My comments on Joel Klein and Michelle Rhees manifesto “How to Fix Our Schools”

23 Oct

Some of the nation’s top educators have written a manifesto about how to fix our public school system.  These are some of the same people involved in the film “Waiting for Superman”.  You can read the manifesto in its entirety by clicking here

These leaders in education want to hold teachers responsible for student performance.  This makes sense.  In any job, employees are judged on performance.  Yet the problem is much bigger than these leaders have addressed. 

Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of “last in, first out” (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.

I whole-heartedly agree that teacher performance should be the biggest factor in determining who stays on-staff at any particular school.  But how do we measure that performance?  Consider the following.  In the state of Texas, students must pass the state’s standardized tests, called TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).  Such TAKS tests take place several times throughout a child’s education, and children can be held back in certain grades–or not allowed to graduate high school–if they do not pass these tests.  Clearly it would make sense to examine student scores to get a feel for teacher performance.  For example, students of Mrs. Johnson averaged 36% on the 10th grade TAKS.  Obviously, Mrs. Johnson hasn’t done her job.

But why hasn’t Mrs. Johnson done her job?  Perhaps Mrs. Johnson is a poor teacher and should’ve been booted out many years ago.  This undoubtedly happens in the education system, and this must end.  As the manifesto says:

A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree — she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success.

It makes sense that students of such teachers are more likely to be successful.  Apparently Mrs. Johnson wasn’t effective, engaging, and didn’t compel her sophomores to reach for success.

But what if she did?

One of the biggest issues the manifesto fails to address is student apathy.  This is most likely more a problem the older the student gets.  There are many teachers out there who are well-trained and can perform their hearts out for their students each and every day, but if the student doesn’t take responsibility for their education, the teacher isn’t going to be able to make a difference.

Let’s consider Mrs. Johnson.  Mrs. Johnson is a “great teacher” according to her peers.  She is so great, in fact, that this year the administration has decided to put her with the neediest students–those who are learning English and have learning and behavioral disabilities.  Mrs. Johnson did so well with her previous group of students, and they scored so well on their TAKS, that clearly Mrs. Johnson’s skills need to be applied to those who need the help the most. 

Mrs. Johnson knows her students well, has good classroom management, and follows all the rules for the children with disabilities and language difficulties.  She employs Bloom’s taxonomy.  She uses multiple intelligence theory.  She differentiates instruction every day.  She tiers and uses flexible grouping.  She isn’t perfect, but she utilizes all the school’s training and current educational research on how to make her students succeed.  Most of her students enjoy her and her class, but in spite of her effort, they rarely complete assignments in class, and homework is a joke.  She tries to remove the students disrupting class by referring them to their principal, but often there are no consequences for their actions–either because the principal doesn’t care or, in the cases of those with disabilities, scared to take action for fear of a lawsuit.  Her assessment scores are poor, and her TAKS scores at the end of the year are low as well.

Mrs. Johnson’s colleague, Mr. Bowen, also incorporates all of the above teaching methods in his class.  He teaches pre-AP and AP classes.  His students want to go to college, and though they aren’t perfect, Mr. Bowen doesn’t have a huge amount of trouble getting his students to complete their work.  Their TAKS scores are several points above passing.  In fact, Mr. Bowen doesn’t even review any TAKS problems or strategies with his students.  He doesn’t need to.

Budget cuts must be made the next year; who does the school fire?  Based on the above, the least effective teacher appears to be Mrs. Johnson.  Clearly, she didn’t do enough to make her students pass the TAKS.  Her job was to get the kids to learn and pass TAKS.  She didn’t accomplish this, so obviously she needs to go. 

The difficulty with this scenario, though, is who CAN get these kids to pass?  Once Mrs. Johnson is fired, it is likely that whoever replaces her will face the same problems.  What’s to be done?

I realize we shouldn’t feel too sorry for Mrs. Johnson.  It’s rough luck, but the schools DO need to judge their teachers on something.  Maybe Mrs. Johnson will get a great job at another school where the students are more eager to learn and take advantage of her enthusiasm.  Or maybe she won’t. 

Clearly holding teachers responsible for student performance will help weed out the truly awful teachers that exist.  My question is…then what?  How do even the BEST teachers get kids to WANT to learn and succeed?  What do we do about the students that truly do not care and thus hinder the students that do want to learn?  Many schools are scared to take action against such students.  What do we do about administrative policies that hinder, or even promote, these problems?

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7 Responses to “My comments on Joel Klein and Michelle Rhees manifesto “How to Fix Our Schools””

  1. escher dax October 23, 2010 at 4:09 PM #

    Student apathy — the issue no one will acknowledge.
    Mostly teachers are blamed, or the curriculum, or the lack of technology…
    Rarely do we look at the students themselves, and the culture that has made them apathetic, or the parents who expect schools to solve all their children’s problems.
    Nor do we blame those at the top, who set the failed policies we must implement.
    You have described my school.
    Thanks — I’m bookmarking your blog.
    dax

  2. Hippie Cahier October 23, 2010 at 5:06 PM #

    In Virginia, they’re the Standards of Learning, or SOL. I think someone came up with that acronym intentionally.

