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The Schools Belong to "Us"

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This entry has been updated since it was first posted.

Dear Diane,

Yes, our meeting in person is one thing for which I can thank Al Shanker.

But some of the current teacher bashing was, alas, initiated by him. It endeared him to many. There was that streak in him that led him to policies we’ve lived to regret. But I miss some of that fierceness in today’s teachers' union leaders.

I think the puzzlement you express may be simple: it’s a knee-jerk American (by no means uniquely so) fault to look for scapegoats, not to mention that the notion of solidarity is not always high on our list of virtues. We were late to embrace unions, and they were one of the first targets of the conservative triumph under Reagan. They had a certain cache on the right and left when we were fighting Communism—since the USSR was against independent unions, which exposed the hypocrisy of there being a “worker’s paradise.” But that healthy consensus has disappeared.

One of the reasons we need unions (aside from protecting individual rights) is that we need a counter-lobby to the business lobby since, it’s no surprise, that both business and employee interests are not always the same. And, it’s well to remember that “politics” in a democracy is all about “interests.” That’s not something to hide; the founding “fathers” hardly imagined anything else. A balance of power is hard to come by given the huge gaps in power and money in my beloved land, but the labor movement once produced a more level field, which is desperately needed today.

How did we get into the position of letting “business” become the mentors to educators when it came to accountability? In part, because we had in mind the businessman on the corner, or businesses that produced good quality products, etc., etc.. They had to meet the “bottom line,” which we assumed made them experts on how to stay focused.

There are many things wrong with the analogy. A car is not a person and can be built to the kind of specs that don’t match human specs. But what’s more astounding is that we turned our schools over not to carmakers or the corner drugstore owner, but increasingly to money managers—who produce nothing! The best of the carmakers, in fact, have had a far better history of involving the actual producers in decision-making than schools. See H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Broms' book—"Profit Beyond Measure"—on Toyota and Scania.

But we live now, at least in the USA, among a power elite that have become experts at manipulating numbers that only they truly understand, assuming they do. It’s an economy increasingly built on exchanging chits, not building/making/inventing products of any sort, the stuff that can improve our lives. The bottom line is fictional—as a result even “they” didn’t quite know what they were doing and thus let it get out of hand. We are all the victims of a huge Ponzi-like scheme that had no real-life bottom line, and we’ve reproduced it now in schools. We rest our decisions on empty data.

Yes, parents and locals were not such experts either. And, especially in urban centers, no one could quite figure out who was responsible as we kept shifting governance from x to y to z. The idea that “just demanding an improved product” (kids) “or else” is a form of innovation is so ludicrous that I keep thinking I’m in Wonderland. That someone like Linda Darling-Hammond was called a proponent of the status quo is surely a sign of a deeply flawed mindset, the Mad Hatter couldn’t have done better.

Of course, we partially turned to Wall Street because, that’s where the money is.

Michael Bloomberg—our mayor—is insulted at the mere idea that anyone should have “oversight” over his control of schools. The nerve of outsiders looking at his data from a thoroughly independent base. That’s the heart of the matter for me. The feeling that the schools belong to “us,” otherwise known as Bloomberg et al. There may be no perfect way for this to translate; every plan has its trade-offs. But the one we’ve fallen into is not a plan for reform at all—just a power play. We know where cooking the books led us on Wall Street, and it’s the same mindset that is now cooking the books in our schools.

The need for a more—what shall I call it—honest? careful?—media is critical under these circumstances. The New York Times Magazine last weekend had a piece, "The Big Fix" by David Leonhardt, in which he gives his fix for schools. His prescription is based on the success story of Geoffrey Canada’s work in Harlem as described in "Whatever It Takes" by Paul Tough. The book has had good press coverage, but alas Leonhardt apparently didn’t read it. It’s an honest account and notes that Canada dropped his first class of 100 (who by 8th grade had whittled down to 65) because their test scores weren’t good enough. Ignorance is not bliss.

We are, of course, all occasional beneficiaries of similar false rumors. I read in the media one day that my own school, CPESS in East Harlem, had graduated 90 percent of its students—even though at that time we had yet to graduate a single one.

Deborah

19 Comments

Deb, may you have bright sun today like ours!

