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The Lady Chancellor's Nightmare
December 1, 2008 5:19 PM   Subscribe

"The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely...if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job". Michelle Rhee is polarizing, inexperienced, abrasive, and young - and with urban school systems all over the country watching, she is trying to rebuild DC's famously troubled public school system (link to full series).

One of her bitterest fights has been a (stalemated) attempt to break teacher union power, rewarding teachers for merit and achievement and getting rid of easy tenure. With a test case so close to the White House, some see a potential bellwether statement for the Democratic President-Elect's tone on education.
posted by peachfuzz (107 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
A profile in the November issue of The Atlantic.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 5:31 PM on December 1, 2008


damnit, that was supposed to be my link under "Michelle Rhee"...thanks for adding it!
posted by peachfuzz at 5:36 PM on December 1, 2008


newsweek also had a profile on rhee earlier; here's a conversation with michelle rhee on charlie rose...
posted by kliuless at 5:38 PM on December 1, 2008


If I lived in D.C. I'd write a stern letter to my senator about this.
posted by mullingitover at 5:41 PM on December 1, 2008 [8 favorites]


Oh god this isn't good.
posted by The Whelk at 5:46 PM on December 1, 2008


Right now, a 10-year veteran with a master's degree earns just over $64,000

Wow, thats a lot more than teachers make in many states. Still not enough to get me to put up with the absolutely insane amount of paperwork, tests, and bureaucracy that teaching has become (my mother was a teacher for 40+ years, and it changed dramatically from a job that was mostly about teaching, to a job that was mostly about doing well on very specific "objective" measurements, which is hardly the same thing). But I'm actually surprised that DC schools pay that well. (Georgia, for example, pays less than 2/3 of that to a teacher with the same qualifications).
posted by wildcrdj at 5:54 PM on December 1, 2008


Well summarized, peachfuzz.

Keep in mind, this is the first time an education leader has been on the cover of TIME since September 1991. Unfortunately, Americans don't care about education policy much. Our mayor here, Adrian Fenty, selected Rhee on the presumption that she would help put school reform on the top of the agenda, and she's getting enough press to do it.

I don't think there's such thing as a bellwether on the President-Elect's education policy just yet, not until he announces his pick for Secretary. Dems are torn between those who push for full-scale institutional reform in urban schools, and those who would leave well enough alone. It's silly to think you can get any kind of big reforms without support from teachers unions, but its gotta be all about the kids too. Rhee's test is whether she can consolidate the support of people who seem to agree with her at least partially, like union chief George Packer, into real progress. Right now, she's just the superintendent who fired her own kids' principal.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:54 PM on December 1, 2008


The thing that kills me about education is how so much of it depends on one's parents giving a shit about what their kids do in school
posted by spicynuts at 5:56 PM on December 1, 2008 [6 favorites]


One of the issues with Merit Pay is that there aren't really any objective ways to measure it in education except for standardized tests.

The best way to prepare your students for a standardized test, since you want to get your merit pay raise, is to teach to the test.

If this means a choice between focusing on test taking skills and focusing, say, on effective communication skills, well, obviously, you're going to focus on test taking skills.

Another good way to make sure that you're school meets the standards that help gets you all merit pay is to quietly expel students who aren't testing to standard - or, better yet, look at their grades as their coming out of middle school and trying to get the low achievers to go to other schools.

"But," you say, "Michelle Rhee knows this and will prevent it from happening."

Alas, merit pay is the sort of thing that can stay on long after a reform minded person has left the job. Like communism, merit pay relies on benevolent, idealistic people to work effectively over the years.

Now, its possible that Ms. Rhee is thinking of using some other set of benchmarks to use as the basis of merit pay (that was not clear from the Time article). Furthermore, I'm all for releasing ineffective teachers and administrators. Her central thesis, that great teachers make for great education, is sound. Finding ways to remove incompetent teachers is admirable and I wish her great success.

That said, she is proof that there is never a need for a student to learn manners or how to work well with others. You can rise to positions of great power and respect and even have Time magazine articles written about you and still be an utter and complete unapologetic asshole.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:56 PM on December 1, 2008 [13 favorites]


Let's see, a merit program to fail the teachers, but where most of the kids are expected to pass. I wouldn't want to teach in that perverse universe.
posted by Brian B. at 6:16 PM on December 1, 2008


spicynuts: Yeah; there was the MeFi link to a story comparing the performance of Hispanic and Asian kids in the States a while back that noted how much family and even peer pressure there was for the Asian kids to focus on school, wasn't there?

Certainly if you're a kid in a family that uses TV as a baby sitter, or have anti-intellectual views, or want them getting a job to help the family[1], or similar factors, I suspect it's going to be pretty hard for a teacher to get the kids to care about getting an education.

Joey: We had, in New Zealand, a similar hard-arse, high-profile turnaround guru at one school in New Zealand, lots of magazine coverage and so on and it turned out later that, yes, indeed, pretty much all the things you're describing were going on.

[1] Or, like my next-door neighbours when I was a kid, keeping the 12 year old home from school to look after her siblings and do housework.
posted by rodgerd at 6:17 PM on December 1, 2008


I hate standardized tests, but you've got to start somewhere. Like many things you can use them to get the right answers or you can use them to get the answers you want. If, as Texas did, you make "scoring well" the bright line between Good Teacher and Bad Teacher, you'll get teachers gaming the system.

But you can do more clever analyses with the data a la Chicago and Freakonomics. Do the kids in Teacher Y's class do better next year than average? Or do they suddenly become not so good (again)? When Teacher X gets a "good" class do they get even better or do they regress to the mean? Single data points are always misleading, but with enough teachers, students, tests and time you can build a better picture of what's actually happening.

Also I think the notions of schools being first, foremost and ultimately about educating children is a revolution enough in itself. School boards are not bastions of lower class democracy, they're incompetent and unaccountable. Schools, like many things, should be led by an elected visionary and run by an appointed dictator. This sounds exactly like what Rhee is doing in DC and I'm watching it eagerly.
posted by Skorgu at 6:20 PM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


Joey Michaels: Now, its possible that Ms. Rhee is thinking of using some other set of benchmarks to use as the basis of merit pay (that was not clear from the Time article).

From the article:

Like about half the states, Washington is now tracking whether students' test scores improve over time under a given teacher. Rhee wants to use that data to decide who gets paid more--and, in combination with classroom evaluation, who keeps the job.

Le sigh.

When I was a teacher, I received an e-mail forward-this-to-your-friends message which posited, "What if we judged dentists the way we judged teachers?" The idea being that counting the number of cavities in the patients' mouths would tell you who was a good dentist and who was not. It was mildly amusing and rather cringe-worthily accurate.

Unless these kids are looping with the teachers, comparing this year's test scores to last year's test scores is completely meaningless, even ignoring the questionable relationship between high test scores and good teaching.

Classroom evaluation is a bit better, but it's pretty hard to make sure everything is kept objective. (And if any organization has mastered the art of careful bribery...) Even then, it's time-consuming and expensive. I'm betting they'll rely a lot more heavily on the test scores. Water flows downhill, etc.


((*waves* Hello, hello. First comment, etc. Bought myself a membership as a birthday present.))
posted by Scattercat at 6:27 PM on December 1, 2008 [8 favorites]


Do Fenty and Rhee have a publicist on retainer? The amount of media attention they've been able to garner is astonishing. PBS's News Hour, for instance, has been running an ongoing series of stories about them for months.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:28 PM on December 1, 2008


Frankly I'm impressed she even accepted the job. The public schools in metropolitan areas in this country are a mess and I wouldn't have the energy to even consider bothering. There's just no way to win. The behavior, the mainstream American culture which doesn't prize education in any substantial way, the lack of support, the problems kids have in their homelife...I'm just glad I never became a teacher. I couldn't do it. She's a brave lady to try.
posted by anniecat at 6:37 PM on December 1, 2008


Nakedcodemonkey: I think the pick itself, really, was partly inspired by how much controversy and publicity it would garner. I think part of Fenty's plan is to put education (and specifically the DC schools) in the national eye.

Now, why there's a sudden interest in her this month is a mystery - there's no big news lately - unless it's piggybacking on the second wave of Obama coverage, as journalists start covering items related to his less-flashy agenda items.
posted by peachfuzz at 6:40 PM on December 1, 2008


That said, she is proof that there is never a need for a student to learn manners or how to work well with others. You can rise to positions of great power and respect and even have Time magazine articles written about you and still be an utter and complete unapologetic asshole.

Believe it or not, there is a role for assholishness in this world.

When people have too much invested in a dysfunctional status quo and are afraid to challenge anything because that would be Not Nice, the asshole can address problems that have been obvious to everyone but have been ignored because of social pressures.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:49 PM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


I worked in a classroom for kids with behavior problems at one of the worst public high schools in Philly earlier this year. I'm in the middle of a mini-series based on the experience if you're interested in a highly detailed description of what it's like to be inside the room; 1, 2, 3. Part 4 goes up tomorrow, it should be about 8 installments by the end. If you'd rather read the whole thing at once I'll post it to Projects in a few weeks when I'm done.
posted by The Straightener at 7:09 PM on December 1, 2008 [29 favorites]


Oh, btw, part 2 has a slightly NSFW photo of actual blackboard doodling included.
posted by The Straightener at 7:12 PM on December 1, 2008


Rhee is indeed out for blood in her rampage of DC's sclerotic school system. She infuriated African-American and Hispanic parents when she fired many high-profile teachers and principles beloved in their minority communities. That said, have you heard about The District's teeny problem with underused, money-leeching schools, piddling funding and abysmal graduation rates? Gasping over Rhee's clean up is a bit like wandering in circles around an overgrown forest and then squealing when someone finally shows up with a machete.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:29 PM on December 1, 2008


I have to reject the idea that merit based pay is such a non starter. All the ways of judging a teacher are imperfect some are even bad but the question "are they bad?" doesn't get anyone anywhere. Here is the question worth asking: "are they better than nothing?" are they better than paying teachers based on how long they've been around. That's the alternative.

You aren't going to get as many good teachers if being good doesn't help. If you pay people more for being better at teaching to the standardized test you'll get people that are better at teaching to the standardized test. That's not ideal. I know that. Rhee knows that. You know what else isn't ideal? Paying good teachers the same amount as bad teachers. There's no good way to tell who's good and who's bad, but there are some bad ways to tell and unless those bad ways are worse than not knowing at all let's use those bad ways.
posted by I Foody at 7:30 PM on December 1, 2008


Wow. Halfway through the Time article, and I got to the part where the reporter relates how, when she presents a viewpoint she doesn't like, she does a mocking imitation of the people saying it.

While she might have a point about children needing to be able to do basic skills, her offhand dismissal of creativity ("Creativity is good and whatever") is pretty terrifying. It sounds as if she would be perfectly happy with students sitting in rows, being lectured to about how to fill in circles on a test sheet, as long as scores went up. Is reading an essential skill? Fuck yes. Is being able to think also quite important? I would imagine so. Much more so than being able to get a high score on a test.

We had standardized tests when I was in school. They popped up once a year or so, and we took them, and we were done. Then we went back to learning.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:34 PM on December 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


We had standardized tests when I was in school. They popped up once a year or so, and we took them, and we were done. Then we went back to learning.

