You know what they say about assumption/getting around the law …(third in a series about the problems facing American education)

Let’s jump in the WABAC machine and travel to the late 60s and early 70s.

If you were a suburban white  kid, you were receiving (for the time) what could be considered the education experience that was exceptional for its time.  You memorized the poop out of everything, and you could repeat it on command.  If you had a good set of science teachers, you might even be doing rudimentary problem solving.  Those who weren’t too smart were getting some degree of industrial training *I remember seeing schools with auto shops and woodworking and metal working and jewelry design, clothing design, and food preparation).  Troublemakers could be more or less summarily expelled at which point they became the problem of the police (or the neighborhood they were likely breaking and entering into).  If you weren’t particularly smart, you could drop out at age 17, and you hopefully found a job and made a decent (or even good) honest living.  If you were a minority … well, you could get a basic education, and there were likely a lot of drop outs and expulsions to keep the school relatively calm for learning (though as hte murder rates of the era will attest, the neighborhood was not too safe after that).  The lucky ones made it out and got to college.

What changed …?

It wasn’t long before someone realized that minorities were getting a raw deal … minorities here aren’t just ethnic minorities, but include kids with a variety of learning disabilities.  Schools had more or less absolute power to deal with troublemakers and kids who wouldn’t/couldn’t learn.  For kids who wanted to learn, it was great, but for a lot of kids, they were being condemned to not getting their education.  Needless to say, crime rose quite a bit.  A lot of people refuse to believe this but the murder rate today compared to 40 years ago is quite low.  Busing was supposed to bring an end to the minority gap, but a lot of whites simply moved out of areas where minorities were being bused to, or took out a second mortgage and sent their kids to a private school … in other words, busing never worked because when minority kids arrived at the new school, the cycle of needing to lower expectations to prevent massive failure, behavior, performance and such that came with chronic poverty continued.

Then a bunch of folks realized the problem: if only we could educate those kids getting kicked out of school, they would be less likely to commit crimes and more likely to do something positive with their lives.  One of the most powerful and dangerous philosophies in education was born:

Every child can learn.

Suddenly, the push became (and continues through to today) to do everything in society’s power to keep kids in school as long as possible.

The results were rather staggering, and in many ways, schools have absolutely been unable to adjust to them.  Expulsion cannot happen at the drop of a hat, and for long suspensions, due process must be followed.  When a child has a learning disability, the school must hire specialists and therapists and must develop an individualized plan for that student in which parents have a great deal of power, and the school has very little power.  Students were given the right of freedom of speech and expression, so the look of students went down hill quite a bit, leading to problems with dress codes.  Order gave way to a great deal of chaos.  It seemed that learning was lost in a maelstrom.  To be sure, some of the kids who would have been kicked to the curb in the past got real learning opportunities … but it did come at a cost to other students.  This cost was not simply lost opportunities to learn, but it has put schools and communities under intense financial burden as well, especially in regards to lawsuits (some genuine, others not) and special education.

One “positive” outcome:  dropout rates are at an all-time low.  The negative side to that is that all of those kids who were more or less unwilling ot work at school are still in school taking up time, money, teacher and administrative attention, etc.

It really goes back to:  Every child can learn.  This is a philosophy that is not embraced in most parts of the world.  I’m not sure I have ever heard it connected to any other country.  It is possible that we Americans are unique in this philosophy.  This philosophy has been ingrained in our laws.  Schools have been stripped of a great many of their powers, and our students who are the most needy and the most troublesome are given extraordinary power over what goes on.  In some ways, this is good:  there certainly were schools, administrators, and teachers who abused their powers.  However, I think (and I think more and more people agree with this sentiment), the law has gone too far … and more and more people are tying to find ways around the laws that keep chronic troublemakers in school.

Which brings us to today …

I think we have reached a tipping point where people are just sick and tired of this.  They don’t like that the classes are forced to go slower to accommodate students with learning disabilities, or that nearly a quarter of a district’s budget is set aside to deal with 10% of the population.  They don’t like that students who clearly want no part of learning, and are there to simply disrupt the day and demand that everything be catered to them are allowed to continue doing this because the law restricts schools from acting further.  But how do you get around the law?

