Monday, October 31, 2011

Firing to Finland Farce

As has been said before, I’m sorry, but “you can’t fire your way to Finland.”

I taught for many years in a Japanese high school, one of those “high-performing” countries everyone is so concerned about. What I saw in classrooms was boring lecturing, little discussion, and overall teacher-centered techniques that left students disengaged and often asleep (Japanese teachers rarely woke these students.) The children were so tired because they spent HOURS every night at cram schools with 1:1 tutoring. They could sleep through class because they knew they’d learn it that night. The Japanese don’t succeed because of superman teachers.

In fact, the best teaching I’ve ever seen was from the time when I taught in a “failing” 99% low-income, 100% black elementary school on the south side of Chicago. What I saw in literally EVERY classroom was creative, thoughtful, hard-working teachers trying every possible trick in the book to reach their students. But it was never enough. Behavior problems plagued the school and children had difficulty focusing on learning with all the outside problems that they brought. The poverty that surrounded them created an obstacle that even fantastic teachers could not always overcome (although, there were some exceptions with some students. There are bound to be outliers.)

How do you decide who to fire when everyone is working so hard? Do you fire the fifth grade teacher who took on the inclusion classroom with 10 children with learning or behavior problems? Do you fire the kindergarten teacher whose students had never been to school before? Do you fire the 3rd grade teacher whose students had had a string of subs the entire year before and were completely out of control? Do you fire the special ed teacher whose students do not make progress as quickly as their peers? And what do you do with the 1st year teacher who is still learning her trade, is she to be fired because she hasn’t had time to improve? What about the art teacher? How do you judge her work?

And let’s not forget favoritism. The principal was close friends with one 5th grade teacher. Lo and behold, her classroom had none of the children known to have behavior problems. She had one special education student with a mild disability while the other 5th grade teacher had 10 children with significant disabilities. Classrooms are NOT randomly assigned in schools.

The issue of teacher quality is such a complex and subjective topic. Despite what Bill Gates would have us believe, you cannot easily quantify what “good teaching” is, and people’s definitions vary depending on what you value.

Not only would firing 5-10% of teachers not work, it would damage morale and ultimately the teaching profession. When you have half of all new teachers quit before they have been in the classrooms five years, I think the real question we should be asking is “How do we get teachers to STAY in the classroom long enough to become great?”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When Are We Going to Talk about MY Kids?

For too long, the conversation about education reform including topics like charter schools, funding, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation has skirted around what to me, is the central issue.  What do we do with the disruptive, most-difficult to educate children?  Any teacher will tell you the adverse effects on the learning environment of having even one highly disruptive child in the classroom.  In many schools, especially--but not limited to-- in the crumbling, violence-filled neighborhoods of the inner-city, schools are often overwhelmed with children exhibiting extreme behaviors.

Let me paint a picture of what types of behaviors I am talking about for all the non-educators out there.  As a teacher on an inpatient psychiatry hospital unit, some typical behaviors I see are children who quickly become aggressive or violent with peers or staff, threats of harm towards self and others, extreme opposition to authority, acute hyperactivity and impulsivity (VERY disruptive in a traditional classroom), and even inappropriate sexually-acting-out behaviors in the classroom.

In the highly restrictive environment of a psychiatric hospital, we have the staff and the training to deal with these intense behaviors.  But here’s the thing, after the kids “stabilize” (translation: when they are not actively trying to hurt themselves or others), we discharge them STRAIGHT BACK INTO THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.  As funding for mental health facilities dries up around the country, kids more and more often get sent directly back to school.  And due to mental health privacy laws, many many times the teacher has NO IDEA that the child was recently hospitalized for problems like homicidal ideation or other threats of violence.   

So my question is, what do we do with THESE kids?  Are we as a society committed to educating these children despite their outward distain for learning?  And the answer I keep hearing is “no”.

