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The Plan? Just fire the teachers and start over

As you might have read by now, President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, plan to encourage school administrators to close and re-open 5,000 of the nation’s worst schools — and hire a new slate of teachers and principals, or convert them into independently run charter schools  — with $5 billion in education stimulus funds as an incentive.

If that’s the secret to improving public education, Oakland is really ahead of the curve. I wonder if the district is even eligible for these funds; it’s already closed and re-opened most of its lowest-performing schools and converted some to charters.

Duncan’s plan seems reminiscent of his strategy for Chicago Public Schools, called Renaissance 2010. The Catalyst, an independent magazine that focuses on school reform in Chicago, did an excellent, in-depth series on Duncan’s legacy as CEO of CPS.

What do you think this strategy will mean for public education and for the teaching profession? Is this the way to go about improving teacher quality?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • turner

    Why do we blame most problems on teachers? What’s wrong with the OUSD teacher quality? Those teachers will go to another district and excel.

    OUSD’s problem is not teachers. Public ed’s problem is not teachers. It’s the non-teachers we should worry about (O’Connell, the board, the County, the Feds).

    Turner..

    And, no, I’m not and have never been a teacher. I just think they keep on getting a bad rap.

  • Nextset

    I have a lot of differences with the teachers and I despise the policy positions the teacher’s unions tend to take (leftist lunacy to me) BUT I have more than a little experience with rotten businesses and organization blaming their problems on the workers. And that’s what this looks like to me. The urban school districts – and by that I don’t mean just OUSD – run the schools into the ground from the top. Not the teachers. If the teachers were ever given sound policy and backed up in enforcing it we would never have these problems. We did not have the systematic problems with failure under more sound educational policies generations ago.

    This mess is in no way the teachers fault. I’m sure the teachers did what they were told to do.

    Maybe we should fire all the students and open the schools the next day with new students. Just start over with new and different schools with new and different student assignments.

    The reason our urban public schools are failure factories is incessant bad policy that engenders rotten student attitudes and bad performance. Change policy. Go back to what worked before. I think schools that do are called “no excuses” schools. I think of them as “we will flunk you” schools.

  • Local teacher

    Nextset–

    What makes you think that educational policies generations ago were effective? You could argue that more people graduated from high school, but to what degree would those people be prepared to enter the workforce today? Our economy and priorities have shifted so much in the last 50 years that the skills students needed 50 years ago are different from today. Schools are no where near catching up to the curve at which the world has evolved.

    That being said, we also did not hold districts, schools, or teachers accountable for student performance in the same way we are trying to do now. We weren’t even measuring individual student performance on a mass scale until No Child Left Behind (which has its faults – but let’s face the reality that the ideals behind the law are in the right place).

    Both you and Turner talk about how we blame teachers, but let’s look at the system. This is the exact rhetoric used by teachers’ unions across the country – it is another excuse for why a teacher may not be getting the job done. No one wants to be fully accountable for student results – teachers want to put it on parents, parents put it on teachers, society puts it on poor districts/systems…at the end of the day, who is ultimately accountable?

    If you needed immediate medical care and were brought to a hospital whose administration was bad and systems were wrought with problems, would you expect the doctor in the emergency room to know how to treat your issue? You would expect that the doctor, as a professional, can provide the appropriate medical care. Better yet, would you go to a doctor who has a history of malpractice? A lawyer who has never won a case?

    Well, why do we look at teachers differently? Teachers are supposed to be highly qualified and trained in their content area and many of them have gone to school for just as long as a doctor or lawyer has. The administration may be poor and the systems failing, but how does that affect whether or not you teach your students to read? How does that affect whether or not your students learn to do math? Yet, when a student doesn’t achieve, we play the blame game and put the responsibility on someone else. We routinely put our students in classes with teachers who have a proven track record of failure.

    Teachers, students, parents, administrators, schools, districts, society all need to be held accountable for student performance. What’s wrong with closing down 5,000 schools and re-opening them with staffs that have a shared vision of student achievement who are willing to be held accountable to their performance and who are willing to do whatever it takes to educate their students if they get the results so desperately needed? I work in a school like this in Oakland that was part of the small schools movement. We’re on track to move our school from performance levels in the 10-15% range to 90% in just a few short years – and, we’re not the only school in this position.

    Educational reform is entirely about human resources, and the most impactful resource is always a teacher.

