I May Have Been Wrong: Shorter Version

by Tedra Osell on March 4, 2012

A “bad teacher” named William Johnson talks about the problems we’re having from the other side of the desk.

my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

My major frustration with PK’s school—and the district—has been, all along, that I cannot get an honest answer from them about what they can and can’t do for him, so I’ve been left to flounder around asking for accommodations, waiting for a week or four while observations are made (PK: “they’re spying on me!”) and meetings are held, at which some accommodations are agreed to (but not everything I’ve asked for) and also it turns out that this meeting is to discuss that kind of accommodation, but if you want this other sort of thing that’s a totally different topic and we’d need to have another meeting, maybe next month. And I’m sorry but the school psychologist has another meeting on another campus now and will have to leave early. Etc.

And its obvious why things work this way. They can’t be honest about what they can’t do, because they are legally required to provide an appropriate education for every student. Including PK. But they can’t provide an appropriate education for every student, because they don’t have the resources, or the time, or the staffing, or the courses, that would be appropriate for PK (and doubtless many other students) because they don’t have the money to do so and anyway they’re also required to Teach State Standards, which are demanding enough that they can’t wedge in a bunch of other crap like “differentiated curriculum” or “time to look at PK’s ‘proof’ that zero equals infinity and help him work through it to see if it holds water.” (It doesn’t, but it’s remarkably clever nonetheless, for a sixth-grader—and shows that he thinks pretty hard about this math stuff.)

So they can’t say what they can’t do, because that opens them up to a lawsuit; and they can’t make small adjustments without tons of paperwork to put PK into a special category that will force them to make some changes and meanwhile waiting for the paperwork means weeks go by during which PK, who is impatient and immature, becomes increasingly convinced that “they don’t care” and “aren’t doing anything,” and his hostility and alienation get worse and worse.

Part of the problem is bureaucracy, and there are lots of things that can be tried to mitigate that—local control, less regulation, etc—although those things open up the door to older problems, like ignoring kids with learning disabilities or shrugging bullying off and expecting kids to “work it out for themselves.” But a bureaucracy that contains internally inconsistent regulations—especially one without the funds to implement any of those regulations in a timely manner—creates chaos when it’s tested. As long as you don’t push up against the margins, and as long as individual teachers and administrators are willing to work their asses off and occasionally ignore a rule and hope they don’t get called on the carpet for it, most kids will make it through relatively unscathed. But the kids like PK, who will always push at the edges, end up flailing around in the net. With lots of money and time I can extricate him and keep him from drowning. But as a nation it’s unacceptable, wasteful and immoral to treat so many kids as, essentially, bycatch.

{ 58 comments }

1

purple 03.04.12 at 6:57 pm

As the economy has improved slightly, science and math positions in the inner city school are starting to go unfilled.

And this is basically the crux of the problem. Teaching these populations is damn hard, but no one with a public platform will acknowledge it, let alone compensate for it.

It’s basically only in depression conditions that you have a surplus of teachers in critical content areas, and yet Obama’s education policy is basically based on this fleeting surplus and the idea of ratcheting up working hours for a desperate labor pool .

2

purple 03.04.12 at 6:59 pm

3

rob helpy-chalk 03.04.12 at 7:19 pm

Did the school give PK an Individualized Education Plan? Joey was given one because some speech therapy (he has problems pronouncing L’s, J’s, Sh’s, and S’s) and while they were setting it out, they decided to also address his slight reading delay and some self control problems. They seemed eager to set this out as a comprehensive program, rather than deal with accommodations piecemeal.

4

J. Otto Pohl 03.04.12 at 7:32 pm

Public schools by definition are structured to help the great middle segment of pupils not those that need special attention for what ever reason. Lack of resources has undoubtedly made it worse in recent decades. But, I wouldn’t expect any change soon.

5

Cranky Observer 03.04.12 at 7:56 pm

= = = J. Otto Polh @ 7:32 “Public schools by definition are structured to help the great middle segment of pupils not those that need special attention for what ever reason. ” = = =

From about 1990 that’s not necessarily what the law says, depending on where you live. I’m in a not-overly-progressive area of the US at the moment but nonetheless we maintain a separate county-wide virtual school district to support special needs students and pay a separate county-wide tax to fund it, over and above our local district’s special needs budget. They take pretty seriously the charge to educate every student up to her full potential taking her special needs into account (admittedly damaged somewhat by the current economic situation).

Cranky

6

christian_h 03.04.12 at 8:07 pm

While observing/taking part in a day where 4th-6th grade teachers were planning a math class, a depressing observation was that a significant amount of time that could have gone towards creatively thinking through how to teach a topic, instead had to be used to massage the planned lesson so it conformed to state standards (“the assessment test has three questions on this topic and two on that one and so how can we classify what we are planning…”). It’s the Taylorization of education – institutionalized distrust of the education workers, a steady increase in managerial control. Taken together with the obvious lack of resources it is simply inevitable that many kids will fall by the wayside.

