Sunday, September 26, 2010

No Excuses, Not Even For Superman

Ok. Ok.

I know when I started this blog I promised to keep the tone light and fun. And I know that just recently I wrote about some heavy stuff. But we're at a critical time in American history, and I just had to address it. I will try to address it with a calm and even-handed demeanor. No gnashing of teeth. No throwing crockery.

Catfish, you may be wondering, what critical time in history? The critical bedbug situation in New York city, clearly the epicenter of the universe, considering the number of times bedbugs have been mentioned in the national media? The critical possibility that Delaware will elect a government official who dabbled in witchcraft?!? The season premier of Grey's Anatomy?

Yes, those are all important. But I'm talking about the critical opportunity we have to address education inequity.

Ed reform is hot right now. Oprah spent TWO shows this week talking about it. Waiting For Superman is poised to be the hottest documentary since An Inconvenient Truth made PowerPoint sexy. The Washington D.C. mayoral election was heavily-influenced by education issues (although anti-reform backlash seems to have won the day).

We have the chance to seize this opportunity and harness our outrage for good. Or we can make excuses and maintain the status quo.

I don't talk a lot about ed reform on this blog, because I spend about 80% of my time thinking about it, and this blog is meant to be an outlet from that. My daily work, my friendships, my thoughts when my head hits the pillow at night -- they all revolve around the central question of: How can we make good on the audacious promise our country has made, that every child will get an education that will enrich their lives and make democracy work?

School segregation, ca. 1953. In large part, segregation still exists although it is no longer the law. Just ask my seven-year-old students, who noticed it whenever we went somewhere with kids from other schools.

Because this is so important to me, this might be one of the most personal (and longest -- sorry about that, but I promise to try to be entertaining if you read it all!) posts I've written. That being said, I know that not all of you will agree with me. That's OK. If you don't agree, just know that this is definitely based on lots of thinking and research, and I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings or disparage the work of great teachers. I think that there is a systems problem that is much larger than the individuals involved, and that in many ways all of us who work with schools are caught in that system. Most of us agree that the system isn't great, we just don't agree on the solutions.

Almost every time a suggestion is made to change the status quo, excuses are made about why things just can't change. (In case you're wondering how bad the status quo really is, its creating huge gaps in achievement between students of different races, ethnicities, and social classes. I'm not going to go into the details here. If you want to know more, click here for an overview of the achievement gap and here for an eye-opening discussion of the economic impact of the achievement gap). Read any education article on the web that proposes that things aren't OK right now, scroll down to the comments, and you'll find comment after comment filled with excuses about why it would be nice to do better, but we just can't right now, and its offensive to suggest otherwise.

(I mean, let's just ignore the fact that it's offensive that fourth graders in low-income communities are 2-3 years behind their higher-income peers, which means they are basically learning a half-year's worth of material every year ... wait, I was going to try to remain calm).

A White school, ca. 1953. Looks a little more pleasant than the photo above, huh? You often see the same disparities in school resources today. The best teachers make a difference even without those resources.

Many of my colleagues in ed reform use the phrase "no excuses" to spur kids to excellence. Well, if fifth graders can go about their business without making excuses, then I think we adults can. So I wanted to just lay out what some of the excuses are, and what the research, and my experience as a teacher in low-income communities, have taught me.

First, a quick outline of the pro-ed-reform stance, as represented on Oprah and by reformers like the divisive Michelle Rhee.
1. Quality teaching matters more than almost any other factor in whether students learn or not. Therefore, our current system, in which low-quality teaching is allowed to continue, is untenable. The quality of teaching must be improved.
2. Teachers’ unions are currently protecting a status quo in which bad teachers are allowed to retain their jobs for years, potentially harming generations of kids.

Ed reformers want one simple (ha ha ha) thing: a good teacher in every classroom. OK. This is a grindingly complex issue. It will be difficult no matter what. But there is a large group of folks, a lot of them teachers and politicians, who have a list of excuses why we can't do it -- even though in many places, in both traditional public and charter schools, we are doing it. The excuses are holding us back, and we don't need that because IT'S ALREADY GOING TO BE HARD.

