A Place in the World

by Guest Blogger
March 2nd, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

In the wake of last week’s release of New York City Teacher Data Reports, educators and administrators are debating what exactly the value in a high value-added teacher looks like. Even teachers who scored high marks on the Teacher Data Reports question the value of tests that cannot possibly evaluate every aspect of what it means to be a great teacher, and the value that teacher imparts to his or her students.

The new feature-length documentary A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington, addresses the question of teacher value and the role of a school in building community. The documentary chronicles two years at The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County.

The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”

According to Mr. Drew, the education gap that divides the American and refugee students in his fourth grade classroom at ICS is created by language deficits. Mr. Drew is not talking about language deficits in terms of the ability to hold a basic conversation, he’s talking about cultural vocabulary, the connotation words carry in American culture that help proficient readers understand context and relevance. Mr. Drew gives an example in the film: The math problem 1/2 + 1/4 written numerically, as a math problem, is something his students can do. But ask this same problem as a word problem, with one kid baking cakes and giving half away to friends and then deciding to give another quarter away to another friend, “then it’s not a test of math, it’s a test of language ability.” Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.

Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”

When asked about the standards his students are expected to meet under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), his outlook is not quite as hopeful. “According to NCLB 2014, all students – 100% – will be proficient in all subject matters. What’s the old Garrison Keillor, everybody is above average? That doesn’t make any sense. My guess is that in a few years, all those standards, all those compulsory standardized tests will be a bad memory. I think that the pendulum is going to swing back the other way and return to a more rational, less ideological approach to education.”

ICS did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2011 under NCLB. Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew, who educate malnourished, traumatized, impoverished and previously uneducated children, must cover core subjects such as math, science, and history while helping their students find a place in American society. They are not simply teaching American history, they are teaching their students how to be Americans. The making of Americans is currently not a category in the Teacher Data Reports’ calculation of a teacher’s value-added assessments.

For validation on that front, Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew do not look to test scores and value-added assessments; they look to their students. Dr. Dittman thinks back to that that one Sudanese girl, hiding under the classroom table. His voice breaks as he recounts the ending to her story. The girl refused to come out until one day her teacher crawled under the table and joined her there. Once her teacher had gained the girls’ trust, she felt safe enough to crawl out from under the table and join the class. According to Mr. Drew, “I don’t think teachers should blow their own trumpets or credit themselves overtly, but I think that you can go home at the end of the day and say, you know what, I’ve made a difference, you know, and the world is actually a better place from what I did today.”

As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, it is important to remember that not all value is quantifiable. The Teacher Data Reports, in all their margins of error and fuzzy logic, can never get at the real value of this country’s teachers.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

A Coupla Rich Guys Sitting Around Talking

by Robert Pondiscio
December 1st, 2010

Newsweek columnist Jonathan “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” Alter, who seems determined to be Bill Gates’  Boswell, believes along with his muse, that seniority “is the two-headed monster of education—it’s expensive and harmful.”  (Hey, isn’t that true of columnists too?).  Abolishing seniority rights is “a moral issue,” he writes. ”Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?”

“In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ ”

I’m no economist, but unless I’m very much mistaken there lots of other parts of the economy where pay is not tied to performance.  Like, oh, nearly all of it.  Government spending accounts for about 30% of U.S. economic activity.  Just about all public employees tend to get across the board annual raises of 2-4% in both good times and bad.  (I’d be curious to know what percentage of government employees have their pay tied to performance at any level; White House employees, incidentally, seem to have enjoyed especially nice raises this year relative to the country at large).  And those of us who have spent time in corporate America can attest that annual pay raises are not  always rigorously tied to performance.  To wit:  only 14% of U.S. companies have instituted wage freezes this year, even as the economy suffers through a “troubling slowdown” of economic growth.  Clearly huge numbers of people are benefitting from pay increases not tied to performance.  And next year, the divide between pay and performance in the private sector may be even wider.  A recent survey shows 98 percent of U.S. companies plan to award  an average 2.9 percent base pay increase in 2011;  just 2 percent of companies are planning across-the-board salary freezes.

Again, I’m no economist, but if corporate pay raises at all levels are expected to rise 3 percent in 2011, that’s about 50% greater than current GDP growth.  None of this is to say that teacher pay should not be tied to performance.  Merely that it’s odd to suggest that teachers are outliers.