  • Katy Murphy

    Local Teacher: Do many of your colleagues have similar views on school reform? Have you — or would you — express them to your union rep?

  • Pepe

    Local teacher, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for providing a teacher’s perspective. Imagine if the majority of teachers and administrators held your viewpoint and advocated for change, both in the training of teachers and in the structures of the school system…Currently, a teacher earns a “highly qualified” label by passing a subject matter test. Teaching is so much more than knowing your subject–that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go into teaching and why I have great admiration for effective teachers. Congratulations on your successes at your school!

    Firing an entire staff seems extreme, and it would most likely discourage even the most successful teachers from returning. It should be easier to move out ineffective teachers/administrators on an individual basis. That seems to be the elephant in the room.

  • Let’s Get Real

    I’d like to know where Arne Duncan thinks he’s going to find 5000 x ? teachers to fill the schools he would like to turn over. School district policies like those in Oakland are already discouraging many new teachers. It’s difficult to keep them beyond two years. Some migrate to other districts, others, unfortunately, leave the profession. Stability helps in urban schools, but it’s a quality that is being lost.

    I don’t know how long Local Teacher has been teaching in Oakland, but she/he must know that a teacher may have a totally different experience in one school compared to another. The students of a given teacher at one school (including small schools) may not be as successful as the students of the same teacher after she has moved to a different school. The difference would not necessarily be in the teacher’s approach–she may consistently be the hardest working teacher in history–but in other factors, such as the school environment, the leadership, the discipline policy, resources to assist students who need extra help, parent involvement–and the readiness of the students themselves. This is why blaming teachers for failure and offering merit pay for better test scores is patently unfair.

    The doctor analogy does not work with teachers, because currently, unlike doctors, many teachers are placed in a position where they are discouraged from using professional judgment and are expected to teach from scripted curricula. Federal, state, and district educational policies, standards, etc., dictate guidelines that must be followed, and often these policies actually interfere with effective teaching.
    While the doctor can use all resources within his/her grasp to treat an individual patient, a teacher at an underfunded school may have access to few if any resources to help an individual struggling student.

    I guess you could take a doctor at a modern hospital and a teacher at a well-funded state-of-the-art school in the suburbs, and contrast them both with a doctor in the bush with a bottle of alcohol and a box of Band-Aids, and a teacher at an underfunded urban school. They may all be well-trained professionals, but they will very likely get different results.

    Bottom line, I agree that all the players in out educational system should be held accountable–for the part that they play. Over the past several years, teachers have been blamed for EVERYTHING that isn’t working, including policies that we don’t even support! This is unfair, and it does not create effective change.

  • Local teacher

    Katy–

    One of the benefits of restructuring schools under the small schools movement is that the administration was able to select the teachers for the school without having to worry about seniority and/or union contract issues. Our administration and hiring committee specifically look for teachers who fit with the vision and culture of our school. I would say that at least 90% of the staff at my current site would agree with me and take their accountability very seriously.

    I’m pretty vocal at my school, and would definitely voice my opinions to the union rep, who I am pretty sure would agree with me.

    To answer Pepe’s question about the elephant in the room – my opinion is that unions protect ineffective and mediocre teachers and make it way too difficult to remove them. At the same time, we give tenure away too easily. You just need to teach for 3 years and have satisfactory ratings. We should have to earn tenure. By restructuring schools, we’re able to get around the union by claiming that it is a new school, and in effect, a new staff must be hired. No one retains placement seniority at the site. It’s a political move to address teacher effectiveness without taking on the union directly.

  • Nextset

    One is a teacher in name only when that “teacher” is not allowed to flunk a student.

    The employees referred to as OUSD “teachers” are not able to enforce any discipline or maintain any standards. They may not block enrollment of “students” unqualified by lack of reasonable prerequisites from enrolling. They have to go into the classrooms and “teach” any bag of plasma that is on the roll. Students are mixed in any given class from few at higher function to more who are nonperforming. The average students get a chaotic classroom.

    And yet these employees are blamed when the “students” don’t perform.

    Again, I am not a fan of public school teachers. The current bunch don’t impress me like the private school teachers do. But fair is fair. These employees have not failed unless they were reasonably expected to succeed. It is not reasonable to populate high schools with a critical mass of “students” who have 8th grade or worse math and verbal skills and expect anything good to happen. Until the schools clean up their act on student selection (yes, students should be selected) I will never agree to wholesale blame on the teachers.