So here are the excuses I've heard most often about why educational inequity just can't change right now. This list of excuses is based on my very unscientific reading of the responses that pop up in the media. There are lots more, but these seem to be the big kahunas -- the things that get repeated over and over.

The Excuses (and a few thoughts in response)

Excuse: I can’t teach these kids if their parents don’t care or take responsibility. Parents in this (insert: neighborhood, generation, school, ethnic group) just don't care.
Response: I always wonder if teachers and politicians who make this excuse talk to a lot of parents. I taught in a neighborhood in Houston that, if you didn't look below the surface, would probably fit a lot of your stereotypes of a low-income neighborhood. That's if you didn't look further. If you actually talked to the parents -- they all wanted their kids to do well, to go to college, to do their homework. Desperately, most of them wanted their kids to do well enough to go to the "unacceptable"-rated middle school other than the one down the street, and by the hard work of our fifth grade teachers, a lot of kids ended up going to magnets, charters, and private schools on scholarship. Without the effort of those teachers, many these parents who cared would have been stymied by a system that was byzantine for someone who might not be educated or speak English. But don't take my little anecdote as evidence: research shows that even more parents of African-American and Hispanic children view college as essential to their children's success than White parents do. As teachers, particularly if we work in low-income communities, we need to find ways to form relationships in partnership with parents to help kids achieve. Are there some parents who are really, really difficult to work with? Yes, of course. Just like there are some teachers who are. But that isn't the norm.

Excuse: I can’t teach these kids if they don’t care themselves.
Response: As someone who coaches teachers, I've probably walked into hundreds of classrooms by now, almost all of them in classes filled with low-income, minority students. I'm a White lady in high heels. I imagine, to most of the kids in these classes, I look like an outsider. And yet, I've never gone into a class and seen kids who didn't want to learn. I have walked into classes where kids weren't learning, either because the lesson was confusing or boring or too hard. In that case, kids sometimes act up (just like adults do when they are bored and frustrated). But most of the time, they are fighting to understand. Big high school boys who have never met me before will ask this outsider, "Can you explain this? I don't understand." That takes a lot of humility for a teenager (remember being a teenager? You don't want to ask an adult anything much less admit that you don't understand something). This shows me that these kids care enough to put their pride aside and grasp at their own learning. But often, when we're the teacher at the front of the room (I know because I've been there) we fail to see this because we know the kids so well and are so wrapped up in the lesson plans we've created or the things the administration is asking us to do, we miss the moments of grace that happen when kids are seeking their own learning. Again, you don't just have to believe my little anecdote. Check out the LA Times' controversial series on teacher quality (I'm pretty sure that it's controversial because people haven't actually read the well-reasoned and moderate articles) in which they found that teachers teaching down the hall from one another - kids in the same grade, from the same community -- had vastly different results. Teacher quality, not the kids, made the difference.

Let's hear it for teachers, like this one, who obviously care about their students. Just like most parents and kids care, most teachers do too -- but the system makes it hard for all parties to flourish.

Excuse: If my class was smaller, I would do better.
Response: Research on class size is mixed. One significant study in Tennessee showed that class size does make a difference in student achievement, but many others, including a study of Florida's class size reduction act, show that class size matters very little if a quality teacher is at the front of the room. From a teacher's perspective, it is certainly nicer to have a smaller class, but a good teacher makes more of a difference. And for those of you yearn for the good ol' days -- class size has actually decreased since the middle of the last century, while achievement stagnated or fell.

Not exactly a small class ... how did those kids even get into those desks?