7

Sandwichman 03.04.12 at 8:08 pm

Gosh, according to Gilles Saint-Paul, teachers are disposed — by the protected and public sector nature of their jobs — to have an unfavorable opinion of the market economy and this inhibits the “correct” reforms.

Yet the characteristics of their profession – that it is protected and in the public sector – generate a selection bias in the prior beliefs of those who elect to become teachers. That is, one is more likely to choose such a profession, the more unfavourable one’s opinion about the market economy.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1486970

8

jonm 03.04.12 at 8:26 pm

“So they can’t say what they can’t do, because that opens them up to a lawsuit”.

One of the great excuses of bureaucrats everywhere, and nearly always a complete lie. Typically someone or some group has decided that such a rule will always be applied even if, on the average, it is to the detriment of the organisation’s supposed goals. This is an ass-covering practice, that persists because of the failure of senior staff to take appropriate responsibility.

9

Patrick 03.04.12 at 8:55 pm

All of this is happening, mutis mutandis, in universities, too. Where I’m teaching, they’re starting to crack down on the “hope they don’t get called on the carpet for it” type stuff too, which makes it all the more dispiriting.

Of course, college kids can bail in ways PK can’t, which is why I’ll be happy if his lot improves before mine does.

10

david 03.04.12 at 9:25 pm

Wow, Sandwichman, that’s one pernicious abstract. “Correct parameters” indeed. Sounds like Bryan Caplan on voting. Believe in my truisms or be gone!

11

Bloix 03.04.12 at 9:30 pm

“Public schools by definition are structured to help the great middle segment of pupils”

Where I live – admittedly a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC – this is not remotely the case. Our county runs a whole gamut of magnet and gifted-and-talented programs: two middle school magnet programs, one in math-and-science, one in arts and communications; a science and math high school magnet program; a journalism high school magnet program; several International Baccalaureate programs; and many, many AP courses.

For kids with documented learning disabilities, the county must develop an implement an Individualized Education Program, which often requres substantial resources in terms of special instruction, equipment (such as computers), transportation, and counseling.

If anything, the average kid with no particular problems but no great intellectual talent is the kid who is short-changed in our schools. The kid who gets C’s and doesn’t cause trouble is the kid who gets lost in the system.

12

JSE 03.04.12 at 9:50 pm

If you live in Montgomery County, Bloix, I can guarantee you that there are people on the warpath about gifted education in the public schools: see e.g.

http://themorechild.com/

13

Davis X. Machina 03.04.12 at 10:45 pm

@#7 John Stossel, is that really you?

14

Watson Ladd 03.04.12 at 11:02 pm

Davis, check the calibration on your sarcasm meter. There is a serious issue though: what is education for? Obviously every parent wants what is best for their child, which isn’t the same thing for all children. Yet at the same time there are some parents who just shouldn’t be allowed to teach their children, and concerns about social breakdown if we don’t have children socialize across ability levels. I think that we can’t do much about either of those secondary issues, so vouchers are best: they enable parents to pick what students really need. But if you value the other 2 more, then that leads to very different conclusions.

15

Peter T 03.05.12 at 1:22 am

Can I tie this to the preceding post? All societies, given the opportunity, will take their metaphors too seriously, and seek to extend them so as to bring as much behaviour as possible into conformity with the ruling ideas (although this is in dynamic tension with lots of other forces). In the case of modern western societies, the metaphors are of market managerialism. So education has to be weighed, counted, tested, managed, subject to cost-benefit analysis…If there are problems, the solution is more competition, more choice, more testing. And if there are more problems, then the solution is yet more of the same. PK’s school is the laboratory rat – you never get to talk to the men in white coats. In other areas of life, chances are that a good few of the people on this blog are the men in white coats.

16

ezra abrams 03.05.12 at 1:34 am

I live in Newton, MA, a generally affluent suburb just west of boston, home to many harvard/mit/bu etc profs, mds, etc – peoplewho value education.
and the schools are pretty good (i think, like most parents, i don’t really know about other schools, so I have no std of comparision)
one thing I’ve noticed are that there little cuts every year, it is like the proverbial lobster that doesn’t notice as the water slowly gets hotter.
since most parents are only in a school (we have k-5, 6-8 middle, and high schools) for a few years , you don’t notice changes that take place over 10 years – and I’ve noticed that the school board is very very chary about providing decent info to the citizenry.

it is also clear, as in most other economic situations, taht the small number of peopel with a big stake – in this case spec ed parents – really drive the agenda and where $ goes, and there isn’t really an honest accounting of what is happening (and I’m a big fan of special ed, I think it is beyond shameful that we don’t help the unfortunate)

to be more clear: the school board really does not present data in a way that lets you see long term (10 year +) trends (not to mention lack of attention; the school board paid for a fancy 20 page booklet they sent to all the parents; in this booklet there were 3 diff , non overlapping values for the % of funds spend on spec ed; I wrote them about this and got some BS market-speak answer)

PS: I agree with bloix @11; at least in Newton, MA, where to my personal knowledge 3 nobel prize winners live, there are an abundance of opportunities for really really smart (800 SAT smart) kids to shine.