I hear story after story from my students who were asked to leave their charter schools.   It’s not that charter schools do not educate any child with a disability, but that they ask the disruptive ones to leave.  And frankly, my kids DO disrupt the learning environment.  It’s true.   But does that mean they aren’t entitled to an education?  The charters have chosen to throw the burden and the cost of educating these kids back onto the neighborhood schools.  Then, as a slap in the face to public education, they boast about their higher test scores and lower costs.

Now, I’m not saying that given the chance, neighborhood schools wouldn’t get rid of these kids too.  They can be really really hard to work with.   But there are these darn LAWS that say you have to provide “a free and appropriate” education to any child that walks through your door.  The neighborhood schools cannot easily remove the children from the learning environment. 

Let’s talk about the funding of schools.  For the moment, let’s even disregard the ridiculous inequality in our system.  I heard just this morning on CNN (, Christine Romans complain that the U.S. spends more per pupil than nearly any other nation.  Diane Ravitch appropriately replied that a vast majority of the increase in spending over the past 40 years is for special education, and not going into supporting the general education classroom. 

Back in 1975, our country made the decision to educate ALL children regardless of disability by enacting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  To me, this is a beautiful and powerful idea.  But it also is an expensive one. 

I taught for many years in Japanese public schools.  The Japanese education system is often praised, and for some good reason, but here’s the unspoken dirty little secret:  the Japanese separate their children with severe disability into special schools.  Then, the remaining kids with lesser disabilities are not given support in the classroom.  There was NO SUCH THING as a special education teacher in any of the schools I worked in.  Instead, kids that struggled academically are weeded out after the high school entrance exam.  It is a “merit” system where kids that test well are funneled into the “academic schools” for college prep while everyone else is thrown away in “technical, commercial, and agricultural” vocational schools where few will go on the college.  I taught in both an academic and technical high school.  The technical school kids were being prepared for factory work and most would not dream of college.  Looking back, after now being trained as a special education teacher, I can identify many kids who probably had learning disabilities.   But they were not helped in Japan.

Now I come to standardized tests and teacher evaluations.  If a teacher’s job depends on how students perform on a test, there is now a perverse incentive to get classes with the easier-to-teach students.  This means both individual teachers and whole schools will be incentivized to remove the disruptive kids from the learning environment.  With all the emphasis on test scores, I have felt the push to go back into general education since special education students show progress at a much slower rate.  Instead, I was lucky enough to find a position OUTSIDE the accountability-obsessed public school system.  In my classroom, I have the freedom, the autonomy, and the support of staff in my classroom to actually reach these difficult to teach kids.  My students, despite being in the middle of a crisis in their lives, actually look forward to school.  They ask thoughtful questions, interact with complex ideas and concepts, and are not berated or written-off due to their behavior problems.  Rather, we focus on teaching them better coping skills for anger than acting out violently.  And in that controlled environment, they generally respond positively.

My students with significant behavior problems are just as intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and loving as any other child.  They just have difficulty expressing it.  They have experienced trauma, abuse, bullying, school failure, learning problems, and other experiences which hinder academic ability.   Today’s reforms are purposefully EXCLUDING these children while they simultaneously talk about education as the “civil rights issue of our time”.  The reformers would box in the definition of what “achievement” looks like to reading and math skills.  My kids may often struggle with reading or math, by my god they are amazing actors, singers, rappers, comedians, and leaders!  And they are so very discouraged by their experiences in the schools.  “My charter school kicked me out.  I’m no good.”  “School is so boring.”  “The kids bully me for being different.”  “My school said I should drop out.” 

There is a conversation we need to have as a country.  Are we going to look at the whole child?  Are we willing to look past the negative behaviors to see the essence of these exceptional children?  What happened to progressive ideas of education where we focus on creating learning environments that work for ALL kids instead of boring test-prep factories that actually create and foster negative acting-out behaviors?  Or, will we continue to push these kids out, to make them believe they are worthless, to practically guarantee their entrance into the criminal justice system?  I want to think that we as Americans believe in the dignity of every human being.  But my experience tells me we do not.