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Friday Guest Column: Not Left v. Right, But "Clued in" v. "Clueless"

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John Thompson is a Teacher in Centennial High School, Oklahoma City Public Schools

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I have a friend who wrote for the Heritage Foundation who argues, "In education there is no Left or Right, just ‘clued in’ and ‘clueless.’" Set to the tune of a Charles Wesley hymn, his words could be the rallying cry for true collaborative reform. During a bipartisan effort to raise taxes and reform our urban school system, our union leadership worked closely with some of the most conservative businessmen in one of America’s most conservative states, but we were not even sidetracked by a bitter election over the so-called "Right to Work." Given a choice between the practical judgments of teachers, as opposed to the theories of policy analysts, the businessmen invariably trusted the professional judgments of veterans of the urban classroom.

The businessmen and women were our best allies against the narrowing of the curriculum and opposing a destructive "testing culture." After all, they sought well-rounded employees who could show up on time for work, cooperate, and take initiative. Since their children attended elite schools that respected their children as whole human beings, business people were skeptical of the "quick fixes" that accompanied NCLB. When the central office proclaimed that we "have no time for dinosaurs," meaning that we had to abandon the goal of deep and enriching study of topics enjoyed by teachers and students, these conservatives were appalled. Counter-intuitively, it was the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation who made the best case for site based management and collaboration. His franchise had sought a common brand, but top down mandates just hardened resistance. With respectful collaboration, though, franchisees voluntarily complied with the common theme that the corporation sought to project.

I do not believe our business/labor coalition was atypical. Richard Rothstein recently explained how today’s business leaders, after recognizing the myriad ways of gaming the systems, are moving away from the most primitive quantitative outcomes-focused accountability. Countering Eli Broad’s merit-pay approach, Rothstein showed how the private sector is moving toward "multiple measures" of accountability, and pay for performance approaches that value cooperation. Rothstein cited a Harvard Business Review conclusion that typical merit-pay plans "are inherently a zero-sum process," and the manager of such a plan who reported, "I was spending 95% of my time on conflict resolution instead of how to serve our customers." Many business leaders have been inspired by Edward Deming who insisted, "management by numerical goal is an attempt to manage without knowledge of what to do, and in fact is usually management by fear."

Above all, business people can be invaluable in addressing the "third rail" of educational politics - discipline and attendance. Typically, urban teachers want disciplinary backing, but the theorists and administrators rarely want to address that issue. Under the best circumstances, the issue of chronically disruptive, dangerous, and truant students is painfully complex. My old principal used to say of those students, "they have the right to be somewhere, and might as well be in your classrooms." As was demonstrated by an excellent series in the Philadelphia Inquirer after a teacher had his neck broken by a student who should have been in an alternative schools, central offices face an array of institutional pressures that result in dangerous and disruptive students being repeatedly returned to class. Our bipartisan coalition concluded that "truancy must be seen as an early warning," that "no child should perpetually disrupt class simply because the alternative schools are full," and that we should expand a range of high-quality alternative settings. These alternative slots should be of "Rolls Royce quality" to offset the potential stigma and to defuse tensions between administrators and the parents of at-risk students. (If such common-sense policies would become the norm, it would create a potential market for the school improvement industry.)

Then came NCLB. The law stimulated a cottage industry of consultants with Power Point presentations proclaiming simple "best practices." If teachers just "raise expectations" then behavioral problems would recede. Make instruction more compelling and the effects of generational poverty, such as truancy, could be managed with after-school "safety nets." The central office sought to limit the size of alternative education, arguing that teachers would just kick their challenging students out of school. It was a bizarro version of the "Field of Dreams," don’t build a capacity for treating the most challenged students because if you build it, the students will come. We invested millions of dollars in new money, producing few gains in student performance, and our district lost 1/6th of our White and Black students to charters and the suburbs in just five years. We thus conformed to the national pattern, explained in The Turnaround Challenge, where "instruction-driven reforms" produce minimal gains in "the complex eco-system" of high-poverty schools. Our district reached the logical absurdity of top down curriculum-driven reforms when we hired a new superintendent from the Broad School. He tried to mandate "vertical alignment" along with a regime of data-driven accountability, to cut alternative schools in order to send the most challenged students back to their regular schools, and even more testing.

After seven bitter months, the new superintendent and his theories are gone, and we are rebuilding our collaborative coalition. The union has renewed its offer to discuss virtually anything, ranging from performance pay to a tougher and much more efficient evaluation and accountability regime for teachers. Last week I felt "deja vu all over again." as we began planning a series of community meetings to restart the collaborative conversation and an institutionalized system of peer review to rebuild trust. In fact, the leader will be a "clued in" young man who just returned to his hometown from Wall Street. Maybe this time we will have a theme song, "In education we have no Left or Right, there is no ‘them’ or ‘us’ ..."