There's a big difference between their experience and yours.

In many of these schools, they don't return to learning. In some cases, they can't return to learning because they were never learning in the first place.

Rhee's point is that many people involved with the D.C. school system are using flowery rhetoric about "creativity" and the suchlike to cover for decades of educational failure. For more than four decades, they have failed to teach children how to read, write and do basic arithmetic. Her point is that there have been too many people drawing a paycheck, not to educate children, but to make excuses for them, for too long.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:52 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


We had standardized tests when I was in school. They popped up once a year or so, and we took them, and we were done. Then we went back to learning.

Because, I would imagine, the overwhelming majority of the kids in your class were reading on grade level and would probably go on to graduate from high school.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:08 PM on December 1, 2008


jason's_planet: I come from a country where standardized testing on a national level is the norm. The students learn how to read, sure, but that's about it. Once the tests are over and they're out of school, everything they've "crammed" for the exams goes out of their brain. Most of them were never taught how to learn, how to adapt, how to think critically and creatively - when they get into the workforce or higher education, they expect to be spoonfed. I've had 30+-year-old students in my uni class in Malaysia asking only for what's on the test when the lecturer's trying to impart some useful subject-related information. Students cram for English exams (which are laughable) and get As, but when out of school their English levels are abysmal. Teaching to the test is not learning.
posted by divabat at 8:15 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


(which is not to excuse the use of "creativity" as a cover-up for educational failure. however, teaching to the test is yet another educational failure. Just look at most of Asia - high scores, but not life-wise at all.)
posted by divabat at 8:16 PM on December 1, 2008


I'm currently employed as a public school teacher in California. (I'm also a 4-year+ lurker who finally found the courage to join!)

I currently teach at a small, start-up public charter, but spent my first four years at a traditional big high school in a community with a largely underprivileged and migrant population. After sharing a wall with a woman whose idea of instruction mostly consisted of showing videos at full volume, and being on staff with a literal "newspaper teacher" (the kinda a guy who sits at his desk with a newspaper open and expects the class to run itself; he was kept on because his dad was former union bigwig), I quit the district and took a job at the charter. I was attracted by the idea of no union, no tenure. I wanted to see how the quality of instruction and management improved when people were motived to perform.

Since teaching at the charter I've seen both sides of the merit equation. Some of our teachers are the best, most dedicated teachers I've ever had the honor of feeling inferior to. At the same time, I had a meeting with my principal to discuss some of the low grades we're seeing across the board in all classes. Apparently the Board of Directors isn't happy with our statistics and are blaming the teachers (and again, I stress - these are not just average teachers; these are consummate professionals with a real zeal and talent), and while I'm not saying there is pressure to cook your grades a little... I'm not saying there isn't, either.

And just working under the constant fear that some parent with a bug up their ass could affect my career, or that low test scores might mean a non-re-elect in my work history, or a principal could just not like me, regardless of how parents and students feel... it makes me miss the comfort of tenure. Knowing you have insurance against mercurial politics really grants one the freedom to roll up their sleeves and get to the not-always-pretty business of education. I think I was a better teacher when I wasn't worried about job security.

To focus back on the FPP - Rhee's correct in her assertion that public education needs a serious overhaul, but "slash and burn" is too heavy-handed an approach. Coming in like a hardline asshole will only lead to more black and white, "now THIS is good" thinking, and what teaching needs is more flexibility, more creativity, not less.

Sorry my first ever comment was so long. I guess I'm just excited to be here.
posted by mdaugherty82 at 8:21 PM on December 1, 2008 [12 favorites]


The students learn how to read, sure, but that's about it.

No matter what their intellectual shortcomings might be, simple literacy puts them light-years ahead of many graduates of the D.C. public school system.

The criticisms you make of the teaching-to-the-test regimen are well-taken. I understand where you're coming from. But I'm not sure if you understand just how grossly dysfunctional America's urban public schools can be. Did your schools have students like the ones in The Straightener's essays above -- 16 or 17 year olds who read at the level of six year olds? That's not uncommon at all in America.

Before we do anything else, let's try to make sure that the schools are providing kids with a solid base of skills in reading, writing and math. And THEN we can talk about building the higher-level skills you mention on that solid base. I think that the testing regimen, in this case, is a necessary evil.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:30 PM on December 1, 2008


She has ... fired more than 100 workers from the district's famously bloated 900-person central bureaucracy. She has dismissed 270 teachers.
Unless she hired better teachers in their place, I'd say she's got this backwards. At least in my school district, they'd do a much better job if they fired 270 administrators and replaced them with 100 teachers.

Also, what the hell:
She emerged from her chauffeured black SUV.
You're an school bureaucrat for cripes sake, you can't drive your own damn self to a school?
posted by madajb at 8:31 PM on December 1, 2008


Welcome to MetaFilter, mdaugherty82 and Scattercat!
posted by jason's_planet at 8:32 PM on December 1, 2008


Ah, teaching. I swore I'd never do it again after the two most miserable years of my life at a private high school outside Baltimore. I thought to myself, hey, the parents of these kids are doctors and lawyers, they'll respect teachers and let us do our jobs, not like those horrible beauracracies called public schools.

Christ, private schools are even worse. Parents feel entitled to call you at home at all hours, blame you personally if their state-college intelligence kid doesn't go to Harvard, and you have a boss who is at all times more focused on the business end (i.e., increasing enrollment) to the detriment of the educational end. So I never had a knife pulled on me, but I did have multiple meetings with sad, prescription drug addicted parents telling me how hard their lives were since their spouse had started fucking his or her secretary at work. And do you think Jimmy has a shot at M.I.T., despite his C-average and arrest for dealing weed? Really strange and depressing.

But I got sucked back into the game. But at least here I'm getting to experience an amazing foreign country while I'm at it. And while things certainly aren't perfect abroad, it's nice that people don't laugh at me when I tell them I'm a teacher, like they did in the States.
posted by bardic at 8:55 PM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


jason's_planet: Given that I was in a "premier school" (you were only allowed in if you had high grades in a Year 6 national exam) but was in the "last class" because it was the only one that offered Literature as a subject, I'm not sure I can give an objective response to that. In my class there were people who were having difficulties with grasping certain subjects, but we were pretty much "write-offs" to the point that one teacher openly wished that a classmate with hysteria who skipped school often wouldn't take her exams in our school for fear of bringing down the school's 100% pass rate (she passed anyway). So if there were any people who had reading issues, they would have been ignored or expelled from our school. I do know of schools in rural and underpopulated areas that are having issues with students unable to keep up, but I can't really say for sure how things work there.
posted by divabat at 9:05 PM on December 1, 2008


23skidoo, thanks for the assumption, but actually, at the beginning of 12th grade, out of my class as a whole, 50% were projected to fail. By graduation, the rate fell to 35%. In a medium-sized midwestern city.

My issue with the testing, and teaching to the test, is the mindless drudgery that it instills in everyone involved. If you want a clear picture of where you end up, try coming to Japan. English teaching in high school results in students passing the test, but not being able to speak a lick of English. Students are taught, from about the beginning of 8th grade, how to pass their 9th grade (end of JH) tests. From the beginning of 10th grade, all students do is prepare for the nation-wide university test. Anything that isn't directly relatable to test preparation falls by the wayside, including things like critical thinking, learning how to ask good questions, or any ability of the students to perceive of learning as an end in itself.

As for saying that getting students up to their level is the key, well, how do you do that when they came into your class at least three years behind everyone else? How is a student supposed to pass a test at the 8th grade level when they can't read at the 3rd? Furthermore, if that student is only at the 3rd grade, don't you think there might be reasons for that? That maybe, that student will be unable to fully participate in a class geared solely towards passing a test they have no understanding of?

Making a teacher accountable is one thing. Putting their career on the line when they're up against parents who don't/can't/won't raise their children, any number of social issues, and even better, a culture that mocks the concept of learning, or of being educated(not just peers in school, but the nation as a whole), that's just insane. If the teacher is the only one who cares about getting that kid to read, when the parents don't care, the kid's friends think it's a joke, and the kid doesn't fully understand how important it is that they learn, making the teacher the solely accountable party just doesn't work.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:49 PM on December 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


The idea that we can improve education by punishing people for being teachers is so idiotic as to be laughable.

Why are such dumb people always put in charge of policy?
posted by delmoi at 10:12 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


On the whole, DC public schools are just an unbelievable cesspool; it's hard to describe - or even comprehend, really - how deeply the system fails students. Millions of dollars wasted and stolen by administrators, school buildings literally falling apart and dangerously vermin-infested, regular serious violence in hallways, absolutely abysmal graduation rates, kids in high school who can't read a newspaper or add up a checkbook - and, Rhee seems to think, too many teachers and adminstrators who don't care about any of those things and can't be held accountable for anything. Rhee is, I think, approaching this as triage, not neurosurgery - that comes later, I guess. The ax, not the scalpel.

It's clear that she's bringing some of the Korean mentality towards education - results-oriented, focused on the idea that schooling is a basic and necessary component in building a good member of society, less concerned with growing EQs. It's telling when she says that all Americans should be ashamed of the education our inner city kids are getting, putting the blame (mostly) on the system. She seems to think that if the schools are good enough, if the teachers care enough, kids are bound to learn something - maybe, maybe not, but then, something may be enough for now.

It's an interesting debate that cuts straight down to the bone on a number of issues: American education values (or lack thereof), differing philosophies on how public schools should work, city politics, how best to implement reform, tense racial relations. And meanwhile, the kids are falling further and further into the cracks.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:24 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ideally we could incentivize rather than punish, which if I'm not mistaken is part of what's going on in the DC system. Teachers found to be having success make double what their peers do.

The idea's a good one, but double? That's pretty outrageous. I do think there should be ways to make bad teachers more accountable, however. Don't fire them (since there aren't enough people willing to take the job in the first place, at least not in many metro areas), but asking them to take further courses or submit to some peer review? The teacher's unions would lose their shit over this type of thing, but it's necessary.

IMO, you've got two competing narratives when it comes to teaching. On the one hand, it ain't easy. I've got friends who literally think I just walk into a classroom and start teaching without having to do anything else. I try to explain to them how much goes into the job outside the classroom with regards to lesson planning and assesment (i.e., grading), but people seem to assume working with kids is all fun and games, all the time. On the other hand, the teachers' union/Education school axis has done no favors to anyone over the past four decades. Ed. degrees are for the most part a joke. Getting a PhD in ed. is laughably easy (most of these people wouldn't even qualify for an MA in many other fields), and these people turn around and "teach" other people how to be teachers.

Open up the system to people qualified to teach their subject, and move away from the mediocrity that is most of what you learn in Ed. school for your teaching certification. That alone would get more qualified, talented people involved in teaching. People who know and love their subject matter rather than the quasi-science and pop-psychology drivel that makes up a lot of the curriculum of American Ed. schools these days.
posted by bardic at 10:30 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


School is more about making little robots than it is about education. See John Taylor Gatto for more. I don't agree with all his tangents, but the core of it is good.
posted by wuwei at 10:33 PM on December 1, 2008


Sorry, pay wall there. Try this instead.
posted by wuwei at 10:34 PM on December 1, 2008


Rhee is right in some of her first-assumptions, which is why this is so dicey.

