Friday, October 26, 2007

Novels a No-No: Update--The Disinformation Doctrine

I remember vividly five years ago: as then-English department chair at Riverside Poly High School, I emailed the downtown district office to express department frustrations with the opaque and disingenuous mixed messages circulating about reading and instruction. In public, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) was telling the community that "novels weren't banned, just not required." At our campus, teachers weren't allowed to check sets of books from the library to use with students.

Like a little kid, I was summoned into the principal's office. He handed me a copy of a district response to him regarding my communication. One line from that email still haunts me, and it seems particularly relevant now: "I find it interesting that Ms. Scott [sic] still refers to 'teaching novels.' Hasn't she seen the test scores yet?"

Who would have thought that a small, little-known school district in Southern California could so perfect the art of public doublespeak? Now twice in five years, the same district has distinguished itself by using disinformation to rid its English classrooms of the pesky novel.

Documents defending their latest purge are linked below:
If you saw our first report, you learned that RUSD has a strange attitude towards reading book-length works in accelerated high school English classes. Apparently, you can read too much. Now responding to local criticism by columnist Dan Bernstein, as well as outrage from students, teachers and parents in school board and department chair meetings, RUSD landed a local headline and long article in the local newspaper, The Press-Enterprise, to dismiss the controversy as a "novel mixup" (PE, October 15, 2007, B1 and B10).

Eerily, the piece appeared just days from the five-year anniversary of an almost identical article making the same assurances when RUSD first applied its restrictive novels policy--to some public outcry--in the mainstream (i.e. non-Honors) instructional program five years ago (PE, October 13, 2002, B1.)

This year's message is exactly the same one offered in 2002. Sure, teachers are allowed to teach novels, but only after all of the standards for each month are mastered via Holt, Rhinehart & Winston assessments and district-approved materials. How one is supposed to cram this hypothetical novel into remaining instructional days is not quite clear. In the regular program, for most students in RUSD as well as surrounding districts, the novel option amounts to "up to" one book per year, unless teachers fill out a form to begin a review and approval process.

Consciously or merely by osmosis, the district has for five years now simply parroted language long cultivated by captains of the test industry. Even Bernstein has poked fun at RUSD's disingenuous explanation, writing last week that "the novel, much like a Dickens child, has become an orphan," abandoned in favor of the "McNovel" transplanted into textbooks and complete with worksheets.

RUSD officials apparently think that if they simply avoid or ridicule the word "ban," no one will notice that reading whole books has become extraneous, disposable work for English classes. RUSD also insists that as a "program improvement," or "PI," district it has no choice but to respond to demands made by financial and political forces determining success and failure under No Child Left Behind. However, RUSD was not yet a PI district five years ago when first trimming back novels from its program.

No wonder. In a report from the Book Industry Study Group released in June 2007, general publishing sales will barely expand over the next few years. The one expected area for big growth? Elementary and high school textbooks.

In a unconfirmed and poetic act of desperation and protest against RUSD's insult to student and teacher intelligence, the English department at one local high school (serving a high number of poor and minority students) gave all of their novels away--putting them directly in the hands of students.

No, no, no, whines the district, playing Prufrock. That's not what we meant at all.

Well then. Sources inside RUSD have provided copies of official internal paperwork (linked above), including meeting minutes which set off the controversy in early September, followed by the official memo two weeks later, supposedly clarifying the issues for all 7-12 Language Arts Departments.

These documents, not seen by the general public and certainly not discussed in the recent PE article, illuminate startling contradictions. Reading through, you have to wonder if despite all the hype about critical thinking for students, teachers themselves are expected not to think too hard.

A few highlights (emphases added; all caps in the originals):
  1. Responding to teacher and parent concerns about scripted learning maps, the Sept. 19 document virtually shouts out a semantic distinction: "We have a CURRICULUM guide, not a pacing guide." However, both official documents use the phrase "pacing guide" over and over to describe required lesson plans and classroom structure: e.g. "Pacing guides are MONTHLY to allow teacher/site autonomy and flexibility as much as possible"; "It is IMPERATIVE that all teachers follow the new grade level pacing guides for English."

  2. In fact, both documents reveal how teacher-designed "pacing guides" can be used as both buy-in and blackmail: if teachers do not follow the pacing guide they themselves so willingly designed (a "proactive" option provided by RUSD), they could be "mandated to follow procedures such as implementing the Holt 'red-line' pacing guide." Oooh. Lucky for those kids. But there's more: "Pacing guides may not be modified nor the order changed," and "Selections should not be moved from one month/one quarter to another," and "The curriculum guide can not be accelerated in any class so that an entire quarter, semester or year is covered in compressed period of time, so that the rest of the year can be spent on other materials." Reconcile those statements with the following: "This is a LIVING document which will continue to evolve and change over time as we see how fast we can/can't move . . ."

