October 17, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: Wherefore School Sports?

NOTE: This will be my final Letter From The Teacher education post on Confederate Yankee. I'll be cross posting this article to my new blog, and will continue my education writing there in a slightly different format, beginning Tuesday, October 25, 2011. Thanks for reading our work, and I look forward to seeing you at Stately McDaniel Manor where I am already posting.

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Steamed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Wherefore School Sports?

Dear Bob:

I hope you don't mind if I vent a bit. And you might not share this one too widely; it will, no doubt, tick people off. On second thought, when have we ever been worried about that? Anyway, here's a necessary disclaimer that may ward off at least a few of the death threats: I support athletic endeavors. Many of the apologies and arguments in their favor are, in lesser and greater degrees, true. I have been an athlete all of my life as a runner, martial artist, European fencer, Japanese fencer, soccer player, and now, with age and the ravages of many knee injuries, an avid bicyclist. I have, of course, played most other sports including football, baseball, tennis--you name it--from time to time.

I don't reflexively oppose sports in the schools for I believe they do provide valuable benefits. Rather, I oppose waste, fraud, inefficiency, and anything that steals even a minute of the precious class time of my students.

It has been said that high school sports aren't our focus; they're our religion. Indeed, some pursue them with that kind of fervor, even if only as fans. Is "fantasy football" a sort of devotion or merely escapism?

As it's the season, let's discuss football. It was only recently that I realized our football team of a bit more than 30 kids has a coaching staff of at least 23. I can't get anyone to confirm more, though I suspect they exist. This, as I understand it, is not uncommon in many parts of the country. Amazed, I dug out my own high school yearbook from the year of my graduation, back in the 1400s. Lo and behold, there were, in the team photo, about 30 players and two (two!) coaches. My memory was correct. As I recall, our teams won some games, lost others, but always managed to play football, presumably enjoying the experience.

I did a bit of digging and discovered that we pay a stipend of around $6000 each for those assistant coaches. That's $132,000 dollars for football alone! The budget for our entire academic department doesn't amount to a fraction of that. In fact, I'm pretty sure the combined budgets of all of our academic departments don't come remotely close to that figure, which again, represents only the salaries of assistant coaches.

Another interesting fact: All of those coaches produce no better results than the two coaches of my youth. Yet in the last decade, we've built, with enormous cost overruns, a multi-million dollar stadium many colleges would be glad to have, and a variety of other expensive athletic facilities as well as all the goodies that go along with all of those major expenditures. Members of our school board and community went full Costner, actually believing "if we build it, they will win." Sadly, with few exceptions, that mystical, Field of Dreams miracle has not come to pass.

It's not just a football facility; it's for everyone," our school officials intoned.

Right. I'll reserve it for my English classes right after the social studies department is done reenacting the Battle of the Bulge in the bleachers.

"But football teaches important life lessons about sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, duty and team work!"

Perhaps, but only to the benefit of a group of some 30 boys comprising a fraction of the student body.

"But every student is a member of the team. That's why we have pep rallies, so they can participate and feel school spirit."

That I'm not so sure of, though I am sure that most kids love getting out of their regular classes for any reason. I suspect few of the kids consider themselves to have any real involvement with the football team.

Don’t get me wrong: we're not nearly as sports-berserk as many other schools, but I've often wished we put the same amount of money, energy and promotion we expend for the benefit of a handful of boys into academics which benefit every student. The books I could buy! The insights I could share! Instead, those kids are often gone, as are their 20+ coaches, leaving subs in their place—when any can be found for the paltry wages we pay. That's not unusual either.

"But sports keep many kids in school. If it wasn't for football, they'd drop out!"

Really? And their parents allow this kind of behavior? We encourage it? Who are the adults here and who are the children? Who is actually in charge? What are the life lessons we're really teaching with this kind of thinking? If we don't give kids the diversions they demand, they'll be allowed to take their toys and quit? This is responsibility? This teaches sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, duty and team work?

"But sports build sound bodies and minds!"

Indeed they do, but at what point do we bother to evaluate whether they do so at the expense of academic preparation and accomplishment, which is, as far as I'm aware, still the primary reason for the existence of schools.

A few years back, one of my students—let's call him Marvin—was extolling his enthusiasm for football in near-religious terms. Football was his life, and would be his life in the future. He would be a professional football player. I told Marvin to enjoy himself, to have fun playing his chosen sport, but to develop his mind above all, gently pointing out that he was only 5'6" tall and weighed only 150 pounds. The cruelty of genetics would deny him a future in the NFL, as they do countless kids much larger, stronger and better at the game, perhaps only because they are a tenth of a second slower in the 40 than someone else.

I'd like to say the scales fell from his eyes at that moment, that he took my advice and had fun playing a game, but redoubled his efforts to improve himself academically in order to have a better, attainable future, but he didn't. Instead, he struggled through the year, keeping his average just high enough to maintain his eligibility for sports, often coming to class late because various coaches kept him too long, which certainly contributed to his low grades.

Didn't we spark and encourage his entirely unrealistic beliefs? Didn't we play some role in delaying his intellectual development?

I don't have all the answers, but I suspect all of our students might be better off if, instead of promoting just a few costly sports that directly benefit only a few kids, we focused on lifetime sports in a greater variety and sponsored primarily intramural competitions. We could easily afford the best equipment—and plenty of it--for far more sports and involve far more of the student body. And without the need to travel, missing entire days of school, the kids would have a much greater opportunity to learn while more of them would reap the unquestionable benefits of sports. After all, isn't that really what we're supposed to be doing?

What do you think?


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:35 PM | Comments (1)

October 10, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: Is Teaching A Profession?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Steamed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Is Teaching A Profession?

Dear Bob:

I read a column the other day wherein the author was spouting the usual thoughtless rhetoric: teaching isn't a profession; anyone can teach; public schools are utter failures--you know the drill. We've heard it a hundred times, but it does raise an interesting question: is teaching a profession? Regardless of the answer, there is a related question: are teachers professionals?

As you know, I'm a "professional" singer. I have a degree in voice. I'm a composer, arranger and conductor. I'm classically trained and have more than four decades of experience. I sing every year with a fine symphony orchestra performing the works of the masters, and with a fine chorale that only last year debuted a new work and also performed the Mozart Requiem Mass in Dm at Lincoln Center in New York City. The promoters, people who regularly hear the finest choirs in the world, honestly said that ours was the most professional choral sound they heard in many years. I'm actually paid to sing for a church choir, which I gladly do every week. I'm paid to do solo work upon occasion. All this and more, still I'm not, in the strictest sense of the word, a professional.

It might be wise to provide some definitions. I'm sure you'll agree that most Americans have been misusing these words their entire lives:

Neophyte: A beginner.

Amateur: One who does it for love.

Professional: One who makes their living from it; one who performs at the highest levels of their profession.

Many years ago in college I was offered the opportunity to pursue a master's in voice. I auditioned for a famous teacher under whom I would study. They said: "a big voice; could be an important voice. I could have been granted a scholarship, studied under great teachers and had the life of the unquestionably professional singer, always on the road, living out of a suitcase, constantly singing and hoping the voice stayed healthy. I turned it down. It just wasn't that important to me, and most importantly, I wanted to remain married (the smartest decision I've ever made; you know my wife). Had I chosen otherwise, I would have been, unquestionably, a professional. I would be making my living from my efforts while performing at the highest levels of my profession.

As it turned out, that ancient decision was smarter than I could have imagined, for about five years later I started getting the chronic sinus infections that plague me to this day. I've learned to deal with them, but they would have made my voice far too unreliable to sustain a true professional career. I've never regretted that decision.

So what am I now? I'm not a neophyte—a beginner—but I'm certainly an amateur. I do it because I love it, because it nourishes my soul. Yet I'm also paid for my work each and every week, and on other occasions. I certainly don't make the majority of my living from music, but I do make a not-inconsiderable amount of money.

What are missing are the four primary qualities of a true profession:

(1) The profession requires substantial and lengthy education, preparation and practice.

(2) Those in the profession set the standards for admission to the profession.

(3) Those in the profession set their own compensation.

(4) Those in the profession regulate the profession.

As a teacher, I'm arguably more of a professional than I am as a musician, at least in some ways. I make most of my living in the pursuit of teaching, and if my evaluations are to be believed, I perform at the highest levels of my chosen profession. I occasionally receive a bit of minor recognition for my work, but I'll never be "teacher of the year." I'm not a ruthless self-promoter and I don’t do the kinds of extra-curricular public relations garnering things that spark such awards. I'm certainly not a neophyte, yet I am an amateur, for I love it madly.

It is in the qualities of the true profession that we are potentially found wanting. Teaching certainly requires substantial lengthy and ongoing education, preparation and practice, but teachers surely don't set the admission standards of their profession. We certainly don't set our own compensation, and we don't regulate our professions. All of this is done by legislators and administrators. I know that some might argue that unions do it all, but even in union states, legislators still have control. Wisconsin teacher's unions, to their chagrin, can confirm the truth of that assertion. We don't hire and we don't fire and we don't stand in judgment of our fellows. In many ways, plumbers are more professionals than we.

However, teaching transcends these definitions. Good teachers, teachers performing at the highest levels of their profession, can accomplish great things. They can inspire those who resist inspiration. They awaken possibilities in those who never before imagined them, and they make such imaginings possible. They introduce kids to their better, wiser selves and send them off in pursuit of who they might, with effort, one day be.

Most importantly, we convince kids of the necessity of learning how to be in the instant, of paying attention. That's a hard lesson, a lesson the wise work a lifetime to implement, never with absolute success, yet without its life-long pursuit, no accomplishment of value is possible.

we'll never make six-figure salaries, but that doesn't matter. As with music, I'm content to be an amateur performing at the highest levels of my profession. After all, how much more can any of us hope to achieve? I'm doing what I love, where I want to do it, and I make a living more than merely adequate to my needs. Knowing that I do make a real difference in the lives of others makes the fact that I'll never be rich—even by the miniscule standards of Barack Obama—of no consequence.

When the bell rings and I close the classroom door, I'll be smiling every day. Ultimately the kids know the difference between the pros and those who are merely phoning it in.

That's what really matters---isn't it?

By the way, do you have any idea when we're going to be getting some Scotch tape? I'm just about ready to ask kids for used gum to stick things on the walls.


Mr. English Teacher

Teaching certainly requires substantial lengthy and ongoing education, preparation and practice, such as returning to school or learning while working with online masters degree programs, but teachers surely don't set the admission standards of their profession.

Posted by MikeM at 10:32 PM | Comments (6)

September 26, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: The Transformative Power Of ARRRRRR!

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Williams
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: The Transformative Power of ARRRRRRRR!

Dear Mrs. Williams:

I very much appreciate your attention to my monthly newsletter. I'll be glad to explain why we talk like pirates and why that's a wise thing to do in English Class.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day is September 19. I'll let Dave Barry explain the origins of the occasion because it was through this column that I first heard of it. I immediately thought it would be a fun and useful activity at the beginning of the school year and in the near-decade since, has proved to be just that.

Each of my seven classes has its own unique personality made of the personalities of all of the students. But every year I have one or two classes of kids who, as a class, are tentative and reserved. Of course, many kids are reluctant to perform, to stand before a class to read or act out a play. How to cure kids of their fears, to encourage them to participate, is always one of the most vexing problems any teacher faces.

In addition, the state mandates a long list of standards we must teach each year. Among them are grammar, drama, public speaking and various kinds of writing. Surprisingly, talking like pirates—and our preparation for it--fulfills all of these requirements and more. But I'll explain what we do before I tell you of the extraordinary results.