I think it is true that there's way too much touchy-feely excuse making, in that "we can't fail these kids or their self-esteem will be crushed" way, and there's no doubt that declining literacy and basic lack of knowledge means a bad education system that needs fixing. A system where college students STILL CANNOT SPELL is not a good system. Heck, even the idea of merit-based pay is not a bad one, in theory, though it opens things up to so many system-gaming possibilities that it could be a bigger problem than anything else has been to date.

Teaching for standardized test-taking is not a solution, not at present, but maybe this can be fixed (at least in part) by working the other end of the system? Can these standardized tests, maybe, be improved and extended so that they're not so easily manipulated?

Can they be less predictable and formulaic, so that the only way to improve scores would be to actually teach the material, rather than the test? Can they include a whole lot less "color in the circle" and a whole lot more "describe in 200 words" and "show your work" so that rather than rote answers, students would be required to demonstrate actual knowledge and communication skills in order to complete the test in the first place?

Yes, we'd have to hire and train a whole new category of meta-teacher, a professional test-scorer cadre who would need to work in isolation from teachers, but that strikes me as a pretty sane (if radical) use of funding.
posted by rokusan at 2:32 AM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


As a DC native, and a former DCPS student, this shit is fucking complicated.

On the one hand I applaud her just for scrambling shit up and upsetting various power stalemates that have grown over the years. There's plenty of people who've needed to go for a long time: the sentimental hacks with worthless Ed.Ds always spouting expired fad pedagogy; inept administrators idling, ego-tripping administrators meddling…

On the other hand, it looks a lot like the same old shit — just this time it's a power grab by the mayor instead of meddling from Congress. Merit-based pay is going to be a disaster.

While there are surely a bunch of shitheaded teachers who get cookie-cutter graduate degrees to get pay raises and actually become worse as teachers for it, the real problem is with the incompetent bureaucracy. If I were her I'd have started up a new parallel administration, taking over responsibilities one by one, eventually getting to the point where they could fire anyone left and sell the building on North Capitol.
posted by blasdelf at 2:40 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


It is hard to measure a teacher's merit because a teacher's influence takes a long time to manifest itself.

Most adults can tell you about the best 2 or 3 teachers they had, and you can get a lot of "I hated him at the time, but in retrospect..." kind of stories.

Here is my proposal: When every person turns lets say 35 years old, they make a list of their best 5 teachers up to high school. When they turn 45, they include college professors. These teachers get a nice bonus.

If you think this wont work due to people's imperfect memories, use a huge database linking people's accomplishments to their teachers, and do some cool math there.

And if you only measure of success is money, send a percentage of whatever you are making to your best teachers.

It will still suck to be a teacher, but you may look forward to an early retirement.
posted by dirty lies at 4:07 AM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


You can't save kids who come from illiterate, anti-education homes unless you start them in school very young and keep them there all day for as many days of the year as possible, with no half days or long summer vacations. Give them lots of play time, lots of nap time, plenty of good food, little or no television or computer time, and plenty of examples of adults who are happy to help them learn and who reward them for it. Do that until kids can read, write, listen, and speak well and they might have a chance. It could double or triple the cost of elementary education, but you'll get it all back in kids who can actually handle school later and don't drop out in frustration. Market it as daycare for busy parents but intend it as a way to get children out of bad homes and out of the hands of bad parents during the most formative years.
posted by pracowity at 4:11 AM on December 2, 2008 [13 favorites]


pracowity, you're on to something there, I think.
posted by jaronson at 4:26 AM on December 2, 2008


pracowity, you're on to something there, I think.

He is. The first principle you have to start with is remembering the idea that the school system is optimized to serve students who get a full night's sleep, are decently fed, and have a private, quiet space at home where they can do their homework in the evening. Once you address those problems for the students, suddenly the problems in the schools become easier to resolve.

However, it is also well-known that even given the economic circumstances of their students, DCPS performs worse than other urban public school systems. To a degree, I understand why people might not like Rhee, but if the DCPS didn't want to have itself at her mercy, then they should have thought over the last 30 years how not to place themselves in the predicament they are in now. Yes, it might be distasteful for some of the teachers to get fired, but the fact is that there are a lot of bad teachers. It might be sad to see a bunch of schools get closed but the schools' enrollment is falling, the buildings are falling apart, and (this annoys me the most) in the 70s, there was this idea that school buildings shouldn't have classroom walls and doors, and no efficient learning is going to go on in buildings like that. Yes, some "nice" administrators are going to be let go, but these are administrators who couldn't perform when needed. And, yes, people might view this as a "power grab" by the mayor, but for so long, the school board was viewed merely as a political stepping stone for people who wanted to start building their own patronage operation and use that elected office as a stepping stone to greater political things in DC.

So, yeah, Rhee's tenure as chancellor might not be pleasant for some people, but I think the problems at DCPS are a bit more important than wondering if this is going to hurt some people's fee-fees, and the truth is that she cares about education, performance, and results, and I can't necessarily say the same about a lot of the rest of DCPS.
posted by deanc at 4:59 AM on December 2, 2008


Great thread and comments.

Yes, we'd have to hire and train a whole new category of meta-teacher, a professional test-scorer cadre who would need to work in isolation from teachers, but that strikes me as a pretty sane (if radical) use of funding.

FWIW, the new written portion of the SAT is graded by high school teachers with extra time on their hands. A co-worker of mine made a little extra cash doing this a few years ago. And before anyone says anything, I think the SAT is horribly flawed, as well as ETS (the assholes who put the whole thing together in the first place), but I just wanted to point out that you might be able to accomplish something like this with fewer complications than you might think.

One of the interesting/crazy dynamics of DC (I grew up in Silver Spring, but went to high school in DC) is that the private schools are very popular and widespread. But cross over into Montgomery County and you've got some of the best public schools in the nation (BCC, Whitman, etc., but of course some bad ones as well). Then you've got the whole charter school thing. I think they were a great idea in some ways, but there's been no long-term accountability for them overall, and lots of short-term failures. Because starting an educational institution is not an easy thing, especially one that works.

In short, teachers should be paid more (I'd argue cops and firefighters should be as well). But there should be some sort of uniform system for recognizing teachers who are doing a good job and those who aren't. Ed. Schools were supposed to provide some sort of baselines for these judegments, and they have well and truly failed, buried under crap-loads of pop psychology and movements to do things other than educate ("whole child" philosophies, etc.).

So it's still a mess. But it's nice to hear that people recognize the difficulties. The DCPS is the worst of the worst, so maybe seeing what happens here will lead to some long-term improvements throughout America.

Personally, I appreciate what Ms. Rhee has done, but I have a sinking feeling that it won't amount to much five to ten years from now. It would be a great story if she turned around the DC public school system, but I'm not sure if anybody could. And she might be alienating people who really should be involved in the whole process re: reversing the "anti-intellectual" bias among Americans generally, and African-Americans in particular.

But this is also such a positive moment (i.e., Obama) to start banging parents on the head and letting them know that education is the most important thing your child will ever get. And honestly, fuck the Republican/Bush II mentality of education being something that weakens you.
posted by bardic at 5:39 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, yeah, Rhee's tenure as chancellor might not be pleasant for some people, but I think the problems at DCPS are a bit more important than wondering if this is going to hurt some people's fee-fees, and the truth is that she cares about education, performance, and results, and I can't necessarily say the same about a lot of the rest of DCPS.

As a parent in DC, I can't really see Rhee doing any damage to the system as it is. When you are at the bottom there is no where to go but up. Really, if she did a blanket firing and took a match to the school buildings it could be an improvement.

I have a friend who was teaching 5th grade in Anacostia. In his school they were expiramenting with co-teaching where two teachers take two classrooms and swap in and out during the day. Anyway, long story-short, my friend's co-teacher, the one who was supposed to be the mentor, the seasoned professional was a complete moron. He was worthless, did not even attempt to teach, yet he simply could not be removed because of his tenure. At one point my friend returned to the room from a break and his co-teacher was literally giving haircuts.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:01 AM on December 2, 2008


schooling is total bullshit --and i say this as someone who has 3 degrees, taught college for almost 10 years, and sends now her children to "magnet public schools" in NYC.

why do I think schooling is bullshit?

i unschooled my kids up until the big one entered 4th grade and the little one first grade.

schools and teachers have the incredible belief that they somehow are responsible for my children's education. they are not. they are just an instrument, a tool, a bump in the road or a lofty platform in my quest to support my children's growth and development.

in other words, the school are whatever my kids and us as their parents make of it.

it's astounding to me to have to deal with 20something and 30something teachers who, talk to me as if i somehow were like this incidental thing in my kids' lives. or as if i knew absolutely nothing about children : you know, because having almost 20 years on them, 2 more degrees and about 30 years more professional experience counts for nothing.

you know, because as teachers they know more about my kids than the woman who happen to have birthed them, raised them and facilitated their education for the first 8-9 years of their lives.

did i point out that up to know not one of these teachers is a parent either?

it's amazing how un-ironically arrogant a lot of these teachers are. the assumptions they make as to how children learn and decide to keep that learning is just astounding to me --they have no knowledge whatsoever of theories of open learning strategies, unschooling, or any of the many open-source, open-space, child-led, non-curriculum oriented, play-focused learning programs and movements developed in the last 30 years.

you don't need to go to school to have an education. you don't need to have an academic education to be successful in life either. there's something fundamentally wrong in this country when we force than the throats of people the notion that getting your whole family in debt for the next 10-20 years of their existence is good just for the sake of getting a college diploma.

there are many roads to learning, education and success. schooling was developed in this country just as a way to contain the growing and neglected spawnage of mostly immigrants who could no longer take their kids to work. schooling was not developed in this country to liberate through knowledge the masses. it was a way of controlling the masses and molding the modern indentured labor and/or military until ready enough to either send them to the killing fields of having them service the elite and capitalist classes.

in other words, it was the intermediary between foundlings and completely neglected and exploited children.

schooling has ultimately nothing to do with education --and am not the first one to say that. go check Mark Twain --and you can't accuse him of being a pinko lefty marxist.

btw : why don't i have my kids at home anymore? it boils down to money. i have to work longer hours and don't make enough to hire assistants to help out.

you bet am bitter about it. my kids ask to come back to unschooling all the time. i tell them we still unschool by showing them why most of the stuff they're told to do at school has nothing to do with actual learning. in other words, these years we've focused on learning about what other people call learning. it's like "meta-learning" or an IRL application of deconstruction theory.

it's been an interesting two and a half years, to say the least.
posted by liza at 6:24 AM on December 2, 2008 [9 favorites]


It sounds like Rhee is trying to apply the much discredited shock doctrine to DC education. As such, she is bound to fail.

Any attempt to fix the problems should involve teachers' ideas and community outreach, neither of which Rhee seems to be focusing on.