  3. How about supplementary materials? "The practice of using outside materials such as newspapers or magazine articles 3 times a week, for example, is not appropriate . . . Teachers must be able to justify and explain how a piece is appropriate for the standard." Also: "Magazines for independent reading are not appropriate unless they are tied to such standards as technical documents, and students are given a specific criteria/task related to them."

  4. The district notes a decline in Gifted and Talented (GATE) scores last year. Could it be that too much thinking and too many complicated assignments during class time hurt student performance on Scantron tests? Nevermind what that might imply about multiple choice assessments--here's how vague unease becomes big policy: "Board members have expressed concern over the depth and complexity of schools' Honors/GATE classes. Some of these students are currently not showing consistent, district-wide growth. This issue is a current RUSD board goal. GATE/Honors classes are required to follow all pacing guidelines set forth for the regular curriculum...[then] they should move on to other challenging assignments."

  5. What about independent reading? "No one disputes the idea that getting students to read more will help increase their overall achievement with reading..." but "work should be reading-level appropriate, and teachers should hold students accountable." Also: "Middle schools with an independent reading period should hold site discussions to determine how to make this time the most effective..." Perhaps most importantly, teachers must not permit students to read in class too much, only a "minimal amount of time to reinforce the standards for that time period. Minimal is defined as a maximum of 30 minutes per week NOT to be done in one class period. An appropriate standards-based assignment must accompany the independent reading." (This last point is repeated verbatim in both documents.)

  6. Honors and AP classes, which have traditionally required summer reading, have been viewed as a haven for students and parents seeking access to a now-privileged program of more instruction for complete primary, rather than predigested, materials. But one new Riverside high school is already being touted as an example for neither requiring (nor strongly encouraging?) Honors students to read books as summer prep. In the September 4 document, RUSD says that the whole concept of summer reading needs to be "reassessed" district-wide, "by looking at what is the purpose of reading/assignments."
These last two points, not discussed at all in the newspaper, perhaps reveal more about RUSD's real attitude towards curriculum and micromanagement than any spokesperson's clarifications about how and when novels "can" or "can't" be used in classrooms.

How are teachers to cope? Already used to this rhythm of disinformation, many shrug it off. One Honors teacher says she expects, maybe, to get through one novel by the end of the year. Teachers in the regular program? Maybe none at all.

Here's one irony: Brand new teachers at Poly High this year were required by their principal to read Harry K. Wong's The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher within the first six weeks of classes. These teachers were required to complete "homework" and meet to discuss the first "unit" during second period of a regular instructional day.

Here's another: the RUSD main office sits right across the street from the PE (not-so-locally owned by the Belo Corporation). In 2006 RUSD hired a PE reporter, Jacquie Paul, to be "spokesperson" for the district when speaking to her former colleagues at the press. Like any good bureaucracy, RUSD knows that narratives are best controlled with a kinder, gentler turn of phrase--and that good professional connections help, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Teacher Watch: Student Race and Discipline

So much for desegregation.

At the end of September, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report stating that, on average, black students in the U.S. are suspended at three times the rate of white students. According to analysis of senior correspondent Howard Witt, who mined through U.S. Department of Education data collected in 2004-05, there's a dramatic disparity between rates of suspension and expulsion for blacks and their total numbers of enrollment.

The study examines suspensions and expulsions only, with no distinction made for preliminary stages of intervention, such as referrals, parent conferences, or detentions (school site data which is much more difficult to get). In addition, there is no evidence yet regarding the nature of infractions by students of all races, crucial information for evaluating whether suspensions and expulsions were merited. Are we talking about fights? carrying weapons? chewing gum? selling drugs? carrying an iPod? cheating? eating Doritos in class?

Witt reports that the disparity of consequences is more extreme with African American students than with other minority groups, such as Hispanics (apparently disciplined in proportion to their overall numbers) or Asians (disciplined at lower rates). Idaho, perhaps not surprisingly, is cited as the only state where no such discrepancy exists.

In a conversation on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Witt alludes to a backlash of defensiveness from teachers, who feel targeted by charges of racism and are eager to "explain away" the disparity. Interestingly, the Tribune report underscores the fact that 83 percent of teachers are white, but Witt and those he interviews notably ignore the equally intriguing and complicating factor that now nearly 80 percent of teachers are also female.