The reason we gave control over to mayors is that we all felt we'd lost any control over our schools. It was a hard battle to win, but in the end, too many parent's stories were heard, too many tales of kids ignored by the system, too many videos and interviews of broken down organizations run by entrenched unresponsive--or hostile--boards, maintenance unions, teachers organizations, etc.

Let us find ways 1) to break up unnaturally big districts like New York and DC, and 2) to give back power to boards of citizens.

Like Citibank, New York City schools are a creation of absurdity.

Yet how could small local school districts ever hope to fight for their students and parent's rights when the opponent has the power of big labor?

Hi Deborah,

A side note about Canada--from what I've read the middle school is now very successful. Of course, that's based on second-hand reports, I don't know much about it. But the question I have is, will you always hold it against the school that they dropped their first class? Isn't it possible that the school is/could become a success model, despite its initial broken promise and failure?

I agree with so much of this post, and my mind is whirling trying to synthesize it and come up with a cogent response.

Here are my thoughts:
1) You write: "We rest our decisions on empty data."
I know this is true. I don't trust the NY State ELA test to tell me much about what students can and cannot do. Let alone if they are mastering grade level material and truly learning. And don't get me started on the NYC grading of Schools. I worked in three schools that received A, A and B respectively. Those grades do not reflect the reality between these disparate schools.

Our country isn't going to turn away from accountability anytime soon. So what do you recommend as an alternative measure? What data should we be making decisions based on?

Ed - Part of me embraces the idea of splitting up NYC as a district. I don't see DC as unnaturally large. It is actually quite small in terms of total pupils and schools - and it's problems are mostly created by unique factors that make it very disparate from other urban districts. The reason I believe NYC would benefit from being separated into distinct districts is that students too easily get lostin this system. There isn't a real way to track a child from elementary school to middle to high school. In fact, with the introduction of middle and high school choice we have students pinging from one school or even borough to another. If you factor in the highly mobile population, we have kids attending an alarming number of schools in their academic trajectory from K-12. If we could track students paths teachers and administrators could make much more deliberate decisions based on
what their students have received in previous years.

Little Labor actually, Ed!

I think you exaggerate the Big Labor problem facing local school boards. But there are problems and I have always wished I could spend more time with some knowledgeable local school boards to figure out how we might experiment with just what you are describing. Might we join forces on such a project? I hope so. We might look t local boards in states without union-management contracts an those with too. I suspect the dilemmas are much the same--but I'm just guessing.

Outsider! I hope you stick with us. Actually my point was that Leonhardt was praising Canada's success ON THE BASIS of a book tht chronicles its failure--it it's own terms. I was discussing the media, as I noted in their praise of CPESS as well.

The thing I'll always "hold against" Canada is his abandonment of that class of vulnerable 13-14 year olds, under pressure from his Board I presume. Our first "loyalty" must be to the kids before us--not our bosses and Canada has enough clout to model such a habit. And, bless him, that's the "promise" he made. And broke. But while I can't forget, I can forgive when he demonstrates to me this was a foolish exception. I only know him by his work as it gets out into the larger world. You can tell us more.

Deborah


Deb

Deb, it took me over twenty minutes driving time this afternoon to zero in on something you tried to slide by us...that declining consensus support for collective bargaining was somehow tied to the decline of the Soviet Union or similar extraneous factors.

You are half right that Americans do not favor unions. While they support them for their neighbor--60% favorable rating by Gallop--they present a strange phenomena. People do not want their own job to be Union: New Poll: 82% of Americans Don’t Want to Join a Union.

Some of this may come from memories of the excesses and violence of these organizations, not just Hoffa type stories, but
- the violence on the roads across the country in the 70's
- the rigging of elections
- the experience of anyone who has ever taken a trade show exhibit to New York only to be fleeced by the union workers.
- In my own area, a strike by teachers last year turned normal people into animals. Why?

One imagines that these and many more experiences left an impression on the American people? And on their opinion of teachers who so align themselves?

This is a real PR problem for all teachers.