If the economies of Iraq and Russia are anything to go on, DC education will go from being messed up to completely destroyed.
posted by asok at 6:38 AM on December 2, 2008


two more things : augh, i need more coffee, i see a ton of errors on the previous rant.

second : unschooling my children clarified to me why we need socialized health care in this country (yeah, yeah, you call it "universal" but we all know what it is).

most women and men i know would take off two, three, five years of their professional life to stay home and homeschool but they don't because they can't afford not only the loss of income but mostly the loss of health benefits.

and most people who "homeschool" do not do it under a rock to abuse their children. if it were a matter of "urban development" most would say they'd have the local governments turning libraries and even public schools into independent learning centers where families could tailor a child's weekly educational activities to their needs.

in other words, we have the infrastructure to "free market" public access to educational activities w/o having to send kids to school 7-9 hours day. but most education laws are not based on "compulsory education standards". they are actually written to focus on "compulsory attendance".

in NYS it's 900 hours of obligatory "school" attendance (whether public or private) or else you can be accused of child abuse and educational neglect. there's nothing in the books about what you're obligated to teach verbatim. there's just guidelines that the state board revises every decade or so.

so honestly, schools have NOTHING to do with actual learning. they're all about attendance. if we got rid of compulsory attendance laws and gave people the time and money incentive (tax abatements, universal health care) to use public educational infrastructure we have already in place to craft their kids learning program (aka homeschool), we wouldn't be caught in this 40+ year loop of the same crap about how teachers are victims of testing to the test and low pay, yadda yadda.

bad schools are not about bad teachers. they're about the fundamental truth that there's no incentive to promote anything that is not based on housing children to control their parents, aka schooling.

or to say it less harshly : you can't offer "schooling" as an alternative to "schooling" and expect something different (aka CHANGE) to happen.
posted by liza at 6:49 AM on December 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


(which is not to excuse the use of "creativity" as a cover-up for educational failure. however, teaching to the test is yet another educational failure. Just look at most of Asia - high scores, but not life-wise at all.)

Most of Asia? A bit of an overgeneralization based on stereotypes created by the media? I'm not saying it's not true to some extent, but I don't think Americans/Westerners are faring any better in terms of happiness or that not teaching to the test = happiness.
posted by anniecat at 6:55 AM on December 2, 2008


there aren't really any objective ways to measure it in education except for standardized tests.

I think this is a false statement, and it's often offered in a 'like it or lump it, it's all we've got' manner. In fact, there really are wonderful ways to use holistic evaluation, including student performance but also peer review, criteria lists, video analysis, self-reflection, ongoing education grades, and so on to create a complete portfolio which can easily be used to class teachers into pay grades according to skill, knowledge, and effectiveness. The only problem is that such a system is expensive, and states that are already strapped for education funds can't find a way to make it happen. It does happen, to an impressive degree, in the state of Connecticut, where teachers go through a series of hoops on the way to certification as a professional educator, and it's actually a pretty challenging process that definitely weeds out those who aren't going to make it. Connecticut routinely places in the top five states in the national surveys of public education quality.

The issue is that Americans aren't really serious about public education. There's a band-aid approach that has historical roots in insistence on local control and minimizing taxation - we talk a big game, but the ethic is always to spend the minimum necessary to keep people from being shocked and appalled at school quality - except at the local level in affluent communities, where nothing is too grand. The inherent unfairnesses resulting from this uneven system are truly embarrassing. The one thing an American education isn't is consistent. A high school diploma means nothing in and of itself, because the standards for receiving one vary wildly from town to town and state to state.

The Bush Administration's solution to this unevenness of performance has been to use testing. It's a shortsighted and inadequate strategy. In theory, nothing much is wrong with standardized testing when the results are well understood and located within a broader evaluative context. But that's not what we have right now - we have a battery of tests that is seen as the be-all and end-all. But even someone who scored perfectly on those tests could not be called 'well educated.' The way these scores are used ends up punishing schools and communities for their own lack of resources and the shortcomings their populations enter school with.

When I was a teacher, I used to stronly oppose the idea of a national curriculum as they have in the UK. I thought it was so important that teachers be free to plan curriculum creatively without much control from the state. The longer I live, and the more I see our class structures replicated and reinforced by public education, the more I favor moving the whole system to federal funding and control - whether through the states or not. But each student in the US should receive equitable per-pupil funding - there shouldn't be gaps of thousands of dollars per student per year between funding in affluent areas and funding in poor areas. Think how that adds up annually and what that means for student and administration resources. And there should be basic competencies and cultural information that is shared with every public school student in America at every grade level, so that we can really compare apples to apples when we look at achievement.

There would still be an achievement gap, because nothing impairs a kid's ability to learn and perform like being from a poor community (low literacy, less parent time, poorer health, priority on daily survival rather than long-term success, less exposure to new concepts and language) or perhaps not being a native English speaker. But we would have a much sharper idea of how to apply solutions for those obstacles to learning, because we wouldn't be trying to compare completely disparate systems with vastly inequal resources. And we wouldn't be punishing the students themselves for their own inability to measure up. Meanwhile, resources could be freed up for meaningful evaluation of teachers.

So the merit pay vs. no merit pay is a shallow debate, serving only to distract us from the core issues underlying poor school and teacher performance, which are all about funding and wealth and poverty. I think our schools need a massive overhaul, and I think it needs to be federally led, with an initiative on the order of the space program. Though it would be a political nightmare, our present situation is really unconscionable and indefensible.
posted by Miko at 7:18 AM on December 2, 2008 [9 favorites]


The issue is that Americans aren't really serious about public education. There's a band-aid approach that has historical roots in insistence on local control and minimizing taxation - we talk a big game, but the ethic is always to spend the minimum necessary to keep people from being shocked and appalled at school quality - except at the local level in affluent communities, where nothing is too grand. The inherent unfairnesses resulting from this uneven system are truly embarrassing.

Word up.
posted by The Straightener at 7:37 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


What's wrong with kicking out the useless? I think it's disgusting that schools constantly lower their standards and actually give away prizes to students to encourage them to do well. How about giving them self worth and confidence and make them realize that without a good education and pushing yourself, you'll be sorry later?

And I think I had 2 good teachers in my entire life and they were in high school. I went to private grammar and high school and I found them to be pathetic and my parents only paid for no crime in the school--not a quality education.
posted by dasheekeejones at 7:46 AM on December 2, 2008


If you want to read more about Michelle Rhee, I recommend traipsing over to The Daily Howler. Bob Somerby relentlessly analyzes the data and critiques the fawning profiles of Rhee. Just search for "Rhee" on his site and you'll find plenty of links.
posted by Edgewise at 8:11 AM on December 2, 2008


they are actually written to focus on "compulsory attendance".

This is true but I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. Mandatory schooling was the result of child exploitation and rampant child labor in the US. Regardless of the shit quality of the education there, if a child is in school they aren't working in a sweat shop (at least not while they are in school). Sure, it's mostly antiquated but child exploitation is far from dead in the US.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:13 AM on December 2, 2008


it's astounding to me to have to deal with 20something and 30something teachers...
did i point out that up to know not one of these teachers is a parent either?


Hey, that's me! 27 year old male English teacher for the 7th and 9th grades with no kids. And each day I read one more story about how there is a serious need for male teachers, and how more and more people are leaving the profession. Mostly because we have to deal with this kind of thing:

schooling is total bullshit


I don't know, maybe it's because I'm in California and our credentialing program is a tough barrier to entry (similar to the portfolio-based one that Miko described) which then follows up with the first two years of a teacher's career being mentored and having to assemble a second portfolio, but I don't really think I'm doing bullshit work here.

I have to say, from the inside, there's not a lot of incentive to take this work. Some of the toughest clientèle, the most demanding stakeholders, emotional drain, low prestige, low pay, seriously restricted free time, etc. The sense of fulfillment one gets from the work itself is the main motivating factor to stay.

In that respect, I think Rhee is right - reward the teachers who do well. And as someone mentioned above, work with underskilled teachers to bring them up to speed. Mentoring helped get me through my first two years, which I then turned around and paid back to another first year teacher.

To turn the tables, I've since moved from an "absentee parent" migrant population school to a "helicopter parent" school. And as annoying as helicopter parents are my pass rate is higher. There is something to be said for the outside factors we as teachers can't control.

So the merit pay vs. no merit pay is a shallow debate, serving only to distract us from the core issues underlying poor school and teacher performance, which are all about funding and wealth and poverty. I think our schools need a massive overhaul, and I think it needs to be federally led, with an initiative on the order of the space program. Though it would be a political nightmare, our present situation is really unconscionable and indefensible.

This.
posted by mdaugherty82 at 8:15 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


A system where college students STILL CANNOT SPELL is not a good system.

My husband cannot spell, and has two degrees and is working on the third.

So I teach university students at a good university, and I tutor school-age students in a working class neighbourhood - and it isn't spelling that's a problem (for either of them). It's WRITING - and to a lesser extent reading. (And if I were in the sciences, I'm sure I would say maths, too - numerical literacy). My school age kids are, in fact, so concerned about spelling sometimes that it stops them from writing fluently, since they keep stopping to worry about spelling and other mistakes. Spelling can be indicative of literacy, and good spelling helps one with reading and writing - but it can come organically with teaching phonetic reading. (The tutor place I go to has an excellent reading/spelling/vocab book series - which does all three). But what really holds back working class (and poorer) kids is their fluency in reading and math but especially in writing.

And the fact is that teaching writing also teaches a) creativity and b) logical thinking and problem solving (including in fictional writing).


Getting "good" teachers is not the solution. Sure, getting rid of actively bad teachers is a good idea, but the reality is that any country needs a high number of teachers in relation to its population, and thus the vast majority of teachers will be of only average intelligence and average ability.

What schools need is better curriculum. Good physcial facilities are nice, but you can teach in an outhouse if you have good curriculum.

I don't know what these schools are doing some days. The assignments I see my tutorees getting are at once too complicated and yet also not interesting/coherant/skill building. One eleven year-old was asked to make a time-line of events in early American history that "showed evidence of a growing nation" - but when I talked to him about it, it was clear the teacher hadn't really discussed what a nation was. Now, this kid is eleven, and just adolescent enough to not be always paying attention, but he's still pretty bright. But looking for "evidence of a growing nation" is the sort of thing I would ask a high school or university student to think about.

But at the same time, they have him drawing pictures for assignments, as if he were six, and not writing but making timelines and drawing diagrams. When I was eleven, they had us reading short novels and writing responses in full sentances, and making reports about things like history and science, again with paragraphs of writing. He can write, when he's inspired - he wrote a 2 page story for Halloween that totally gave me shivers with the scary ending. But they aren't making him practice reading and writing - they are making him draw pictures and grading him on his handwriting and neatness (which is pretty bad).

---------------

From the "polarising" link, I found myself reading some of the posts about Teach for America - which Rhee is closely associated with (worked for them, husband part of their executive).

And I have to say that the blog (and the other blogs linked) is right - Teach for America is totally like a missionary going to help the poor native people. The program always rubbed me wrong - it has this whole attitude of "elite" university grads going to help the "poor, disadvantaged children" whose teachers (much more likely to have a similar social background) just aren't doing the right thing, not like our bright, enthusiastic, upper-middle class students.