    The schools are failing because of poor students not poor teachers. Fix the students. Then talk about the teachers.

    Workers of the world unite. That includes the teachers. Don’t think the government can blame this mess on the public school teachers and ever get away with it.

  • Oak261

    What should we expect regarding graduation rates? Its going to take a major miracle to make a significant dent in these numbers, or a redefinition of what it required to complete high school. Hoping for noticeable changes in anything less than a decade or two is fantasy. Here’s why: Look at the historic trends over the past 40+ years. The high school graduation rate steadily increased from about 50% in the 1940′s to about 75% by the mid 60′s. Less than 1% per year, and that was rapid progress. Then it has been relatively flat since then. Flat, or nearly flat for almost 45 years! This is also related to yesterday’s column “New dropout rates: Big progress or screwy data?” Katy’s compilation of data shows a California dropout rate of about 20%, implying a graduation rate of somewhere around 80%, (probably a little less after corrections for kids who don’t drop out but don’t graduate either — does that happen?).
    P

  • turner

    Local teacher,

    All you are talking about is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Obviously, there are some ineffective teachers in OUSD who need to be shown the door. But, the action you suggest assumes that all 5,000 are ineffective. What about the teachers in the hill schools? Aren’t they effective? Why do all parents want their kids to go there?

    Again, the problem is not the teachers. It is the system in which they work. The teachers do not make financial decisions. They do not make personnel decisions. They do not make political decisions. All they can do is teach.

    Again, it is the non-teachers that are the problem.

    The Board is clueless about how to run a quality local educational agency.

    The state administrator and his predecessors have done nothing but cost the district millions in salary, benefits and hundreds of bad decisions.

    The Superintendent of Instruction has failed in bringing OUSD back to a level of success in a timely fashion and in handing it over to a competent board.

    The unions have been obsessed with sticking it to the district. They have forgotten about the bigger picture which is the education of the students.

    The outside agencies, both public (such as the Alameda County office of education) and private (such as Broad), are a problem. They are looking for a laboratory to test theories that have not and cannot work in OUSD. And they refuse to work together for a common solution.

    It is this system that is the problem. The system that is made up of decision makers whose motives are NOT the best education for the students of OUSD.

    You can blame the teachers all you want. You can also blame the workers at GM for the demise of their company. And, while you are at it, you can blame the bank tellers at Citibank for the bad and greed-driven decisions by their management.

    Should all employees be held accountable to produce good results? YES! Teachers, auto workers, bank tellers. But, don’t blame them for the stupid decisions that their leaders make.

    Turner

  • turner

    Nextset,

    Don’t blame the students. Young children are a clean slate. As they grow, they become a result of their environment.

    If they are poor students, it is because they have been put through a poor system.

    It’s not the students who have failed us. It is us who have failed them. We have taught them poorly.

    Turner.

  • Nextset

    Turner: There is something to both sides, but the current politically correct position is that the teachers are bad and the “children” are saints.

    It doesn’t matter why any particular child is violent, disruptive and disrespectful – if they have defects rising to that level they have no place in normal academic public schools.

    And I’m not buying the “we have failed them” mantra. If a child is unable to make academic progress in grades 7 to 12 they should be in programs more suited to their skillset such as Voc Ed. They should not be on a campus where College Bound kids are.

    I agree that students should be challenged. I believe that process doesn’t include keeping them happy and comfortable. I think a lot of the problem we have with urban/minority education is that the management/government above all wants to pacify the students and their families, not educate them. And I’m convinced that the employees – “the teachers” – for the most part do exactly what management wants.

    So I don’t want systematic failures in urban education blamed on the workers. If the kids can’t read, count, behave, etc it’s because school administration arranged things to be that way.

  • Local teacher

    I find it interesting that both of you, Nextset and Turner, refer to teachers as “workers,” and put teachers in the same class as workers at GM or banktellers at Citibank (to use Turner’s analogy). I think one of the fundamental problems with our education system is that society considers teachers to be workers. Teachers are not workers in a system; teachers are professionals who should be well educated and trained in their craft. We have similar education requirements and expectations as other professionals (i.e. doctors and lawyers).