When Teachers Discipline Students

by Robert Pondiscio
September 17th, 2010

All I know about this story is what I’ve read on this Wall Street Journal blog.  But assuming the facts are as described, I imagine teachers who read it are either a) silently saying “Amen!” or b) liars.   I shudder to think what my Dad would have done had I acted the way this kid is alleged to have behaved in school.  (Which, of course, is why I never would have in the first place)

Listening to Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 27th, 2010

If you spend your edublog time on policy blogs rather than teacher blogs, you may have missed out an interesting story that has played out over the past few months, and which may be coming to a head this week.  Last November, Anthony Cody, a veteran science teacher, blogger and Obama supporter, wrote an open letter to the President expressing his frustration with many of the Administration’s policies.  The column soon morphed into what another veteran teacher-blogger, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, described as “a full-on social networking movement.”  A Facebook group (naturally) quickly attracted  2,000 members, eager to weigh in on ed policy as a network of independent teachers.  Letters were sent, polls were taken, and attention paid.  The climax occurred Monday, when 12 teachers including Cody, Wolpert-Gawron, and frequent Core Knowledge Blog commenter Nancy Flanagan were invited to participate in a 30-minute conference call with Ed Secretary Arne Duncan.

The climax was anti-climactic.  Technical problems plagued the call, few got a chance to speak, and the teachers walked away more frustrated than satisfied by their audience with Duncan.  “I want to find positive things to take from what unfolded, but it is challenging,” was Cody’s take on the call.  Flanagan’s synopsis is here.    End of story?  It might have been until yesterday, when Cody’s phone rang. 

It was Arne Duncan calling.

Charm offensive?  Earnest engagement?  Time will tell. Cody & Co. have already done the profession a solid by taking the first steps toward establishing a badly needed back channel for teachers, independent of the unions.

Great Job! Go Sit on the Bench

by Robert Pondiscio
November 3rd, 2009

Jay Mathews thinks Arne Duncan shouldn’t be the Secretary of Education.  In fact, he looks at recent Ed Secys Bill Bennett, Rod Paige, Dick Riley, Margaret Spellings and Duncan and asks why do we have the job at all? 

Their best work for kids, in my view, happened when they were NOT education secretary. So let’s abolish the office and get that talent back where it belongs, where school change really happens, in our states and cities.

Mathews may not realize it but the same thing, writ small, happens in schools everywhere.  How often does this year’s superstar teacher become next year’s math or literacy coach?  If this thinking applied to sports, Chase Utley would become the Phillies batting coach next year.

Just Send the Kid a Note Already

by Robert Pondiscio
October 7th, 2009

Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell recently got a letter from a fifth-grader at Sayre Elementary School in Lyon, Michigan asking the PhD economist what to do about the economy.  Sowell could have ignored the note, or sent back a brief greeting.  He had a different idea.

Instead, I replied to his parents: With American students consistently scoring near or at the bottom in international tests, I am repeatedly appalled by teachers who waste their students’ time by assigning them to write to strangers, chosen only because those strangers’ names have appeared in the media.  It is of course much easier — and more “exciting,” to use a word too many educators use — to do cute little stuff like this than to take on the sober responsibility to develop in students both the knowledge and the ability to think that will enable them to form their own views on matters in both public and private life.  

OK, Dr. Sowell, point taken.  Maybe the assignment wasn’t particularly well thought out, but give the kid–and his teacher–a break.  If you want kids to understand that writing is a means of interacting with the broader world, there’s little harm in using the power of the pen to try to engage people in positions of influence.  Churlishly, Sowell is having none of it.

What earthly good would it do your son to know what economic policies I think should be followed, especially since what I think should be done will not have the slightest effect on what the government will in fact do? And why should a fifth-grader be expected to deal with questions that people with Ph.D.’s in economics have trouble wrestling with?

Maybe he should have written to Kate Gosselin instead? Frankly, if one of my 5th graders chose to write to Thomas Sowell instead of an athlete, actor or musician, I’d be pretty impressed. 

I never assigned my kids the task of writing to famous people, but there were a couple of occasions when a  little attention from the outside world made my 5th graders especially proud.  NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein once sent my class a nice note congratulating my students for completing an ambitious reading project.  And back when DFER’s Joe Williams was the education reporter for the NY Daily News, he wrote a piece inspired by letters my students wrote to the NYC Department of Education, offering to help correct a city-issued student code of conduct that was rife with misspellings and grammatical errors.  In both instances, it was a thrill for the kids to get a reaction from people in the public eye.  It made them feel powerful, and see that their words and work mattered.   No harm in that. 

Give the kids a break. Take an interest.  Write a nice letter back.  They’ll remember it for the rest of their lives, and you might just inspire them to greater heights.

“Replace the Children!”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 1st, 2009

Oh no he didn’t!

Raging against Arne Duncan’s call to turnaround the nation’s lowest-performing schools, the chairman of the Atlanta Metro Association of Classroom Educators, John Trotter, fumed “He wants to replace everyone … except the ones who matter, the children.”   The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s ed columnist Maureen Downey quotes Trotter saying the children in failing schools are the main problem.

“They are unmotivated and lazy. Yes, there are many incompetent and idiotic and mean administrators who need to go. There are even some bad teachers, but these are really rare. The problem starts with the students. What is Duncan going to do with some so-called students who act like miscreants each day?”