I know it's well-meaning and all, but so are missionaries. And it's so much about bringing in help from the outside, not about growing the community. I would much rather see a Teach for America program that paid university tuition for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who would go back to their communities to be good teachers. Then you have good teachers - and you have more economic diversity in the community, and people who are really attached to it and committed for their lives to teaching there. And people who understood where the kids are coming from.
posted by jb at 8:49 AM on December 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Okay, I know I sound like a total hypocrite by tutoring in a working class neighbourhood - but I don't think that people from the middle and upper classes shouldn't teach or tutor lower class kids (I'm actually from the poverty class money-wise, though lower-middle education-wise). I just don't like that the Teach for America program is about getting only elite students to teach, or that they see their patchwork, partly trained and temporary teachers as a solution to educational inequality which has so much more to do with social inequality and parental illiteracy.

I'm much more impressed with what I've heard about the Harlem Children's Zone and its holistic approach to supporting families and communities.
posted by jb at 8:59 AM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


A system where college students STILL CANNOT SPELL is not a good system.

Literacy, broadly speaking to cover meaning production and consumption with complex symbol sets like letters and numbers, is not a spelling issue, it's a meaning issue. College students most significant barrier to overcome is not being able to spell, which is really a boogeyman borne in part of the txtspk/language degradation hysteria and a "good old days" nostalgia for Pre-WWII language arts instruction drills. Their barrier is to be able to negotiate meaning as a producer and consumer - to not only understand, but apply. Spelling is only one small contributor to this complex puzzle.

Hell, I'm a post-secondary writing specialist and I still have to reread what I write to make sure what I've written is coherent. But then again, I know the value of rereading what I write and usually revising my text when it's being read by someone else. I know what questions to ask and what information to seek when approaching a new writing situation. I know the various heuristics, toolkits, techne (pick your favorite skills metaphor), that make something that I've written relevant. I know how to place my writing into a social and cultural context. I know how factors such as genre, power, authority, identity, etc. affect my writing's production and reception. I know the technologies of writing and what they allow/disallow a writer to compose. I know how to write in different modes and with different media.

In short, I know how words work and how to make them work under many circumstances and it's my job to introduce students to this because, except in very rare cases, they just don't get it at the secondary level, no matter how elite their school was.
posted by mrmojoflying at 9:19 AM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm with Rhee on recruiting professionals, at least. In my purely anecdotal experience, my best teachers were former professionals, who had gotten advanced degrees in the subject they were teaching. My worst teachers were education majors.
posted by schroedinger at 9:24 AM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I always thought that much of the problems about education standardization stem from the fact that we're not really serious about education here. If we were, we would do the same things to grade education as we do things that we are serious about: bring in inspectors like we do with fire safety, building management, hospital management, restaraunt quality and the like. If each state created a board that went from school to school using a variety of methods like tests, oral boards, questioning the faculty, inspecting the facilities, and interviewing the students, these education inspectors could deliver a grade upon the school at large— and point out the actual problem areas. Maybe the school is using unqualified teachers, but all the current system says is that there is a problem. Attempting to hold the teachers accountable for a variety of possible reasons for school failure is attempting to use a hammer to fix any and every problem. Higher pay would help, but most communities probably wouldn't know that that's the problem unless a reviewing party found it.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 9:36 AM on December 2, 2008


if a child is in school they aren't working in a sweat shop

If a child is in school, at least it isn't neglected -- plunked in front of a television to sit until bedtime, for example -- and that stuff isn't ancient history. In school, you meet other kids, you play games, you interact. At home, often that's not the case.

What's wrong with kicking out the useless?

The hard part is determining who needs to be sent for remedial teacher training and who deserves the big raise. Don't kick them out unless you really have to.

I would start by opening classrooms up to general scrutiny. Put cameras in every classroom to record everything. Let students, parents, teachers, teacher review boards, and police all look at any class session, live or recorded, at any time. Disk space is cheap; record and archive it all. You can't be a really bad teacher (or a disruptive student) for long when everyone is watching every day and your superiors are giving you feedback and training. ("You know that little shit in the back row who always interrupts? Well, the next time that happens...")

If I were a teacher, I'm sure the possibility of constant scrutiny would freak me out at first, but I'd get used to it and I think it would make me a better teacher because I'd know that every day was teacher observation day.
posted by pracowity at 9:56 AM on December 2, 2008


there was the MeFi link to a story comparing the performance of Hispanic and Asian kids in the States a while back that noted how much family and even peer pressure there was for the Asian kids to focus on school, wasn't there?

Yes. It was mostly an apologia for systematic racism, though.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:52 AM on December 2, 2008


One eleven year-old was asked to make a time-line of events in early American history that "showed evidence of a growing nation" - but when I talked to him about it, it was clear the teacher hadn't really discussed what a nation was. Now, this kid is eleven, and just adolescent enough to not be always paying attention, but he's still pretty bright. But looking for "evidence of a growing nation" is the sort of thing I would ask a high school or university student to think about.
Oh please. That's not at all too hard a question to ask an eleven [sic]year-old to at least think about. Is it really too hard to write a line apiece about new states joining the union, about railroads, about homesteading, about power struggles in the newly formed branches of government, about the Louisiana Purchase, about Lewis and Clark, about …? I read about all that stuff when I was eleven. I would certainly at least have understood the question.
But at the same time, they have him drawing pictures for assignments, as if he were six, and not writing but making timelines and drawing diagrams. When I was eleven, they had us reading short novels and writing responses in full sentances[sic], and making reports about things like history and science, again with paragraphs of writing.
That relates to one of the key examples I refer to when I talk about what I hated about high school. They spent weeks in physics class on having us draw diagrams of collisions on paper, using a protractor, all by rote, and allowing a 15% margin of error. No "this is to give you a feel for what is actually happening" — and it certainly didn't — and I had to use the trig that I already knew to do it right. They finally mentioned sin and cos and such, but in passing, as "here's another way you can do this".
He can write, when he's inspired - he wrote a 2 page story for Halloween that totally gave me shivers with the scary ending. But they aren't making him practice reading and writing - they are making him draw pictures and grading him on his handwriting and neatness (which is pretty bad).
I had a biology teacher I hated, also in high school. He would make us look through the microscope and draw what we saw. My drawings were pretty bad, but they captured the general shape, outlines, and colors. He shit on them every time, which infuriated me because it was biology class, not art class. But by the end of the year I was making much more detailed sketches, with shading and so forth. I'm sure by doing so I was noticing more detail in the microscope as well.
posted by vsync at 11:24 AM on December 2, 2008


College students most significant barrier to overcome is not being able to spell, which is really a boogeyman borne in part of the txtspk/language degradation hysteria and a "good old days" nostalgia for Pre-WWII language arts instruction drills.
students'
posted by vsync at 11:26 AM on December 2, 2008


It's probably shocking to some that one of Rhee's first major initiatives was to close a number of schools and fire a clutch of teachers in the District, but from outside it's hard to comprehend how poorly-planned and thinly-spread the resources have been around here. I live in one of DC's medium-density neighborhoods; within four blocks of my place DCPS was running four elementary, two middle, and two high schools, not counting the charter schools shoved into every mixed-use building from here to the Anacostia. There's no way the enrollment could justify all that infrastructure.

More local takes on Rhee: from DCist and the CityPaper.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:29 AM on December 2, 2008


Put cameras in every classroom to record everything.

Would you work in a field that did that? What about surgeons or nurses or dentists? Should we put cameras in ORs and patients' rooms in public hospitals?

Part of having teachers who are professionals is treating them as professionals. That is, by all means, train and evaluate them thoroughly, require ongoing review, carefully check their work. But allow them to meet the demands of each day and each interaction as they see fit. Part of being a professional is having a degree of professional automony and the trust and endorsement of your profession and your employing institution. Certainly teachers are accountable; they already are. But the idea that constant observation by people uninformed about pedagogy, or by supervisors who now have the opportunity to nitpick your every practice, would improve teaching is not one I think has much merit.
posted by Miko at 11:42 AM on December 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


That's not at all too hard a question to ask an eleven [sic]year-old to at least think about.

No, I think that's developmentally not right for an 11-year-old. You could do this as a guided class activity with discussion building on responses from many students, but kids at that age are just beginning to comprehend linear time and the relative degrees of distance between historical events. They aren't thinking abstractly until about age 12 or so, so "evidence of a growing nation" is pretty out there. Exceptional children could certainly do this well, but not average (most) children, who wuld need to have the question explained and answers modelled.
posted by Miko at 11:46 AM on December 2, 2008


Teach for America is totally like a missionary going to help the poor native people. The program always rubbed me wrong - it has this whole attitude of "elite" university grads going to help the "poor, disadvantaged children"... I know it's well-meaning and all, but so are missionaries. And it's so much about bringing in help from the outside, not about growing the community.

Well, where are teachers supposed to come from? It strikes me that it might be a good idea to use our elite universities as a source of teachers. TFA, at least, gets those students into the teaching pipeline. Lots of teachers who go through the "normal route" burn out in a couple of years, so I don't see it as a bad thing to set up a program where it is expected that you will be done with it after a couple of years.

The best teachers I had were the ones who went into it because it was considered, in their day, to be a respected profession, and they acted accordingly. Like a doctor or lawyer, a teacher is supposed to be a knowledgeable professional, not a customer service clerk dispensing a product to the parent/student consumers with a "customer is always right" attitude. However, given the number of people that need to be taught, I don't think that there are enough available people to take on this role, so to a large degree we're dealing with how to create enough teachers to serve the role of "teach the kids to read"/"teach the kids to do arithmatic" in an assembly-line fashion for millions of young students. Then maybe there will be room for the "leader/professional" once these basics are handled.
posted by deanc at 11:47 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think teaching is a very respectable and prestigious position. I saw it on a list of jobs that held the most prestige (though it's a CNN article and they're pretty awful at figuring anything out).

I don't know who started blaming all the teachers for all the problems of the educational system and how they decided kids and parents were mostly blameless/innocent.

The whole "he's a bad teacher" or "I had a lousy teacher" thing- I just don't get it. It smacks of immaturity and reminds me of something David Foster Wallace once said about his own attitude (though this was during either college or grad school for him):

"I think I was kind of a prick," he [David Foster Wallace] said. "I was just unteachable. I had that look — 'If there were any justice, I'd be teaching this class' — that makes you want to slap a student."

Of course, there's that attitude of students that have achieved some intellectual prowess, but there's this idea that if your kid isn't doing well in school, then it's the teacher's fault. I don't see it as a failure of the educational system as much as the culture. And a symptom of the cultural failing is the educational system.

Maybe.
posted by anniecat at 12:07 PM on December 2, 2008


Here's Part 4 of that thing I'm working on.
posted by The Straightener at 12:43 PM on December 2, 2008


I think teaching is a very respectable and prestigious position. I saw it on a list of jobs that held the most prestige (though it's a CNN article and they're pretty awful at figuring anything out).

Interesting. First time I've ever heard that really. My wife is in finance, and so I've been to plenty of business people parties and gatherings. Prestige is not generally the reaction I get when I tell people I teach high school English. It usually goes like this:

THEM: What do you do?
ME: I teach high school English.
THEM: Oh. Man, I hated English in high school. So, how many of the girls have crushes on you? Ha, ha!