    Additionally, all that is happening in these blog posts is the blame game. We’re arguing over who to blame…my point is that everyone shares part of the blame (teachers, parents, administrators, districts, society at large). However, teachers are not exempt from this conversation because we’re simply doing what management told us to do. I’ve worked in several schools and districts, and for the most part, teachers don’t do what management tells them to do because the unions are strong enough to protect them.

    Nextset – I’d love to know who the public school teachers are that you’ve met that don’t impress you the way private school teachers do. How much time have you spent actually in Oakland schools? How much time have you spent in schools where reforms are successful? There are such schools in Oakland – and they aren’t just charter schools.

  • del

    Well, plenty of blame to go around… but why keep it all in education? If our society WANTED good schools that graduated kids like crazy & held everyone accountable, our society would demand & fund it. The reality is, our country & economy functions in large part thanks to a massive underclass. And if that underclass is identifiable by color, so much the better. However, we rail and moan about the state of education, when all it is doing is exactly what it is asked to do: challenge some kids and let others fail.

    As for blaming what happens on whom, once the kid steps in the class, it is all on the teacher. They will come in smart, dumb, angry, rich, and poor, it doesn’t matter, you have to teach who walks in. Teachers cannot take excuses from the kids, and no one can take excuses from teachers, admin, or anyone else. At the “failing” schools there were/are always teachers who do a great job, look at Herman Brown (and others) at lowell. The same kids who were cursing in the halls were quietly learning algebra for one hour a day. Follow any kid through their day, and you will see as many different behaviors as they have situations, and all will be as “bad” as a teacher will let them get away with.
    So why does it continue? Because of point #1, we want it to. Sorry, but if you want good teachers, you have to pay them more! There is a supply and demand issue: there is no supply of good teachers, but the demand in oakland is great. The same is true at the admin level, which explains the rotating principals at skyline and other places. A VP in fremont gets $100,000+… in oakland it starts at $60,000. Who gets a better and larger applicant pool?
    And a quick point to nextset: a teacher who fails kids is not a teacher. There is one simple rule: everyone in this class will pass with an A or a B. You will do it in class on assignments and tests and essays and at home in homework. Or I will keep you after school, before school, wake you up on a Saturday, kidnap you on a Sunday until you do. Because I am your teacher and I will teach, and you will learn. And even though your mom and dad gave up and the education blog did too, I am not going to give up on you. It doesn’t take long for kids to make a choice that lets me sleep in on Saturdays. And isn’t that what you’d really want, Nextset?

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    Charles Payne, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools,” wrote (http://www.achievementseminars.com/seminar_series_2006_2007/readings/Payne%202%20chapter%205.pdf)

    “… So we continue forcing underdeveloped reforms on already over-burdened teachers and then blaming those teachers when reforms fail to produce the promised miracles. Just as teachers are too quick to conclude that nothing’s going to work with these children, reformers come to think that the reforms they advocate are right, they will work, just not here, not in this school, not with this particular group of hard-headed teachers and untalented administrators. Just as teachers are always saying they could teach if someone gave them better students, reformers are always thinking they could implement their programs if someone would just give them better people to work with. The reform community, partly because of its sheer arrogance, its ideological rigidity, its inability to enter into genuine partnerships with school people has squandered much of the moral capital, much of the strategic positioning, that it held at the beginning of the 1990s.”

    In a report about a recent panel discussion (http://ascd.typepad.com/blog/2009/05/reform-at-the-expense-of-relationships.html):

    “Payne said in schools with low academic achievement, building high levels of trust makes academic improvement three times as likely than in schools with low levels of trust among educators and students. He cited a ten percent improvement in graduation rate in schools where students say they know and trust their teachers.”

    Payne also had something to say about what Arne Duncan did while he was in charge of Chicago Public Schools: “The way schools are being closed in Chicago has eroded an enormous amount of social capital by not including parents in the process. These parents care about their kids and schools, and have been marginalized by people doing things for their children, without including them in the process.”

    Duncan is clueless and is about to lead us off a cliff.

  • turner

    Local Teacher, what you say is true. Teachers should not be viewed as workers but rather as managers. They are well educated certifed professionals who are in a critical position of authority and influence.

    Sadly, though, that is not what they are in reality. They are just conduits for a curriculum that is decided upon elsewhere. They have no input and no decision making ability. Doctors and lawyers are given way more leeway to make decisions. They offer analyses; they manage situations and have the authority to act and react.

    Teachers should have this same ability but they do not.