During the first week of school I tell the kids of Talk Like A Pirate Day and tell them that we'll all be talking like pirates. Some look confused, some are delighted, but it builds anticipation in all. The day before Talk Like A Pirate Day I explain the concept and show them a DVD I made with a principal. First we have a normal conversation:

Mr. English Teacher: "Good morning Mr. Principal. How are you?"

Mr. Principal: "I'm just fine Mr. English Teacher. How about you?

MET: "I'm fine as well, thanks. Say, have you noticed that Sally Student is doing better this year?"

MP: "Yes I have. I'm glad you're keeping an eye on her."

MET: "I'm glad to do it. Thanks."

MP: "You're Welcome."

Then we translate the conversation into Pirate while wearing hats, eye patches, hooks and other piratical goodies:

Mr. English Teacher: "Avast Cap'n! Be ye shipshape?"

Mr. Principal: "Arrrrr! I be tauter 'n a mainsail! Ye?"

MET: "Yearrrgggh! Me hatches be battened! Have ye spied the cut 'o Sally's jib?"

MP: "Aye, she be a sprightly wench! Step smartly and keep a weather eye out!"

MET: "Arrrrr.

MP: "Arrrrrrrrr."

This delights the kids, who always love to see their teachers being goofy. In a very real way, it gives them permission to have fun.

I hand out our "Semi-Official Pirate Sentence Generator," which is a list of pirate nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, phrases and sentences. "Arrrrr" is, of course, every part of speech. The kids work in small groups to write their scripts of original pirate conversations.

Without realizing it, they gladly throw themselves into interacting with others and have to think about parts of speech, sentence construction, rhythm, plot and theme. Because it's inherently silly and fun, they drop any resistance to school and have a great time merely speaking the phrases and sentences and making their own. In fact, they'll be spontaneously talking like pirates at home and around school for days.

When Talk Like A Pirate Day arrives, I'm always pleased and a little surprised to find that some kids have gone to the trouble to make their own sets and props in addition to the hats, eye patches, hooks, spyglasses and other piratical goodies I provide. Instead of having to pick groups as teachers usually do, I have only to relax as the kids can't wait to Arrrrrrrr their way through their skits.

And what skits! Some are mediocre, some average and others witty and delightful. And it is here that magic happens. Bright smiles on their faces, their un-patched eyes twinkling, they throw themselves into various accents and dialects: a British pirate here, an effete French pirate there, and other accents not easily identified. They laugh and fight epic battles with foam swords, dramatically dying when run through. And miracle of miracles, the other kids cheer them on, laughing freely and genuinely at the antics of their classmates. Many see their classmates in new, agreeable ways that would not have otherwise been possible. They are genuinely surprised at kids they've known for years.

I videotape their skits and lovingly edit them with fast and slow motion and other tricks into a DVD that I show at the end of the year. It serves to remind them not only of how very much they have grown and improved in a single short school year, but what great joy life holds if only they set aside their fears.

When Talk Like A Pirate Day ends, my reserved classes are transformed. They're far more lively and interested. It's apparent in their posture and in smiles much more freely given. For the remainder of the year, when it's time to real aloud or to stand before the class and act "Julius Caesar," there is no reluctance, no hesitation. The kids are conditioned, and without realizing how or when I did it, they gladly jump up and tackle the English of the late 1500s with a better ear for dialect, pacing and delivery.

In this simple, brief activity, we've dealt with many state standards and set important precedents that will last the year. The kids discover that words and language are fascinating and fun. Speaking and acting in front of others is no longer any big deal. And most importantly, the kids begin to actually look forward to coming to—of all things—English class!

I hope I've addressed your concerns to your satisfaction. If not, please let me know. You're always welcome in our classroom.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:54 PM | Comments (2)

September 12, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher, #18: Who Gets The Blame?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Collins
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Who Gets The Blame?

Dear Mrs. Collins:

Thanks so much for your donation of Kleenex! At this time of year, it's a lifesaver! Lauren's handwriting is improving. All she really needs to do is slow down a bit. As to your other question, I'll do my best. It's pretty complicated.

As you know, we're fortunate to have a good school and a good school district. Most American schools are solid institutions that provide a good to excellent educational opportunity. There are certainly bad schools and even bad school districts, yet despite what critics of public education would have us believe, they're in the minority.

Even so, we do have our problems and now it's time to pass out blame. Is it reasonable to blame teachers for our systemic problems? For the most part, no. Teachers have almost no authority to make policy and usually, very little influence over it. They don't hire or fire, they don't supervise, they don't determine how money is spent or how or when buildings or other facilities are built. In some districts they have virtually no say in the curriculum they teach.

But what about teacher's unions? As you know, we're a right to work state; we have no unions. In unionized states, there can be many problems related to the mere existence of unions, but remember that contracts are negotiated by union bosses and school boards. Union bosses care about money and political power above all. These days, unions are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Democrat party, or perhaps, vice versa. If a local school board gives away the farm to unions, teachers do get some small portion of the overall benefits at the expense of the kids and public, but again, they're not at fault. Teachers or the other lowly workers represented by unions are just about the last people union bosses consult or hear.

The people who deserve the most blame for everything wrong with public education are the public. I'm sorry, but even though I'm a member of the public, I can't blame myself. No one listens to teachers, and the fact that I'm a teacher makes me essentially a non-person to my bosses and school board where policy is concerned. In fact, some school boards consider teachers to be direct threats and treat them accordingly. Oh, I can speak up, and at best, I'll be ignored. At worst, people with the power to fire me will hold grudges. Such people tend to have few scruples and long memories, so the burden falls to you—to the non-teaching public.

Amazingly enough, school boards and school administrators in many places do fear and/or respect the public. They know that school board elections may be lost by a single vote or a handful of votes. They know that local word of mouth may be very swift, powerful and unforgiving. You see, in a very real sense, we get the schools we deserve because they are what we make them, on purpose or through neglect.

Consider, for example, that our local school board adopts a policy that prevents any child from being held back for a year in the lower grades. Perhaps they did it with the best intentions because they fear that children will become discouraged if held back, or perhaps they want to pretend that all of our kids are above average or that none of them ever fail. Regardless of the board's motivations, there are consequences to such policies, including kids who reach high school barely able to read or write on any level.

Say our school board adopts a 50% grading policy. For doing nothing at all, every kid will earn 50% on their report card when grades are due. Perhaps it was done because they worry that when kids fall behind by more than 50% it's impossible to catch up. Perhaps they want to encourage kids, to let them know they'll have a safety net. Perhaps they really don’t know that the kids will game the system and recognize that the policy will allow them to do nothing and to pass at the end of a grading period by simply doing a bare minimum of mediocre work at the last minute. Perhaps they don't want failing kids on the books—even though we always will have failing kids—and perhaps they want every kid to graduate from high school whether they've actually earned a diploma or not.

What if we spend huge, disproportionate amounts of money on athletics, particularly football, blathering on about how everyone reaps immense benefits when a group of about 30 high school boys is pampered like perfumed princes and subjected to ego stroking that might embarrass even Barack Obama? Surely athletics are worthwhile, particularly when the entire student body is actually involved, but primarily when athletics are treated as truly secondary to the educational mission of the school. When parents and other members of the public want luxurious stadiums for Friday night games and don't give a thought to the disruptions of teaching time caused by pep rallies, unannounced peppy visits to classrooms and the constant absences of student athletes and everyone involved with those programs, there are consequences.

"These programs are the only thing keeping some kids in school," athletic boosters claim. "If we don't have them, many kids will drop out." So teenagers are holding us hostage? "Give us multi million dollar football programs or we'll punish you by dropping out?" Well, don't allow the doorknob to abrade your polished posterior on the way out! When parents don't make kids go to school and achieve—for their own sake--when schools use such lame excuses to justify their preferences, or when they're naive enough to really believe that line of "reasoning," there are consequences.

When we allow all manner of outside organizations, no matter how potentially worthy, to take hour after hour, day after day of teaching time, who benefits? Kids love to get out of class; that's a given. But the real beneficiaries are the adults pushing abstinence only programs, traffic safety programs, anti-drug programs, sex-ed seminars, Christian strong man displays, anti-bullying programs, self-esteem programs, you name it programs. These people are probably well intentioned and believe they're providing a valuable service for teenagers, but the hour or day added to the hour or day of someone else's valuable program added to all of the other lost minutes and hours and days imposed within the school itself over the course of a year add up to a considerable and frankly shocking amount of lost teaching time.

Nothing is more important to teachers than their precious class time. Administrators are constantly—and properly--demanding that teachers plan and use every minute of instructional time, yet are constantly interrupting and taking away that time. They interrupt and steal those precious minutes for hundreds of well-intentioned reasons that they convince themselves are necessary, more necessary than learning. Sometimes it’s not their choice; their bosses impose programs. Johnny can't read as well as he should? Suzy didn't do very well on the mandatory high stakes test? Could it be that all of the absences and interruptions of the very opportunity Johnny and Suzy had to learn might have been a factor? Teaching time lost is never regained.

Believe me when I tell you that if the public were truly aware of all of the teaching time lost in a school year, they'd be appalled…or maybe they wouldn't. If the public doesn't stand up and speak out for the solid, educational values I've mentioned, if it doesn't demand that schools spend their scarce money where it best supports learning, if it doesn't demand that administrators stop wasting teaching time and encouraging kids to be lazy and irresponsible, is it unreasonable for teachers to conclude that the status quo, as sometimes trivial and wasteful as it can be, is exactly what the public really wants?

I used to truly believe that if most of the public knew what was wrong, they'd rise up in righteous anger and set things straight. Anymore, I'm less than sure of that. Too many people like sitting in that grand stadium, or don't want little Johnny held back a year for any reason. Too many people think having Christian strong men bend and break things for Jesus is more important than writing. Too many people think they have something to contribute that kids just can't do without and they don't give much thought to what the kids are missing when they get access to a captive audience. I'd like to think I'm wrong, that I'm just getting cynical, but the evidence is pretty strong.

Please don't get me wrong: I don't believe for a minute that teachers are uniformly virtuous superior beings. After all, we have to recruit from the human race. But for all our faults, remember that we have almost no say in the running of our schools, nor does anyone really listen to us.

The simple truth is, for better or worse, the public is responsible for school quality. If the public is too busy to pay attention, if it pulls students out to send them to private schools rather than fixing problems, does it have reasonable grounds to complain?

I hope I've adequately addressed your questions. Please let me know if I can be helpful in the future, and thanks again for the invaluable Kleenex!


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:56 PM | Comments (3)

September 05, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher #17: Big Government vs. Big Government

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Esteemed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Big Government vs. Big Government

Dear Bob:

I hope you have a bit of time to read and consider this and get back with me. I'd like to see what you have to say about the issues I'll raise.

Conservatives oppose big government. Most conservatives would agree with that statement without reservation. Perhaps they shouldn't, for many conservatives seem willing to embrace the stultifying power of government when it comes to educational issues such as mandatory, high-stakes tests or vouchers, among others.

"But these are truly important issues," they say. "We have to do it for the children," they say. Does that sound familiar? Aren't those statements exactly what leftists say to justify the unjustifiable?

Indiana has embraced the most ambitious voucher program in American history, and conservatives around the nation are enthusiastically applauding. They shouldn't. In many ways, they don't realize that they are supporting big government at its worst.

A good article at (here) deals with a real problem that always crops up whenever government is involved in anything: Red tape and regulations that inevitably "fundamentally transform" what works into what doesn't. Go here to see a brief but disturbing summary of the rules and unfunded mandates being imposed on any Indiana private school accepting voucher money. Ronald Reagan was right. The most horrifying words in the English language are truly: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." By all means, read these brief articles and then return; I'll wait. Oh yes, and as you read, remember that Gov. Mitch Daniels is a Republican, ostensibly a conservative.