And what turns into what could be a potentially nice conversation into a joke about pedophilia. I was both a Boy Scout and an altar boy, so I've pretty much reached my quota.
posted by mdaugherty82 at 12:46 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


It smacks of immaturity and reminds me of something David Foster Wallace once said about his own attitude

To be fair, DFW probably *should* have been teaching that class.
posted by callmejay at 12:56 PM on December 2, 2008


Mdaugherty82: The people you are talking to at those gatherings seem pretty weird. I can't imagine saying that to anybody, unless I was socially retarded or a narcissist or very toasted. I think very highly of teachers. I bet if you were a doctor, you'd be asked to tell them stories of how many times you had to pull something out of someone's behind. They'd just call you a janitor of the human body because they're like that. Ordinary people don't have any clue what people in finance do all day long (structured derivatives huh?) They just think they're the cat's meow and don't realize that their weird sense of humor is just not universal.
posted by anniecat at 1:02 PM on December 2, 2008


Oh please. That's not at all too hard a question to ask an eleven [sic]year-old to at least think about. Is it really too hard to write a line apiece about new states joining the union, about railroads, about homesteading, about power struggles in the newly formed branches of government, about the Louisiana Purchase, about Lewis and Clark, about …? I read about all that stuff when I was eleven. I would certainly at least have understood the question.

A lot of that stuff wasn't in the chapter assigned. He did pick out something good (the founding of a national bank), but then we couldn't find the date for the founding. In the end, he ended up doing the "easier" project (which I think had a max grade of B, as opposed to A for the harder), which was just to profile the first 4 presidents.

But yeah, he didn't really understand the idea of a "nation" or "country". He doesn't travel much (at least I had relatives on the other side of the country, or I wouldn't have gotten to), and he's not very informed on politics, so its not like he's very aware of the federal government (though he's learned more since the election).

I wonder sometimes how to judge kids' understanding - I keep thinking "didn't I know x by that age?" But I think I overestimate my understanding a lot of the time. At t hat age, I was in a program that was suposed to be more challenging, and I remember studying complex concepts like "in the Middle Ages, the more important people sat above the salt, and the less important below" and "knights had jousts, but most people were serfs and farmed". (I made a diorama of a medieval feasting hall - it was cool, and I was so obsessed with the Middle Ages).


mrmojoflying - great comment.

I worke constenlie wth docements in nonstanderd spellinge, and its easie to learne to reade them.

You have a much more sophisticated knowledge of writing than I do (I don't think I understand all of what you have described, and I have a BA :).

But I think what we can expect from children is to learn to write as they speak, and by the end of middle school to be able to write an argumentative/coherent paragraph, and by the end of secondary school to be able to write an argumentative essay. (I think they can write more text by the end of middle school, but my first essays to take a proper thesis and argument over several pages really didn't come until partway through high school). I think all children can do this (in differing levels of quality) so long as they speak the language (and don't have certain learning disabilities) - I hear them speak in more complex ways than they write. But it's hard to make that connection between spoken and written language clear.
posted by jb at 1:32 PM on December 2, 2008


It always cracks me up when people lump teachers in with doctors and lawyers. When I was fresh out of college and needed a job, a friend of mine suggested that I stop by a teacher fair occurring a week before the school year started. I went to the gym where the fair was held and was literally grabbed by two separate principals the moment I stepped through the doorway. They both asked "what can you teach?" I told them what I was interested in but also mentioned that I didn't have a teaching certificate, nor had I taken any education classes.

I had a job 30 minutes later.

For the following nine months, I taught English and theater to low-income high school students, with anywhere from 30-38 students per class. I got zero assistance or mentoring of any kind from the administration. The best advice I got was from veteran teachers, mostly about being a small target (this in reference to staying out of trouble with the administration.) I got paid $30,000. This was less than a decade ago. $30,000 was good money for me at the time, but doesn't even begin to compare to what doctors and lawyers make.

Teachers aren't professionals. They're more like civil service workers: you have to have acquired some specialized skill to get the job, (but it isn't anywhere near the kind of training necessary to be a doctor, or even a nurse,) you pretty much can't get fired, your pay raises are based on years served, not sales made, or products created or what-have-you. If we want teachers to be professionals, we'll have to make it CONSIDERABLY harder to get the job, but we'll also have to pay them a salary that makes it worthwhile, and comes with the understanding that if you don't succeed, you're out.
posted by nushustu at 1:39 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I heard that detractors called her fans and supporters "Rhee-bots," I immediately thought "isn't Rhee-tards a much better burn?"
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:52 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I bet if you were a doctor, you'd be asked to tell them stories of how many times you had to pull something out of someone's behind.

"Have you ever met a proctologist? They usually have a very good sense of humor. You meet a proctologist at a party, don't walk away. Plant yourself there because you will hear the funniest stories you've ever heard. See, no one wants to admit to them that they stuck something up there. Never. It's always an accident. Every proctologist story ends in the same way… 'It was a million to one shot, doc, million to one"
posted by matt755811 at 2:48 PM on December 2, 2008


anniecat: my statement did not come from overgeneralisations in the media. It comes from me being educated in Asia and watching how my peers fared.
posted by divabat at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2008


In many of these schools, they don't return to learning. In some cases, they can't return to learning because they were never learning in the first place.

yes they do. it is human nature to learn. and we learn what we want to. when humans are "forced" to learn things, it generally is a temporary proposition. (like just long enough to regurgitate for a test.) a child who spends his days wandering the streets is still learning. a child who spends hours and hours playing computer games is learning. a child who is being beaten by his father is learning.

what you meant to say is that they aren't learning what you wish them to be learning.

You can't save kids who come from illiterate, anti-education homes unless you start them in school very young and keep them there all day for as many days of the year as possible, with no half days or long summer vacations.
and
Put cameras in every classroom to record everything.

wow. so you feel the answer is to make schools *more* like prisons, where we take them from their parents at birth, if possible, and watch their every move for every second of the day.

you're basically saying that people who can't read and don't like what schools are or don't have the same intellectual values as you don't deserve to keep their children.

are you of the opinion that Indian boarding schools were a good idea?

if children are being abused at home, the dynamic must change, and some must be removed from that home. but this idea is ass-backwards. underprivileged kids have underprivileged parents, and instead of destroying their families by breaking them apart for most of the child's waking time, what they need is the support to *be* a better family. support for parenting, and a deeper understanding that someone who is working two jobs cannot be a decent parent, whether they are decent people or not. (and neither can a high powered money manager who works 70 hours a week.)

If a child is in school, at least it isn't neglected -- plunked in front of a television to sit until bedtime, for example -- and that stuff isn't ancient history. In school, you meet other kids, you play games, you interact. At home, often that's not the case.

have you ever *been* in a school? most kids *are* neglected there, herded about like so many cattle, ignored, abused verbally and sometimes physically, and told that what they think and feel are meaningless and uninteresting. the teacher, even a good teacher, is put into the role of petty dictator. it is only by luck that a student and a teacher actually have a meaningful personal exchange during the course of class.

students are told a hundred times a day to be quiet, stop socializing and playing games, keep their eyes front and watch the movie the teacher has brought in, or pay attention to lectures and boring stabs at teaching (which are often unscientifically administered at best and downright erroneous at worst). stop fidgeting (when fidgeting is what kids do and *should* do), stop talking, stop drawing, stop daydreaming, stop thinking for yourself. if you think that most of them don't have more healthy social interaction on the street or at home, then you're nuts.

the fact is that we've been propagandized to believe that schools are a better place for our children than at home with us. no wonder the rightwingers back when thought that schools were a stalinist plot.

very few parents are neglectful, stupid cows who want to raise imbeciles. many lack education about parenting. so provide it. many lack the time to be a proper parent. so change our national and cultural priorities to give them the time.

a school applied to an economically destroyed community is like giving an aspirin to someone with a brain tumor, and then blaming them for not getting better.
posted by RedEmma at 3:30 PM on December 2, 2008 [7 favorites]


I would agree heartily that teaching needs more hurdles to jump over before one is awarded the position. Most of the people I saw in my post-grad classes were retired military folks looking for something to keep them afloat, financially. Very few had any kind of drive, determination, or fire; they were there for the steady paycheck, the pension, and the fact that their various services had programs to encourage them to work as teachers.

Even while I was working, I found that other teachers were... well, kind of dumb. I mean, I expected that people who wanted to be teachers would be the brightest and the best, the intellectual cream, etc. Instead, I had a bunch of working stiffs. One of the last straws for me was when the new Reading teacher came in and everyone just *loved* her, thought she was the best thing to happen to teaching in forever.

Her room was a disorganized muddle, she had no idea how to control the kids, and she had to come and ask me what a "haiku" was when it came up in one of the worksheets she was forever handing out.

I mean, teachers fail the Praxis tests. Have you ever SEEN the Praxis test? It's like middle school level math and reading. How the hell does anyone FAIL that?

I dunno. We need better training and more standards (and some freaking mentoring programs) before we send people into the classroom. Right now, the SOP seems to be to just drop everyone in the deep end and see who sinks.
posted by Scattercat at 4:15 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Michelle Rhee is merely a manifestation of the desperation we see in education. it is a failing structure, and has been since the days of twig switches and dunce caps.

so what to do? take all the money we spend on education (and if i had my way, 90% of the defense budget), and devote it to making a million flowers bloom (i.e. educational choices).

remove the construct of compulsory attendance. if a child chooses to go to school, and can do the work in three days instead of five, then more power to them. the fact is that most kids would choose school if they didn't feel like they had to be there. (i know--i've been known to poll them at quiet substitute teacher moments.) and if they had more power to choose how and when, they'd be more competent at dealing with life. kids instinctively choose, given full agency and options, places that the best for them.

educate children themselves on what learning styles/profiles are. let them choose the way they learn.

if a parent and child want to homeschool, give them as much support as they want and leave them the hell alone. (because we have already seen that a child with one-on-one support does better by every measure we use right now.) have virtual options, either full schools or individual classes. fund neighborhood learning centers. and let the schools compete with those million options.

make the federal funding of education per-child and fully equal across the country.

you know how you find out which are the good teachers? let the students (and parents) choose them. let the students sign up for the teachers they want, and take the classes they want to take. let them learn how to write from the best writing teachers. and how to do math from the best math teachers. and don't let the elementary kids languish into mush by giving them a single teacher who's expected to be an expert at everything.

teachers would get better, because they would want to have a full complement of students (and they would get paid based on their workload and demonstrable expertise).

and fuck testing. it's quantification applied to a non-quantifiable entity: the human mind. yes, you can measure whether a student knows X, Y, Z, at least if it is something that fits into X, Y, Z format. but we will not be able to move forward as human beings if we spend all our time obsessing over spelling (give me a break) or whether the kid has the computational skills of a calculator.
posted by RedEmma at 4:39 PM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


remove the construct of compulsory attendance. if a child chooses to go to school, and can do the work in three days instead of five, then more power to them. the fact is that most kids would choose school if they didn't feel like they had to be there.

high fiving RedEmma,
and that is all
:)
posted by liza at 5:25 PM on December 2, 2008


I know three grade school teachers, all from public school (in the US sense) systems.

Two of them cannot spell to save their own lives. The third is a young-earth creationist who reports, bubbling, that there are "more and more of us in schools every year".

I believe our educational problems are deep, deep, deep.
posted by rokusan at 5:44 PM on December 2, 2008


But each student in the US should receive equitable per-pupil funding - there shouldn't be gaps of thousands of dollars per student per year between funding in affluent areas and funding in poor areas. Think how that adds up annually and what that means for student and administration resources.