--
Still, the real reason Americans don't want their own job unionized is...they are satisfied with it! U.S. Workers’ Job Satisfaction Is Relatively High Older employees are more upbeat than younger worker. Half even think they are paid about the right amount! Who says that?!
---
I agree that DC is becoming more manageable. As half of its students have moved out of the system, the other half may indeed become somehow easier to serve. Is this a strange compromise between the benefits of smaller size districts and the benefits of centralization?

New York I have no advice on. You'd have to pay me a fortune to live there, though I do love to visit and stay a bit. Anyway, I was just guessing why they chose to form a district so ridiculously huge.

--
My POV here is more at the level of the broad spectrum of six million teachers, across a span of time of a couple decades. There are some fundamentals about how to get the greatest responsiveness out of such a population of knowledge workers.

Its like comparing the economy of India or China to the Economy of the US. Yes, the former made lots of progress over the past 15 years, but both still have a long way to go, and much time lost to recover.

The World Is Flat is partly a populist look at the reasons for this. Yesterday I quoted here And the Wolf Finally Came as a look at inagility within our own country in the steel industry circa 1965-1985. Billions of Entrepreneurs looks a little more in depth at the changes India and China are moving toward--and some they are avoiding.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" said the man. To me, the fears mentioned in this series remind me of the fears of so many Indians--before the 1991 changes and since.

I can always trust this blog as a voice of sanity. As a teacher, parent, former chapter chair and SLT member, I've seen most sides in the struggle to have a voice in the Bloomberg DOE. It's infuriating how the buzzword accountability has become the mantra of those who are accountable to no one.

Ed, I don't see how you've missed the fact that parents and the UFT are more united now than ever in trying to fix what's broken, which is usually at odds with what the mayor is doing. I wish the unions had the power you attribute to them, but calling them big labor is the funniest thing I've heard today.

Deb:

I was caught by your headline, because it echoed the words of our district's parent coordinators at a parent/community meeting not too long ago. Despite their official belief that parents and community have an ownership role with regard to schools, I have had these parent coordinators (parents selected at the building level by principals) confide that their role is very limited, because they are not "wanted" in their schools by the teachers. That may not be totally accurate. The teachers may want SOMEONE to make parents behave in the ways that they would find most helpful (showing up when called, ensuring homework completion, removing behavior problems and fixing them). They are not eager to have parents in the building on a regular basis, contributing to any decision-making, or observing the life of the school--unless it is from a perspective of affirming what teachers "have to put up with."

But, I also, have longed over many years of frustration, to locate teacher allies who are willing to accept responsibility and ownership for what happens within their schools. I cannot tell you how many dead-end conversations I have had with teachers who will recount their total powerlessness to do anything that makes sense to them, for their students, or to parents. But, I would observe, that some of this powerlessness comes from the conviction that all problems are outside their scope of influence. Poor test scores are the result of all kinds of things that happen outside the classroom--and the things that happen in the classroom are dictated by powerful idiots somewhere else. Even the ability of a school staff to unite around within school practice (like homework, or hallway supervision, or what happens during lunchtime, or the mechanisms for keeping attendance or communicating with parents) is beyond reach--and frequently cited are the limitations of the union contract. I don't know if this is true, or just a handy excuse that protects against the discomfort of any possible conflict with colleagues (whose supervision, after all, is conveniently the job of some bureaucratic idiot).

As someone who has long believed in the organizing power of unions, this amazes me. I just perused the local union rag (made public now, via internet). They are informing teachers of the upcoming 2.5 hour training on understanding the contract provision regarding who/how to apply for openings for next year--sounds pretty complex. The also are urging teachers to file grievances if they have to request paper in writing, or if the supplies are doled out or kept in a locked closet. The contract says that regardless of any budget realities teachers are to have (apparently unlimited supplies of) paper.

As long as unions are focused on this level of detail and foolishness--and stand as the primary voice for teachers--what hope is there of ownership of curriculum or instruction?