Do you see what I mean? One of the great advantages of private education has always been its freedom from governmental regulation. While there is no convincing, continuing evidence that private education is uniformly superior to public education, I can certainly understand its attraction. But if by accepting government money, private education becomes indistinguishable from public education, what's the point? Who doesn't understand that government money always comes with conditions, or do some just prefer not to notice in order to get their hands on taxpayer loot?

If the money for vouchers didn't come directly out of public education funds, I would still have concerns on philosophical grounds alone. I spend an average of $2000 a year on school supplies, and I'm sure you do about the same. I currently get a $250 federal tax credit, which is better than a poke in the eye with a pointed stick, but not that much. Due to the economy, our district has reduced the supply budget by 60% this year, but at least we don't have to lay anyone off—for now. Of course, that also means that we're not getting any raises in the foreseeable future, so I'm going to be spending more and making less. It's a good thing our state doesn't have a voucher program, for it if did, we'd surely be seeing mass layoffs with all of the problems that implies. I know that in your district as well as mine, "doing more with less" is nothing new; it's standard operating procedure day in and day out.

I've often written about how alarmists rattling on about the abject failure of the public schools are all too often taken at face value. Few stop to apply a bit of common sense, which should tell them that most schools are actually doing very well indeed. There are, of course, some individual schools and some entire school districts that are truly terrible, but those districts and schools tend to be in Democrat controlled enclaves such as California, Washington DC and Detroit. In such places, the condition of the schools is merely a symptom of the complete corruption of the political and social system that drags down everything and everyone.

It is these places—thankfully a minority—that are probably the strongest argument for public school alternatives. The citizens of these failed polities may be immune to constitutional government and free enterprise, their schools impervious to professional teaching, discipline and management that does not enrich cronies or support a political machine. Even actual (Detroit) or imminent (California) economic collapse cannot divert the members of such recipient, victim classes from their downward spiral. Yet, vouchers aren't the answer for them either.

It is our civic duty, where government ignores the consent of the governed, where it becomes a criminal enterprise, where it seizes powers it is not authorized to have to reform it. If a school doesn't work, fix it! That's the American way. Running away is for Monty Python.

I've always felt that the public schools exist, in part, because we need common, civic education. Our future adults need not only practical knowledge but a belief in the ideals of our democracy, of our unique and indispensable American culture based in the respect of the life of the individual and of his equality before the law. If we abandon even part of a generation, if they don't embrace American ideals, we ensure division and chaos.

Even in schools where a generally leftist philosophy controls the faculty, all is not lost. Even some leftists can teach professionally without constantly injecting socialism into the curriculum. But even in schools where socialism is an integral part of the curriculum, it's worthwhile to remember an old aphorism, attributed to a wide variety of sources: "One father is worth a hundred schoolmasters."

I see my students less than five hours a week for about 180 days—a part of one year of their lives. While I know I have a positive influence on many of them I have no doubt that compared with the influence of their parents, my influence is small indeed. This is particularly true where they have engaged, serious parents who accept their parental role rather than trying to be adult buddies to their children.

Engaged parents know that there is no such thing as a right never to be exposed to thoughts and ideas with which they might disagree. Where children are exposed to misguided ideas in school, where teachers cross the line between imparting the best professional information their discipline has to offer into political indoctrination, parents have a wonderful opportunity for discussion and the presentation of convincing ideas grounded in common sense and an appreciation for American democracy. Of course, this requires parents who see themselves—as I do—as the primary, life-long teachers of their children. I have my students on loan from their parents for a short time and for very specific purposes. I consider it an honor and a great responsibility, a sacred trust.

Conservatives should work to ensure the proper educational opportunity for all children. Isn't it self-styled elitists who send their children to "elite" private schools, caring nothing for the quality of education of others? Isn't this anti-democratic? Doesn't it contribute to civic division and discord? Does Mr. Obama, a product of elite private schools, support American values or the politics of class warfare and the abuse of his authority?

Private schools are expensive and vouchers cover only a fraction of the yearly tuition. If vouchers are truly a balm for educational failings, why not fully subsidize private education for all who might choose it? Conservatives understand, unlike leftists, that it would completely bankrupt the public schools, so vouchers remain a political token, which only wounds the public schools, allowing them to limp along.

Let's not forget the Constitution, for most private schools are religious schools, and whenever a sectarian school is involved, the Constitution is violated. Vouchers aren't for truly elite schools; they're for people who need not ask about the cost of tuition and who summer on Martha's Vineyard with the Obamas. Vouchers are for local private schools, most often sectarian schools, schools whose identity and practice is inescapably religious.

Some voucher proponents dishonestly work up various schemes whereby public money is given to citizens first, then to sectarian schools, claiming that since the money wasn't given directly to private schools, the Constitution isn't involved. Of course it is. Pretending otherwise is a leftist ploy in the grand tradition of Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of "is." It's fundamentally dishonest and conservatives should have no part of it. If conservatives truly support the Constitution, there can be no picking and choosing: isn't that what leftists do?

It is certainly harder to reform a troubled school or school district than leaving it, but that's what American ideals call us to do, unless we really want to create a two-tiered society of those steeped in American values and those indoctrinated in the culture of victimhood, eternal grievance, all-encompassing political correctness and absolute governmental control over every aspect of life. That's a recipe for conflict and the decline, perhaps even the fall, of America. And it all begins with something as simple and seemingly harmless, perhaps even positive, as vouchers.

Well, what do you think? There is no danger of our state going for vouchers in the foreseeable future, and I don't think that's true of yours either, but I'm looking forward to hearing about what you have to say. Take care and give your lovely wife my best.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 09:42 PM | Comments (5)

August 29, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher #16: Crossing The Line

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. Martinez
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Opinion vs. Behavior

Dear Mr. Martinez:

It was good to hear from you again, and I have heard about the latest development in the case of Jerry Buell, the history teacher in Mount Dora, Florida who was suspended because of his private views on gay marriage. If you'd like to read about the case, go here, but I'll be glad to summarize it, and I'll also try to answer your other questions.

Mr. Buell has been reinstated and the original complaint seems to have been mostly dropped, but the Lake County Schools continue to pursue Mr. Buell, apparently alleging that he has somehow violated the separation of church and state. Considering the media accounts I've been able to find, it's unclear exactly what is going on, but apparently Mr. Buell wrote on his school webpage that he tries to “teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself.” Apparently, he wrote on his syllabus: “I teach God’s truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, ’cause I ain’t changing!” On another, unidentified, document, Mr. Buell is said to have written that be believed that his classroom was his "mission field."

At least two of these statements apparently appeared on school controlled and sponsored media. The content of a school website may certainly be regulated by the school, and a teacher's syllabus—a document explaining the teacher's philosophy, expectations and the likely curriculum—may also be subject to school rules and standards. That the Lake County Schools would continue to pursue Mr. Buell is not surprising. They shot themselves in the foot with their ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction to Mr. Buell's obviously private, non-school related speech. The national public outcry—to say nothing of the fact that they were surely told they were going to lose that legal battle in spectacular fashion—caused them to hastily retreat, but such people are not prone to admit error, nor are they forgiving. They will likely be tempted to continue to watch Mr. Buell for the remainder of his career.

Sadly, this is all too common in American education. Too often, some promoted to be administrators lack common sense and adult restraint, to say nothing of lacking actual leadership ability. Even teachers like Mr. Buell, last year's Teacher of the Year, a man with a reportedly unblemished record of some 26 years, wear a perpetual target on their backs, and once some administrators recognize such a target, they pursue it to vindicate their egos until it is ultimately destroyed, regardless of the teacher's dedication, loyalty and years of exemplary service. At the moment, what we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that Mount Dora administrators over-reacted, suspending an apparently exemplary teacher before all of the facts were in.

That said, if Mr. Buell's statements are accurately reported, and if they were written on school controlled sources. Mr. Buell may have a problem. To understand what's happening, I need to explain a common misconception: prayer and religion have never been removed from American schools. It is not illegal to speak of God, the Bible, or of religious concepts and history. It is impossible to properly teach history, literature, science and other disciplines without mention of religion, and many schools teach Biblical literature classes. Indeed, scripture is so much a part of American culture that it is essentially necessary to refer to it in a great many discussions of literature and culture.

School officials may not proselytize—try to convert students to any faith--and they may not demand that students pray or lead them in prayers. Of course, some schools, even entire states, have instituted a mandatory, periodic "moment of silence" as a thinly veiled subterfuge for prayer. Students certainly may—on their own time and in non-disruptive ways—read the Bible or pray, and they are certainly free to discuss their faith with others, again, so long as they do so on their own time and in a way that does not disrupt the mission of their school.

Students and their families are always free to worship as they please and to attend any church of their choosing. So if all that I've said is true, what's the problem?

The problem is that some people, probably well-intentioned, feel that they are not doing what God wants them to do if their particular vision of how best to honor and worship God is not being mandated in the public schools. These people feel it's their duty to compel school children to worship God—in their preferred way--for the good of the children.

There are many problems with this viewpoint, practical and theological. Christianity is, according the Gospel, an entirely voluntary faith. Forcing it on essentially captive audiences of school children is arguably contrary to the very scripture being forced on them. But practically, if we accept the views of those who wish to impose them on the schools, whose version of Christianity should be taught? Such people would surely feel that their version of Christianity is the one, true way, but so do all of the other sects, Christian or otherwise. Do we impose worship based on the will of the majority? The Christian majority would certainly like that, but the political pendulum never rests and eventually swings against the status quo. What happens when the majority changes? Or do we try to accommodate all faiths with Baptist prayer on Mondays, Catholic prayer on Tuesdays, Muslim prayer on Wednesdays, ad nauseum?

The most significant problem is that there is always limited class time, and time spent in religious devotion easily and freely obtainable outside school hours is time lost to learning. In addition, many parents might reasonably feel that the religious instruction of their children is exclusively their business. They would be right.

On the other side of the issue, some school officials, uninformed or relentlessly politically correct, try to eradicate the slightest religious inclination, act or reference, punishing students for carrying or reading a Bible or for committing other such offenses against liberal orthodoxy. "Zero tolerance" policies are usually evidence of zero judgment and zero common sense on the part of school officials.

This brings us back to Mr. Buell. If he did in fact write what he is said to have written on school sources, what should be done? What should have been done in the first place?

The school district—by reinstating Mr. Buell--has tacitly admitted that they were wrong to suspend him, and have reportedly placed some sort of "directive" in his formerly pristine personnel file, presumably ordering him not to do whatever they found and find objectionable, but we have no idea, for the moment, what is in that directive. What is clear is that they can reasonably require that teachers not use overtly religious language in their official capacity, on official websites, correspondence or in classroom materials.

Let's examine what Mr. Buell is alleged to have written and see where it might be problematic.

Mr. Buell apparently wrote (on his school website) that he will “teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself.” This is clearly over the line. Is Mr. Buell comparing himself with Jesus Christ or merely saying he intends to follow Christ's example? My students invariably ask me about my faith and I tell them only that I am a Christian, but that I want them to judge me not by the fact that I spend several hours a week in a given building, but by my professionalism, character and treatment of them. This is the best way to "witness" to students: through your daily example. If Christians behave in ways that encourage respect and admiration, their witness is powerful and personal and far more effective than any statement on a website.

Mr. Buell's syllabus reportedly said: “I teach God’s truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, ’cause I ain’t changing!” Again, this is over the line. Teachers are within the boundaries of the reasonable exercise of professional discretion when they tell students that they will teach the most up to date and accurate material available, but teaching "God's truth" must be left to ministers and student's parents. "God's truth" suggests sectarian theology rather than the imparting of a professional academic discipline. And as an English teacher, don't get me started on a teacher using "ain't" outside a discussion of dialect in literature or outside of theater.