Witt stresses the impact of discipline unfairness on black students, implying (though never stating) that perhaps a majority of these students received suspensions or expulsions they did not deserve. However, the report does little to scrutinize how white privilege--administrative fear of connected, affluent, and/or litigious white parents whose children "can never do any wrong"--may have exaggerated the disparity in recent years. In other words: How many white students did not receive penalties they might certainly have earned?

This report on student discipline, like most others, also fails to interrogate the complex attitudes directed towards women in positions of authority. Perhaps school institutions, like the larger milieu, tolerate white male disrespect of white female teachers more indulgently (consider the recent Carl's Jr. ad, which attempted to sell burgers by valorizing white male sexual aggression towards a "hot" female teacher). Perhaps white female teachers themselves learn to have higher thresholds of tolerance for misbehavior in white males. (Not a good thing, by the way.)

It's unfortunately not unthinkable that school officials would be more righteous in policing perceived aggression directed by black students at white female teachers, and teachers therefore may learn to be more confident about soliciting backup from administration when dealing with black males.

There's another angle here as well. Because the Tribune report only documents statistics of suspension and expulsion, we have no way of comparing rates of lower-level interventions that sometimes prevent or delay escalation: student and/or parent conferences, referrals, detention. While white teachers may initially bend over backwards to engage this process with white students and their parents, some may indulge "white guilt" about facing black students honestly and frankly at early stages of trouble, actively involving parents in discussions about behavior. One logical result would be that no intervention takes place with black students until something really drastic happens--going from zero to sixty in ten seconds on the discipline meter--giving a reasonable appearance of unfair haste. Another, more ironic result could be that white students gain some immunity from regular forays into the principal's office ("we're working with him; let's not suspend him yet...")

Reversing this trend of apparent unfairness requires more than a patronizing acknowledgment that racism still exists in America. (Duh...) It also requires that we ask whether white students are really "behaving better" by avoiding suspensions and/or expulsions, or whether schools are more afraid of following through when their detentions and referrals stack up. That means scrutinizing invisible privilege, not simply visible punishment.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Novels a No-No

Southern California's Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), which at the beginning of the 2002-03 academic year instituted a "no novels" policy for lower level English classes grades 7-12, has now upped the stakes. As of Fall 2007-08, even Honors courses are bound by the policy, demanding that teachers stick to the letter of the Holt, Rhinehart & Winston textbook and curriculum planning map and avoid primary sources of literature.

Now, as then, district officials deny in public that there is an official ban, while telling teachers through meetings and memos about the need for uniformity and consensus on the subject of "no novels" and curriculum maps for classes. The dissonance is migraine inducing.

While there was some limited outcry and public discussion in 2002, district officials had little trouble containing the opposition because the most vocal cohort of students and parents were apparently exempt from the ban. Nevermind the groundwork laid by the district with its stance that reading whole novels, or for that matter any genre of complete, unadulterated text (a former colleague was chided two years ago for using a nonfiction book) was detrimental and distracting in an English class.

At the heart of this, of course, lies concern about test scores. Superintendent Susan Rainey currently reasons that novels are "based on literature" rather than "based on the standards." Perfectly consistent with the 2002 view.

The current shock of parents, Honors teachers, and students unfortunately comes five years too late. Coverage in the local press, along with indignant presentations to the school board, have as yet made no mention of the history and precedent already in place. I'd like to cheer for the protesters, but the disconnect remains a depressing commentary on the amnesia fostered by disinformation in school districts.

The current outcry also smacks, however unintentionally, of elitism: The lower-level students may not need literature, but we at the top deserve it.

Ironically, the most accelerated levels of students in RUSD tend to purchase their own books anyway, and no one can stop them from continuing to do that on their own. Even if the district does relent on the ban for Honors students, there will be no remedy for the majority of kids whose main opportunity and motivation for getting access to books remains through school resources. The ban for them was set five years ago.

I've already heard that the "wiggle room" allowed by the district for Honors courses (to pacify instructors) will go something like this: Once you finish covering everything on the planning map, go ahead and use real literature; just make sure you teach the novels using materials provided by the Holt standardized curriculum. (Several teachers report that this is a step forward, a victory....) The same "compromise" was vetted five years ago for non-accelerated, non-Honors courses and guess what? There's little real whole-book reading going on in those classes anymore.

Which is more Orwellian: that RUSD decided books have nothing to do with learning, or that people are shocked after five years to discover that the district really does mean it, and thinks this principle should apply to all students?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Not for Teacher

When a teacher named Janis Adams approached her site administration for--um, help?--when she discovered a kid masturbating during class when her back was turned, the dude in charge of discipline gave her a lecture on hormones and girls with big breasts, telling her "Little Lady, you got to get used to it."

