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Archive for August, 2011

A Critique

Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America:

…is it really naive to think that we should not be printing the names of teachers and the results they get on standardized tests in newspapers? Or is the naivete the notion that this might be a good path forward?

There’s no good manager I know, inside or outside of education, who would resort to printing the names of their staff members and their performance levels in newspapers as a strategy for organizational improvement. In refusing to publish the performance assessments of Teach For America’s corps members, we are treating our teachers with respect and endeavoring to build the kind of relationship with them that will give us the best chance of improving their performance over time.

Now we know what Kopp thinks of Joel Klein’s managerial skills.


On Civility In Educational Debate

Steven Brill entitled his latest column for Reuters, a long denunciation of teacher unions, “The School Reform Deniers.” Brill’s rhetorical purpose in associating the term ‘deniers’ with those in teacher unions who disagree with his vision of education reform is clear: it is a word most commonly associated with ‘holocaust deniers,’ those who deny that the Nazis carried out a genocide against European Jews during the course of World War II, killing six million.

Would that this rhetorical style was limited to the title of Brill’s piece, and not a constant thread throughout it and his book. A number of the flaws in the Reuters piece are laid out here by Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, and Jennifer Jennings, among others.

It is to the credit of the Fordham Foundation’s Mike Petrilli that he calls out Brill on the title of this essay. It is an easy enough matter to point out this sort of rank demagoguery on the other side of a debate; it is an altogether different matter to be willing to stand up to it when it takes place on one’s own side.

It is to the shame of Andy Rotherham that he commends the Brill piece as a “a must-read essay about the education state of play” without the slightest hint that there might be something wrong with that title, much less the rhetorical demagoguery that defines Brill’s essay and book.

In yesterday’s Fordham Foundation sponsored debate with Randi Weingarten, Rick Hess makes much of rhetorical attacks on Republican governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie that compared them to Hitler and to threats of violence against them. As much as one can understand how passions are inflamed when teachers and other public employees see their fundamental rights to have a union and bargain collectively under attack by the likes of a Walker and a Christie, there is no excuse for the use of such language. But what is missing in Hess’ diagnosis is a recognition that the bullying behavior and demagoguery of Walker and Christie played a crucial role in initiating the cycle of destructive personal attack. There is something to be learned from the example of debate moderator Petrilli.

Civility in debate is not just good form, the sign of men and women who understand the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society. It is the foundation of meaningful debate. Reliance upon rhetorical demagoguery is a sign of the lack of substantive argument on the issues.  (Think Whitney Tilson, and the way in which he targets for personal attack women educators with whom he disagrees, from Linda Darling-Hammond to Randi Weingarten to Diane Ravitch.) To the extent that we tolerate it, from our own side as well as the other, we diminish the quality of serious public discourse on education.

Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching)

[Editor’s note: Mr. Foteah is a teacher in an elementary school in Queens going into his fourth year. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

I’ve noticed several posts recently in which people are writing letters to their first-year teacher selves. I thought I’d do the same.

Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching),

Well, this is it. This is truly it. Two years ago you finished college with a degree that turned out to be useless, and now, after two years of graduate school in a totally different field – elementary education – they say you’re qualified to be a teacher. And you think you’re qualified to be a teacher.

Well, maybe you are. After all, you have a unique way with children, you can relate to them, you get where they’re coming from because you haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be a child. But you won’t be dealing with issues like you experienced growing up. Oh sure, your students will experience family and pet deaths, the maddening powerlessness of being caught up in a parental argument, the frustration of struggling in school. They’ll come to you for help, and you will be able to empathize with these things.

But how are you going to deal with the kids who have only one parent and several siblings that they care for at the age of 10? The kid who comes in late every Thursday because he is helping his mom clean until 2 am that morning? The kid with the dad who sees you as a barrier to his child’s success just because you recommend continuation of services? The kid who threatens personal bodily harm because you indicate your disappointment? The kids who wear the same clothes everyday, not because they like them, but because when you wear hand-me-downs exclusively, your choices are limited?