Finally, Mr. Buell apparently said, in some sort of unspecified forum, that he considered teaching his "mission field." If written in a school forum, this is without question over the line. The primary reason for the existence of missionaries is proselytizing, converting people to their specific faith. The denotation and connotations of the term are unmistakable. I have, over the years, run into teachers who wanted to send me daily devotions, scriptures, or who were forever asking about the status of my faith or salvation. One took to asking me if I was "spirit filled" whenever we met. I stopped that, finally, by telling her that I was not spirit filled, but was happy to be jelly filled. Even as a Christian, I find such things off-putting and inappropriate in the school setting. If these people want to be ministers, no one is restraining them from answering their ministerial calling rather than working in the more worldly realm of public education.

There are other issues in this case, however. Mr. Buell has been employed at Mount Dora High School for many years, and has presumably included the potentially over the line materials in his syllabus and on his website for many years, perhaps decades. Would it be unreasonable for Mr. Dora to conclude that his religiously oriented statements were acceptable to his superiors and to the community at large? Certainly not, and until recently, apparently none of his students or their parents complained about him. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that he has not, despite the limited use of inappropriately religious language, tried to force his religious beliefs on his students.

With this in mind, it's reasonable for the Lake County Schools to require him to remove religious references from official sources. It may also be reasonable for them to place a memorandum—not a reprimand—in his personnel file specifically outlining what is expected of him in the future. But considering the fact that until the Schools overreacted to a complaint, Mr. Buell had no idea he was doing anything wrong, in fact, would reasonably believe that he was doing everything right, it would be excessive and unprofessional to do more than that. A reprimand would be the reasonable next step if he failed to do what his superiors asked of him. What remains to be seen is whether the school officials involved are reasonable professionals or political activists with too much ego invested.

I hope I've answered your questions. If Aracelli wants to talk about theological issues, we can certainly do that—if her questions are reasonably related to what we're studying at the moment. If not, we can certainly talk outside of class. I'm reasonably well read in theology, but I almost certainly know less than the average minister with a degree in theology. Thanks again for getting in touch, and please let me know if I can be of help in the future.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 11:19 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher #15: Opinion vs. Behavior

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. Martinez
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Opinion vs. Behavior

Dear Mr. Martinez:

Thanks for your e-mail. Your niece Aracelli is doing well and if you help her with her weekly vocabulary, I'm sure her English skills will rapidly improve. As you suggested, the more she speaks and reads English, the faster she'll improve, and I'll be happy to loan her books that will help. She's a bright girl and I'm glad to have her in class.

I'll do my best to address your other question, but please bear with me, as I make sure we're talking about the same case. I believe you're talking about the Florida teacher, Mr. Jerry Buell, who was recently suspended when he expressed his opinion about gay marriage on his Facebook page. Here's a link to the story in case you missed this particularly account.

Let's keep in mind that neither of us knows all the facts, but as I understand it, the man is an excellent, experienced teacher who was the Mount Dora (FL) High School teacher of the year last year. Apparently his record is unblemished and he is well liked and respected.

The trouble apparently began when someone complained about his Biblically-based, internet-posted disapproval of gay marriage. School officials contend that his opinion is "disturbing" and that students might be frightened or intimidated by that opinion. Keep in mind that Mr. Buell is not accused of any actual intimidation or improper behavior, but is suspended because school officials worry that unnamed students might possibly, at some point in the future, be intimidated by Mr. Buell's opinion expressed on a Facebook page in July. The Mount Dora School District obviously intends to fire Mr. Buell, or at the least, to humiliate or figuratively speaking, beat him into line.

In this case, the school district is completely wrong. Their behavior is ill-considered and excessive and damaging not only to Mr. Buell, but to the reputation of the entire school district. It seems clear that Mr. Buell wrote his opinion on his own time, using his own resources. It is equally clear that he did not represent his opinion as the official policy of the Mount Dora School District. It was written on his personal Facebook page, not in any school forum.

Some may claim that because the internet potentially reaches millions, one may not express their opinions there, and the Mount Dora SD is taking just this position, that despite posting his opinion on his personal Facebook page, it was not private, but they miss the point. It is principle that matters, not the means by which Mr. Buell's opinion was disseminated or the size of his audience. If freedom of speech exists, it matters not whether the audience for such speech is five people in a teacher's lounge or the most heavily trafficked website on the Internet. The principle is the same.

The actions of the Mount Dora SD are politically correct idiocy. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are acting in what they believe to be the best interests of students rather than the purity and power of their obviously leftist politics, they are no less wrong and no less foolish. One does not protect students by teaching them that the First Amendment may be suspended at the whim of school administrators.

Their fundamental mistake is in conflating opinion with behavior. Mr. Buell may hold any opinion about any topic he pleases no matter how horrifying some people might find any of his opinions should they somehow become known to them. It is not only possible, it is common for professional teachers to disapprove of gay marriage or even homosexuality in general while still treating homosexual students, parents and others with kindness and respect.

In this case, there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Buell is anything but a professional teacher that understands and universally respects the boundary between personal opinion and professional practice. In fact, Mr. Buell has a 22-year record of doing just that. Presumably he has held this opinion for most, if not all of those 22 years, yet has obviously been a very effective teacher. Considering this, it would appear that the people who have no idea of the boundary between personal opinion and professional practice are Mr. Buell's employers.

School officials may not demand uniformity of thought. They may not establish thought crimes and appoint themselves the thought police. They can legitimately expect that teachers treat everyone professionally. It's impossible and insane to believe that one may regulate the very thoughts and beliefs of others—particularly when such thoughts and beliefs have not even a tenuous connection to school facilities, publications or business--yet that's what Mount Dora school officials are doing. They are elevating one group of people—homosexuals—above all others and awarding them special, protected status, but protection against what?

The Mount Dora SD wishes to provide homosexuals with protection against experiencing any possible—as opposed to real—offense. One of the most ephemeral foundations upon which political correctness shakily stands is the bizarre idea that there is such as thing as a right never to be annoyed or offended. Thankfully, no such right exists (although many of America's universities are doing their best to establish one).

We are all subject to the disapproval and criticism of others, express or implied, real or imagined, in hundreds of ways and for hundreds of reasons. Learning to deal with disapproval, without being annoyed or offended, without lapsing into quivering victimhood which requires the full force of the state for protection and relief, is an essential life skill, a skill without which one is singularly unsuited to survival in the real world where the overly tender sensibilities of any individual tend to be unimportant, to say the least. The state may be legitimately involved only when opinion is manifested in actual behavior that rises to the level of a crime such as a breach of the peace or an assault. This is so because most Americans realize that attempting to regulate or punish the thoughts and opinions of others is practically impossible, constitutionally impermissible and morally repugnant.

We must judge others, as Dr. Martin Luther King suggested, on the content of their character, which we can know primarily through their behavior, through the way they treat others, and secondarily through their record of accomplishments. In this case, Mount Dora school officials are punishing an exemplary teacher for the potential—not the real—discomfort of some potential homosexual students—which might occur at some point in the future, not which has actually occurred. To them, apparently the mere possibility that a homosexual might—at some future date, in some way—be offended, is sufficient justification to destroy the career of what appears to be a loyal and effective public servant. This is the stuff of totalitarian thought crime, not of professional, rational management.

I would hope that that logic would prevail and that Mount Dora school officials could calmly and dispassionately examine their actions and correct their errors, but understanding human nature and Leftist thinking—such as it is—that is unlikely. Political correctness has a deranged, self-propelling logic all its own. Mr. Buell will almost certainly have to fight a protracted legal battle, and the students of Mount Dora High School will be deprived of an excellent teacher until Mr. Buell eventually wins, as he surely will, if the Constitution and common sense still exist in Mount Dora, Florida.

Mr. Buell and his attorneys also have a strong case based on his related First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The Bible clearly disapproves of homosexuality, and Mr. Buell reportedly made reference to the Bible in his Facebook writings. Should Mr. Buell choose this path as well as the freedom of speech path, his case will be strengthened in that Christian tradition and practice is to disapprove of sin, but to love human beings, all of whom sin. Again, Mr. Buell appears to have practiced just this for 22 years at Mount Dora High School, while Mount Dora school officials seem to worship at the alter of political correctness and victimization.

I hope I've answered your question satisfactorily. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you, or for Aracelli.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:25 PM | Comments (2)

August 15, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #14: Belaboring The Obvious

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. Steven Nunsense
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Belaboring The Obvious

Dear Mr. Nunsense:

It was good to hear from you again. I really enjoyed having Hannah as my student two years ago, and I'm looking forward to having Steven Jr. this year. You asked many good questions, and I hope that I did them justice in my last e-mail. But as I noted then, it would not be possible to do your final question justice just then. I have enough time to do that now, so I'll explain why teachers so dislike in-service classes and how that effects education.

It's worthwhile to understand that there are essentially three major groups involved—to greater and lesser degrees--in the delivery of education: teachers, principals and administrators. There are, of course, school board members, but their primary concerns are getting their names on new buildings and making sure the local football team is properly pampered (I'm kidding—mostly).

Teachers have virtually no power. They don't hire or fire, have little or no input into policies, don't make decisions about discipline, and deal almost exclusively with the daily business of presenting the best educational opportunity possible in the hope that at least some of the kids will take advantage of it. Providing that educational opportunity is the ultimate mission of education and they are the people carrying out that mission.

Principals are almost always former teachers. Sometimes they have substantial experience as teachers, but often, very little. They became principals just as soon as they could. If they are good principals, they understand that they have two jobs: To ensure discipline so it's possible for teachers to teach, and to see that teachers have everything else they need to provide that educational opportunity. If they're not good principals, they can single-handedly derail the educational opportunity train, and teachers and students can lose entire years. Even with the best principals, there is often quite a gap between the daily concerns and reality of teachers and principals. Oh yes, principals commonly make from double to four times a teacher's salary.

Administrators are usually former principals who, once they became principals, began wrangling almost immediately to become administrators, who can make double to four times the salary of principals. Their primary concerns are pleasing and manipulating their school board, getting their names on new buildings, and making sure that everyone under them doesn't do anything to embarrass them.

Lower ranking administrators are always trying to impress their superiors and making a name for themselves that will allow them to get a more powerful and better paying job somewhere else, usually by means of ramrodding—literally and painfully—some grand educational scheme or fad that will dramatically change the face of education and make them look like a rising star. Such fads are virtually always nothing more than some old, dusty fad refurbished with a fresh coat of paint and new terms that make what didn't work the first time sound much more impressive. There are loads of companies selling such products, and they aren't cheap, particularly those designed for sequel after sequel, year after year. The trick is that once a lower ranking administrator has hooked a school district into a fad, it's almost impossible for them to abandon it even if it is clear to everyone that it's a fraud and a waste of money. Admitting that would be admitting that school administrators are fallible, which is, of course, simply not possible. So year after year, teachers are subjected to mind-numbing drivel provided at exorbitant cost.

One of the major problems with such classes is that if you're an experienced teacher, the material is so elementary and so obviously poorly recycled that it's a direct insult to your intelligence. If you're brand new, what you really need to know is all of the details of not only teaching, but of teaching in your particular school and district such as which novels to teach, where bathrooms are located, how to grade, how to discipline, what to wear, and a hundred other things you weren't taught in college and thought you knew when you were a kid in high school, but actually had no clue about.

Allow me to provide several examples from in-service classes years past:

In one soul-wrenching class we were taught that if you did not have scissors, you could adapt by actually tearing paper! In another, we were taught that items such as scissors, staplers, pencils, pens and anything that could be manipulated with the fingers should henceforth be called "manipulables" because the mere act of using that term would somehow magically transform education for teachers and students. My favorite was being told that when dealing with students who do not read, write or speak English, one should speak very slowly and loudly: "WHAAAAAT IS WROOOOOOONG WITH YOOOOOUUUU? WHY DON'T YOU UNDERSTAAAAAAAND MEEEEEE?" These were the highlights of those benighted classes. The rest was worse, much worse.

