James Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher is full of the big lies of urban education that are the essence of school “reform.” The single most destructive deceit in inner city schools is the claim that individual teachers with “expectations” do not need disciplinary backing by administrators. Since long before I entered teaching, every system I heard of had its equivalent of “the most important and most troubling” convention at Owens’ “Latinate” Academy. Their big illusion was, “The individual teacher will handle all behavior problems in the classroom.”
Back then, however, it never occurred to me that an inner city secondary school would try to operate without a In-School Suspension room or the SAVE room, as it was called in New York City. When my school tried to do that, we quickly collapsed into the lowest-performing school in our state (and we ended up ordering 185 arrests in a 173-day school year.)
But, at Latinate also, “SAVE rooms are ‘so old school.’” And it was worse in Owens’ school because the students knew the teacher-bashing rules of the game. They knew the sound bites that could be uttered and that they ensured amnesty for chronic misbehavior. As Owens explained, “blame-shifting has been going on for as long as schools have been in session, [but] these days the kids’ reports of bad teachers are given some credence since they suggest that the teacher is the rule-breaker.”
Latinate teachers also had to deal with the combination of a grading system where the lowest grade that could be recorded was a “55,” and bogus “credit recovery” and “work packets.” (In my district, the first policy was known as “ZAP” or “zeroes are prohibited,” and it prompted our district’s front page cheating scandal. Credit recovery was just as bad; our students referred to it as “exercising your right click finger.”)
Also, teachers who had a failure rate of 20% or more were subject to an Unsatisfactory” evaluation. (In our school, that sin led to the receipt of “the Memo.” But, unlike Owens, I never had to deal with the full blast of all three silver bullets de jour being enforced at the same time.)
Suffice it to say that when the lowest grade that can be given is a “55,” and when teachers cannot allow their pass rate to fall below 80%, it does not take long before students realize that teachers will create whatever “credit recovery” fig leaf they need in order to “pass them on.” As Owens explained:
if a kid spent the test period — or every period — wadding up bits of paper in his mouth and fast-balling them at his peers while muttering the words “F— you!” and handed in an answer sheet that was blank except for his name, his score would be no lower than 55. Failing, but still within striking distance of a passing 65.
And pretty much guaranteed to pass if the teacher adhered to [Principal] P’s non-negotiable policy that was imparted at the orientation in August:
We must ensure that every failing mark for each marking period is reversed to a passing mark via make-up work (independent study, packets, etc.) for the students in our advisory groups.
So, Latinate, on all levels, was a “Cheaters’ Paradise.”
Confessions of a Bad Teacher implicitly raises the question of what did data-driven “reformers” not know about urban schools and when did they not know it. When I entered teaching, policy-makers had either read or seen the movie, Catch 22, and the fabricated “body counts” of the Vietnam War were not ancient history. Even if “reformers” were unaware of the long classical histories of fabricating data in order to make accountability statistics look good, they should have had memories of Enron and the financial engineering that caused the Great Recession. Why, as late as 2010 when Owens was teaching, would they impose such suicidal policies? Why, in the aftermath of cheating scandals and other evidence of negative unintended negative consequences, would policy-makers still believe that test-driven accountability could create more benefits than harm?