How are you going to deal with all that? (Or any of the other stuff I didn’t even mention?) More »

Unionized Charter Teacher Speaks Out for Small Class Size

The LA Times just published a powerful essay from a union member who teaches at a Green Dot Charter School in Los Angeles. She effectively captures the importance of small class sizes in building teacher-student relationships — and in ensuring that every student gets the personalized attention they need to successfully learn:

I’m not sure what the breaking point is, but once you get much above 25 students, providing individual attention becomes difficult. To keep my English class of 31 under control, I have to rely on high-energy routines and structured group activities. In place of freewheeling discussion, I pepper the room with rapid-fire questions. To respond to their essays, I use a rubric emphasizing the four or five qualities I’m targeting for the whole class, and then write one or two short individualized sentences at the bottom of the page. With more than 150 students in my classes, I don’t have enough time to spend more than five or 10 minutes on each essay.

Do students really learn best this way? A whole chunk of my students are alienated by this highly structured environment: the artists, the rebels, the class clowns — in other words, some of my smartest kids.

Our children — even our children growing up in poverty, especially our children growing up in poverty — deserve to have not only an extraordinary teacher but a teacher who has time to read their work, to listen, to understand why they’re crying or sleeping or not doing homework.

To teach each child in my classroom, I have to know each child in my classroom. We teachers need to bring not only our extraordinariness but our flawed and real and ordinary humanity to this job, which involves a complex and ever-changing web of relationships with children who often need more than we can give them.

Matt Damon to Teachers: “We Will Always Have Your Back”

An actor you may have heard of, who is the son of a teacher and a product of public schools, headlined the Save Our Schools march in Washington this past weekend. He had a message for teachers, especially those feeling increasingly demoralized by the emphasis on testing and other aspects of education “reform”:

So, the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself being called “overpaid”; the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything, please, please, please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

Remembering Reagan vs. PATCO

On the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s busting of the air traffic controllers union, the Times has an op-ed examining the effects of that confrontation on our recent history.

Workers in the private sector had used the strike as a tool of leverage in labor-management conflicts between World War II and 1981, repeatedly withholding their work to win fairer treatment from recalcitrant employers. But after Patco, that weapon was largely lost. Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise. Phelps Dodge and International Paper were among the companies that imitated Reagan by replacing strikers rather than negotiating with them. Many other employers followed suit.

By 2010, the number of workers participating in walkouts was less than 2 percent of what it had been when Reagan led the actors’ strike in 1952. Lacking the leverage that strikes once provided, unions have been unable to pressure employers to increase wages as productivity rises. Inequality has ballooned to a level not seen since Reagan’s boyhood in the 1920s.

The rabid anti-union, anti-worker stance of some of today’s conservative governors and legislators makes Reagan’s position on workers’ rights seem downright nuanced.

In the spring, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin invoked Reagan’s handling of Patco as he prepared to “change history” by stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights in a party-line vote. “I’m not negotiating,” Mr. Walker said. By then the world had seemingly forgotten that unlike Mr. Walker, Reagan had not challenged public employees’ right to bargain — only their right to strike.

With Mr. Walker’s militant anti-union views now ascendant within the party of a onetime union leader, with workers less able to defend their interests in the workplace than at any time since the Depression, the long-term consequences continue to unfold in ways Reagan himself could not have predicted — producing outcomes for which he never advocated.

Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein, and New York City Schools

A recent New York Times story on former DOE Chancellor Joel Klein’s increasingly central role in responding to the fallout from the Rupert Murdoch hacking scandal included some interesting background about the origins of the two men’s relationship.

Apparently Murdoch and Klein initially bonded over their mutual support for the expansion of charter schools, among other education issues. More recently, Murdoch provided key financial support to Education Reform Now (chaired by Klein) it its efforts to influence New York State’s debates over teacher layoffs:

His eight years as schools chancellor formed the foundation for his unlikely friendship with Mr. Murdoch, who holds his own strong views on education reform, which the two began to discuss over regular lunches and dinners with their wives.

A Surprising Alliance

Though Mr. Klein did not see eye to eye with Mr. Murdoch on many political issues, they agreed on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed. More »