That was almost ten years ago, but the comment and its underlying attitudes set the stage for a series of other, more personal incidents targeting Adams and other teachers at her site. Adams finally decided she'd had enough, and sued Los Angeles Unified School District for failures to maintain a safe and civil workplace, free of hostile environment sexual harassment. An appeals court ruled last year that her case can be indeed retried under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and that new trial is pending.

LAUSD has already spent nearly two million dollars in legal fees to characterize Adams' complaint as an overreaction. Should other teachers consider this water under the bridge? Ancient history? We've come a long way, Baby, so don't get your shorts in a wad?

Um, no.

Just in time for Fall classes, Carl's Jr. has rolled out a new ad campaign for its "patty melt," complete with a booty-slapping, pelvic-tilting Mary Kay Letourneau lookalike in a tight skirt (mostly a sad ripoff of--or homage to--Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" vid). Two white boys rap and sneer about their "bun" preferences, draw and then erase part of the teacher's naked backside on the chalkboard, even flash brass knuckles at the end.

"Get used to it," indeed. You don't have to be a piece of meat. View--and rate--the ad yourself here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

School Peformance Anxiety--No More Gimmicks!

Okay, maybe it was cute to see the occasional principal pledge to shave his head if student test scores improved at his school for the year. But some of the stunts to rah-rah rally kids at scantron time have become more irrelevant, protracted, and bizarre. We should probably expect these to get weirder with the buzz over NCLB renewal and as test scores hit plateaus.

At one Title I Elementary School in Riverside, California, a principal pledged to spend a whole day on the school roof. In a memo to staff, the administrator wrote, "Following the [school] assembly I will climb a ladder to the top of the annex roof and set up my office for the day. While this event may take some time away from regular activities it can certainly provide you with fodder for some other very meaningful lessons."

Fodder for lessons? Now that's a real educator talking!

The memo enumerated eleven "ideas" for lesson plans related to her day spent on the roof, including:

"Students can write friendly letters to me about the event. I will have a mail 'basket' hanging off the side of the roof in which students can put messages to me."

"Teachers can read other picture books aloud in which the main character is a principal."

"Have students draw pictures of me on the roof, and then write stories to go with the pictures, or orally tell about the pictures during Language Development time."

My favorite suggestions were that teachers should tell their students about "not trying this at home" and asking them to read classes a passage from a book titled What Principals Do When No One Is Looking. The principal also included a song about the event she wrote to the tune of "Up on the Housetop" which teachers were encouraged to sing with their students. (Call me crazy, but I wouldn't turn loose lyrics at a school with "ho, ho, ho, there she goes" in the refrain.)

How revealing is it that gimmicks can end up being more about administrative ego than about celebrating real campus achievement in a meaningful way? The image of any principal sitting on top of his or her school is, ironically, simply another powerful metaphor for disconnections we're all expected to ignore.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

(New) Teacher Watch: What BTSA Won't Tell You (A Fiction)

Call it a rude awakening.

You have a student in class who's constantly disruptive, let's say personally hostile from the get-go--something about you sets him off. He's physically intimidating. He's given you the finger. He's cursed you across the classroom. You've found notes in the margin of his homework about how much he hates you, maybe a stick drawing of you hanging from a noose, maybe you having sex with a co-worker or an animal. You've tried "understanding," humor, and ignoring it; you've tried firmness, negotiation, a behavior contract. You've tried moving his seat. Other students perceive in a general way how much attention this person seems to be stealing from them. Even they resent you a little for it. God knows you have to hide the details from them.

Not exactly the perfect scenario for teaching quadratic equations or Shakespeare. But you don't want to be paranoid. That's you--the good sport with a stiff upper lip.

Along the way, you've phoned the kid's mom and dad at work and at home, and on the cellphone at the mall. You've held conferences on campus during your off-time, documented details with administration, even pulled in a counselor--every step along the expected Pyramid of Interventions. Each time, the boy shrugs and apologizes, but returns to the behavior again. Accelerates. It's been months now.

He really wants to be in the class, says mom. Maybe you should try more creative teaching strategies, says the dean of discipline. You're making the valiant effort to deny how bad this is, how impossible even breathing seems during the drive to school, you don't like leaving your classroom during the day, how can you fix this? how can you make him stop? But the more you try to be valiant, the less you feel safe in the place where you work. This job everyone says you have to love. It must be me, it must be me. Finally, someone--your union rep? your spouse? a friend looking over her own shoulder?--says you've got to stop letting this go. To hell with zen and the art of classroom management. It's not you. You're not a bad person to say "no."