17

ezra abrams 03.05.12 at 1:41 am

sandwichman @ #7
not to be snide, but what is wrong with a distrust of market economys ?
here in the USA, we have people like M Romney, who thru financial shenanigans (NOT business) re arranged jobs so that 1,000s of middle class (local mom pop stationary stores) closed, and the jobs got redistributed to min wage (staples) and Romney took a cut – this is good ?
we have a system where kids go to bed hungry and in pain cause their parents can’t afford dental care, and we have m romney with his CA teardown – this is ok ?
we have a housing crisis where 1,000s of familys, thru stupidity , lost their homes, but bankers get tax funded bonuses

Forgive me if I think a little anti marketism is a good idea

Also, let me say, that “left” and “center” and ‘right” are defined not by some external standard (in contrast to say sports, where their is a rulebook) but by the extremes; if you have a Rick Santorum, a H Cain, etc, then they manage, by being so extreme, to redefine to the right what “center” is.

So, the point is, that college profs are not liberal – it is just that the billionair fueled wackos have, with all their money, shifted whta normal is

18

Tedra Osell 03.05.12 at 2:03 am

Jonm @8: “One of the great excuses of bureaucrats everywhere, and nearly always a complete lie. “

FWIW, no one has actually said such a thing to me. I am inferring it from the fact that virtually all my mama friends keep pointing out that the schools are “required by law to give each student an appropriate education” (which is true), from my sense that most parents in my situation are more confrontational with the school than I am, and from what the administrator types are saying/not saying.

19

chris 03.05.12 at 2:05 am

Obviously every parent wants what is best for their child

Well, every parent who is involved enough to care thinks they want what is best for their child (or wants what they think is best for their child, which I think is the same but wouldn’t swear to it). Some of them even have the resources to do something about it.

But there’s lots of parents who don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to be super involved or aren’t qualified to judge or are just plain deluded about what’s best for their kids (and that’s the ones who aren’t incarcerated, sick, or dead); and the system ought to serve those kids too, they didn’t choose to have that kind of parents. Putting parents in the driver’s seat might sound good to parents at election time, but it’s not only not a panacea, I’m not sure it even qualifies as a solution.

But they can’t provide an appropriate education for every student, because they don’t have the resources, or the time, or the staffing, or the courses, that would be appropriate for PK (and doubtless many other students) because they don’t have the money to do so

So if you already know that, why keep looking for reasons to blame the teachers? This is both obviously true, and a sufficient explanation all by itself. There’s genuinely no reason to look for another.

For that matter, for most of the kids that “the system” is failing, their poor health, malnutrition, stressed/broken home environment, lack of resources in the home, etc. are *also* a sufficient explanation for them not doing well, such that no other need be looked for, no matter what kind of school they go to. Schools that perform highly do it mostly by not having those students.

And yet, when a poor, malnourished student with one parent in jail and the other working three jobs goes to an underfunded, understaffed school where they’re part of a huge class full of other poor, malnourished students with one parent in jail and the other working three jobs and fails to make the 90th percentile, it must be the teacher’s fault. Clearly, what we need is the ability to fire those teachers faster with less paperwork.

If we really wanted to be serious about improving educational performance for everyone, we’d do what the Scandinavian countries do and attack child poverty first, and nationalize the educational system so that funding isn’t dependent on the wealth of the neighborhood. It might not be sufficient, but it damn sure is necessary.

But ISTM that the truth is, some people are quite happy with a system that delivers a poor education to poor children; educational achievement has a lot to do with socioeconomic status later in life and you wouldn’t want the wrong people’s children becoming the next generation’s ruling class, now would you? If an occasional Barack Obama slips through the cracks (upward), that’s fine, but there has to be a secure floor under the children of the privileged and that means a lot of people who are going to flip burgers, run cash registers and drive garbage trucks so that the likes of George W. Bush can fail upward all their lives.

20

Cranky Observer 03.05.12 at 3:07 am

= = = chris @ 2:05 “But ISTM that the truth is, some people are quite happy with a system that delivers a poor education to poor children; educational achievement has a lot to do with socioeconomic status later in life and you wouldn’t want the wrong people’s children becoming the next generation’s ruling class, now would you? If an occasional Barack Obama slips through the cracks (upward), that’s fine, but there has to be a secure floor under the children of the privileged and that means a lot of people who are going to flip burgers, run cash registers and drive garbage trucks so that the likes of George W. Bush can fail upward all their lives.” = = =

Fully agree [1]. And per the question posed in the prior post, I think that was the driving force behind NCLB as well.