    Turner

  • turner

    Nextset,

    I think we are on the same page. But, I also think that many OUSD students are getting a raw deal not because of their performance but the system they find themselves in.

    Put them in a good system, then challenge them and hold them accountable. I believe many of them will flourish.

    Turner

  • Nextset

    Turner: I agree.

    I believe a good tough school can take kids from all walks of life and make more out of them than they ever expected. I don’t want a school to write off anyone because of the way they look or the family they come from – although at some point the performances given have to determine the programs offered.

    I think OUSD kids are getting a very raw deal.

    I believe OUSD kids should be able to go to a school run like Piedmont High – or Lowell High – if they qualify for an academic program. I wonder why more large urban school districts don’t maintain a district wide university bound high school such as Lowell. Actually I don’t wonder – OUSD is afraid that if they did the school wouldn’t be black enough, so no such school for Oakland. (Or else Piedmont is it – just move)

    And then there’s the UC Berkeley School of Engineering.

    Brave New World.

  • Sara

    Del, you say that” everyone in this class will pass with an A or a B. You will do it in class on assignments and tests and essays and at home in homework. Or I will keep you after school, before school, wake you up on a Saturday, kidnap you on a Sunday until you do.” Just how are you going to enforce this? How are you going to keep kids in school after school ends? How are you going to get them to come before school? Just how does one go about doing it? I worked at a school where I tried to keep the students from leaving before the bell and got literally run over. The principal did nothing. Unless teachers are backed up by a principal they aren’t able to impose sanctions.

  • Katy Murphy

    Anyone have an example of a school with an effective (and consistently implemented) discipline policy — where teachers feel backed up by their principals when enforcing it?

  • Walton Barnaby

    Local Teacher has it 100% right. Teachers are professionals like doctors and lawyers and they should be held accountable so kids can thrive.

    Correction: it takes 2 years to become tenured in OUSD. On the first day of a teacher’s third year, she / he becomes tenured.

    Teachers and administrators need to be held accountable and paid better wages. OUSD needs to pay better to attract more talent but I’m not sure how that can happen any time soon.

    Good schools are worth it and it is heartbreaking (and maddening) to watch kids get the shaft so ineffective teachers and administrators can hold on to their jobs. It’s like daycare for ineffective adults.

    Obama is right. We need to do something drastic. Charter, baby!

  • district employee

    Katy – Try Cole and Urban Promise Academy.

  • Nextset

    Del: Your previous post is unrealistic to the extreme. OUSD and the urban public schools are not on Planet Del.

    The only way to manage the large number of disparate urban students in a district is to sort them into different campuses and programs depending on among other things what the students/families want. Once they are sorted the various schools need to enforce their respective standards to the hilt.

    You cannot make a student do what he/she does not even intend to to or has no aptitude to accomplish. Trying to force a missmatch harms the student and the program. A teacher who is not allowed to flunk a student is not being allowed to teach. A school or a teacher that hands out As and Bs to students who will not or cannot meet objective standards for the subject is nothing more than a diploma mill. And our students need schools not diploma mills.

    And teachers are not social workers. They cannot go to a house and drag a not-interested student out of bed and make him work an assignment. Trying to do so detracts from work with the other students.

  • Local teacher

    Nextset–

    Del’s post is absolutely realistic. There are many teachers in Oakland and beyond that use Del’s methods to help their students achieve. At my school, we offer after school intervention and tutoring, a Saturday program, and summer school intervention (all of which pay teachers extra money). We call homes, write letters, and will go to a student’s house to get them to attend one of these programs if they need it. We will persistently track down parents to persuade them to bring their child to one of these programs. Are we successful 100% of the time? No, but we’re able to get about 75% of the students who need the intervention into one of these programs. We then try to supplement the other 25% with in-school interventions. The point is that if you have a no excuses environment and you enforce the no excuses, you will see results.

  • oak261

    Local Teacher:
    Declaring victory depends on what the ultimate outcome is for these students that you succeeded in reaching. Did they finally graduate (not via GED)? What was their outcome over the next 10 years? Were they ultimately gainfully and stably employed?

  • Nextset

    Local School Teacher: I agree that in special programs you can budget for the time, energy and staffing to have the outreach/social services you describe. I don’t believe the general public high schools can do the things you speak of. They are too big and too lightly staffed. And I would rather keep the school nurses.