He's dropped from your class. This, you think, will end it. But he approaches you on campus, says he plans to "get even." He says his parents hate you. You find your car windshield smashed in a few days later. You have no proof who did it. You feel no safer. His friends stand in line in front of your classroom door, stare in at you. There are calls to your house. Someone is circulating written rumors in a newsletter--you were a porn star, you wear diapers, you must've performed sexual favors to get this teaching job. Other teachers are targeted too, in the same vein. Somebody makes a video and leaves you a copy--an effigy of you is decapitated and burned. One of your colleagues actually tells you to have a sense of humor--not like anyone has physically attacked you yet.

Maybe you are going crazy. Some part of you feels this is your own fault--if you had been a better teacher, a better person, a smarter person...When you talk to your principal, he says there's nothing he can do, must suck to be you, maybe you're a little oversensitive these days?

You decide you might have a legal claim here. What is this, the Land of the Lotus Eaters? Why should you feel unsafe and bullied in your workplace--and at these wages? You know a judge, Judge Kenneth R. Freeman, who has made rulings in at least one teacher workplace case. He'll have some words of comfort, surely, a wise balance between the letter and spirit of the law. You don't want to sue anyone, you don't want anyone hurt, you just want to know how to feel right driving to school again. You want to be able to leave your classroom to take a bathroom break in peace. You want a clue how the system works. Judge Freeman should know--he was married to a teacher in Los Angeles Unified. There's hope.

Judge Freeman goes to the file cabinet where he keeps copies of documents from previous cases. He pulls out the order granting a new trial for a teacher who had been in a similar situation to yours--a ruling from June of 2002, Case No. BC 235667.

For a new trial? you wonder, Hmmmm... But then you think: What a coincidence! This is great! and you cut yourself an extra piece of cake.

Well, says the judge, I'll skip right to the good parts: (ahem) Hostile acts may be committed by children. Schools are fundamentally unlike an adult workplace in many ways, including that children may regularly interact with each other and others in a manner that would be unacceptable among adults....

Yeah, you say. That's how we got here. And?

Okay, says the judge, yadah yadah yadah...here we are: A teacher voluntarily elects to teach in the challenging high school environment, to some extent trading protection against offensive conduct for the professional challenge and stimulation of that unique marketplace of ideas...

Suddenly, cake looks unappetizing. You put down your plate. Wait, you say. Wait a minute. Trading protection for the professional challenge? Professional challenge? A unique marketplace of ideas? What about me--as a worker, as a professional person, a human being? what about my migraines?

The judge doesn't hesitate. You? he says. My point exactly.

Moral: Ask your district, ask your union. Make sure to wait until an answer comes very clearly: Do teachers trade safety for the privilege of working in public school?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Teacher Watch: LAUSD--Stand Up Now Against Harassment?


In 2005, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) settled a lawsuit brought by brave students at Washington Preparatory High School. The case alleged that school administrators, teachers, security guards and students harassed gays and lesbians on campus--creating, in effect, "a climate rife with hostility towards and discrimination against students and staff based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation."

The original complaint details patterns of unchecked namecalling--"faggot", "sissy fruitcake" and "sinner"--and alleges that students were told they were "wrong" and "unholy" and "not supposed to be like this." Some teachers allegedly threatened to "out" students to parents as punishment for perceived homosexuality. The principal was said to have refused investigating campus incidents where staff treated students poorly or differently if perceived to be gay or bisexual. You can download the entire original complaint here.

As part of the district response in the settlement, Deanne Neiman at LAUSD's Education Equity Compliance Office affirmed the district's effort to enhance protections she states are already in place: "It is important to acknowledge that the District has had a long-standing and pro-active commitment to protecting LGBT students from discrimination and harassment. Since 2001 and continuing to date, 216 Anti-Bias LGBT Trainings were conducted for school administrators and staff. At Washington Prep this settlement agreement augments the comprehensive training and activities already underway at the school and in the District as a whole."

I'm glad for this awareness check--long overdue--to protect students and staff who work in Los Angeles schools. LAUSD should be commended for stepping up. It is unclear whether there was any financial component to the settlement, although the original complaint did ask for unspecified damages.

But there's another story here.

Heterosexual harassment--let's say, male students against a female teacher?--remains uncomfortable to identify or interrogate because, well, we're "used to it." Everybody remembers Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." It's kind of funny, perhaps inappropriate, but essentially harmless. Right? (Wink wink, nudge pinch.)