Cranky

[1] With the minor quibble that while Barack Obama’s mother chose to live a somewhat austere life, and he did similarly after he moved to Chicago, his extended US family was pretty solidly middle class or above.

21

david 03.05.12 at 3:14 am

chris is making sense. But I’ve had a family resemblance sort problem along the lines of Tedra’s problem with PK, and my own socialist solutions for systemic change won’t help much in the near term. We get a rundown of what’s wrong until it seems like something might have to be done, at which point there is hemming and hawing and cancelled meetings and oh things aren’t that bad and you are causing problems.

There are kids, in good school systems that have managed to locate themselves outside of underfunded areas, who don’t get what they should thanks to walls erected for funding and other reasons. I (pretend to?) remind myself, when I think to, that it’s a luxury to have such problems, but also too it’s my kid and it’s a problem.

22

Cranky Observer 03.05.12 at 3:23 am

david @ 3:14,
I fully understand what you are saying, and I neither disagree with you nor criticize you. But here’s the problem I see: families with resources have always had to option to put their children in private schools, obtain extra tutoring or psychological help, etc. Families without resources have not been able to do so. Vouchers [1] can’t possibly give the families without resources enough to match the families with but they can destroy the public school district and by extension the entire concept of universal schooling.

Cranky

[1] I’ll even stipulate leaving charter schools out of the discussion this time.

23

James Reffell 03.05.12 at 4:08 am

I’m going to address the “bad teacher” article directly, since for me it cuts to the heart of my conflicting opinions about education in the U.S. My reaction isn’t based on research (though I’ve looked at the research, some) but experiences as a student, parent, and (second-hand) teacher in the public schools.

The author of the article (simplifying horribly) says that he is, counter to the official verdict, a pretty good teacher, though of course not perfect. Furthermore he does not need the sort of outside interventions he’s getting (around observations, scores, etc.) to be better (he has that motivation already) and that in fact they are hurting his ability to teach.

I believe him. I’ve had teachers who would be in similar positions in the current regime: they were brilliant teachers, changed lives, and (due to a combination of being a little anti-authoritarian, having unique teaching styles that worked for them, and addressing tricky student populations) would totally look like bad teachers if observed / measured / standardized to death. My mother sounds exactly like this guy, she taught (very successfully) English as a second language for decades, but was brutalized and burnt out by the standardization police by the end. He is absolutely correct that, for teachers like him (and my mother), the very best thing to do would be to leave them alone to do their job, give them support with a minimum of guidance and interference, and let them get on with it.

But! I’ve also had the other kind. (And, as a parent, I’m seeing a few I’d like to not subject my children to, although mercifully only a few). The space-cadets, the evil ones, the mentally deficient, and the ones that should, for the common good, never be allowed near a classroom. Arguably, these people did not need intervention, they just need to be shown the door.

Finally I can think of a few off ducks who were a mix– not so much middling (teachers don’t often seem to be middling, really) but folks who operated as Type Is for some children and Type IIs for others. One of my favorite English teachers fits this mold — I can honestly say she changed my life for the better (challenged my preconceptions, introduced me to Joseph Heller) but by any objective measure she would look to be a truly awful teacher. And I think for most students in the class, she was.

Dealing with the first kind makes me incredibly sympathetic to the anti-reformers (as reform is currently defined in the US). Dealing with the second makes me sympathetic to the reformers. Dealing with the third kind makes me confused.

24

Arwen 03.05.12 at 4:49 am

Lack of resources for IEPs is a problem in my area, too. It seems clear to me my youngest is dyslexic (and since I am, his dad is, his grandmom, and aunts are, it’s not a surprise). I don’t mind that he’s not getting an IEP because we’re a pretty educated bunch with several teachers and support aides in the family: we have a few tricks up our sleeves. But when I talked to his teacher about it I could see her really struggling with the truth that even if we got evaluation it’d be a year off and an IEP after that.
My elder son is the child that the education system’s aimed at.

Standardization as a way of evaluating teachers is hugely evil to students and teachers alike. My sister struggled immensely with standard teaching environments, but is quite brilliant in her later life. The teachers who helped her most were those who came and met her where her strengths were. It’s a longer path but to a better outcome: in their classes she’d have tested as an F and then eventually an A, but happy, whereas in the Standard Classrooms without flexibility she’d be a miserable, anxious D, disappointing the test scores and her own soul alike.

25

Sebastian 03.05.12 at 5:21 am

“Vouchers [1] can’t possibly give the families without resources enough to match the families with but they can destroy the public school district and by extension the entire concept of universal schooling.”

Why should that be true? In some countries, vouchers are the cornerstone to the entire concept of universal schooling. Just because we can’t give families ‘enough resources to match families like Tedra’s’ does not mean that we can’t give a voucher that can get adequate schooling.