Interestingly, on January 7, the Obama administration published a set of guidelines advising schools to reconsider harsh discipline for students.  Part of the issue is that race has become a factor in discipline:  kids who commit the same acts often get treated differently depending on their race.  It is not clear if this treatment occurs in the same school or different schools.  It is very believable to me that poorer areas attract more poorly trained administrators who are more willing to overreact, while in richer areas, better administrators are less likely to overreact.  The report notes that out of school suspensions are out of date, which is patently naive.  While they should not be used freely, out of school suspensions are generally used to safeguard the learning of students left in the school, or to allow for a cooling down period if violence is involved.  I firmly believe that a great many people see the administration guidelines as well intentioned but naive and counterproductive.  While the administration makes it seem like this is widespread, I firmly beelive that this is not, and is fairly restricted to areas of poverty and areas where there are significant socio-economic problems.

Private schools are one option, if you can afford it.  If you can’t afford it, you embrace charter schools:  public schools freed to move around the laws.  This is what we have today.  The problem with charter schools is that you are replacing an elected board with a corporation which is not in anyway required to listen to parents, and has a free hand, legally, to teach what they want.  It is no coincidence that charter schools have finally taken hold in an era when parents are looking for ways around the laws that are dragging our public school down, at the same time such a huge percentage of our population is on a fixed income and are therefore generally opposed to public school taking their money.

It is a massive conundrum that does not have nice, neat solutions (no matter how people clamor for them).  If charter schools do catch on (they are in some places, not in others), you run into kids being kicked out at the whim of the corporation, and sent back to the public schools, leaving the public schools in even more dire shape than ever before.  Eventually, the public school is bound to close, and the charter schools are left with the ability to get rid of who they want ,and making them the problem of the police and community (in short, the 1950s, 60s, and 70s all over again — this is a bit of an absurdist conclusion, but nothing says it can’t happen).  This is great for good students in those areas trying to learn, but not so good for the long term stability of the community which now has a lot of unemployable people, generally causing more trouble than help, especially when there are not a lot of high paying jobs for people who lack a high school diploma, and can’t afford to get training in a trade.  In solving one problem, another is greatly exacerbated.

To make matters worse, charter schools, depending on where you live, arr really no better from an educational standpoint than the public school.  Teacher morale ends up being quite low, there is huge turnover of teachers and students which disrupts the continuity of instruction, there is often times limited opportunity (many charters don’t offer arts and physical education or advanced classes).  Most of the research that simply compares test scores, show no significant difference.

Another continuing theme:  Teacher tenure and pay … tenure is thought by many to be a protection for poor teachers.  I would argue tenure only protects poor teachers as long as an administrator fails in due diligence.  Since no one was able to get rid of tenure laws in states that had them, they went around them by enacting laws that tie teacher retention to test scores.  In states that adopted the Core Curriculum as a part of the Race to the Top circus, states had to start including student test scores as a part of the retention of teachers.  The theory is that if you are a good teacher, the students score well, and if you are bad, they don’t.  Keep in mind:  I am a science teacher.  The test that will decide my fate is a test the students will take one year before I have them and one year after I have them, and will only slightly have anything to do with physics.  Yet, my career will stand to end on how these students do.  In the race to eliminate tenure and improve accountability, the state created a system that removes accountability while doing nothing to eliminate poor teachers.  According to the US Economic Policy Institute (cited in this US Dept. of Education paper), the pay for public school teachers has fallen (compared to similarly educated and experienced workers) just over 13% since 1979.  This flies in the face of the assumption that unions have gotten huge windfalls of cash for public school teachers.

