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Guest Blogger Sarah Reckhow: Easy to Blame

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Sarah Reckhow taught at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore from 2002 to 2004 and was a Teach for America corps member. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation explores the role of national philanthropies and community organizers in urban education policymaking.

Liam Julian’s review of “Hard Times at Douglass High” boils down a complicated stew of frustration, hope, and absurdity to a singular and simplistic point—many of the teachers are “just plain bad at their jobs.” Julian does begin with a fair remark—this documentary is not a systematic assessment of No Child Left Behind. Nonetheless, the film offers a vivid portrait of common NCLB observations and enough contextual information to make Julian’s reductive reaction dubious.

NCLB is most present in the film as a looming threat with vague and rarely applied consequences, including state takeover. The filmmakers bring us in on test day—students listlessly staring at test booklets, falling asleep, staring off into space. Many students did not take the tests seriously, assuming that the tests had no consequences or feeling too indifferent to try. We also hear from faculty commenting that they are forced to find ways to accommodate failing seniors at the end of the year in order to artificially raise the graduation rate.

We meet a state observer walking the halls with the academic dean. The state observer rattles off the various actions that may be taken if Douglass does not improve. At the end of the film, we learn that the state board of education finally tried to take over Douglass during 2005-2006, but the move was blocked by the state legislature. An impending gubernatorial election between Baltimore Mayor O’Malley and Governor Ehrlich added a heavy dose of partisan politics to that debate. The film implies that Ms. Grant, the principal in the film, was removed due to the school’s low performance. In fact, she was removed due to a school athletics scandal. Nonetheless, the school was “restructured” by the district in 2006, and the administration was replaced. The NCLB accountability system, as practiced at urban schools like Douglass, tends to operate like a merry-go-round; principal turnover rates in Baltimore are very high. School leaders get on board, ride until they get dizzy and stumble off, and then new leaders come aboard.

The bulk of Julian’s column focuses on Douglass’ teachers and seems oddly divorced from policy considerations. Drawing on clips from the film, he offers arm chair criticism of discipline and teaching methods, arguing that “the staff members at Douglass aren’t cutting it.” Even if this were true, Julian draws no clear policy lessons from his conclusion. It seems unlikely that Douglass hired only ineffective teachers from an otherwise talented pool of applicants.

Though there are great teachers at Douglass like Ms. Ray (she is featured in the film, but we never go in her classroom), it is also true that there are not enough. The film offers pieces to form an explanation—vacancies that go unfilled, long term substitute teachers, and a shortage of experienced teachers. The film features a 9th grade English class; the teacher makes a difficult choice to resign midway through the year. Substitutes come in, and the class flounders. The school has also hired a number of Teach for America corps members; some continue to teach there, but many have not stayed beyond the two year commitment, including me. All of these point to a clear problem of supply—Douglass cannot hire and keep enough good teachers to meet its needs. Teachers like Ms. Ray have heart and commitment that few of us can muster for even a few years, let alone decades.

The film does not provide new criticisms of NCLB, nor will it surprise anyone that the school struggles with teacher recruitment and retention. Viewers might be more startled by taking the longer view of Frederick Douglass High School: the school was founded in 1883 and has illustrious graduates including Thurgood Marshall; more than a century later, it is segregated, marginalized, and struggling.

Yet grumbling about the teachers who work in this difficult environment is not the answer. In fact, the film offers some illuminating scenes of teaching and learning at its best, only they don’t take place in a “typical” classroom setting. These include the school’s debate team, choir, band, and music production class. The students involved in these activities display precisely the attitudes we want schools to instill—pride, enthusiasm, and curiosity. Furthermore, the students are expected to perform well and rise to the occasion. Much of the commentary on this film has focused on Douglass at its worst, but much can be learned from Douglass at its best.
4 Comments

Sarah,
Your comments cut to the quick of the matter: Mr. Julian may have the ed creds, but appears to lack "the walk". I see nowhere in his bio that states he's taught, much less taught in a public school in a dysfunctional urban system. I took him to task with a response on his blog, as well as an email to a radio show that he appeared on the day after "Hard Times" aired.