26

cjcjc 03.05.12 at 9:20 am

“In some countries, vouchers are the cornerstone to the entire concept of universal schooling. Just because we can’t give families ‘enough resources to match families like Tedra’s’ does not mean that we can’t give a voucher that can get adequate schooling.”

Indeed. Especially given that US spending per capita is so much higher than the OECD average.

27

liberal japonicus 03.05.12 at 10:43 am

In some countries, vouchers are the cornerstone to the entire concept of universal schooling.

I know that Sweden has a well documented voucher program and there are a few countries in South America that I’ve heard have voucher programs, but I’m wondering what other countries you have in mind.

28

Barry 03.05.12 at 12:35 pm

And Sweden isn’t allowable as an example, due to the ‘Scandinavia doesn’t count!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ rule by the right.

29

laura 03.05.12 at 1:03 pm

I can’t read all the new comments this morning, but I think that someone in the last post suggested that you hire an advocate. Do it. And hire a lawyer.

If you want your son in the public school system, then the school system HAS to make accommodations. If you think that he needs a private school setting, then the district may have to pay for it. No one from the school district is going to tell you all the options. You need to hire someone who knows the options and how you can get it. (You may have to get a very scary label assigned to your son.)

Don’t waste time being upset. (I wasted two years being upset.)

30

Lynne 03.05.12 at 4:04 pm

Tedra, I don’t know how to improve the school system. Ours in Canada is not run the same as yours, but it is as flawed. My late mother was a teacher, and I believe she was a very good one. Every year parents asked to have their children in their classes. This was in the 1960s. So when my children entered the school system in the 1990s I was predisposed to be pro-teacher. This changed within a few years, though I could see their working conditions were harder as they were responsible for more students with a wider variety of needs, and class sizes were not reduced. They had prep hours cut, too. So, not good and I am emphatically in favour of various measures to address these problems—more support staff, smaller classes, etc.

But I have met very few teachers who were really good. Enthusiastic, effective, good at communicating about problems: really just basic stuff. By high school with our younger son we were knocking our heads against walls at every turn. I won’t divert your thread with our story, but after years of dealing with the school system, talking with teachers and principals both good and bad, I am left with the impression that nothing is done to reward and encourage good teachers, or to correct or even get rid of bad ones. A sorry state of affairs.

Good luck with your son.

31

Janice 03.05.12 at 4:58 pm

Autistic Youngest is in her second year of high school and we’re thrilled at how communicative her teachers are and the special education coordinator. It doesn’t hurt that former students of mine fill many of these spots at this school. Even then, bobbles occur: a textbook is lost, project due dates aren’t properly tracked, etc. This is in the best of situations with relatively little economic stress on the system, with motivated and enthusiastic staffers, a high-functioning student with a positive attitude and two parents who pour a lot of time and effort into supporting their kid.

Even in the best of situations, it’s a lot of work on the part of many, including the kid, to make the complex system work. It’s monumentally more difficult when even a few are obstructionist. I’m hoping that doesn’t hold forever with PK’s schooling!

32

JohnR 03.05.12 at 7:01 pm

Just as a side note, and only for what it’s worth, there’s a facet here that doesn’t get mentioned much in all the hubbub. The “solutions” which have been imposed on all too many struggling systems in this country make the hard job of teaching much harder. It’s not impossible, but it seems upside-down to me. There is little support for the teachers who need it most – the new ones. They get the hardest classes, the worst rooms and the least amount of materials. The kids who need the help the most (the bored and the struggling ones) get crammed in with the rest and leave the teacher with a tough choice – do you pay extra attention to the ones who need it most (and will cause problems if you don’t), and short-change the class as a whole, or do you write off the few and try to run over them so that you can get most of the class to learn the answers to the standardized tests? How many potentially good teachers flame out before they have a chance to get the hang of it, simply because the principal is overwhelmed or incompetent and the rules are weighted against them. I’ve seen this and heard this too often to have it be just poor teachers. Perhaps it’s some bizarre pseudo-‘Darwinian’ approach that weeds out those who aren’t dedicated or desperate enough, but that seems foolish to me. I don’t know what the solution might be, but it seems fairly clear that private schools do better in part because they can pick their teachers, support them, supply them, and give them the disciplinary backing they need to handle the kids who want to push the system. Money isn’t the issue – I don’t know any private-school teachers who are being paid at the level of public-school ones; it’s that their jobs are devoted mainly to teaching rather than to insane rule-following. There are plenty of examples of things that work – why are we so desperate to do things that usually don’t work?

33

Tedra Osell 03.05.12 at 7:37 pm

Chris @ 19: I agree with the gist of what you’re saying, but two quibbles:

why keep looking for reasons to blame the teachers?why keep looking for reasons to blame the teachers?