My favorite was years ago when we were sent to a nearby school district to learn how to teach a miraculous reading program. The lady teaching the class turned out to be a retired elementary school teacher who spent every minute of the allotted day—when we weren't on lengthy breaks (the only thing that prevented massive brain damage)—talking about her children and grandchildren and tossing in the occasional rambling, folksy, disjointed anecdote about past students. One of my colleagues, a bright woman taking up teaching in middle age, kept asking pertinent questions that only annoyed the folksy facilitator, so I took her aside during a break and clued her in. We suffered the rest of the day in silence while nodding and smiling pleasantly. Her fee was, no doubt, thousands of dollars, and we ended the day probably knowing less about the reading program than we did before she spoke her first word.

At the beginning of each school year, teachers are called in for in-service classes usually at least a full week before the first day students arrive. They are commonly excited and anxious to get to work to prepare for the kids. Instead they are subjected to classes usually comprised of about 30 minutes of potentially useful information stretched to cover eight hours. Sometimes, there is no potentially useful information. It's rather hard to stretch nothing, but they always manage, usually by making us engage in discussions about methods or concepts we wouldn't touch with 20-foot poles or by making us do "lessons" no competent teacher would ever inflict on their students, as a means of demonstrating what they want us to inflict on our students.

Such classes usually have handouts that consist of templates for accomplishing the most common things, actions competent people have internalized decades earlier. The promise is that if everyone adopts the magic templates as a model for doing what already works, educational achievement will reach heretofore unheard of heights. Whenever I walk into such a class and notice little Tupperwear boxes filled with markers, stick on notes and a variety of similar items spread around the room, particularly when accompanied by sheets of butcher paper or similar paper, I know I'm in for it. I know that because we're going to have to write touchy-feely things on the stick on notes and stick them on paper around the walls, and then we’ll have a "gallery walk" which means we're going to walk around the room reading what other people wrote on stick on notes and this will transform education.

Last week we had what was the fourth or fifth sequel of what is called "Constant Improvement" or "Continuous Improvement" or "Constipated Improvement" or something like that. Each year it's virtually the same thing but slightly repackaged. It's been no secret at all that these classes make teachers suicidal, but apparently some administrator has bet their career on them, so we get constipatedly improved over and over again.

Let me give you some examples from our debacle last week. The "presenter" (or was it "trainer" or "facilitator?" They really love "facilitator.") was a nice lady who apparently retired after teaching something somewhere for many years. The problem was that she was essentially reading the pre-programmed script/handout, complete with accompanying PowerPoint presentation with additional hard copy and web resources available at extra cost.

The focus on this particular presentation was on teamwork. The greatest irony, of course, was that we were wasting a day talking about working in teams instead of working in teams getting work done. She began with a false assumption: teachers have trouble making transitions from one activity to another in classes. Perhaps some brand new teachers have trouble with this, but competent teachers have no more trouble in this area than with blowing their noses.

Here are some of the gems of educational insight we endured:

* Meetings should have a format and they should have a start time and an end time. What an amazing insight!

* While not all trout are fish, not all fish are trout. Similarly, all teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. Uh, OK…

* If you don't look at the game film after a football game you're missing an opportunity for improvement. Uh, OK…

* We learned the definition of "collaborate." Yeah. I had no idea of that one.

* It's important that kids know the content vocabulary in their classes. Really? We should actually teach kids about things like symbolism, theme, alliteration, grammar, and similar things? Wow! I'd no idea!

* Teachers having meetings should have a purpose. I guess that's why our meetings never accomplished anything before now. Our mandatory test scores in the mid 90s must just be flukes.

* We can have a "Round Robin," which is not a rotund bird, but everyone in a meeting expressing their opinions in turn. I always thought that was called "taking turns expressing your opinion," but I'm just a teacher; what do I know?

* You should be on time for meetings. What? No more being fashionably late for no reason?!

* If a teacher has a really good reason for not attending a meeting, there should be discussion about whether to allow them to be gone, or how to punish them, or something. Uh…what?

* If there is a fire in the building, one person should make the decision to evacuate rather than having a meeting to discuss the issue. Wow! Whoda thunk it?

There were forms for planning meetings, forms for writing meeting agendas, forms for analyzing what people said, forms for documenting what happened in the meeting, forms for evaluating the meeting, forms for scratching your nose, eating lunch, and breathing. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit on the last three, but not by much. The people who wrote the program apparently have no idea that teachers have a device known as a "brain" which is capable of storing and retrieving things called "memories" and "processes," and which can "evaluate" events without the use of expensive forms.

Much of the time spent was discussion time in our department groups, er, teams, er, somethings, so that we could evaluate the aforementioned points and implement their wisdom. Apparently the people selling the product have no idea that competent teachers have been having completely effective meetings long before this money making program was ever conceived. So we sat, joked about what we were being asked to do, conducted whatever business we could at the time, and generally appeared to be busy and participating in the class, for teachers are generally quite polite. However, looking around the room I had the distinct impression that the Russians at the siege of Stalingrad probably looked perkier and happier than the assembled teachers.

Why is this a problem apart from wasting a day of teacher's time? Because it is wasting a day of teacher's time, and every minute of their time is precious. It is, in a very real sense, time for which the public is paying and time affecting each student's educational opportunity. The public is also paying the hefty expenses for these all but useless programs. How much? That's hard to tell. Administrators are not the least bit interested in revealing such things to mere teachers, and anyone asking might very well wind up on double secret probation. In the current economic climate, that's not a good idea. My guess is easily tens of thousands of dollars a year. In the current economic climate, that's not a good idea either.

Some people might be tempted to say: "Well at least they're trying to provide some continuing education, and that's better than nothing." No, I'm afraid it is not. Wasting a teacher's preparation time at great financial cost to the public is not better than nothing because nothing in this case is a teacher doing what they're paid to do: preparing well and effectively for their students.

In any case, I hope that this gives you a little insight into what we often have to endure. Thanks again for your concerns and questions, and please let me know if I can be of help in the future.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:08 PM | Comments (2)

August 09, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher, #13: New Year's Resolutions

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Steamed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: What Teachers Know

Dear Bob:

Well, it's that time again. Just four days from now, we're back in in-service classes and a week beyond that, the kids return. I've been working, as you know, most of the summer on preparing for this year, and I've been in my classroom for the last week—and I will be there all of this week—getting things ready. I wonder why people think teachers spend months laying around and soaking up sun in the summer? I can't ever recall having done that. You?

Anyway, most people make their new year's resolutions in late December, but I make mine in early August. I worried a great deal about last year. I just didn't ever feel settled. The year seemed to be passing by very rapidly and always just beyond my grasp. I worry that I didn't do all that I could have done. I worry that I didn't teach the right things in the right ways. I worry that I didn't demand enough of the kids.

I've always believed that the art of teaching lies in mastering the small things, the details. So here are my top ten resolutions for the new year. May it be better and more productive than the last.

(1) When we are, once again, forced to sit through in service classes that not only insult our intelligence but actually lower our IQs, I resolve to do one of two things: Have a heart to heart chat with our Superintendent where I introduce him to reality—in the nicest possible way, of course. I suspect my initial question to him might go something like this: "What the hell is wrong with you people?!" Or I'll simply endure it as always, surreptitiously doing preparation work while a grossly overpaid "consultant" drones on and on, and successfully resist the almost overpowering urge to kill myself to end the pain. OK, OK! So I'll do the latter. I need the job.

(2) I resolve to spend those extra few minutes, no matter how busy I am, to talk with kids, listen to their concerns, and simply ask them questions about their favorite topic: themselves. It's so easy to allow ourselves to be completely caught up in the work of education and to forget some of the process, to simply delight in the kids.

(3) I resolve to force myself to spend at least ten minutes each and every day simply sitting and thinking about what I'm doing. I did so little of that last year, and I think when we don't take that time, we're all the poorer for it. In secondary education we're so busy with classes--one after the other all day--we sometimes forget to think. Aren't we supposed to be thinkers? I know I'm not satisfied with just delivering content.

(4) I resolve to keep close track of all of the interruptions and disruptions that keep me from teaching and my kids from learning every day. I did that about 10 years back and was appalled at the unbelievable amount of time that assemblies, pep rallies, messengers, unnecessary testing and retesting, announcements, and myriad other small annoyances occupy. I'll give the results to the principal at the end of the year. He has promised to reduce that sort of thing this year, but I think it won't hurt to be able to quantify things.

(5) I resolve to spend a little more time—as much as I can—writing back comments to my kids. I already do a great deal of that when I grade their papers, but sometimes, I feel as though I'm rushing, doing it more to get done than to stimulate their thinking. Yes, I know that many don't care, but some do. Don't they deserve our best?

(6) I resolve to continue to do Talk Like A Pirate Day again this year. There is just something about dressing and talking like pirates that the kids love, and their little skits are hilarious. Of course, once they perform for the class that way, they don't bat an eye about doing anything else before the class for the rest of the year. I thought about passing on it this year, but hey, if you can't be a little goofy every once in awhile, what's the point of living? Besides, teachers in other departments always tells me that it's fun to hear the kids talking like pirates around the halls that week, and it does help them to think about language differently. Arrrrrrrrr!

(7) I'm going to have the kids act out "Forbidden Planet" again this year. I've wanted to incorporate more science fiction into the curriculum—all we usually do is "Fahrenheit 451"—and that movie seems to work. The kids enjoy acting out the script, and they really enjoy seeing the movie—with the actors saying "their" lines—afterward. I like the fact that it's also a detective story and that it deals with the fundamental nature of man.

(8) I resolve to give the kids a little less time to complete their research paper this year. Like you, I try new things each and every year and get identical—mediocre—results. As you know, we do other things simultaneously, but I think I'll try focusing their work in a shorter time frame and see if that is useful.

(9) I resolve to be more serious on the broken window issues this year. You know what I mean, right? It's an old law enforcement concept: If a building, even if not currently in use, has a broken window that goes unrepaired, soon all of the windows will be broken. It's human nature, or at least the more perverse portion of it. Handle the small things and the larger behavioral issues tend not to manifest themselves. So I'll enforce the dress code a bit more strictly, and demand that the kids keep their hands and lips off each other a bit more strictly. I do that more than most already, but I suspect it might help everyone with disciplinary issues if we all were just a bit more vigilant about such things.

(10) I firmly resolve to accent basic civics more completely this year. You know that I always do that, but with our current political situation, with our economic mess, with people believing that America is in decline, I need to remind the kids how fortunate they are to be Americans. I need to use our literature to remind them of the better angels of human nature, and to reinforce their role in the social contract. I need to help them to become better people, better citizens, and better Americans. Above all, I need to help them to believe in the idea of America, and to understand why America truly is the one indispensable, unique nation in world history. If they don't know it, if they don't believe it, we’re truly lost. I'm not going down without a fight.

I'm also going to try to spend more time actually speaking to people rather than e-mailing them, and I'm even going to try to go to the occasional pep rally, but I'll have to buy new ear plugs if I hope to retain what little hearing I have left, to say nothing of what little sanity I have left. And I think I'll try to take the time to actually say hello to all my colleagues every morning. A smile is a nice way to start the day.

So there you go. I expect you'll help to keep me on track to uphold these good intentions. I'm going to have fun in every class every day, as always. In the study of Kendo, I often tell my Sensei that I will reach perfection tomorrow, always tomorrow. For all of us, it's not reaching perfection, but making the effort and what we learn and become on the journey that's important. I'll be a perfect teacher tomorrow. You?


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 12:20 AM | Comments (6)

August 01, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #12: They're Gonna Mess With Texas!