It's an interesting comment; I live in New Zealand, and here schools are rated in deciles, based on the wealth of their zone[1]. Core funding is the same, but there are a lot of 'extra' buckets that are inversely proportional to decile. A poor school (or, more accurately, a school in a poor area) will get more funding for IT, say, than one in a rich area, on the assumption that kids in the poor area won't get exposure to technology at home. This means, for example, that about 8 years ago my wife's uncle, who worked in one of the worst parts of the Wellington region, was asking me about what sort of gear they'd be buying to be able to take video feeds of school sports days, move them over a wireless network and edit them in the classrooms. Because they were getting budget to do that.

did i point out that up to know not one of these teachers is a parent either?

So?

(Your contempt for formal education would be more compelling if you could correctly write English, by the way.)

[1] Schools have zones associated with them; schools can take kids from outside their zone, but they must take kids from within their zone, so if you live in the catchment area for a 'good[2]' school they can't refuse to enrol your kid because they don't like your income level or skin colour or liklihood of passing standardised tests.

[2] Good, of course, means different things to different people. I went to a 'good' public school which has been in the news lately.
posted by rodgerd at 5:46 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Two of them cannot spell to save their own lives. The third is a young-earth creationist who reports, bubbling, that there are "more and more of us in schools every year".

I believe our educational problems are deep, deep, deep.


One of my teacherly coworkers was an ardent 9/11 Truther who would always call me across the hall to look at the latest whacko conspiracy-theory thing. She was also an autism specialist (ran a nonprofit group and everything) and was BIG into the whole "mercury-tainted vaccines" theory that kind of sputtered out a while back.

Oh, and contrails. She had this one site that showed pictures of clouds that had happened to form geometric shapes or patterns and announced it as "proof" that the government was controlling - or attempting to control - the weather, and that the chemicals they used were likely the cause of either autism or aids or possibly all mortal ills, and the only thing left in the box was Hope.
posted by Scattercat at 5:52 PM on December 2, 2008


I believe our educational problems are deep, deep, deep.

I have to think that one of the reasons we hear/read such ardent opposition to the very concept of teaching, schooling, and spelling (like here on this thread), is because we pay so much public lip service to it all while we don't practice what we preach and in fact live out an anti-thetical set of values. We're bad spellers, and chalk it up to "oh, I'm just a bad speller" instead of admitting, "oh, I just never spent the time to learn how to spell." We might consider teaching to be "very prestigious," but at the end of the day, we'd rather our children become accountants or lawyers, or some of the other professions that polls very poorly on the "prestige" scale with the public. We talk about the importance of school, but we tend to mock intellectual pursuits. It's a odd dichotomy: we seem to understand that education is valuable and necessary, but we don't want to raise teaching and learning to matters of moral value.
posted by deanc at 6:09 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


The third is a young-earth creationist who reports, bubbling, that there are "more and more of us in schools every year".

At least you can be sure that she cherry-picks facts and relies on confirmation bias, so you don't have to worry about that on her account.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:10 PM on December 2, 2008


RedEmma, that's a pretty bold proposal.

How do you know it'll work?
posted by micketymoc at 6:51 PM on December 2, 2008


one of the reasons we hear/read such ardent opposition to the very concept of teaching, schooling, and spelling (like here on this thread), is because we pay so much public lip service to it all while we don't practice what we preach

That might be why some people are against school (I'm not), but that's not why I'm against fussing about spelling. I'm against fussing about spelling because it's trivial compared to a) reading b) writing and c) thinking. We have spell checks, we don't have coherent sentence checks. We have spell checks, but we don't have argument checks. (Don't get me started on the grammar check). We have spell checks, but we don't have critical thinking checks. Knowing phonetic spelling really helps with reading, especially with the aquisition of new words. But I think it should come secondary to writing. Reading and writing are the true tests of literacy.

Maybe I'm also influenced by the fact that for hundreds of years, people much smarter and far more educated than I will ever be didn't know how to spell. But they knew how to write (and write and write and write - and damn, it's complicated).
posted by jb at 10:05 PM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


But to be honest, I think Red Emma's proposal is unrealistic.

Truth is, if you let my tutees just do what they wanted to do, they would never read, or practice math or do write a story. They may enjoy writing a story once they do it, but they don't just naturally want to do it. They want to watch tv, or play outside. Heck, that's what I want to do most of the time. Learning is sometimes fun and usually rewarding, but it's still hard work. Heck, it's hard work just watching a kid learn.

And maybe some really active parents would get kids all excited about something, like a Montesorri school can. But those are the kids who will be fine anyways. It's the other kids we need to worry about.
posted by jb at 10:10 PM on December 2, 2008


I think that the best way to solve education problems is to come up with solutions based on our own personal experiences with one or two schools and force all schools in American to adhere to that solution.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:47 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


@deanmc: Well, I'm biased anyhow. My mother was a schoolteacher and I love her and saw how difficult it is to be a teacher.

Do people want their children to be accountants? I've never heard that before.
posted by anniecat at 6:39 AM on December 3, 2008


*deanc (I'm going blind)
posted by anniecat at 6:40 AM on December 3, 2008


Public education is for the benefit of the broader society at least as much as for the individual. In fact it was consideration for the needs of a society of the self-governed that spawned American public education as a concept. So, though it may be pleasant for people to guide their own individual educational development, it wouldn't create civic good. We educate to furnish a workforce for our shared economy, to prevent crime, to educate voters and stewards of the public trust, to ensure that the public has the skills to manage their legal responsibilities, and to create and maintain a shared culture. Whether or not individual learning is good for anyone other than well-heeled and already-educated families, it's not good for the polity. We have public education for some very utilitarian purposes, and at the very least, we should insist that it serve those purposes.
posted by Miko at 8:00 AM on December 3, 2008


RedEmma, that's a pretty bold proposal.
How do you know it'll work?


does Michelle Rhee know what she's doing will work? we've watched educational reform come and go over and over again and how has it gone? when half of students don't graduate high school, and we have increasingly dismal literacy (in both math and reading) rates, how do y'all think it's going? anyone who's a college teacher will tell you that the "product" is getting worse and worse.

so i and a whole lot of other people with education backgrounds (and innovators and thinkers) are rebelling against the whole thing. i've spent enough years trying to make excuses to classrooms of kids about "that's just the way it is." that's just lazy-ass bullshit.

i've had hundreds of conversations with teachers, and the fear of change is incredible. once you reach an understanding of how immovable the system is, you either hunker down til retirement, or you bolt. i bolted.

Truth is, if you let my tutees just do what they wanted to do, they would never read, or practice math or do write a story. They may enjoy writing a story once they do it, but they don't just naturally want to do it. They want to watch tv, or play outside. Heck, that's what I want to do most of the time. Learning is sometimes fun and usually rewarding, but it's still hard work.

and what's wrong with wanting to play outside? science says that's where kids should be spending a good big-ass chunk of their time, and you know it. but somehow strapping them into desks for five hours a day makes sense.

look. we have taught ourselves and our children that learning is drudgery, something that is *hard*. but for 95% of kids, learning is a natural, pleasant activity that is *made* into drudgery by mindless repetition (do that problem 50 times even though you learned it last year and even though you already know how), being forced to wait for others or move at the pace of those quicker than you, or a blatant ignoring of the fact that children learn differently. learning something new in groups of thirty is nigh impossible, and every teacher knows it. why else would we have to repeat the same subjects and drills ad nauseum, year after year?

my main experience block is in working with LD or EBD kids. kids who were in their teen years and were shoved forward to get rid of them, and ended up with myriad problems that had *everything* to do with mass schooling, and very little to do with genuine "disability". give them a class size of 8, and suddenly their problems disappeared. but to get that, you have to be a "real case" and get referred. you are a "problem" that must be got rid of.

how do i know that kids like learning, when they haven't had it beaten out of them by the mind-numbing blizzard of worksheets that starts in third grade? watch unschooled children. i have one at home. he's been doing pretty much his own thing for four years now. while it is true that kids who have been forced to see school as the only place learning happens tend to rebel and want to degenerate into a puddle of comic-reading, gaming goo for awhile, they generally get over it and see the importance of reading and writing and being able to do things. kids don't want to be dumb. they know that if they want to "be somebody" they have to learn to do stuff. (there are now hundreds of thousands of homeschooled and unschooled kids. some have grown up. overall, i think you'll find them intellectually curious people who are quite independent in their learning. that would be why so many ivy league schools value them as incoming freshmen.)

i think the hardest thing for teachers to do is let go of what they and the system says is important to learn. we teach unwilling kids to do higher math, but we don't teach cooking in schools, or how to do basic car maintenance. i confess that we're more intellectual than practical in our household too. but i really think that there are a whole lot of people in this world who'd have rather learned to build houses (and math in relation to that) than write short stories. how many of us, as adults, write short stories, after all? the idea of teaching logical progression can be taught in a lot of other ways than that. (recipes, for one.)

like i said, ask kids yourself what they would do if they no longer were forced by law to attend school every day on a set schedule. see what they tell you. only a very few will laugh and say, "I'd go to the ski hill all day." and even then, you have to ask deeper questions of those "refusers." what do they value? does their answer mean they don't value learning? no. it's just that they want to learn things that the school doesn't want to teach them.

i firmly believe, after years in a classroom, that the only kids who want to turn off their brains are damaged people who either have unaddressed psychological problems or who see such hopelessness in their community that they see academic skills as a waste of time. we need to fix such communities, not continue lying to these children about how academics will magically give them a job or protect them from criminals. (pssst. they know you're lying.)
posted by RedEmma at 8:26 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


We educate to furnish a workforce for our shared economy, to prevent crime, to educate voters and stewards of the public trust, to ensure that the public has the skills to manage their legal responsibilities, and to create and maintain a shared culture.

really? how's that going for you?

find me an employer who thinks their applicants are well-educated for the workplace.

and the rest just makes me laugh...
posted by RedEmma at 8:29 AM on December 3, 2008


I used to work doing research evaluating teacher performance in early childhood classrooms. I spent two hours in each class and rated teachers on a scale from 1-5 on about 5 pages of different items. You know, it's not hard to figure out which teachers are good and which are bad once you have a little experience in what to look for. I could spot a really bad teacher pretty quickly upon walking in the door.

Unfortunately, I was told that current policy for when a teacher wasn't performing well was to move them down a grade. Eventually you end up with all the really horrible teachers teaching pre-K or K or 1st grade and children never learning the basics. The fact is that by the time a child is 6 or 7, most of the damage has already been done. They'll almost never catch up.

Also, I quit working with kids because I couldn't stand parents. I was afraid one day I was going to snap and try to throttle some oblivious parent. Now I still end up having to see troubled kids and the outright incompetance and pure apathy of the parents kills me. You know, it might be a good idea to know how old your child is (within maybe a year) or what kind of grades they're getting, roughly. I'm not asking for specifics, just any information about your child that's somewhere close to accurate would be helpful, really. Sorry, bitter rant is done now.
posted by threeturtles at 9:11 AM on December 3, 2008


how's that going for you?