I’m looking for reasons to blame teachers? I think I’m looking like crazy for reasons *not* to blame teachers. Or administrators. Even though there have been both teachers and administrators who have frustrated the bejeezus out of me during this whole saga.

every parent who is involved enough to care thinks they want what is best for their child

For the record, I don’t want what is “best” for PK. I want what is *not damaging* to him. I would be happy to settle for, and have actively pursued, not what’s “best” but what’s good enough.

34

Tedra Osell 03.05.12 at 7:40 pm

JohnR @32: This is a tough one. Because I agree with you–it seems like a lot of regulation makes it harder to just focus on teaching–but at the same time, I know why that regulation is there: to ensure that schools don’t overlook marginal kids. Figuring out how to protect kids while also allowing teachers to do their jobs without their hands tied behind their backs is tough.

35

chris 03.05.12 at 8:40 pm

I’m looking for reasons to blame teachers?

Sorry, I guess that came out more personal than I intended it. A substantial number of people in the discourse about education ARE, ISTM, looking for reasons to blame teachers, but you personally may or may not be among them, and I didn’t intend to imply that you definitely are.

I guess I mixed up talking to a particular person with talking to the world/anyone interested in responding — I’m not sure which a blog comment section is really “supposed” to be, anyway (and it may vary from one blog to another or even one post to another).

36

piglet 03.05.12 at 9:47 pm

I have no clue what’s wrong with US education system but it seems to me that parental anxiety is a big deal here (compare to this recent post: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/02/20/unequal-childhoods/). Everybody talks about what’s best for kids (**) but isn’t there also a right to a happy parenthood?

(**) At least that’s how the question is framed although what is really meant in many cases is not what’s good for the child, but what might be good for the adult they will become.

37

L2P 03.05.12 at 9:47 pm

“I don’t know what the solution might be, but it seems fairly clear that private schools do better in part because they can pick their teachers, support them, supply them, and give them the disciplinary backing they need to handle the kids who want to push the system.”

IMO, private schools do better because they pick their kids and parents. Is your kid close to the age cutoff for kindergarten? Then she is VERY likely to be rejected to a prestigious school, because those kids need extra help in the early hears to stay up with older kids. Happened to us twice; only found out that was the reason because we complained. Does your kid have ANY indications of learning issues? She will not be accepted unless the private school is geared for that sort of child. One of my daughters was not accepted to a school because she was too careful answering test questions and they thought she was “slow.” A lot of the screening interview is simply about following directions and how the parents interact with the child. And you better believe they spend an hour watching group play VERY CAREFULLY.

Outside of disciplinary backing, I don’t think private schools give nearly what you think they do. The public school training might be counterproductive, but those teachers get constant seminars, refresher courses, mandatory mentoring, and summer intensives. Private schools I’ve been involved with get a few days of in-service and a week of prep. They have better equipment, but you’ll have to take my word for it that an awesome computer lab and art department isn’t giving my kids max scores on the ERB. I love having them, but reading and math is taught at the desk, where we have almost exactly the same stuff we’d have at public school.

38

James 03.06.12 at 12:26 am

liberal japonicus @27 – Netherlands. Schools are funded by directly paying the school per student attending. Parents are allowed to switch schools at will. Funding can go to private schools (including religious) as long as the school meets minimum requirements. Last time I looked at it, schools where around 70% private.

Chris @19 – Conservatives want minority students to be highly educated (in a non-social science). We are under the impression that minority business owners secretly vote Republican. There is also the impression that greater education among all citizens will lower the poverty rate (until poverty redefined again).

39

Watson Ladd 03.06.12 at 1:01 am

piglet, it seems odd to separate the child from their future. We don’t let children eat ice cream all day and tell them to floss so that they will have teeth later on.

40

Ohio Mom 03.06.12 at 1:33 am

If a website could be a bible, this would be it for special ed law:

http://www.wrightslaw.com/

41

liberal japonicus 03.06.12 at 1:35 am

I’m not sure if the Netherlands is the example that Sebastian was reaching for, as they have had the system since the turn of the century. Also, both there and in Sweden, the system depends on private schools not charging any more than public schools. In addition, the Netherlands and other European countries have policies of early streaming, so that children enter a university feeder course at the age of 12 or so, so you are already separating out special needs students much earlier. That sort of streaming would never be possible in the US.

I can’t find where I saw it, but Finnish education seems to be the flavor du jour, and one Finnish expert who is often asked to comment on the system said of his discussions to US based interviews something to the effect that people in the US seem to ignore the fact that Finland has no private schools. This is not the thing I remembered (but I think it is the same person)

PASI SAHLBERG: Well, this global educational reform movement is a way of thinking about reforming education that is based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability, testing. In other words, all these market-based ideas of running the education system. I’m using this term GERM, because I have found that the Finnish way of building good education system is not only different to the GERM, but it’s almost the opposing way of building education policies and reforms.

EMMA ALBERICI: In what way?