Folks like Mr. Julian are often some of the biggest hindrances to sound, common sense educational policy. They fail--whether out of ignorance or lack of first-hand context--to take into consideration the variables at play in high-needs education.

Between the intractability of the right and the enabling tendencies of the left, public education will continue to sputter its death rattle to the mild horror of the American public.

Thanks for giving me the forum to rant on this.

P.S. The JROTC wing just wasn't the same without you ;)

Good to have an insider's perspective.

I agree with the other comments and your article. It's always easy to see what's wrong. The difficulty is fixing it.

"Liam Julian’s review of “Hard Times at Douglass High” boils down a complicated stew of frustration, hope, and absurdity to a singular and simplistic point—many of the teachers are “just plain bad at their jobs.......The school has also hired a number of Teach for America corps members; some continue to teach there, but many have not stayed beyond the two year commitment, including me."

Response: Absolutely- and it has been my observation that it is often the youngest teachers who are undereducated, woefully unprepared, MOST unwilling to come in early- stay late- willfully refuse to engage in pursuits of lifelong learning and QUIT when the going gets tough.


"the school’s debate team, choir, band, and music production class. The students involved in these activities display precisely the attitudes we want schools to instill—pride, enthusiasm, and curiosity"

Response: Well... not surprisingly- very often student's who have been identified with special needs don't participate in the activities listed above. It's really not that hard to encourage pride, enthusiasm and curiosity in those who already possess those attributes.

"the teacher makes a difficult choice to resign midway through the year"

Response: The decision to resign is often less difficult than the decision to stay and continue the struggle toward educational excellence. It is highly probable that the students who floundered when substitutes came in were already floundering in a classroom directed by an ill prepared, non-committed teacher who lacked what the students most needed- courage, stamina and determination to succeed.

"urban schools like Douglass, tends to operate like a merry-go-round; principal turnover rates in Baltimore are very high. School leaders get on board, ride until they get dizzy and stumble off, and then new leaders come aboard."

Response:
As an educator, lack of administrative leadership is probably the thing that troubles me the most. My solution- I am the leadership inside my classroom. If I lead with conviction and optimism-hold my students AND most importantly myself to a high standard of excellence- a great percentage of the students will and do follow.

"hired a number of Teach for America corps members; some continue to teach there, but many have not stayed beyond the two year commitment, including me"

Response: Nice to see that you have secured the skills needed to leverage the system; obtain free college tuition; earn a salary to teach (a job that you WEREN'T qualified to have) finish only the minimum contractual requirement; promptly QUIT with enough confidence/ "expert experience" to write a scathing expose about terrible teachers and bad public education, garner enough "work experience" to propel you into a doctoral program...national philanthropies and community organizers in urban education POLICYMAKING???? ho hum....Won't be long and you'll be one of those "revolving door" school administrators.

Frederick Douglass High School: the school was founded in 1883 and has illustrious graduates including Thurgood Marshall; more than a century later, it is segregated, marginalized, and struggling.

Response: The point should be that Frederick Douglas High School was FOUNDED in the tradition of segregation, marginalization and the mighty struggle for equality-yet a student of excellence- Thurgood Marshall- excelled... Unfortunately it is true that 100 years have passed, yet, FDHS REMAINS segregated and marginalized. BUT is it fair to suggest that there have been no additional students of excellence come out of FDHS since the illustrious Thurgood Marshall? Hey- I wonder how many of Thurgood Marshall's high school teachers rode a bogus scholarship pony into town, completed the minimal contractual requirements then QUIT BECAUSE the school was "marginalized and segregated?"

And finally, Did you know that Thurgood Marshall's father was a lover of the constitution- and constitutional law? Yep- study of the constitution was mandatory in the Marshall household. And not surprisingly- T.M's sons also have great educations- backgrounds in law and employed in powerful government positions. Funny how that works- you know? Take for example Marie Curie- not from FDHS- but oppressed Poland-BUT her dad was a physics professor- and guess what? one sister and one brother became physicians- then of her 2 children on also a physicist- also won the Nobel Prize- then her GRANDCHILDREN- yep- physics- astrophysics- nuclear physics....

My point- education IS THE ANSWER--------We cannot break the cycle without high quality educators who are committed to excellence---

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