On a recent trip, I was standing in line for a Southwest flight and studying a deposition from Janis Adams v. LAUSD. Peering over my shoulder, an insurance salesman in a Hawaiian shirt asked what I was doing, and when I replied that I was studying a case of student-on-teacher sexual harassment--the first such case which has actually gone to trial--he paused, chuckled and said, "Doesn't that happen all the time?"

Adams's complaint was filed in 2000, approximately four years before the plaintiffs at Washington Prep filed their own demand for a jury trial. But during the seven years--seven!--of the Adams trial and subsequent appeals, LAUSD has become increasingly aggressive in its repeated claim of "lack of control" and "limited control" over bad behavior in the school environment. Such limits were apparently not asserted by LAUSD in response to Washington Prep students: Everything is under control, the "teaching moment" is in full force, we're watching out for you.

Even as it settled the LGBT matter, the district continued pursuing appeals and preparing for a new trial in the Adams case, seeking to affirm its "lack of control" in supporting teachers who want to say "no" to sexual harassment and defamation from students. LAUSD has now exceeded $1.2 million taxpayer dollars for legal costs.

The real story here is that this isn't big news.

LAUSD should take a cue from its better judgment in the Washington Prep case: when operating at taxpayer expense, it's wise to take some responsibility for the safety, sanity, and security concerns of the teachers we expect to protect students.

And as long as any school district fights to keep a blind eye to harassment or bullying of the heterosexual variety, whether against adults or students, LGBT students and staff shouldn't feel too sure of their protection, either.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

EdWeek: Are You Kidding?

I laughed out loud when my EdWeek NCLB alert this morning included a link to this article: "To Know NCLB Is to Like It, ETS Poll Finds."

Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.

The poll generating results indicating support for No Child Left Behind was commissioned by Educational Testing Service (ETS), the non-profit testing giant which has much to gain from renewal of the policy. As a formidable member of the Association of Test Publishers (ATP), ETS is also a major player in the accountability lobby.

Did EdWeek note either of these facts? Heavens, no.

According to EdWeek's report, 1,526 respondents during eleven days in May were asked their attitudes towards NCLB and were also "tested" on particular knowledge of NCLB as policy (state standards for achievement, grade levels for testing, how schools qualify for federal funds).

Here's the twist: Before respondents were "told" correct answers about the law by the interviewer conducting the survey, they split almost evenly on support vs. non-support of NCLB. But then, "[O]nce the interviewer mentioned the law’s focus on standards and accountability, requiring highly qualified teachers, and other details, 56 percent said that they viewed the law favorably."

The article also quotes Susan L. Traiman, Director of public policy for the Business Roundtable, essentially arguing that the negative associations of NCLB can be overcome by a simple shift in terminology: from "testing" to "identifying kids" and "providing assistance."

Wow. I can't help but recall the industry rallies at the 2005 ATP Conference in Scottsdale, where speaker after speaker repeated how it was a good day for the test business, but gee, they could really use a break in the public relations department.

The latest ETS maneuver is harrowing, but rhetorically effective: Quiz 'em on knowledge, expose technicalities in knowledge gaps, and then call for an "attitude adjustment." Sounds like a perverted version of direct instruction for students: Ask what they think, show them what they don't know, then teach 'em when they're feeling humble.

EdWeek does mention research conducted by Scripps and Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup. But this outlet for teacher information could do more than take ETS's word for its own benificence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Trouble with Teacher Testimony

A highly-publicized study released last month by Cal State Sacramento's Center for Teacher Quality emphasizes that working conditions, not money, are the most crucial determinants for teachers who leave or plan to leave the profession. As reported in the LA Times on Friday April 27, here's the Top Ten, generated via online surveys of nearly 2,000 teachers:
  • Bureaucratic interference
  • Poor support from districts
  • Low staff morale
  • Lack of resources
  • Unsupportive principals
  • Poor compensation
  • Too little decision-making authority
  • Too little time for planning
  • Accountability pressures
  • Lack of teamwork.
If you teach and work hard at your job, none of these reasons surprises or shocks you. And yet there you are: still showing up on time every morning, writing your standards and Bloom's Levels of Thinking on the white board, grabbing your quick sandwich or granola bar at lunch, heading to the Schlechty or PLC training after school, and going home to grade papers, call parents, and plan new lessons.

What's intriguing about this study, and others like it, is how it leaves several premises uninterrogated. One is subtle, a suggestion that when a profession retains its workers, all must be well. If we could only get teachers to stay longer! It certainly may be true that bad conditions provide incentives for workers to leave, but the fact that workers don't switch professions does not necessarily mean conditions are great. Think: coal miners, ER techs, data entry workers, people at Wal Mart. And yeah, think parents who stay together for the sake of the kids.