    And many families don’t want you coming into their homes at all – they don’t want you to see inside.

    I strongly agree that special needs kids should be in schools, campuses and programs that are geared to them. And by special needs I don’t mean autistic, but students who are dull, anti-social, at-risk/underclass, that type of thing.

    We are approaching years of critical funding cuts. We may see the de-funding of public education. Understand that the taxpayers in the CA urban areas have already abandoned public schooling because of the culture wars and will vote to de-fund the public schools (and more). You are about to see that when Arnold’s budget initiatives all fail. Remember also that the brights by and large can teach themselves. Public Schools may be forced to re-engineer their product delivery. That means Internet Classes supplemented by study groups.

    But I could be wong. We will see soon enough.

  • turner

    Walton,
    Why are you convinced charters are the way to go?

    And, what are the average salaries for teachers in charter schools?

    Finally, are teachers protected at the charters?

    Turner

  • del

    Nextset, as the kids say… “How you gon tell ME?” OUSD is 100% planet Del… I am a proud grad and longtime employee, and this is not “realistic”—it is the reality of my own and many classes. Come visit!!!
    These students have experienced dozens of adults quitting on them because it was the easy way out. Well, I’m not the one, and neither are my colleagues. We will work with these kids and all of a sudden their “disinclination” evaporates when they are taught how not to quit when the going gets tough. Isn’t that what the kids need?
    Lastly, the idea that teachers should fail kids is asinine at best. We are here to teach. A kid failing is a teacher failing. Should doctors kill certain students? Lawyers lose cases on purpose? Basketball players miss shots on purpose? Check state law: we are to teach to standards—not a curve. Our job as educators is to ensure that kids meet those standards. No excuses, right?
    And Sara, not sure where to start, but your admin should be assisting you in creating a classroom where you will not be run over by kids, and you should ensure that the adult in the class is always in charge. If they are not supporting you, find someone who will!

  • Peter Van Tassel

    We at Westlake ALWAYS welcome guests who would like to see a public non-charter school with a discipline policy that is enforced by all. 650 kids in uniforms can’t be wrong! (OK they’re wrong all the time, hence the discipline policy). Hope to see you ALL soon!! And yes, we also take volunteers.

  • Nextset

    Del: Please continue posting progress and good news from the OUSD classrooms. This blog needs more of that. Keep us posted about what is happening to OUSD and the teachers & students with the budget problems looming.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    It’s too bad OUSD, Arne Duncan and all the other deluded reformer-types won’t come to their senses and pay attention to Marty Nemko’s sensible advice:

    http://www.martynemko.com/articles/case-against-one-size-fits-all-education_id1580

    Nextset, you’ll like this.

  • Oak261

    There’s an interesting article about the Green Dot charter movement in LA in last week’s New Yorker:
    You can view the abstract at:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/11/090511fa_fact_mcgray
    To see the whole article, you need to be a subscriber. The protagonist, Steve Barr, got the attention of Arne Duncan.

    From the abstract, the article is “about Steve Barr’s plan to remake failing schools. Two years ago, Steve Barr asked the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D.) to give his charter-school management group, Green Dot Public Schools, control of Alain Leroy Locke High School, near Watts, California, and let him help the district turn it around. When the district refused, Green Dot became the first charter group in the country to seize a high school, in a hostile takeover. Locke reopened in September, four months after a riot had paralyzed it, as a half-dozen Green Dot schools. “It’s night and day,” said Ramon Cortines, L.A.U.S.D.’s new superintendent. In the past decade, Barr has opened seventeen charter high schools—small, locally managed institutions that aim for a high degree of teacher autonomy and parent involvement—in some of the poorest neighborhoods in L.A….”

  • Teri

    Wow! Del says: And a quick point to nextset: a teacher who fails kids is not a teacher. There is one simple rule: everyone in this class will pass with an A or a B. You will do it in class on assignments and tests and essays and at home in homework. Or I will keep you after school, before school, wake you up on a Saturday, kidnap you on a Sunday until you do. Because I am your teacher and I will teach, and you will learn. And even though your mom and dad gave up and the education blog did too, I am not going to give up on you. It doesn’t take long for kids to make a choice that lets me sleep in on Saturdays.