This is the kind thing you hear in the teacher’s lounge when someone’s having a bad day, but seldom outside, and almost never in public.  Teachers have all the reason in the world to be upset by simplistic “no excuses” posturing, and complaints about ”putting the interests of adults first.”  But if accurate, this is the kind of intemperate diatribe that makes it all too easy for those who would paint teachers as sandbaggers and excuse makers to point and say, “See! I told you so.” 

Not smart.  Not helpful.

UpdateEduwonk says, “See! I told you so.”   Joanne Jacobs uses Trotter’s vitriol as a way into an Edweek essay by Richard Kahlenberg, who argues “it’s impossible to change a bad school without changing the mix of students.”

What’s 2+2? Ask the Math Department

by Robert Pondiscio
June 17th, 2009

If I have three apples, and give you one, how many apples will I have?  Better ask someone in the math department.

The traditional one-teacher elementary school model  is giving way to a middle school format, with different teachers for reading, math, science and social studies in Palm Beach County, Florida.  Some schools will have subject-specific teachers as early as kindergarten, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.  Parents and teachers are reportedly ”steamed” about the plan, and are demanding to see research demonstrating the move will help improve performance. 

Administrators say there are numerous benefits for the teaching model, such as morphing teachers from jacks-of-all-trades to  subject-matter experts. Officials say departmentalization will help schools respond to new state standards and new versions of the FCAT beginning in 2011, resulting in higher achievement among even the most-struggling students.  “They are going to have to trust that we as educators are doing what’s right for their children,” Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Hernandez said Monday. “We are constantly reforming our schools to meet the needs of our students.”

But Robert Dow, president of the Palm Beach Classroom Teachers Association, dismisses the move as a “fad” without anything concrete to back it up.  “Departmentalization?” Dow asks. “Seven syllables. Gotta be good. No research, but hey! All elementary teachers will be departmentalized whether they like it or not, whether what they do now works or not.”

I can see some benefits to the plan, not the least of which is the tendency to give short shrift to subjects like science and social studies that are not tested.  That said, very young children almost certainly benefit from the security and continuity of a relationship of a single teacher.

Who’s To Blame for Bad Schools? Look in the Mirror

by Robert Pondiscio
January 27th, 2009

Nevada’s public education system is a “disaster” says the state’s university chancellor, and Nevadans have no one to blame but themselves.  In a remarkable and scathing “State of the System” speech ostensibly to rail against proposed cuts to the state’s education budget, James Rogers calls Nevada’s parents to account.

The state of K-16 education in Nevada is where the public–that is you out there–has allowed it to sink.  Your only relationship with the education system is to ship your unprepared kids to school not with the expectation of success, but with the demand that an education system, inadequately funded, develop and/or repair children that you as a parent did not prepare for school or support while your children attended school.  If you want a competent and productive education system, tell your Governor and legislators to fund it. They do what they think you want them to do.  That’s why they’re called public servants.  It is the public–that means you– that has created this disaster of a public education system. 

It’s a blistering Jeremiad.  Nevadans once hoped to see their kids go to college, but today are satisfied if their children graduate from eighth grade, Rogers says.  And don’t blame educators for the state’s poor schools.  The founder and owner of Sunbelt Communications Company, which owns and operates 16 NBC and FOX affiliate television stations in five western states, Rogers says when he became Nevada’s chancellor five years ago he came to the job with a sense that education was “an overweight, lazy, unproductive massive intellect, with no direction and little desire to get there fast.” 

Well I have looked at the alleged inefficiencies, not only in higher education but in K through 12.  The majority of educators work very hard, are much smarter than their critics, and are far more organized and efficient than their critics.  If they have a shortcoming it is that they are for the most part not aggressive, mean-spirited people, but are instead caring, concerned individuals who want to teach, not fight….and the success of your children is more important than their own success.

Neither are school administrators to blame, according to Rogers.  “I have looked at the administration of the education system,” he notes. ”I find them no less productive than the administrators of the television stations I own or the banks of which I have served as a board member over the last 28 years.”

The state’s Republican party has fired back saying Rogers “owes every caring parent in the state a public apology.  For Chancellor Rogers to blame the failure of the government-run education system on parents is nothing short of outrageous.”

Rogers aired his speech on his Nevada TV stations.  You can watch it in two parts on YouTube, Part I here, Part II here.

White House Full of Teachers

by Robert Pondiscio
November 6th, 2008

It’s common knowledge that President-elect Barack Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for over a decade.  We’ve also read quite about about the career of Jill Biden, the wife of the future V-P, who teaches community college English in Delaware.  But this almost certainly the first time that the President, his Vice-President, and their spouses all have direct experience working in education.  Michelle Obama works for University of Chicago Hospitals, while Joe Biden has also taught constitutional law for many years as an adjunct professor at Widener University School of Law.