An assumption related to the above premise is that those who stay mostly do so because their conditions are better than the leavers' conditions. This begs the question about why it takes an exodus of teachers to generate a modicum of interest in the teacher's job. The fact that we mostly wring our hands over "the ones who got away" may reveal deeper attitudes and perceptions about the ones who stay, or who honestly may not be able to admit feeling stuck.

The dialogue currently seems to allow only two distinct groups: the dissatisfied leavers and the satisfied stayers. What about the dissatisfied stayers, who struggle each day to keep up with work loads that remain largely unacknowledged? What about the lazy stayers, who simply coast along? (Sorry, but there are a few...)

What's still necessary is an allowance for more messy, complicated teacher testimony from those who do remain past their probationary period, as well as those who stay past the window of contract mobility, after which transfers may involve some penalties. Like many workers, teachers may stay put in their profession for a mixed bag of reasons, aside from love and constant satisfaction: lack of mobility, family obligations, financial debt, deep ethical commitment and sense of mission, simple boredom, a belief in hope, fear of the unknown, personality style, practicality (knowns vs. unknowns, certain losses vs. uncertain gains), attitudes about the "seemliness" of career change, and even a simple lack of confidence: What else am I qualified to do?

This last attitude, an erroneous sense that the skills necessary in classrooms do not translate outside the school premises and beyond students, may be more pervasive than we might like to admit. It's certainly a legacy of Shaw's awful adage that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Perhaps the barely visible day-to-day working conditions of teachers--despite all the emphasis on assessment and accountability--reinforce the idea that teachers aren't themselves really doers. (For an eye-opening contrast of hour to hour tasks and managerial work, look at the "day in the life" comparison between a high school math teacher and a pharmaceutical salesman, from 4am to 9pm, in Teachers Have It Easy.)

Our effort should not merely be to "keep" teachers but to understand them with more depth. Who are the people who stay? How do dynamics of the profession shape their attitudes about what they do, what they deserve, and what kind of future they can expect?

Clearly, stayers should be able to do more than simply cheer for the home team. And if the dialogue with teachers is sustained, authentic and engaged--some of the favorite buzz terms for classroom work with kids these days--we may get more than "ritual compliance" or snarky rebellion in teacher responses to questions about their work lives.

Can you be a good teacher, one who stays, and still be conflicted about the demands of your job? It may be easier for us to prefer the narrative which assumes that the 78% who stay past their 4th year are fulfilled by emotion, Oprah's Teacher of the Year Show, and the occasional thank-you. The truth is, we might not really care about losing teachers if it weren't so damn inexpedient. An April 26 press release from the Center for Teacher Quality regarding its new study emphasizes the costliness of recruitment, hiring, and training for California, which now spends more than $455 million to offset teacher losses. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell laments the "inefficiency" of teacher attrition, particularly as it makes it difficult to close "the achievement gap" between affluent and poor students. There's some evidence to suggest that the continued emphasis on efficiency rather than other values will not demand a more thoughtful, coherent view of sustained teacher careers over the long-term, but will rather fuel stop-gap measures such as Bush's "adjunct teacher corps." Efficiency can also be used to justify contract restrictions which make it more difficult for teachers to seek better working conditions if they so choose.

It's important that O'Connell doesn't call poor working conditions a shame or an insult. In describing the costs of teacher loss, he doesn't point out the ironic clash of high expectations and heroic imagery with the actual treatment of teachers. It's beyond time that teacher voices--both in and outside classrooms--become more than a means to an end.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Violence, Schools and the Limits of Standardization

In the wake of this week's shocking massacre at Virginia Tech, we hear pundits on cable and network news repeating theories about "warning signs" and how teachers, educational institutions, and social service entities should recognize them.

No one has mentioned a cruel irony. Since publication of the A Nation at Risk report in 1983, schools have in fact been preoccupied with other "warning signs" indicated by numbers on standardized tests. Is the student performing at below basic level? Put him in a special class devoted solely to test strategy. Does he need counseling? Well, there's no money in the budget. Does he have any other problems? Sorry, the documentation is spotty on that. Have you had problems with him? We'll get to it eventually--how are his scores? If he gets to college, all our problems will be solved.

The compartmentalized view of what happens in classrooms has come at the tragic expense of a holistic view of student life as a matter not simply of mastery but of social connectedness. In fact, listening to the seething display of Cho Hui on his DVD recordings, one can't help but notice the desperate, angry ravings of a person who opted for mastery at the expense of everything else--empathy, coherence, other human lives, and ultimately his own. As deranged as Hui may have been, we must acknowledge that he parroted all too well a zero-sum attitude which now pervades our educational culture and has long dominated our reality entertainment, our foreign policy, and our love of outlaw masculinity.