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. Discipline, Principal, Anytown High School
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: They're Gonna Mess With Texas!

Dear Mr. Discipline:

Let me provide the links to two articles I think you'll find very interesting:

(1) "Half of Texas' Student Have Been Suspended, Study Finds (here), and

(2) "New Initiative Targets 'School-to-Prison' Pipeline" (here)

In the first article, the author reports that:

"Using discipline records of nearly 1 million Texas middle and high school students that cover much of the last decade, researchers found that more than half of them were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades, that the punishments were applied unevenly among students of different races, abilities, and schools, and that students disciplined with these methods were more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school than students who were not punished in the same way."

The article suggests that " of the half a million times students were suspended or expelled, only 3 percent of those suspensions or expulsions were for behavior Texas law requires be punished that way."

The second article begins:

"A new undertaking from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education targets school discipline policies that end up pushing children into the juvenile-justice system for crimes and rule-breaking on campus—and keeping them from pursuing their education."

The author adds:

" Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the Supportive School Discipline Initiative at a meeting of a Justice Department committee meeting Thursday afternoon.

'When our young people start getting locked up early... they start to move out of schools, out of the pipeline to success,' Mr. Duncan said."

Apparently Mr. Duncan and Mr. Holder's initiative has four parts:
"• building consensus for action among federal, state and local education and justice stakeholders; 
• collaborating on research and data collection needed to shape policy, such as evaluations of alternative disciplinary policies and interventions; 
• developing guidance to ensure school discipline policies and practices are in line with the federal civil rights laws; 
• and promoting awareness and knowledge about evidence-based and promising policies and practices."

The author concluded with this:

"Holder and Duncan referenced a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center from earlier this week that found that more than half of all Texas middle and high school students were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades.

'I think these numbers are kind of a wake-up call,' Mr. Holder said. 'It's obvious we can do better.'"

I can't help but wonder what the "researchers" considered as being "suspended." Unless they counted kids spending a day or two in On Campus suspension (OCS) for mid-level disciplinary issues, the idea that half of kids were suspended—actually temporarily removed from the campus--or expelled—removed for a semester or a year--makes no sense; the numbers are simply too large. I suspect that they cherry-picked the kids involved. Notice that the article very carefully doesn't specify that the "nearly 1 million" kids represented all Texas students in that decade. If half of all kids were suspended or expelled at least once, it would be simply impossible to actually have a school.

I looked it up: in 2011, 4.9 million kids were enrolled in Texas schools. I wonder if the authors involved purposely made it appear that more than half of all kids in Texas schools were suspended or expelled? Yeah. I know the answer too.

I wonder what they mean when they said "…that the punishments were applied unevenly among students of different races, abilities and schools?" That would seem to suggest a one-size fits all disciplinary scheme that treats every kid alike, regardless of the circumstances, their past disciplinary records, or their individual needs. That's all we need: Another bit of "zero-tolerance" nonsense that requires us to abuse the hell out of kids because some boneheaded bureaucrat thinks he knows better than we do and is determined to impose his political ideology on the real world.

I really liked this one too: "… that students disciplined with these methods were more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school than students who were not punished in the same way." I think we've both seen this sort of thing before by people who say, for instance, that a larger portion of young black males are in prison than the same portion of young white males. They latch onto the statistic and believe that it is indicative or racism or prejudice or some other social ill rather than the obvious: more young black men are committing serious crimes than any other group. They're not the victims of some evil conspiracy, they're criminals who need to be behind bars because when they're not, they're preying on innocent people.

In the case of schools, we both know that the kids who are such serious and continuing discipline problems that they end up actually suspended or expelled are also the same group of kids who will end up repeating a grade or dropping out. It's not the evil schools that suspend or expel them; it's their behavior. And they are being suspended or expelled because that behavior is so constant, so disruptive or so dangerous that when they're in school, they make it difficult or impossible for other kids to learn, or they prey on them. Sadly, all too often their parents don't lift a finger to control them and expect the schools to be their surrogate parents.

These articles obviously assume that the kids they're talking about are some kind of victims of evil school officials who only want to see them kicked out of school and locked up. They don't seem to realize or care that before a kid is subjected to such mild punishment as a day of OCS, they have already exhausted no less than 4-5 (sometimes more) lesser steps on the discipline scale and their behavior is so disruptive that they have to be removed from classes so other kids have the chance to learn.

What I'm really worried about is the federal government getting involved. The Education Secretary's statement says it all: "When our young people start getting locked up early... they start to move out of schools, out of the pipeline to success." Mr. Duncan has no idea what's actually going on out here in the real world. He sees some kids being "locked up early"—whatever that means—and that mere fact—if it is a fact—tells him that something horrible is happening, something that only the federal government can and must fix? Don't these people ever ask questions like: "Do these kids deserve to be locked up?" Ronald Reagan was right. The most horrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the Federal Government and I'm here to help."

The four initiatives are particularly troubling, such as: "developing guidance to ensure school discipline policies and practices are in line with the federal civil rights laws." You know what that means. The Obama Administration is going to decide one-size-fits-all, race, gender and sexual orientation related disciplinary policies for middle school and high schools and is going to side with kids who want to sue their schools for daring to discipline them so that the rest of the student body can learn and doesn't end up being their victims.

Can you imagine federal agencies or federal judges running discipline policies for individual schools? I have no doubt that Mr. Holder and Mr. Duncan can. I thought the federal government was kind of busy with the whole national debt and multiple foreign wars thing. Apparently not. You haven't done anything to annoy these people, have you? I'm pretty sure I haven't.

Anyway, I know you don't have nearly enough to worry about, but I thought I'd better give you a heads-up on this. I suppose we ought to thank our lucky stars we're not living in Texas. The Obama Administration really seems to hate those poor people, and now they're going after their schools. With any luck, they'll be able to turn Texas schools into California or Detroit schools with the same kinds of policies that have made those places the outstanding educational success stories they are today. Perhaps they can start student's unions? I'm sure the SEIU would be interested.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 11:20 PM | Comments (5)

July 25, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #11: Sex Education?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Whitehouse
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Sex Education?

Dear Mrs. Whitehouse:

Thanks for your e-mail about your son Steve's literature critique. His final draft was a great improvement. I only showed him what he needed to do; he did all the real work, and it paid off very well.

I was also glad that you sent me this link about the Massachusetts middle school forcing 7th graders to take a sex survey without parental knowledge or permission. As you requested, I checked with our middle school and our central office. We are not planning anything remotely like that, and we have never done anything remotely like that. In fact, in the Anytown Independent School District, all such things require parental permission, in advance. If you have any additional questions about that issue, I recommend that you speak with April Summers, who handles that portion of the curriculum for us. I'm sure she can answer any questions you might have.

As to your question about my opinion of sex ed. for high school students, I'm honored that you would ask, but please understand that my answer is probably not going to perfectly match the official position of the Anytown ISD, whatever that position is. I speak only for myself, which is probably just fine by the Anytown ISD anyway!

I suppose I'll be taking bits and pieces from both of the commonly known sides of the issue, but I'm probably going to be talking more about human nature and process than precisely what should and should not be taught. I hope that will answer your question as completely as possible, or at the least, provide a bit of insight.

A great many people suggest that there is no need for adults to teach kids anything about sex. They seem to believe that kids already know far more than they did at that age, and likely more than they do as adults! The truth is, most kids know only enough to know at what they should snicker. Like a great many adults, they really don't know much, and what they do know is just enough to get them into real trouble.

I'll give you two quick examples. Last year, while the kids were working on a writing assignment quite unrelated to sex, one of my brighter girls, a pretty and popular girl, a girl most of the other kids would automatically assume knew a great deal about sex—and everything else—looked up from her paper and asked: "Mr. English Teacher, do Muslims have belly buttons?" I have no idea why that thought popped into her head, but the rest of the class immediately perked up to see what I would say. Only one or two were trying to suppress laughter; the rest really weren't sure of the answer. Before I could speak, the single Muslim boy in the class stood up, grinned at me (I nodded permission), he turned toward the girl, lifted his shirt, exclaimed "Muslim bellybutton!" and showed her his bellybutton. Ten minutes later, I was finally able to get them back on track—it was, by the way, the best laugh we had that week--and the redness was finally beginning to fade from the face of the poor girl who asked the question.

The second example started innocently enough. We were working on a favorite assignment of mine I call a dictionary poem. I give the kids a sheet with ten groups of ten numbered lines. They have to open a dictionary to ten pages at random and choose ten words from the opened pages and write them in the blanks. When they're done, they use those words, and those words only to write a poem. It's great fun, and it forces the kids to really think about words in unfamiliar ways. The kids find all sorts of interesting words and realize that dictionaries are actually pretty interesting.

In this case, a very smart, popular and social girl suddenly spoke up and asked: "Mr. English Teacher, what's an areola?" About five of the kids started to snicker—they'd heard the word and had some inkling it had something to do with breasts and therefore, with sex, or something. In these cases, the kids will model their reactions on yours, so it's important to calmly deal with such questions. So I explained that the word has several meanings, but that most commonly it referred to the area, usually circular, surrounding something, such as the nipple in men and women. Several more kids were snickering now, and she was immediately embarrassed and blurted out that she always thought that the whole thing was the nipple. That did it; the whole class cracked up and suddenly became much more interested in looking for similarly interesting words. I simply clarified that the nipple was the smaller part that protruded in the center of the areola, and after another five minutes, the laughter died down, but the kids were showing new fervor in searching their dictionaries! Whatever works.

The point is that many would think that contemporary teenagers know far more than we did as teenagers, but in truth, they're nearly as uninformed as most of us were. Only after they were given a graphic example and an explanation, did the kids put two and two together and realize that all human beings had to have belly buttons. Only after the embarrassed young lady talked about areolas in a way that they'd never forget, followed by a simple explanation (many of them immediately looked up the word too) did they actually know what a word they'd heard and somehow exclusively associated with sex meant.

Should we be teaching high school kids about human sexuality? It's not an easy question. Human beings are hard wired—to use computer terminology—for reproduction. They're driven, particularly young men, to pursue that biological imperative. It's a powerful drive. At the same time, human beings, apart from all other animals, have the ability to make conscious, moral choices. We know that kids will inevitably be driven to experiment, yet there is no question that abstinence is by far the smartest thing for them to observe. So I suspect that it's reasonable to provide a certain amount of the right software, delivered in the right way.

Let me provide one more example that might help to suggest at least a process, if not a solution. A few years back, we were discussing a novel, and during that discussion, a particularly thoughtful, but shy, young lady raised her hand and asked a question. She was a very good student, and rarely participated in class discussions due to her shyness. Coincidently, I noticed earlier that week that she appeared to have a boyfriend, as I later learned, her first.

In any case, during that discussion of theme, characterization and the elements of novels, she raised her hand and asked "Mr. English Teacher, do you like sex?" The half of the class that knew me grinned, waiting for my reply, and the rest simply stared in shock, waiting for whatever calamity they were sure would befall them.

I could have ignored her or told her that it was an inappropriate question, but instead I gave a slight grin and asked: "is this a trick question?" That broke up the class and allowed me to acknowledge, quietly that I was, in fact, relatively fond of sex, but that it was a very complex subject and not easily understood. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that she was struggling with what to do about the possibility of sex, but instead of asking whether she should have sex, she asked my opinion. My answer let her relax and she asked what I meant.

