"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Confessions of a "Bad Teacher" Confronting Treachery During an Age of "Reform"

I read Rafe Esquith’s Real Talk for Real Teachers and James Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher during the same week. Esquith described many types of educational malpractice being imposed in the name of “best practices” that I have seen. In fact, he recounts disgusting incidents that are worse than anything I have witnessed. On the other hand, Esquith describes the joys of teaching. He makes it clear why teaching can be such a rewarding career. Even as “reform” is calling into question the value of a teaching profession where educators devote their entire working lives to students, Esquith proclaims that we veterans will survive because, “Old age and treachery will always defeat youth and skill.”

Esquith expressed that wisdom with good humor. But, I recalled it in a sadder, more literal way when reading James Owens’ account of Mr. Bookbinder. Bookbinder was former actor with great relationships with the kids. His humor won kids over. Bookbinder was big on group work, which won him points with the principal. Ms. P. did not appreciate is shtick, however, and she believed he talked too much to be a “flawless practitioner” Since Bookbinder was “so 70s,” this excellent teacher received an “Unsatisfactory” evaluation. Probably because Ms. P. was jealous of Bookbinder’s popularity with the students, she told him, “All I want from you is to have you out of my school.”

But, Owens was a rookie and he was unable to manage the “Natasha gang,” of uncontrollable, mostly overage students. The first rule of his school was, “the individual teacher will handle all behavior problems in the classroom.” Never mind that this mentality doomed all school improvement efforts. It guaranteed administrators an ironclad excuse; the teachers are to blame.

So, Ms. P. first told Owens to have lunch with the chronic rule breakers in his 10th grade class and, later, summoned Owens and Bookbinder to announce a new policy. Bookbinder would take over Owens classes and the newbie would be assigned middle schoolers. Owens was surprised by the announcement and speculated why the loquacious Bookbinder nodded silently in agreement. Having taught inner city high school, I was a little surprised by Owens’s response. Having to trade 10th graders for 8th graders? Did he not realize that this was a case where “Old age and treachery will always defeat youth and skill.”

Owens then ran into the worst of our old treachery. It has long been the professed conventional wisdom that some teachers, because of their “Expectations!” have great success with the “same kids” as other less successful teachers. Of course, such a claim is sometimes true, but it has been repeated ad nauseam since before I entered the classroom. And, how often do we see a veteran teacher who nods in agreement when those words are spoken who will agree to take over the toughest classes?

For the record, when my school dropped to last in the state at a time when I taught an untested subject and, consequently, my class load was the toughest for any 10th through 12th teacher. My challenges were far greater than any other teacher in my hall, but they far easier than those faced by freshman teachers or the middle school. The chances of a young teacher being successful in those classes were miniscule and the resulting lack of qualified applicants meant that I was the only teacher in my department who had not recently survived a life-threatening illness. But, when my principal tried to “challenge” me into taking over a tested 8th grade class, I blew up. “I’ve paid my dues! Sacrifice someone else.”

I know from experience how difficult it is to teach a class of thirty 10th graders, with the full range of IEP and ELL students, as well as felons, when a half dozen of them have the most serious emotional and/or mental illness disorders. But, Owens was alone in such a class of 8th graders!

In other words, Owens taught the type of class that the best-known researchers advocating value-added evaluations (Chetty, Rockoff, and Friedman) excluded from their sample when they claimed that their models can control for effects beyond the teachers’ control, and they had no idea of why the exclusion undermined their methodology. The economists assumed that a class like Owens’ would have an additional special education teacher. Everyone, including value-added advocates, should also read Owens account of the political reasons why he had no assistance from a special education co-teacher.

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