Teachers do notice disconnects in their intimate work with individual students on a daily basis. But noticing doesn't seem to matter these days. Are you on script? Did you fill in the bubble sheets? Can the students identify the standard for today's lesson? No Child Left Behind demands that schools worry more about numbers, not narratives, across time. The result is enforced cultural and historical amnesia.

In Cho Hui we have a young man who--even as an English major--had found no words to transcend brutality. It's not enough to shrug and say that most students will not resort to such atrocity to solve their frustrations and problems. It's worth really asking: What are we teaching and modeling for them instead?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Teacher Watch: LAUSD--How Much Money to Protect Bullies?

Reports about school bullying usually emphasize how adults need to witness on behalf of the victimized. The implication, certainly true in some cases, is that teachers see and simply ignore or dismiss incidents of bullying. But there's another layer of awareness we must document as professionals. We must examine ways in which we have ourselves been socialized to accept direct and indirect abuse.

Teachers often have long histories of isolation from administrative support when it comes to reporting discipline problems. After years of witnessing classroom or hallway troubles resulting in counter-productive or inconsistent patterns of administrative follow-up, many teachers intuit that they are "on their own" with student discipline, without institutional backing. Students are smart--they pick up on this isolation, even if they can't exactly put it into words. The logical message they get is that schools don't care.

This goes to another level entirely when teachers themselves are harassed or bullied by an isolated parent or student, when they are left unprotected by site administrations and school districts. Quietly, and usually out of public view, the front line for defense against student-to-student bullying can be severely demoralized and damaged, if not lost altogether. This lack of support and intervention sends a distinct message--it's your job, as the teacher, to be the punching bag--and the ripple effect can move through faculties and staff quickly. The social authority of the anti-bullying crusade will remain severely limited unless it begins to include an awareness of the teacher as potential target and victim of bullying. What will make such teachers’ testimony believable? And who will witness for justice on their behalf?

One California legal case should be on the radar of every California teacher, and in fact could cast a disturbing precedent across the country. Between 2002 and 2006, the conflicts in Janis Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District made their way to the California Supreme Court, and are now suspended in Appeals Court pending a possible new trial this year. The plaintiff, a teacher named Janis Adams, faced an extreme scenario: her face was superimposed into pornographic photos and circulated throughout the school; she was openly libeled as a former porn star who had had anal sex so many times she had to wear an adult diaper; in an accelerating pattern over a three-year period beginning in 1997, she was threatened in her classroom and off campus by students she knew well, who did not themselves suffer any significant disciplinary action, despite her reports. UTLA helped Adams secure a restraining order, but the conditions deteriorated to such an abusive level that Adams had an emotional breakdown and was driven from the teaching profession altogether.

It's important to know that, in the original trial, after less than half a day deliberating, the jury ruled against LAUSD, saying that it failed to take reasonable steps to protect a teacher from ongoing harassment that created a hostile work environment. The jury also awarded Janis over $4 million in damages for economic and emotional distress. Here's the twist: when the District filed Hail Mary motions to vacate the financial judgment, the judge didn't merely reduce the damages--he stated that any teacher, in effect, voluntarily waives her civil right to a workplace free of harassment because she works with kids all day. In a mixed message which has fueled subsequent appeals, the judge vacated the financial judgment altogether while still upholding the verdict. LAUSD has to-date spent $1.2 million perpetuating the appeals process, seeking a new trial in hopes of overturning the verdict altogether.

The fact that Adams ultimately sought legal recourse against the district, which did not protect her in the face of what seem such clear-cut incidents of sexual bullying, suggests what other research indicates: that Adams is not unique in her complaints, only in her pursuit of justice publicly through the legal system. She chose to say “No” out loud and continues to live with the consequences. The initial abuse at the hands of students, appalling as it remains, seems secondary now to the enabling behavior of school site administration and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district continues to argue, even in the face of the in loco parentis doctrine, that students are merely "third parties" from whom the district, as an employer, is not liable to protect its workers. By that logic, how could any district protect such "third parties" from bullying each other?

LAUSD has committed--financially, politically--to dragging Adams through a second trial, rather than taking public responsibility for reasonable steps to establish and reinforce a climate of safety for students and teachers, together. The next months will reveal whether a new trial goes forward. We shouldn't need to wait. As teachers in living, breathing communities, we must stand together for safe schools, and the first step means being willing to witness for each other, even if we've been abandoned at previous times ourselves. Suffering in silence is no solution.

For resources on bully-free workplace awareness in the USA and Canada, go to Bullying Institute.