Can you show me an alternative where your vision is working?
posted by Miko at 9:12 AM on December 3, 2008


RedEmma -

You're right that children learn a great deal playing outside, and just doing stuff - my mother helped run a national literacy program based on that premise. (A Reading themed afterschool fun activity - to divorce reading from school and make it into what books obsessed people know it really is: delightful procrastination).

But even when you have fun stuff, there is still stuff that is hard and just has to be taught by rote and worked at - or at best, taught through very specifically developed games and toys that few non-elite parents have knowledge of or access to. Like times table and addition/subtraction facts. Basic lettering - and yes, some spelling. We do have really good workbooks at the place I tutor that teach spelling and phonetic reading, but they are also work, and the kids would rather play "Guess Who". (Which does teach good logical deduction, but not how to write a paragraph).

Actually, what some most like to do is to watch tv. They don't like to read books, which saddens me, and I struggle to explain how amazing they are (and often not at all educational). But when I said to one little girl how a good novel was like a movie inside her head, only she could have it anywhere, she said, "I have a portable DVD player".

A lot of what you are saying is the basis of the Montessori technique. Which is excellent, and maybe our public education should look towards it. I don't know enough about it to know if it is more expensive or if there are other drawbacks as to why it would be difficult to implement. I do suspect that Montessori schools rarely deal with children whose parents are not actively involved in their education, and that may be part of their success.

find me an employer who thinks their applicants are well-educated for the workplace.

And kids are going to hell in a handbasket, so just get offa my lawn.

We are so much more educated than we were before public education. Not that we're smarter or know more, but in terms of wide-scale literacy, we're light years ahead. Do you even realize how limited literacy was?

Also, screw employers. They should do their own training instead of trying to off-load it onto the public sector. Public education should be about literacy, numeracy, enough world knowledge (history, science, etc) to make you a better voter and citizen, and critical learning skills so that you know how to teach yourself new stuff. Anything else is extra.
posted by jb at 10:58 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


remove the construct of compulsory attendance.... kids instinctively choose, given full agency and options, places that [are] the best for them.
The simple fact is that most children do not have full agency and options, particularly those who have unstable home environments and are in the greatest need of an external education system. It's those kids -- the ones who would be pressed into service as caretakers for younger siblings while the parent takes on another job -- whom the compulsory attendance laws exist to serve.

(Aside: There's an immunization PSA running in the DC metro which reads "No Shots! No School!" and everytime I see it, the 10-year-old in me thinks Neither? Bonus!)
posted by Westringia F. at 11:20 AM on December 3, 2008


Present US literacy rate: 97%
US 1970 99%
US 1960 98%
US 1950 97%
US 1930 95%
US 1920 94%
US 1910 92%
US 1900 89% (which is English literacy--not taking into account literacy in one's own language. at the peak of immigration.)

and Miko, can you show me where the present reality is working for more than about half of kids? just because something has never been done or tried on any level doesn't mean it shouldn't be. without innovation, there is no movement.

and i'll say it again: full agency over options is what *should* be, and no parent should be dependent on their children for childcare. obviously, it means a great change in how things are done. i never said i wasn't an idealist.
posted by RedEmma at 11:33 AM on December 3, 2008


whoops. i was wrong about it being English literacy. literacy means the ability to write and read a simple message in English or any other language, in this case. (note that this is not "functional literacy", a term coined by the Army in WWII to mean the ability to understand written instructions needed to carry out basic military functions or tasks.)
posted by RedEmma at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2008


screw employers. They should do their own training instead of trying to off-load it onto the public sector

What I mean is that we need people who are literate and numerate so that they have some hope of learning professions and being capable of the work of being employers and employees. It doesn't sound like you disagree. I'm not arguing for job training in schools, though I would love to see apprenticeship in some form at the secondary level and certainly externships in college as a standard.


and Miko, can you show me where the present reality is working for more than about half of kids?

To be clear, in this thread I've been consistently saying that our present education system needs a thorough overhaul, because right now it's not meeting anyone's goals well - civic, private, or otherwise. It's unfair, uneven, and inadequate. What I don't believe is that unschooling or freeschooling is a solution that best serves all classes and the broader society. They are very idealistic strategies, even utopian, and broadly speaking have not been more successful than the best traditional schools at producing happy and thoroughly educated children. What success they do have, I would argue, is due to an unusually devoted parent and teacher community driven by the mission to make it succeed - and that parent and teacher community has generally already had the benefit of a solid traditional education. They generally have the wealth to make an alternative choice, houses full of books, the ability to travel, and enough of their own knowledge gleaned through their own sources to offer a decent learning guide to children who want to learn. They begin with every benefit and the students are already society's winners and likely to go on winning, regardless of the type of schooling they receive. And still, these schools are not effective enough on most widely accepted measures to have drawn strong serious national interest as alternative schooling models.

As jb notes, before we had mandatory public education in this country, we had exploitive childhood labor and a shocking degree of illiteracy. Beginning in 1900 makes things look darn good; slavery had ended, mandatory education to sixth grade was the standard in most states. Today, offering kids the opportunity to do nothing demands that they call on resources that, in many students, simply haven't been cultivated or don't exist. It requires curiosity and energy, willingness to conquer the difficult, persistence and patience, tolerance for challenge - many things our culture at large has not encouraged, and things I have witnessed myself as an educator. To do homeschooling or unschooling well requires private resources, personal habits, and individual life structures that aren't fairly distributed throughout the population. It doesn't serve society.

Also, it certainly has been tried many times at many levels. These ideas are as old as Rousseau, and that's only in the post-Renaissance. The history of progressive education is full of experiments in noncompulsory education, and there's plenty out there to research. Nothing has been particularly successful. The Summerhill model is still in use and I would recommend reading up on that, even reading A. S. Neill's book Summerhill. Rethinking Schools is an excellent publication on ideas in school reform, and I think many of them are brilliant and promising. I taught in a progressive school for several years, and believe that it's quite possible to accommodate students' interests and daily rythms in formal educational settings, if we so choose. But I would say that the kids whose parents paid upward of $10,000 a year to have them attend that school were actually receiving a poorer education, on many fronts, than their peers in public schooling. What they were paying for was a warm community, small class sizes, peers in their own social and values groups, a slightly different daily-program structure, and access to the network and knowledge that come with a private educational community. We graduated plenty of sixth-graders that could not read, write, spell, or do math well, but their verbal skills, which got lots of practice, were good enough to help them wheedle along, and their class status and ability to continue in private education ensured that most of that school's graduates go on to elite colleges, many of them Ivies.

That didn't mean that their education was good.

I've come to the conclusion, though, that either settling for our present system, or advocating a system which breaks down public education, end up in the same place: privileging the already privileged, punishing the already impoverished.
posted by Miko at 12:49 PM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sorry, Rethinking Schools
posted by Miko at 12:54 PM on December 3, 2008


Present US literacy rate: 97%
US 1970 99%
US 1960 98%
US 1950 97%
US 1930 95%
US 1920 94%
US 1910 92%
US 1900 89% (which is English literacy--not taking into account literacy in one's own language. at the peak of immigration.)



Literacy as a term is an open signifier, and as a subject, an ideological contest (in the political economy sense, not simply the political). When we start bandying about numbers, we run the risk of decontextualizing the actual historical, social, and cultural contexts that have produced literate subjects doing literate things. I don't know where these percentages came from, but seeing deeply longitudinal literacy statistics thrown out always gives me a groan because of how remarkably synthetic they are and mostly used to make sweeping claims more useful to poltical and ideological utility than complicated historical fact. Literacy scholars don't use them anymore (legislators do however), believing they are deeply flawed and offer a false picture of actual activity of literate practices. I'll make a few points to illustrate (though if anyone is interested, I can pass some more comprehensive and complicated arguments by others via memail).

First, literacy data of this sort is census driven, and until the 1930's, literacy was measured via census by asking you whether you could read and write (let alone at what level, when, how, etc.) Furthermore, census methods of finding populations that would less likely be non-literate were deeply flawed and incomplete. The myth that the census truly and accurately measures all facets of demography is a driving force here. In the 1940s, they began using educational level to measure literacy, but really what counts for education across the entire United States even today (which is one of the cruxes of this post I think) varies radically. Even taking into account for the fact that if someone had 5 years of schooling, they were literate, that says nothing about the nature of that schooling. There were no educational standards like we know today, there were varying compulsory attendance laws, and in most rural areas, and really, being able to recite a few Dick and Jane readers does not make one literate in the same sense that we use it today (i.e. in a fast-capitalism sense).

This leads to my second point, while mass literacy measurement methods have been inadequate in the past (and misunderstood in the present) what one needs to be considered "literate" has changed dramatically. Really, there are entire paradigm shifts of mass communication and literacy between 1890 and 2008. In 1890, one went to college to be a priest or a lawyer, and if one had parents of means, a high school education was obtainable. What was read by most people who could read and actually read? The Bible, (and despite shoddy census statistics taken out of context, there was often someone who could read in a household), labels (though this is debatable). Perhaps a daily, a penny novel (women, anyway), or the Sears catalog. The urban elite populations scattered along the East Coast read more, but that's a different story (also the place where the census data was strongest). You could get by not reading anything most of the time. Today, being able to read, not just text, but a suffusion of text and image, across multiple modes and media, in many genres, and many dialects. Just to function adequately in basic sociocultural tasks, one has to be far, far more "literate" than they did in 1890, and this takes into account for the respective needs and strictures of various American regional cultures at that time. Simply put, what children are expected to do in 5 years of schooling today (whether they do it or not is another story), and how they are expected apply that knowledge in society is dramatically different than 120 years ago when one read simple composition books that contained stories several sentences long, a list of grammatical rules for reading, and a few prompts.

So literacy statistics are suspect, and the definition of literacy has changed, which leads me to the third and final point, literacy is a highly contested term. No one can even agree on what it means, let alone articulate in an authoritative way what it measures. Sure, you can define it as this, or as that, but these definitions are highly contestable. I couldn't define it for you myself, only give you a good dozen definitions that orbit around certain important concepts. At best, large scale literacy measurements provide some sort of index of civilization. They do not measure intelligence (another great topic of discussion, but I'll save my IQ test spiel). They do no measure socio-economic success (though schooling does somewhat, but then again I can show you some Ph.D.s who are barely "literate" for all of their specialized expertise). They do not measure any discernible causal factor that we assume they measure. They are, really, an indicator of "social glue," or how likely a given schooled population is going to be able to follow written instruction and produce records of what they have done. The idea that "literacy" is liberatory (in the Horatio Alger vein) is a bit contested these days.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:29 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


in other words, the school are whatever my kids and us as their parents make of it.

it's astounding to me to have to deal with 20something and 30something teachers who, talk to me as if i somehow were like this incidental thing in my kids' lives. or as if i knew absolutely nothing about children : you know, because having almost 20 years on them, 2 more degrees and about 30 years more professional experience counts for nothing.

you know, because as teachers they know more about my kids than the woman who happen to have birthed them, raised them and facilitated their education for the first 8-9 years of their lives.


I bet most of them know how to use the shift key.

When I heard that detractors called her fans and supporters "Rhee-bots," I immediately thought "isn't Rhee-tards a much better burn?"

Funny, but that's not clear when spoken aloud. Also, she was "Terrified about what Obama would do with education" and thought about voting for McCain. Ew.
posted by delmoi at 3:51 PM on December 4, 2008


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