Excuse: The outrageous behavior problems of a few students in my class make teaching impossible.
Response: I actually have a lot of sympathy with this argument, because I lived it. There were days when I rose above and days when I failed. I spent a lot of energy fighting to find help for students who had deeper issues than I knew how to deal with, that I knew were impacting their lives in negative ways, and making it hard for other children to learn. And I just couldn't manage to find the help these kids needed. I did my best, but I agree with the teacher's unions who say that education reform will work better when there is a better social safety net for kids. That's why I love the idea of the Harlem Children's Zone, which addresses the whole child and community. But do I think ed reform is impossible without that extended safety net? Definitely not. And research suggests that broader social reform, while having lots of benefits in a variety of ways, isn't necessary to improve achievement. (But that doesn't mean we shouldn't go for the gold ring and try to do both!)

Excuse: Standardized tests don't show what kids are really learning.
Response: Yep. Standardized tests are blunt instruments. Yep. Some teachers and schools get rewarded for cheating. Yep. Some teachers teach to the test. But before accountability measures were in place we had no idea how students were doing. I certainly don't think teachers should be responsible for a single year's worth of data on a single test, particularly if the students' starting point isn't taken into account. We have to remember, though, that state standardized tests are minimum standard tests. With a few exceptions, they are not of a high rigor. If our kids can't pass even these tests, we aren't doing our jobs as educators. The LA Times article found that the best teachers, as measured by standardized tests, weren't the ones who were teaching to the tests. They were doing the things that test foes argue for: teaching critical thinking and pushing kids to meet high expectations. When you do those things, passing a standardized test is a cakewalk.

Excuse: Unions might protect bad teachers, but we have to have the unions to fight for us, because we’re being targeted by parents and the media.
Response: I'm an old school liberal and I believe in unions. Teacher need protection, since they are at the whim of politicians and because kids and parents are media-savvy these days. However, I think that if teachers want to be treated like professionals, we need to act like it and have a professional association rather than a union. Professional associations, like the Bar Association and American Medical Association, both protect members and set the quality standard for their members (I know, I know, they do it to varying degrees of success, but that's the idea). I think that teachers would be better served by an organization that didn't make excuses, but upheld a quality standard that kept teachers from being such targets in the first place. I don't think firing teachers en masse is the answer. I do think that having real evaluations of teachers, combining observations, student work samples, and test data; and then helping teachers improve when they don't meet the bar of excellence (and letting those people go who don't improve over time); can improve the field as a whole and help take some of the heat off teachers.

So. That's my rant of the day. If you've read to this point, you are awesome. If you have thoughts, please share in a nice respectful way. I know some of you are international readers, and I'd love to know about your school system. And if you feel moved to act, you can visit the Waiting For Superman site for ideas on how to make a change. Or, you know, find out how you can become a teacher, run for school board, or volunteer at a local school. Because after we stop making excuses, we're all going to have to get our hands dirty.

Movie trailer courtesy of Paramount Vantage/Participant Media.
Photos courtesy of Life/Google archive and licensed only for non-commercial use.


Darci said...

I can't wait to see this movie. I saw both episodes of Oprah this week, and it made me do a lot of thinking about the way things are at my school- a school that is pretty high achieving, but still leaves a lot of kids behind.

Catfish said...

It's really interesting how in Washington, even some of the high- income schools have fairly large (in the teens) percentages of kids who don't pass the tests, which are fairly low rigor. I'm hoping that some momentum for reform starts to grow in Washington state! Maybe you could have a discussion group at your school after the movie comes out.

Unknown said...

I loved this Catlin - thank you!

Jessica McCoy said...

I agree, 100%! Great post!

Unknown said...

Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Can't wait to see that movie. Also want to get involved in my kids' school so I can see firsthand what's going on there!

Catfish said...

@Wombat -- that's a great idea to get involved. When parents get involved it benefits all of the kids, not just your own.

Catfish said...

A comment from my mom (she asked me to post it here)
I really appreciated your comments about professional associations for teachers rather than unions. The unions seem so resistant to reform and it's turning the teachers into the "bad guys". That can't be good.

This is so important. I hope the momentum continues. Like Darci, I can't wait to see the movie.