, more chaos, and more upheaval, we can reset the reform agenda.

And, this is the lesson of Alinsky. He reminds us that disorganizing communities can be a powerful tool; it’s exactly what so-called reformers like Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Michelle Rhee, and Joel Kline have been doing to teachers across the country. These people are disorganizing our schools and communities. They are running actions against us in order to make us feel powerless and disorganized. And, what’s worse, it isn’t just another empty exercise: this is real. They’re trying to change education forever. They want to hijack and narrow the curriculum. They want to give away public education to private corporations. They want to debase and deskill the profession of teaching. And, they want to reduce education to a test score.

We can change this. Now is the time to organize and occupy our schools in order to disrupt and destabilize current reform efforts. We can go on the offensive—one grounded in creative disruptions that we design and produce. We can construct our own chaos and upheaval in ways that compel education reformers to stop what they’re doing and start listening to the people most affected by their decisions. And, as Diane Nash reminds us, we can opt out; we can refuse to participate in our own oppression.

Only after we create enough disruption can we (students, teachers, parents, and community members) then demand the right to develop our own standards: ones that best address the needs, desires and aspirations of our communities, rather than the desires and aspirations of corporations and private foundations. Only then can we create stable schools that foster creativity and innovation, rather than conformity and obedience. Only then can we create schools that take as their starting point that building great schools and communities are reciprocal projects, not separate ones.

All students deserve to live in healthy and sustainable communities with a well-resourced school that hires the best possible teachers. Raising standards and giving more tests will not make that happen.

We need to give our teachers and students the right to ask questions about their lives and to build curriculum around the things that matter most to them.

And, that’s what I’d call real education reform.