Personally, as an outsider, I don't know that there is a need for a layer of oversight between Bloomberg and any others to whom he is already accountable (state and feds, for instance, not to mention voters). I also am not one to think that only an "educator" with classroom experience can run a district effectively. In the end, the success of any enterprise comes from the ability to balance the big picture decisions (a point of view pretty difficult to garner from the classroom) with local knowledge. There are in fact models in industry--Japanese auto manufacturers are an example--although not unionized (and there is some question regarding whether a union would be a value-add to a shop where decision-making is already widely disseminated). American health care (which does deal with a union presence--and perhaps a better model than that of industry), has also dabbled with TQI, Customer Service, cluster management and other trappings of highly localized responsibility. But, make no mistake--it is responsibility. Anyone can think whatever they want about whether chairs should be in rows or clusters and whether instruction should be didactic or exploratory--but in the end, responsible decision-making implies responsibility for outcomes. We cannot afford to support a system in which teachers go in their rooms and close the door (with their guaranteed supply of paper) with no sense of ownership of the whole.

There are important dialogues that need to take place between and among teachers. Many need to involve administrators, students and parents. But, Deb, I think you have hit on it. Accepting responsibility for ownership is key.

Ah yes. You are right, "we teachers"--like writers perhaps--really love praise, fans, and supportive voices. We can have 6 family conferences in which the family loves us, but that one who complained gives us a sleepless night. Is that good or bad? My dearest friend Geralyn, a great loving teacher and mother of twins herself, noted as she trudged away from an evening of family conferences, "next job I take will be in an orphanage." We ALL said "amen".

It's like two siblings who are short of loving attention going after each other for what they are missing, and haven't got to give each other as a result???

Even when unions were actually powerful--in those states in which they were like (not past tense)--they didn't attend enough to how to produce a powerful community of teachers who had shared ownership, on site. The terrible NYC 1968 fight over local control and black power was in some ways a fight over "who controls". Teachers were just recently unionized and saw it as an attack on their very new and fragile power.

At Mission Hill we crested an enormous sense of ownership among the staff, but there were parents who felt left out of this daily culture and suspicious of our "unity". It's not easy when, after all, the "implementers" hang around daily and the parents "drop in". Besides their are some things, one hopes, teachers feel are "professional" knowledge and expertise that they've spent years trying to understand! A conundrum. (Read In Schools We Trust for more).

But it's a conundrum we are distracted from attending to as we argue about a form of accountability that robs us all of a voice.

Thanks, Margo. Diane and I need to spend time on this!

Deb

I agree with Margo/Mom about the sense of frustration parents feel when approaching schools, particularly high schools. The teachers don’t have time to see us and are anyway worried we are there to complain about grades, and the administrators have us there to fulfill a for “parent participation.” And our kids certainly do not want us around because, they are (obviously) teenagers. Parents in the “school community” are often in an adversarial role as a result.

There are few reasons for parents to go to the school, except to address problems, except to admire the schools (back-to-school-night, games, plays), or complain about how our own child is being treated. Whenever I approach a teacher, their defenses immediately go up because they fear (sometimes correctly) that I am going to raise an issue about a grade, or disciplinary problem that my child talked about at home. The defensiveness is palpable—I suspect that as Deb writes they fear that I am the parent that is going to complain and keep them awake at night. The problem is that as the high schools (and junior high schools) in particular are structured, there are few collegial reasons to show up at school except to serve as the rah-rah crowd for social events. Parents are routinely excluded from discussions about curriculum, schedules, course offerings, disciplinary issues, and other nuts and bolts issues that go into making the school day successful. On disciplinary issue, the teacher is always backed up by the administration; The scuttlebutt is that all that gets a response is a threat to get a lawyer.

It is not too surprising that parents become cynical about the schooling in America in general, and teachers in particular. Relative to parents and students, teachers have the power of grades, disciplinary actions, etc. In otherwords, parents are as powerless to advocate for their child at school, as the teachers are powerless to advocate for themselves in designing their classroom. For parents, the end result is often teacher bashing, or bashing of the institution that represents the teachers’ legitimate interests, the union. Or bashing the administration. If you want to hear it, you can come to visit my auto mechanic, read the comments section in the local on-line newspaper, visit the donut shop, or hang around after church. None of this of course does a lot for the schools, or for the kids, but it is the kind of institutional rot that occurs when people are excluded from meaningful participation in how your kids spend much of their time during the day.


Margo and Tony,

One reason for it being worse in high schools is that teachers, on the whole, see 120-150 kids (vs. 25-30) a day, barely know their names, etc. And then every semester they have a new 120 or so.