PASI SAHLBERG: For example, if I take the competition idea, where in all of these countries that you mentioned, the policies are built on the idea that competition will ultimately improve the quality of teaching. In Finland we don’t have these policies. We believe that cooperation and networking and sharing are the things and important things to make sure that everybody will be able to improve and do things better. Accountability is another one where, in many of these so-called infected countries, schools and teachers and principals are increasingly held accountable through the standardised tests; and in Finland, we have been trying to build trust and responsibility within our education systems rather than accountability. So, many of these GERM elements are actually opposite to what Finland has been doing.

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Tedra Osell 03.06.12 at 1:35 am

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piglet 03.06.12 at 2:00 am

“piglet, it seems odd to separate the child from their future”

Maybe it seems odd to you and maybe that is a symptom of what I am talking about.

44

Pete 03.06.12 at 4:24 pm

Maybe it seems odd to you and maybe that is a symptom of what I am talking about.

Is this an argument about the intertemporality of the self?

45

ike 03.06.12 at 4:51 pm

liberal japonicus @41: Since you mentioned the Finnish system (whose alleged merits I’m not competent to comment on), let me just note that Finland is not one of those countries that have what you call an early streaming system. In fact, the currently dominant educational philosophy seems to be strongly opposed to such differentiating approaches.

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Substance McGravitas 03.06.12 at 5:10 pm

In addition, the Netherlands and other European countries have policies of early streaming, so that children enter a university feeder course at the age of 12 or so, so you are already separating out special needs students much earlier.

That’s a pretty ugly way to put it. The special needs students have special needs, not common deficits that suit them for a factory career.

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liberal japonicus 03.06.12 at 5:48 pm

Substance, I suppose I should have just said they are separating out students earlier without the modification.The Dutch and other countries often stream students into university and non university tracks from various ages (the same is true for Finland, in that after 10th grade, students are separated into a university track that prepares them for a matriculation examination, which is necessary for college entry or a upper vocational secondary school) Given the geographic spread of the US, that is probably impossible, but being able to stream students earlier makes a number of things much easier.

I’ve been away from the states for more than two decades, but my impression is that it would be an anathema to have children and their parents decide at 16 or even earlier if they are college bound and create an education system that reflected that. The way you use the term ‘a factory career’ highlights an American notion that college education is for everyone, which is not the case in the parts of Europe I am familiar with. However, here in Japan, the US notion that virtually everyone who wants to should go to college is leading to some serious problems as well. I’m not particularly comfortable with forcing children to make such sort of decisions when they are 16 or even earlier, but I do recognize that doing so creates a very different educational environment.

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piglet 03.06.12 at 6:54 pm

“but my impression is that it would be an anathema to have children and their parents decide at 16 or even earlier if they are college bound and create an education system that reflected that”

My impression is that overwhelmingly is what is happening, it is just not openly reflected in the education system. The way children are sorted in the German system (in some states at the age of 10, in others a bit later), for example, is definitely ugly. But how should we describe the fact that US parents start saving a college fund when the baby is born, and start applying for preschool years in advance? To me, that seems pretty harsh too.

Japonicus is right to point out that the alternative to college doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, a factory career (or more to the point, a McDonald’s career). That’s one of the biggest issues with the US system, the absence of an apprenticeship system. Many of the students at US colleges, special needs or not, aren’t getting the education that is suitable for them. But they are told they have no choice.

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StevenAttewell 03.06.12 at 10:19 pm

A couple points:

1. As ezra abrams and others have noted, there’s every reason for teachers to be suspicious of the hegemonic, market-based reforms on offer – they’re bunkum. Not only is there no data to support them, the data runs in the other direction.
2. ezra – as a Newton South alumni myself, I found your comment interesting from the perspective of a different problem – namely what do we do about those kids who neither excel nor strain the boundaries of the net? Because my experience of Newton South from 97-01 was that the school was an extreme pressure cooker that produced both lots of over-prepared and somewhat high-strung high achievers (like myself) and lots of kids who just gave up. This actually pissed off my dad so much he did a research paper on the topic.

to be more clear: the school board really does not present data in a way that lets you see long term (10 year +) trends (not to mention lack of attention; the school board paid for a fancy 20 page booklet they sent to all the parents; in this booklet there were 3 diff , non overlapping values for the % of funds spend on spec ed; I wrote them about this and got some BS market-speak answer)

PS: I agree with bloix @11; at least in Newton, MA, where to my personal knowledge 3 nobel prize winners live, there are an abundance of opportunities for really really smart (800 SAT smart) kids to shine.

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StevenAttewell 03.06.12 at 10:19 pm

* whoops. Forgot to clip those last two paragraphs, my apologies.

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Seth 03.06.12 at 10:27 pm

This situation reminds me of the reason my wife and I chose to home school our son. We had to make a choice between:

1. managing a lot of complicated — and probably rather ineffective — interventions in the school context, OR
2. taking direct responsibility for his primary education

We chose the latter as a decisively better option. Our circumstances were not representative, of course, so that is in large part because we were privileged enough to make that choice.