At that point, again, I could have simply said that it was a better topic for another time, but when you have every kid in a class listening that intently to your next word, it's not to be wasted. I explained that the most important part of human sexuality was not the physical element, but the emotional, the spiritual element. I explained that it is the intellectual intimacy, the absolute trust, the willingness to give fully of yourself that is far more satisfying that a few minutes of mere physical pleasure. It is that which is lasting, only that which sustains us for a lifetime, that reveals the great joys of being human. I closed by pointing out that only when one is older, wiser, when one is independent—essentially a responsible adult--able to give what is necessary to another in every way is that kind of bonding and true love possible. Until then, sex is very often harmful, damaging and painful. It's simply best to work hard at becoming that responsible adult, which means not engaging in sex at its weakest and least fulfilling

That took all of five minutes from the novel. The kids seriously thought about what I said. I can't guarantee that half of the class didn't engage in sex at its weakest and least fulfilling that very night, but at least they thought about it, and as teachers, we know that we can never know exactly who we influence and how deeply. I do know that it was the right message and five minutes pretty well spent. The novel was waiting when I finished.

Should we teach kids, whose parents agree beforehand, about the issues of human sexuality with which we all have to deal? Sure, but it can't be a how-to class. And we can't be so simplistic as to teach little more than "just say no" in a variety of different ways. As with everything else we teach, our goal should always be to help kids become smarter, stronger, wiser, and more capable adults, adults who are honorable, self-sacrificing human beings determined to treat others with sincerity and honor.

I hope that's a helpful answer. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:58 PM | Comments (4)

July 18, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #10: What Do Teachers Know?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Esteemed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: What Teachers Know

Dear Bob:

Hey there! Thanks for covering that after school hall duty for me yesterday. I really needed to spend the time with that parent. I owe you one.

Earlier today I ran across an interesting old book: What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know. It's something of a critique of education, actually. As you can imagine, the authors pretty much think our 17 year olds don't know much and of course, it's our fault. They're not, by any means, entirely off base, but it stimulated my thinking (I know: very dangerous!), so I thought I'd come up with a list of what high school English teachers know. I'd appreciate it if you'd look it over when you have a minute and see what you think.

High School English Teachers Know:

* That centralized planning is utopian and foolish. It must, of necessity ignore human nature, so it is destined to fail before the ink is dry on the paper. For instance, "No Child Left Behind" mandates that every child in America be reading and writing and doing math on grade level by 2014. Any teacher could have told them how insane that idea is. People are born equal in the sight of God and under the Constitution, but not in intellect and ability. Some kids, no matter how many federal laws are enacted, will never be able to perform on grade level, at least in part because they have, for decades, been promoted based not on performance and acquisition of knowledge, but for social and political purposes.

* That virtually nobody asks or listens to teachers when formulating policies and mandates teachers will have to try to implement. This is so because they think teachers know nothing about education, or because they fear that they do. Perhaps both.

* That many mandates in how to best teach reading or writing are nothing more than fads dressed up in superficially impressive packaging, and that they will have to pretend to embrace them while doing what they know actually works until the people who staked their professional reputations on the latest fad have moved on to lay waste to greener fields, or until the next great fad promising to revolutionize education comes around.

* That human beings learn in 2011 exactly as they learned in 201 BC. Times change, but people don't. People learn through intellectual curiosity, paying attention, effective practice over time, and through teachers who know not only the material, but how to most effectively impart that material. This is why the Socratic Method still works beautifully. This is why those who study martial arts study the same techniques taught in the same way for millennia. Technology does not transform human nature and the way we learn, it merely makes some of the process of learning and teaching more convenient.

* That without a calm, disciplined classroom, little learning will take place.

* That students owe their teachers deference; respect is another matter and is earned—every day.

* That the best teachers are masters of detail. It is the little things—and the ability to pay attention to them--that truly make a difference in human affairs.

* That one of the most important things any teacher can teach is the ability to pay attention, to be fully in the instant. This is very difficult, and will be a life-long pursuit.

* That not everyone can be an effective teacher. In fact, good teachers know that exceptional teachers, like exceptional performers in every field of human endeavor, are rare. They also know that many people lauded as exceptional, aren't.

* That if everyone is above average, average has no meaning. That if everyone is special, no one is special.

* That self-esteem is meaningless and that self-respect is what truly matters. It is earned, through hard work, each and every day.

* That one of the most serious impediments to learning and the future of our nation is that most kids—and probably their parents—are not readers. Those who don't read, not only for learning and information, but simply for pleasure, tend to be deficient in spelling, writing, the ability to reason and speak, vocabulary, the ability to infer and to anticipate, and most importantly, they tend to be deficient in understanding human nature. Nothing but regular and broad reading can so significantly improve the human mind in every way. Nothing but regular reading directly translates into every other academic discipline and into life itself.

* That in very important ways, reading is the very process of education.

* That one of the most important things any teacher can teach is how to understand and interact with other human beings with honesty and sincerity. Education is really the process of understanding human nature.

* That the reason that we still teach Shakespeare 400 years after his death, the reason that his works are still so beloved and always will be, is that he understood human nature so well.

* That teachers should never overestimate a child's knowledge and hunger for more, and they should never underestimate their intellect and ability to learn.

* That education is a life-long process for which each individual is responsible. Twelve years of school merely turn one into a reasonably functional human being capable of more advanced learning and performance. Each individual's degree of attention and dedication to that process in those first twelve years will, in large part, dictate their success in life whether they continue to college or not.

* That when the bell rings, teachers must close their doors, focus their attention, put aside all other concerns and foolish fads, and teach as though nothing is more important than the lesson they have prepared that day.

* That during the school year, they must—if they wish to be truly effective teachers—make their students their first priority.

* That Lord Acton was right: those who will not learn from history truly are doomed to repeat it. We see this most tragically in school lunches and zero tolerance policies.

* That teacher's unions care little for teachers and less for students and their parents. They care only for money and power.

* That few people have less power to effect educational policy than those most intimately involved with it: teachers. What plumber or electrician would put up with this?

* That one of the most essential qualities that any teacher can have is an outrageous sense of humor and irony.

* That another of the most essential qualities any teacher can have is the understanding that teenagers will, upon occasion, act like teenagers, but that they cannot be allowed to behave rudely or stupidly.

* That when teenagers behave like teenagers, teachers must not take it personally.

* That another of the most essential qualities any teacher can have is a genuine love for their work and their students, a love that allows them to come to class every day smiling, happy and looking forward to their time together.

* That they must believe in the vital importance of what they do, and choose their curriculum and methods accordingly. If teachers believe it, and often remind their students how important what they do is, students will believe it too.

* That kids, like animals, know who really cares about them and who is just going through the motions.

* That high school football—and other sports--are entertaining, but have little to do with education.

* That some adults and school board members will see high school sports—particularly football—as education.

* That physical fitness is important, but life is a matter of assigning rational priorities. Sports should never substitute for academic disciplines or make it more difficult to master them.

* That all the best teachers—all than any teacher—can do is to provide the best educational opportunity their knowledge, abilities and assets provided by their school district make possible.

* That some students will choose to take little or no advantage of that educational opportunity.

* That their parents will let them.

* That the best teachers never lose sight of the fact that a large part of their job is convincing students that they are capable of so much more than they can imagine, and of showing them how, step by step, to accomplish it.

* That all of the best and most memorable learning takes place in the presence of smiles and laughter.

* That understanding and recognizing humor is a sure sign of higher level thinking and reasoning. It should be encouraged.

* That they must be determined to have fun in every class, every day, and that they must think of ways to encourage their students to come along for the ride.

* That one of the most important qualities any teacher can have is the ability to organize.

* That the fastest way to end any conversation is to say: "You know, what you just said has fascinating grammatical possibilities."

* That teachers must always take their work seriously, but never themselves.

* That good teachers not only can teach, they can do as well. The ability to do what they teach is, in fact, a large part of the foundation of their teaching abilities.

* That the parents of the kids they really need to meet will almost never come to open houses, and will almost never return letters, e-mails, or phone calls.

* That parents have far more influence on their children than any teacher can ever hope to have.

* That teachers can and should be their student's friends, but their responsible, adult friends who must always be expected to act as responsible adults. Teachers cannot be student's middle-aged homeys.

* That no teacher can ever know exactly how they have influenced their students. They must always act so as to influence them for the good.

Well, there you go. What do you think? I suppose this is sort of my philosophy of education. Remember how they used to always ask for your philosophy of education in college? Remember how we faked it, feeding back their ideas? Experience really is the best teacher. I know now that I didn't really have much of a clue back then. I suppose some might say I have less now! What do they know? They're only teachers!

Thanks again for covering for me. Let me know when I can reciprocate.


Mr. Fellow English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 11:07 PM | Comments (4)

July 11, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #9: Gay History And Literature?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. and Mrs. Carter
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Gay Used To Be Such A Lovely Word

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Carter:

I appreciated your e-mail today very much, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to respond to it. Let me respond directly to your first question: No, the Anytown School District will not require the teaching of Gay history. In fact, our state legislature has not mandated that or anything like it. I’m suspect you’re thinking of California. On July 5th, the California Legislature passed a bill that mandates teaching the accomplishments of gay and lesbian people in the public schools. At the moment, it’s not known whether Governor Jerry Brown will sign the bill, but if he does not sign or veto it, it will automatically become law. You might want to take these links (here and here) to read about it. I doubt that this sort of thing would ever be mandated in our state.

I also appreciate your willingness to share your concerns about your daughter, Melissa. As you know, she has shared her feelings about her attraction to girls with me. From your e-mail, it seems plain that she has told you about our conversations and their content, and I’m glad to know that and glad that you trust me enough to confide in me. It might surprise you to know that this kind of conversation is not unusual, but it’s not common either. I suspect it has something to do with my being an English teacher, perhaps the association with literature and poetry and that sort of thing. In any case, please know that I will keep your—and Melissa’s—confidence as she sorts out her feelings and tries to be, well, a teenager.

Getting back to the first issue, I’m pleased we won’t be teaching “gay” history. The politicization surrounding all of this is most discouraging. “Gay” used to be such a lovely word, with such pleasant denotations and connotations. Now, it tends to provoke conflict.

I suppose I should make the expected disclaimer. I normally don’t do this sort of thing, but you don’t know me well and cannot judge me on what you don’t know. I’ve been a classically trained musician all of my life, and have also been involved in theater and other forms of art as well. I know this is a bit of stereotyping, but in those pursuits, I knew—and know—a substantial number of gays and lesbians. Some I like, some I like very much and others I don’t much care for. That is not because of their sexual orientation, but because I don’t consider them to be very good people, for I judge people on their character and the way they treat others, not sexual orientation, race or any other characteristic.

When Jorge comes into my classroom, I don’t see Jorge the Mexican; I see Jorge, the hard-working, serious student. When Ekaterina comes into my classroom, I don’t see Ekaterina, the Ukranian; I see Ekaterina who loves to sing. I see Ekaterina, the girl with the bright smile who always has a kind word for everyone. When Melissa comes into my classroom, I don’t see Melissa who thinks she might be a lesbian; I see Melissa, the sensitive, bright girl who is working harder than most kids her age to figure out who she is and what she wants. I see a girl for whom I will always make time when she needs it.

It’s interesting: some kids tell me they are gay to see if I’ll be shocked, to see if it will change the way I treat them. I’m not, and it doesn’t. Some carefully hint at it, hoping I’ll bring it up. Others are more frank and open. They want a non-judgmental adult with whom to talk. I treat them all with kindness and honesty. I’m not their spiritual advisor—I leave that to their parents—but I do point out the difficulties inherent in their choices and behavior, just as I point out the difficulties of a great many choices and behaviors teenagers consider and make. Some kids ultimately decide that they really aren’t gay or lesbian, others decide that they are. It’s a good thing that we tend to end up very different people in many ways from who we were in high school, isn’t it?

The fact that we won’t be teaching “gay” history in our school is a good thing for several reasons. I must admit to being uncomfortable with the teaching of “black” history or literature or “women’s” history or literature, or “Hispanic” history or literature, or you name the adjective. I’ve always believed that if a person’s accomplishments are truly significant, if their writing is truly valuable, it should stand on its own merit regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation.