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

    • The Excited Neuron October 23, 2010 at 7:29 PM #

      I know someone who used to work in Virginia. I always thought that acronym was hilarious.

  3. omawarisan October 24, 2010 at 5:36 AM #

    I guess this sort of nests with your point on teaching AP and non AP students, but the one thing I never hear anyone discuss is the responsibility of parents in the success of students. I admire teachers so much, and maybe it is just because I’m not in a position to hear them fight back, but I don’t hear the NEA screaming against the responsibility being so focused on teachers alone.

    • jelzmar October 31, 2010 at 11:29 PM #

      The blaming the parents thing I just can’t get behind. I would never have asked my parents help with homework, it is not their job to teach me. That is why they sent me to school. My parents job was to take care of me and teach me right from wrong. They did their job. My teacher’s job was to teach me to read, write and do math. Some of them did a good job, but most of them just expected me to teach myself.

      I’m also completely against homework of any kind. You are supposed to teach me in the classroom. When I get home I shouldn’t be teaching myself, what you should have been teaching me in the classroom.

      When I lived in Lubbock, TX I was in a program in my junior high called TAAP. It’s for students that were held back in school. It gives them a chance to catch up by completing three years of junior high in two. We never had homework in the program. They always gave us time in class to complete it.

      I was also ahead of all my peers when I moved to Illinois the next year. Advancement I lost completely after two years in the new school, where I didn’t learn anything else.

      If it was the parents job to teach them then they would be homeschooling them, and not sending them to be taught by someone else. I have every intention of homeschooling my children. I think it is for the best that children are taught by their parents, until the child’s intelligence surpasses that of the parent. Though if I could afford a private school like what he describes, I’d be tempted to send my children there.

      • The Excited Neuron November 1, 2010 at 4:48 PM #

        Interesting about the TAAP program. I’m not sure I understand how this “meshes” with your comment on not doing homework. I’m curious to know how a teacher could give you time in class to do homework AND teach you, without relying on you having to teach yourself (to get the homework done).

        You may not have learned “anything else” in the Illinois school you went to, but you are still ultimately responsible for your own actions. Yes, that includes learning, whether that means paying attention in class or doing some homework/studying outside of class.

        Also, just fyi, if you are referring to me as a “he”, I’m not. I’m a “she”. 🙂

  4. jelzmar November 12, 2010 at 3:11 AM #

    Sorry, I was reading more than one blog at the same time and I thought this the one that was male.

    I didn’t learn anything else in Illinois, because they were teaching me things I already knew. I could have gone right to college and not wasted two years of my life. One year there would have been fine I still needed to learn the math. Other than that it was completely useless. The worst part about it. (which was more my mother’s fault and not the schools.) I had enough credits to graduate after my junior year. (Actually I had them after my sophomore year, but you have to have four years of English and three of Math and Science. I had the credits, but not all the subjects until after my junior year.)

    That school would let you take more that one English class your sophomore or junior year if you plan to graduate early. My mother didn’t let me because she was worried about my socialization. She said “Sixteen is too young to graduate and then you’ll miss out on prom and homecoming.” She regrets it now, but there was nothing I could do that would convince her then. Yet the school didn’t allow half days, so if I was going to be there I had to be there all day. I filled my schedule with pointless classes, because that all I could do. The AP classes you all talk about. My guidance councilor never even let me know that they existed. I couldn’t have got the dual credits that would transfer or I might not have hated it there so much. Students would say the classes existed, but I never so evidence of them. It wasn’t in our class manual and I never saw anyone take one. That is what I meant by loosing my advancement. My peers caught up with me, because I just had to sit there and try not to look too bored for two years. While they learned things I already knew.

    The way the teachers did things in the TAAP program was that they lectured and then we did our assignments for the rest of the period. They were never long and we had plenty of time. That way if anyone had a question the teachers were there. Since I’m not a teacher I’m not sure how they specifically did it. I think they just had shorter lessons and then had short quick homework assignments in the class.

    That way everyone was at the same place and we could move through the material a lot faster. Sort of like how if you take short frequent breaks it helps you stay energized better through out the day. If you throw a lot of information at someone all at once they are going to forget most of it. If you give them little bits at a time and let them practice it, they will be able to retain it better.

    A lot of times with other classes by time the teacher stopped talking, I had no idea what they said at the beginning of class. I never had that problem in that program. Really if you think about it. What are the chances of your student from your first period going to remember eight hours after you said it? Also what are your seventh period students even going to hear if they can’t stay awake while your talking, because their head is so full of everything else they heard that day.

    I know that is why we take notes, but then why not just write down your lecture and let them take it home and read it before they to their homework? Or better yet, let them read it while they do it in your classroom so you are there when they have questions.

    I’m a DeVry online student now, which is basically teaching yourself. We read our lectures and have threaded discussions and have test on what we were supposed to study and read that week. Along with a weekly project and normally a major project that we slowly work on through the eight week session.

    I understand being responsible for your education once you become an adult. I don’t think this philosophy should be pushed on children. They have no choice on whether or not they are there, or what subjects they get to learn. They don’t get paid to be there and have no real incentive to want to be there. Talking to a twelve year old realistically about their future is pointless. They don’t care nor understand it.

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