In the popular imagination home schooling is always motivated by religious kookiness. In our experience it is equally common to find home schoolers to be refugees from the failures of the public school system to cope with even mildly non-mainstream issues. Public school caters to what I like to call the “middle 57%” — a completely random number I chose because it conveys:
1) it works for a majority of kids, but
2) it leaves a very BIG minority under-served, and
3) the under-served minority includes BOTH people likely to lag average academic performance AND those capable of exceeding average academic performance

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Harold 03.07.12 at 3:22 pm

#47 wrote: The Dutch and other countries often stream students into university and non university tracks from various ages (the same is true for Finland, in that after 10th grade, students are separated into a university track that prepares them for a matriculation examination, which is necessary for college entry or a upper vocational secondary school). Since in Finland 10th grade is the equivalent of 11th grade in the US (Finnish first grade starts in U.S. second grade). To say that streaming for university starts in 1oth (i.e., 11th grade) is the same as saying that Finnish schools don’t have streaming. In addition all European countries (including Finland) have introduced reforms making it possible for a pupil “streamed” for a non-Academic university track (i.e., industrial or vocational higher ed) to switch over to an Academic track at any time. There is also usually adult vocational training for people to change careers.

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liberal japonicus 03.07.12 at 11:59 pm

Only about half of the college age students in Finland go to university. While there is a really interesting system for retaking the exams, you are only permitted to retake the test a limited number of times if you fail. This seems like streaming to me.

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liberal japonicus 03.08.12 at 12:22 am

Another point I should have added, the Finnish system starts at age 7, so if you are talking about years in school, the Finnish students are coming out a few years earlier.

piglet is also right that there is, for all intents and purposes, a streaming system in the US.

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Norwegian Guy 03.08.12 at 2:41 am

#47: “Given the geographic spread of the US, that is probably impossible, “

Not sure what is hinted at in this objection. The USA is a much larger country than Finland, but there is no more need to send everyone from Alaska to school in Florida than from Lapland to Helsinki.

And by “upper vocational secondary school”, do you mean the polytechnics? As far as I can see, they are a part of the tertiary education system. For instance, nurses are educated there, so they’re more like a college than a secondary school.

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liberal japonicus 03.08.12 at 11:13 am

Here in Japan, students will often travel an hour or more to go to their chosen high school (junior high school is based on the area) Some schools have dormitories, but the vast majority of students live at home when they go to school and this is made possible because there is excellent public transportation. In France, the situation was similar when I was there and a number of the lycée students were living alone in town and attending school. A situation where high school students choose where they go to study in a similar fashion isn’t really possible in the US. It is not just geographic spread, it is public transport, and a whole host of other infrastructural considerations.

As far as Finnish upper schools, my understanding is that they are a continuation of basic education. Here is a link that says

General upper secondary education continues the teaching and educational tasks of basic education to students aged about 16–19. The general upper secondary school ends in the matriculation examination which yields eligibility for all higher education studies.

Also, from what I can tell from looking on the web, students studying nursing must pass the matriculation examination, unless they want to be ‘practical nurses’, which only requires graduation from an upper vocational secondary school. This PDF outlines the system.

There’s also a bit of a conundrum here. If an education system (and a society) find a way to make certain jobs worthy of societal respect but not requiring a university degree, they are probably going to not only lift up jobs that are not given respect here, they are probably going to take jobs that would normally require tertiary education here and create tracks where students need not go on to tertiary ed. When you compare that to the US or UK (I don’t know about Norway) the temptation is to say, they need to go to this school, and since the US/UK requires nurses to go to nursing school or a polytechnic, then this school is the equivalent of a university. But looking at the system as a whole, that is not the case. It’s a question of frames and it is very difficult to look at something like a nurse, that requires at least a 2 year degree in the US, and say that they are becoming nurses at the end of high school.

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Norwegian Guy 03.09.12 at 1:01 am

Yes, a decent public transit system helps. Or at least a school bus now and then. But I wanted to point out that the US isn’t the only sparsely populated country in the world. Finland has only half the population density of the USA.

And it looks like I just misunderstood you to say that “a matriculation examination is necessary for (…) a upper vocational secondary school”. My bad :)

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liberal japonicus 03.09.12 at 7:53 am

Ahh, no, that’s my bad.

the same is true for Finland, in that after 10th grade, students are separated into a university track [that prepares them for a matriculation examination, which is necessary for college entry] or a upper vocational secondary school

While a comma might have helped after ‘entry’, I’m saving my up for the end times…

I’d also note that talking about education systems (or any kind of complex social system) is always difficult, because there are often alternatives that are available, but are not used very often. I’ve taught in Japan for more than 2 decades, and I’m still learning new things about requirements and programs and tracks. And when we start talking about a ‘system’ like the US, where not only is each state different, but various locations have different notions and procedures, it’s really hard to keep track of everything.

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