We made it a first priority to seriously reduce that ratio. An then we insisted that all family conferences include the kid--so we could all confront the issues together. We also had an advisor who stayed with the same kids for several years who chaired the meeting - and included anyone else that family or school thought might be useful. And we set aside a lot of time for regular meetings called twice a year, and/or at either parties initiative. We had a social worker whose primary purpose was to help both parties when they were really having trouble communicating--as well as it being a part of my job! Yes, it's that important! But it has to be a professional/collegial meeting structured around the needs of the student (not a family therapy session), and the main parties to it have to have a reasonable chance of knowing the kid.

Do-able? Yes, but the trade-offs are not easy and controversial. (As you can guess, I like you had, as a parent, my struggles with the same issues from the other side.)

Deb

The 150 kids per day issue is a chronic problem, and I fear deeply embedded in the structure of our schools. I recall from somewhere that that most humans are capable of maintaining only about 150 relationships at any one time. Most of us go into social overload if there are more.

As for me, on a typical semester, I have about 100 university students to try to maintain relationships with. No matter how many tricks I try to remember names, I only rarely can attach names to the whole back row by the end of the semester!

The 150 kids per day issue is a chronic problem, and I fear deeply embedded in the structure of our schools. I recall from somewhere that that most humans are capable of maintaining only about 150 relationships at any one time. Most of us go into social overload if there are more.

As for me, on a typical semester, I have about 100 university students to try to maintain relationships with. No matter how many tricks I try to remember names, I only rarely can attach names to the whole back row by the end of the semester. I have heard that some high schools use 3-4 period block schedules each semester to help deal with this problem. Teachers need to get to know fewer students, but are also challenged with changing classes every January.

Deborah... you might enjoy reading John Taylor Gatto's provocative book "The Underground History of American Education" or Ron Miller's "What are Schools for?" (if you have not already) to see how we got to where we are today in our education system.

Deb,

I'm less judging of Canada's decesion. In education as in the rest of life we always make trade-offs. We never know when our best efforts will still fail or even contribute to the harm that is inflicted on kids. I can't imagine a high school teacher who doesn't grow intensely close to several hundred students a year, and that just makes it harder to come to grips with the human stakes involved.

But you zoned in on the key point that was missed by the Times editors and the Times Magazine. Tough's book was about the failure of one of the single most important experiments in middle school reform. (the Outsider is right, though, that a revised experiment seems to be succeeding) Because public schools can not just say, "Stop! We need to change the rules,"Canada's decesion should have been taken as warning to data-driven "reformers" that their theories are no more than theories and that they are not yet replicable.

I'm not opposed to theories. I'd like to welcome a wide range of reformers with a wide range of theories to education. We just need to be honest with ourselves. If nothing else, Canada was honest.

I also like your response to Margo/mom. Teachers may only have one negative experience with parents on a wonderful parent conference day, but we're most likely to dwell on that one. Similarly, we may make dozens of great decisions per day, but its the bad decisions that keep us awake.

Maybe we need a line item in the Stimulus Package for a computer program , or a chip to be placed in teachers' brains, which anticipates our bone-headed mistakes and over-rides our errors in advance.

Deb,

I'm less judging of Canada's decesion. In education as in the rest of life we always make trade-offs. We never know when our best efforts will still fail or even contribute to the harm that is inflicted on kids. I can't imagine a high school teacher who doesn't grow intensely close to several hundred students a year, and that just makes it harder to come to grips with the human stakes involved.

But you zoned in on the key point that was missed by the Times editors and the Times Magazine. Tough's book was about the failure of one of the single most important experiments in middle school reform. (the Outsider is right, though, that a revised experiment seems to be succeeding) Because public schools can not just say, "Stop! We need to change the rules,"Canada's decesion should have been taken as warning to data-driven "reformers" that their theories are no more than theories and that they are not yet replicable.

I'm not opposed to theories. I'd like to welcome a wide range of reformers with a wide range of theories to education. We just need to be honest with ourselves. If nothing else, Canada was honest.

I also like your response to Margo/mom. Teachers may only have one negative experience with parents on a wonderful parent conference day, but we're most likely to dwell on that one. Similarly, we may make dozens of great decisions per day, but its the bad decisions that keep us awake.