When it comes to pay … at least some people supporting charter schools could care less about education … they only know that the company is going to use less tax payer money, and that is fine with them. So what happens?  Across the country, the number of people choosing to prepare to be teachers is dropping, and dropping fast.  In California alone, the  number of applicants to teacher preparation programs dropped 25% … in one year, and that was after a series of smaller declines over the past decade.  In Albany, New York, people choosing teaching as a career is down over 25% from 2009-2012.  Keep in mind, during a bad economy, teaching is usually the one profession people run to when they are unemployed.  People have seen what is happening, and are throwing up their arms and walking away.  If you focus on math and science (middle and high school) the situation is grim … while the number of people teaching math and science has gone up since the early 1990s, the rate of these teachers leaving the profession (retirement, changing careers, performance) is quite high.  You might think that this is all limited to public schools, but keep in mind:  private and public schools largely draw from the same pool of talent.  Looking at most private schools, you will tend to find quite a few new teachers with little experience, which means there is a degree of turnover.  There may be some older staff there, but how up to date are they on the best ways to teach kids?  Some undoubtedly are.  Others, possibly not so much.  In short:  private schools, in terms of teaching talent, are likely behind the curve of their public school peers, or are about the same.  Certainly they outscore their public school counterparts, but given that they can recruit and handpick their talent, they should be blowing away their competition, and often times they are not.  While certainly there are some talented teachers who will more-or-less exclusively work in a private school setting because they cannot easily work in a diverse setting, generally, the talent seeks out the money.

According to a recent survey, secondary school teachers were third (after cashier and mechanic) as the job with the highest number of people having regretted their career decision, with a whopping 43% of respondents saying they wish they could start over in a new career.  Bureaucracy and politics are cited high on what is causing trouble.  While it is true that there are a lot of people out there who want to teach, the attrition rate is enormous.  In 2006, the Washington Post cited a study by the NEA that 50% of teachers leave within the first five years of teaching.  The US Department of Education noted in 2012 noted that the attrition rate for teachers was not only about 50% within the first five years, and that since 2009, the number of teachers who were looking to move into new professions had jumped from 17% to 29%.

What happens when there is a shortage of workers for a particular profession, and there is a need to attract more people to work for you?  I think the simplistic answer is you raise salaries and benefits …. but since districts are increasingly strapped for cash, they can’t (and private schools and charter schools either can’t or won’t).  This leads to a conundrum that we are starting to see:  you strip a profession of some of its strengths and benefits, and you anticipate that there will be a constant stream of replacements to take the place of the older, tired, under-performing greedy ones you are trying to remove.  In this case, this may not only not work, but may be backfiring.

There’s additional evidence that school reform is backfiring and driving out teachers (and not necessarily the bad ones).  According to National Center for Educational Statistics, 52% of our teaching force has ten or fewer years of experience … but this is based on pre-Race to the Top information, which means this accounts for the large layoffs which occurred when the economy tanked, and a large number of young teachers were let go …. despite that, the ranks of teachers remain young.  Why?  This is likely because of the increased turnover from teachers entering and leaving the profession, and doing so in larger numbers fairly quickly.  In short, the number of teachers surviving to “veteranhood” are starting to fall a bit.  When this happens, schools will report what is called “a lack of continuity” … which means that schools need to accept that they will have more young teachers on a learning curve, and that students achievement will bear the brunt of not having experienced teachers there.   This affects tests scores, but more importantly, it hurts the overall educational experience of students.

So what do we do?  The law doesn’t appear to be helping, and going around it isn’t helping?  How do we deal with this dying humpback sitting in the middle of our collective living room.

Despite what politicians and software tycoons in Seattle will tell you, the solution isn’t simple.  This is very much a complex problem that does not have a single solution.  It will require a lot of negotiation and give and take.  I hope to talk about this a bit in Part IV.

Before departing I want to leave you with this:

Anton Ego (voiced by the sadly now late Peter O’Toole in the film Ratatouille) understood the real meaning of “anyone can learn”.

For those not familiar, this film is the story of a common rat, who just so happens to be a world-class chef.  He befriends a talent-less wannabe chef, and directs him in making culinary masterpieces.  The climax of the story is when Paris’ toughest critic (Anton Ego) learns the truth, and has an epiphany.

… it isn’t that everyone can learn everything …. it simply can’t happen no matter how much we wish it were true … but those who can learn can come from anywhere … not just the privileged suburbs, but from the worst parts of the inner city, the mountains of Appalachia, or the fields of the high plains.

Perhaps our first duty should be in learning about our students … what are their talents and weaknesses …. and their dreams … and based on this helping them find a path.  Wouldn’t this be better than shoving a multiple choice in their face and saying “this will decide the success of you, your teacher, or your school, and maybe all three but possibly none of them”.  Maybe that is where we must start in our negotiation, and come to realize that our overarching philosophy is based on a misinterpretation of something that was very good, but must nonetheless change if we are to move forward.


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