    Let me put in my two-cents here as a teacher. For the previous 5 years I was an amazing teacher. Why? Because I really did have amazing students from a variety of backgrounds and learning abilities from GATE to Resource and ELL. But the key ingredient–very few behavior problems, kids who were willing to go that extra mile to learn, kids who would come in at lunch, stay after school, and work during class time. Was it 100% like this every day? No. Did I have some problems? Yes. Was I able to deal with them? Absolutely. Did every kid make proficient or above on the CST? No, not at all. But did they improve in their scores? Most did. Did they become better readers, writers, and thinkers–all of them did. And what was my largest class? About 30 kids.

    Now fast forward to this year with 34 kids, among whom are students who have serious and persistent behavioral issues. (Day 2 of school, I wrote 3 referrals to the office–a first in my long career–for cursing and calling each other douche bags in the middle of me giving instructions for a fun-getting to know you activity.–8th graders). This year, I have written more referrals to the office than all the years prior added together. I have met with (or tried to meet or phone oremail) more parents, offer Wednesday after school Homework Club, stay in at lunch several times a week, check my email regularly for student questions, and keep an up-to-date web page with uploads of assignments. (I even speak and write Spanish, so I can communicate with my population of parents who don’t speak English at all or well enough to talk with a teacher.) Yet, I have given more F’s this year to more students than I ever have. And I’m not talking “58% if you only did a little more work you could easily have a C” kind of F’s. I’m talking students who have done less than 10 or 15% of the work. They can’t even finish class work. I have seven or eight students who come in every morning tardy, and no amount of holding them in at recess or at lunch or talking with parents or assigning them after school detention or Saturday school changes that behavior. They just mosey on in when they feel like it–or not. Sometimes I hear them outside my door, and I have to go outside and round them up interrupting my teaching–something I wish the administrators would do, but they don’t seem to be around much. I have students who haven’t finished a book all year, even the ones we have read as a class (with some reading to be done at home) and have never turned in a single assignment related to the novels. They have never written an essay for me. I have students who know that in a group project they will be letting down their mates, yet they don’t do the work. And many of them told me they just bubble in during testing because “what’s the point? It’s boring.”

    And let me add, that I have some incredibly wonderful students in this mix, and I have tried to continue to do the engaging writing and reading, discussing, and project-based activities, but I believe that their educational opportunities have been very compromised this year thanks to a population of students who quite frankly don’t give a shit. Not only is homework optional to these kids, school work is as well. In fact, for many, civility is optional.

    So, in a perfect world, interventions of all sorts work. But our world is messy and inconsistent. We have many students who find gang life more enchanting than school life, who believe that they have a future with the NFL or NBA but they can’t write a complete sentence. I have parents who demanded I give their son so many additional opportunities because he needs a 2.0 to play high school football so he can get a scholarship to college. Yet, they didn’t follow through on their end to have their child do even the basic homework assignment. A mother told me this year that she just couldn’t get her son to school on time and that was that. And I had a parent who begged me not to agree to have her son suspended for 5 days for chasing another boy around the class with the white board cleaner spraying him (and others in the process) because he wouldn’t be able to go to the 8th grade picnic. (This is the kind of class–turn my back for a minute, look down at someone else’s paper, lo and behold, chaos breaks out.)

    I know I am complaining and bitter this year. But I get frustrated when I read that teachers should give up practically all of our time for our students. I have my own family. I need my own down time. I didn’t go into teaching to be a slave for my students.

    But the light at the end of the tunnel? I get hopeful that next year I’ll have a nice group of kids who want to work and learn. That’s the wonder of teaching–we get to say goodbye (and sometimes it’s bittersweet because we love them and know they worked hard and we worked hard and it all paid off, but we’re sad to see them go at the same time), get rested, and get a new chance to be even better teachers. And that’s why I stay. Because deep down, I love the kids, I love teaching and I love seeing that spark in their eyes when they learn something new, or make a connection, or discover something about themselves in their writing.

    Teri

  • Teri

    Now for the doctor analogy–would a doctor be held responsible for the death of a patient if the doctor offered the patient all of the resources at his or her disposal and the patient refused to change his or her diet, exercise, use the medication, opt for the treatment plan or even come to appointments? Of course not. We would blame the patient. We wouldn’t blame the doctor, the hospital or even the health care system. So I don’t think it is a valid analogy.

  • Pepe

    Teri, you sound like an amazing teacher, and I would not hesitate putting my own children in your class based on the picture you have painted–I wish there were more like you.