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3 Comments

John:

I don't want to overlook the overall thoughtfulness, and thoroughness of your article. And I do think that you are generally right about the limitations (or harm) of merit pay as a concept.

But I do have an issue to raise, and that is the one regarding "alternative schools." I am glad that you noticed that in the Philadelphia case the student (who by the way, was not the original aggressor, he responded when another student pushed the teacher into him) had been slated for return to an alternative setting, but was mired in the school's delay in producing an up-to-date IEP (which begs the question of how the decision was made, but that is neither here nor there).

As a parent, I have had some experience of alternative settings and I can attest that in reality they range from the Cadillac you suggest all the way to criminal. I was fortunate in having experienced the Cadillac--but it was only because the district had just been sued for physical abuse of students in the same building the year before. And those Cadillac conditions came at the expense of services for less troubled students within the regular school setting. Frankly, the only other means of ensuring adequacy of services has been the advent of NCLB and the reporting of building level scores. The first years of reporting showed single digit levels of proficiency. The upturn has been dramatic.

But I have never been an advocate of alternative settings for exactly the reasons that you describe. Too often "those" students are out of sight and out of mind. What I have done whenever the issue has been raised with regard to a student in my family has been to ask very specifically what the "specialized services" are that the alternative environment has to offer, and why these cannot be made available in a regular school setting.

This is usually a conversation killer because what is assumed to be true (and sometimes is true) is that these settings offer padded and locked "time out" areas, and burly security people empowered to drag an 8 year old mid tantrum down the hall to place him/her in time out. To the extent that this is the prevailing level of service, little education is accomplished.

To the extent that behavioral issues are prevented through attention to environmental triggers (things like sending all the kids out into a crowded hallway at the same time; or supporting chaotic dining through poor supervision, or allowing anarchy on the playground), attention is paid to student engagement in the life and learning of the school, socialization is supported in the curriculum, and individual solutions are sought and supported for students with severe problems--these are things that not only can be incorporated within every school--but ought to be.

So far, I am on the losing side of these propositions in my district--who just opened yet another school for "chronic disrupters." Jury is still out on any impact/improvement.

As a parent I can honestly say that some kids take a whole lot more energy than others. That's how it is and I don't know that anyone can change it. But even the most difficult kid will get better with a good effort--and worse with a poor effort. As long as a poor effort results in making the problem go away, there will be some wonderful committed teachers who take on the difficult kids and make an improvement--but others who take the low road and send them away.

Margo/mom,

Isn't it something how we usually ask similar questions and see similiar dynamics, but usually reach different conclusions. And usually our different diagnosis' and solutions are a matter of degree. And mostly all of our real differences come down to high stakes testing and disciplinary consequences in the highest poverty schools.

John:

I think it is question of the point of view. I have sung in the choir that opposed testing when it was first implemented, decades ago, in my state. It came in without standards, and the only consequences were on the kids--who couldn't graduate without demonstrating a skill level that was roughly equivalent to the end of 8th grade. And a lot of poor kids suffered. Surprise, surprise, they could participate in 12 years of schooling and not achieve 8 years of education.

With time the accountability shifted, particularly in the younger grades. I watched a principal nearly fall out of her chair when I opted to have my 4th grade student (with a disability) not only be tested, but have the scores counted. She was accustomed to being able to convince parents to "opt out." She wanted to know why I would want the scores to count. I explained it was because I wanted my student to be as important to her as the others. The same principal, in some disciplinary hearing in her office, confided to me at a later point that she didn't get any "points" for "saving" students like my child. She had a school full of other students to get past the tests, that did count. Very telling (and highly unprofessional).

The discipline thing, though, comes from some pretty well thought out and supported professional experience. While the value of my experience is pretty much discounted by professionals in the classroom--because it is not in the classroom--I have worked in some pretty intense settings (with pretty intense kids) that approached discipline from a non-punitive and inclusive value system. So much of what it takes is just absent from (many)schools. And I have heard some pretty bizarre comments from teachers about why they experience "discipline problems." But the common thread that is so disturbing and self-defeating is the notion that it is somebody else's problem (parents, principal, alternative school).

Because I am growing to trust your assessment of conditions, I would suggest to you that you look around your school with an eye to where discipline problems most frequently occur and what responses have been made sytemically. Are there teachers with particular problems and how are they identified and supported? How often are systemic (within the school) responses to behavior discussed as a staff?

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