Maybe we need a line item in the Stimulus Package for a computer program , or a chip to be placed in teachers' brains, which anticipates our bone-headed mistakes and over-rides our errors in advance.

Deb:

I think that your response to the difficulty of getting up close and personal with 150 kids and their families illustrates what CAN be done with a sense of ownership. Not perfection, but improvement.

I think that Tony presents a very succinct picture of the frustation of parents who are actively involved in many respectable professional endeavors throughout most of their lives, but considered only in terms of (not always very adequate) care-givers in the context of school. Schools are the only communities (or non-communities) within my every day experience in which my contributions are not generally welcomed. In fact, any potential parent contribution tends to be more on the order of invisible. In attempts to improve parent involvement, locally, there are two streams of thought. One is MAKE them do it (or else). The other is TEACH THEM HOW to do it. It, presumably being some species of living up to the school's expectations of praise, fund-raising, tutoring and homework monitoring (and providing children who always follow the rules).

If nothing else, parents have the potential to provide a mirror--from the perspective of adults who CARE as deeply about the students as any teacher within the building--about what things are looking like, how the communication is succeeding (or not), what happens at home and in the neighborhood. Parents would also benefit tremendously if school were a place where parents were able to meet one another and share perspectives. Frequently school personnel assume that "parents" are this solid block that exists outside the walls. We are not. Adults today tend to be far more closely tied to the people that they work with than the ones that live on their block.

My old community organizing tapes tell me that the way to deal with a dissatisfied neighbor is to bring them in and get them involved. Give them something to do--support their efforts. I have watched our local school board do exactly the opposite. Over the years there have been a handful of activists who make it their business to follow the decisions and meetings of the Board. The Board, in response to several of the more vocal has been through a reign of limiting speakers, arresting dissenters and shouting down disagreement. I have seen worse shenanigans in Detroit, and in Chicago I understand they just turn off the microphone.

But, at the building level, failing John's suggested computer chip, just a little more listening, a little more ownership, a little more willingness to try something different might go a long way. I haven't had a chance yet to read much of Comer's work, but I think his is the right story of movement in the direction of involving the community in whatever "unimproved" state they might be in.

"Not perfection, but improvement"

This acknowledgment is so important, though i would add "ongoing" to the improvement.

I think one of the biggest mistakes that has been made in education is to think that we can "fix" schools -- that there is a formula and, if followed correctly, all the problems -- from unequal access to parent-teacher relationships -- will be repaired -- end of story, AMEN.

I think that perfection's synonym in ed jargon is the word "excellence" -- a very vague -- yet hard to object to -- concept. Like perfection, I feel this notion of excellence actually inhibits the normal, messy, grappling that needs to happen if schools are to be responsive to the ongoing and changing needs of the entire school community.

Not that we shouldn't strive for excellence, per se (though i don't really know what that means). But i think it is more important (and more honest) to strive for ongoing, contextualized improvement -- something that requires the expertise, vision, and investment of the school staff -- teachers and administrators.

OK, so related to my last post -- I used to teach at Mission Hill School and, Deb, when you made reference to Geralyn's comment about family conferences, it reminded me of how, year after year, we had to revisit the issue of how we communicated with families.

Things we did -- like classrooms holding once-a-month family socials, or monthly curriculum nights, etc.-- would work for a while. But over time, some of these things would become less effective and we would have to figure out whether to tweak or scrap how we did things and try something new.

The thought of coming up with one "right" way of working with families is ridiculous. Anyone who actually works in schools knows that finding the "right" way for doing just about anything is unrealistic at best.

I think that the frustration that many parents and teachers often feel with one another is inevitable, given the supreme responsibility they both have to do right by their kids. Nor do I think that we can ever fully eliminate this frustration.

But that is precisely why it is so important that schools have the autonomy and flexibility necessary to continually address issues as they arise and work toward improvement in contextually sensitive ways.

That is what I understand to be meaningful accountability.

Readers will enjoy watching Diane Ravitch's testimony at the NY State Assembly Hearings on Governance of the New York City School District on Feb 6, 2009: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4617433714635450968&hl=en

While the content is about occurrences in NYC schools, the concepts are important and need to be considered by those involved in public education throughout our land.

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