    The big picture issue is that there are too many teachers that don’t do what you do–your dedication should be the norm, not the exception. Because it is an exception, at least from my experience, the system fails. School is a place that can develop character and teach accountability, but this needs to be done consistently to overcome the “outside baggage” many kids bring with their backpacks. Fortunately, (from what I’ve noticed of the classrooms I’ve been in) the challenging students you have this year make up a relatively small percentage of school-age chldren.

    What would happen if every teacher your students faced were just as dedicated as you and all studeents consistently were held to high expectations? I think your experiences this year would be drastically diferent. Your troubles are a result of system failure–you are a doctor in a system filled with people who should never have made it out of medical school. I would not blame the good doctor, but I would sue the hospitals and medical schools to force system-wide change. In this sense, I do think it is a valid analogy–it’s my belief that if every teacher were as qualified as you, we would not be having this discussion and those challenging situations you describe would be extremely rare.

    That said, thanks for everything you are doing. The undying optimism of teachers never ceases to amaze me (yes, even though you claim bitterness, it obviously has not ruined your positive outlook and hope for the future).

  • Pepe

    PS I know a teacher who managed to get one of those habitually tardy students to school on time by calling every morning when she woke up at 5:30 to wake up her student (and her student’s parent). That is the kind of dedication that Del is pushing for and the kind of commitment that teachers should be paid for.

  • Teri

    Pepe,

    Thanks for your vote of confidence. However, unless I am naive or have the good fortune of working with unusual people, over the course of my tenure as a teacher, I have seen and worked with so many people who go above and beyond what is in our job description. But perhaps it is because in my district, for many decades, we have been treated with the respect we deserve–we have an excellent salary schedule (top or #2–it varies from year to year), very good benefits, and our district recognizes us in many other ways. Although we have our issues with top level administration, and we have been 2 days away from striking a few years back, overall, the relationship between administration and union is not rancorous. When people feel respected and valued, we tend to do more for others. When people feel devalued and demeaned, as many Oakland teachers feel, it is hard to rise above that and do more with less. I do believe that so many Oakland teachers are unsung heroes, not mediocre teachers who should never have become teachers. In every profession, you will find mediocrity, and lo and behold, in teaching, often mediocrity rises to the top and they end up in administration still being mediocre–which is probably why Oakland is in the state it is in. But we also have many burnt out teachers who have tried so many different things, received extra training, etc., we have many young new teachers who aren’t getting the proper coaching and mentoring, we have lost many teachers to higher paying districts, and we have a student population that is woefully underserved in many neighborhoods both in our education system and in the world at large. What Oakland teachers have to deal with is far greater than most districts.

    Having said all that, I do believe that teachers should be accountable for what they teach and what students learn. But we need to put it in perspective. It is hard to teach under the conditions so many teachers teach with in Oakland. Still, they show up every day with a smile on their faces, love in their hearts, lessons planned, work graded, classrooms organized and bright and cheerful, and the willingness to serve.

  • Joe

    “If they are poor students, it is because they have been put through a poor system”.

    Not exactly, go to any school you choose and look at the test results by demographics and racial breakdown(Asian student do well no matter what same school better performance) the difference is that those kids have been instilled(by their parents to respect their teachers and value education) these kids have great study habits and are attentive hard workers, the rest takes care of itself. Our American kids are far too worried about video games, music and hanging out. Our country has reaped what our culture has sown.

  • Joe

    Kids are a reflection of their parents, they will live what they learn at home. I will admit that there are teachers(failures in my book) who shouldn’t be in the classroom though(they are the minority though). There are rotten doctors too so I guess there isn’t much you can do. Parents are primary role models(I have kids myself)and should impress upon their kids the value of respect,discipline and hard work. Fooling around during class time hurts everyone, and denies those kids that do want to learn the opportunity to do so.

  • Joe

    “I am not a fan of public school teachers. The current bunch don’t impress me like the private school teachers do”.

    Little do you know the only differences between the two are:

    1. education and or degree requirements are no different.(as a matter of fact many teachers I know have been both)the kids and the parents are different, private school parents and kids have a degree of seriousness that is lacking publicly.

    2. Private schools will only accept kids who are willing to learn and in fact hold the parents to that. Public schools have to try and educate everyone(even the disinterested).

    I am very impressed with the new crop of teachers, post NCLB. They are definately highly qualified.