For instance, when we hear someone say they are a black teacher, there are connotations that suggest that person is far more interested in the political and social implications of being black than in teaching. Being a teacher who happens to be black has completely different implications. The same is true for attaching “gay” or “lesbian” to a profession or academic discipline. The connotation implies an emphasis on the sexual orientation and related political activism of the people involved rather than their abilities and accomplishments. It’s as though their sexual orientation is the cause, or at least an indispensable contributing factor to whatever accomplishments they made. No doubt some would say that being gay or lesbian made their accomplishments all the more remarkable because of whatever prejudice or disfavor they may have suffered.

I know that some people would claim that being gay is, in fact, their identity; it is who and what they are. And I know that some gay or lesbian people have experienced prejudice and unthinking cruelty. That is, of course, deplorable and wrong, but that’s not the point.

Let’s suppose that I have a significant interest in, say, bondage and discipline. If surveys and social scientists can be believed, that’s a reasonably common interest across a great many social, economic, and racial strata. I believe that my interest in and practice of B&D defines me, it speaks to who I fundamentally am, and I practice it with my willing and similarly interested spouse on a regular basis. In fact, it so interests us that we band together with others who view it similarly, and lo and behold, we get the California Legislature to pass a bill mandating the teaching of B&D history in the public schools. Sound like a good idea? Do you suppose that might raise some controversy—anywhere else but California, I mean.

It would, of course, not be a good idea. But most importantly, it would be an unprofessional—in terms of the practice of competent educators--idea. The point is not someone’s sexual orientation or interests, but their accomplishments, their contribution to literature, music, mathematics, science or any other discipline. If we’re going to make good choices about how to use our limited time with kids, we have to make it by considering professional, not incidental criteria.

I also have a degree in music. If I’m teaching the music of Tchaikovsky, inevitably one of my brighter students, having read or heard something about him, will ask if he was gay. I would reply that there is some evidence to suggest that he was, and immediately direct them back to Tchaikovsky’s methods of orchestral scoring. If they persist in trying to find some great significance in his sexual orientation, I’ll ask them if there is such a thing as a gay chord? A Lesbian Picardy third? A particularly gay way to write lyrics? Lesbian scoring for the trombone? They get the point, which is that in virtually every legitimate academic pursuit, whether the person being studied is gay or lesbian is beside the point. Notice that I did not say that it is never a legitimate point.

Another compelling reason to avoid such things is that once you allow the establishment of a separate curriculum for any interest group, you open the flood- gates to all. After all, when any other interest group demands the study of their history or their literature, how do you justify turning them down? Do you claim that a gay curriculum is somehow different, even special? And if you do that, what of the claim that gays aren’t asking for special treatment, only equal treatment? If their claim on curricula is not special, is not compelling and of great, overriding importance, why should it—and not the claims of others--be granted?

Literature, however, is a bit more interesting. There is a growing body of what might be called “gay” literature, which is often about the experience, the trials and tribulations and even the joys of being gay and living the gay life style. I know I’m stereotyping again, but please bear with me. A substantial portion of this literature, because of the choices of the writers, their language, and their descriptions of sexual acts and relationships, is plainly inappropriate for the public schools. Much else is simply a poor choice. In fact, I know of no literature in this genre I would willingly teach.

Why not? Am I anti-gay? You know the answer to that, and so does Melissa. The issues are simply time and value. I have so little time to teach literature to the kids, so I must teach literature that is of unquestionably high value, literature that has stood the test of time—often of centuries and even millennia—and literature that reaches the highest levels of what human beings can hope to accomplish as writers. There are a great many essays, short stories and books that are well written, interesting, even delightful, some of them written by self-identified gays and lesbians. There are millions of them, but very few truly great works, works that provide unparalleled insight into human nature, works that provide the opportunity for anyone who reads and understands them (that’s where I come in) to be a better, more intelligent and capable person for having the experience. That’s my mandate: finding and teaching that kind of literature. That’s why you hired me. That’s what you pay me to do.

Some would of course observe that there have been great works of art done by gay people. I agree, however again we have the important distinction of brilliant works of art done by people who happened to be gay rather than gay works of art. There is a difference, certainly to gays.

If my kids want to read the other, less meaningful works—notice that I did not say meaningless or valueless--good for them. I’m all about encouraging kids to read, and I often suggest works not in our curriculum for our kids based on their interests and other criteria. If a student wants to read about any discipline from a gay, lesbian, black, Hispanic or any other perspective, such literature is readily available and no one—perhaps apart from their parents—is stopping them. That knowledge helps me to rest easily in the professional choices I make. After all, if I don’t teach “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” or “The Maltese Falcon,” or “A Christmas Carol,” most of my students will never experience the wonders of those works, and I have so little time.

By the way, some critics want to ban “Huckleberry Finn” because Jim, Huck’s friend the runaway slave, calls Huck “Honey.” They think that indicates a gay relationship. I bring up this—and other would-be censor’s ideas—whenever we study the work. The kids understand that not only is the book devoid of gay sexuality, there is no sexuality of any kind. It comes as something as a revelation to them that literature can be truly entertaining even without sex! They learn that about movies in my class too. They even learn that art can be fulfilling without explosions, gratuitous violence and car chases or exploding, gratuitously violent car chases. Image that.

So I won’t be teaching gay or lesbian literature or history. I will, with your permission, be glad to listen to Melissa, and to help her make intelligent choices, choices that will tend to make it easier for her to focus on her studies and on growing up. She’s a great girl. She deserves the best, most meaningful and professional curriculum I can provide.

As always, please let me know if I can help in any way, and thanks again for your trust.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 11:25 PM | Comments (1)

July 04, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #8: The Two R's

Letter From The Teacher #8: The Two R’s

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Hansen
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: The Two R’s

Dear Mrs. Hansen:

Thanks for your phone call earlier today. I’m sorry that I couldn’t devote the time to it that I would have preferred, but as you know, you caught me between classes. Thanks for letting me answer your questions via e-mail.

I’m afraid I have no idea where your son Tom got the idea that one of our students was suspended for reading the Bible. I checked with our principals and they assure me that no such thing happened. In fact, I’m sure that no such thing ever would happen, certainly not at Anytown HS, and probably not at most American schools.

We often hear that the Supreme Court, decades ago, “took prayer out of the schools.” People tend to take that assertion at face value and some even blame it for whatever problem they think is current in the schools and in society at large. The truth is quite different.

It has been said, and quite accurately I think, that as long as there is algebra, there will always be prayer in school. I write that with some degree of humor, because I was born without the math gene. I aced all of my required college math courses, but that was because I am a good student and know how to study and retain information, at least as long as necessary to pass a given test. I’m good at practical, every day math, but that’s where my abilities and interests end. While I enjoy reading (more on this later) books about science and even math, I am not one of those people who can gaze at an equation and immediately see the secrets of the universe before my wondering eyes. I’m glad that such people exist, but I’m certainly not one of them.

The larger point is that no court, no human authority, can remove the deepest longings of the human soul. In a narrow sense, it is inappropriate—as a result of court decisions—for school authorities to require students to pray, or to make them sit quietly while they pray to or over them. Teachers can't be preachers and that's a good thing. But kids can pray as often as they like. Of course, they can’t be disruptive about it. They can’t leap up in the middle of class and call down the wrath of God on their evil English teacher. They can’t roll out their prayer rug, kneel facing Mecca, and begin ritual prayers in the middle of calculus class (though that might be one of the best places to do it if they could! It certainly would be for me.). But if they wish to pray quietly, as scripture teaches, not making a public show of their prayers, not in any way disrupting class, good for them. Anytown HS certainly has no rule against that, and I’m not aware of any school that does, or could, for that matter. How would you enforce something like that? And in any case, such a rule would not survive a court challenge; the law is that clear.

I know that some schools and states try to get around the Constitution by having a “moment of silence.” That’s the law in our state. We both know it’s a well-intentioned subterfuge for trying to encourage kids to pray. I’m a bit uncomfortable with that. During those times, schools can require the kids to be silent, but of course, no one can require anyone to pray. How would you check? Could you read their minds? Actually, having the kids think I can read their minds isn’t a bad idea at all! A forced or rote prayer really isn’t much of a prayer. I’m not happy with the idea of trying to get around the Constitution, in this or anything else. It doesn’t set a good example for the kids. I know that some people would argue that because it’s about something as important as faith, it’s OK, perhaps even a duty, to ignore the Constitution, but if we establish that precedent, who is to say that other people’s reasons for ignoring it, sincerely held, are less compelling or valid? Besides, most people don’t feel the need to pray at a specific, set time every day, nor are their prayers always of the same, brief duration.

I know what you might be thinking: is this guy some kind of atheist or something? I normally don’t talk about my faith with kids or their parents. I don’t want anyone to feel pressured by what I might say, and I want them to judge me on my work, my dedication to teaching, and by my character and the way I treat them. If I say that I’m a Methodist, some percentage of the class will nod approvingly, for they too are Methodists. The others will nod knowingly and think, “Ah! So he’s one of THEM!” I’d rather be judged on my interactions with others than on which building I might spend time in on a given Sunday. But just so you know, I am a Christian, and I’m serious about it. I just believe that it’s your job to see to your kid’s spiritual well being, not mine in my role as their teacher. I’ll teach them to be good citizens, and to behave as Christ teaches, because it’s the right thing to do, and because everyone who behaves that way is going to be a good, civilized person, but I’m no one’s minister. My time with the kids is very limited, so I’ll stick to teaching English and all that accompanies it.

Kids can read the Bible in school. We have no rule about that, and while I know that some schools behave stupidly regarding Bible reading, any rule they might write prohibiting the reading of the Bible—or any holy text for that matter—also would not survive a court challenge. Again, kids can’t pull out their Bible and begin reading it during a lecture, or while they’re supposed to be reading other materials or working on an assignment. However, if they are done with their assignments, or if they are on their own time, bless their hearts, they’re free to read the Bible--or any other appropriate literature--if they choose.

It may surprise you to know that we often make reference to the Bible in English classes. The Bible and all of its stories are so much a part of our society, of our common culture, that it would be foolish—virtually professional malpractice--to ignore it while discussing proper behavior, human nature, literature and history. The Bible’s influence on authors, statesmen, and many others is undeniable, and good literature is full of Biblical allusions, which must be clearly explained to the kids. It is perfectly appropriate to discuss the Bible in a comparative literature class, and some schools—ours included—even have a semester-long class where the Bible is intensively studied. Of course, in talking about such things, I never suggest to kids that a given faith is the one true faith, or anything even remotely like that. Again, that’s not my business. Requiring kids to behave as one would hope that sincere Christians would behave is, and our school rules are written to require precisely that kind of behavior.

That—religion--is the first “R.” The second is reading. As a teacher of English, I am delighted to see kids reading anything! You’re reading the Bible, Bobby? Hallelujah! The Bible isn’t easy reading. It’s complex and subtle, and I’ve had many great conversations with kids explaining allegories and parables and the history of ancient Judea, and human nature and politics, you name it. Even so, one of the biggest problems, the biggest disabilities the current generation has, is that they are generally not readers.

People who don’t read tend not to be good spellers. They tend to have difficulty understanding symbolism, identifying themes, making inferences, understanding human nature and what motivates people to feel and act as they do. They tend not to be good and fluent writers, because they have so little exposure to a variety of styles and methods of writing. Non-readers tend to have limited vocabularies. Non-readers also tend to be limited speakers. And of course, reading is a vital human skill, a skill that requires practice, repeated practice over time. Many think that once basic literacy is obtained, nothing more is required, but even neglected intellectual muscles atrophy.

We must remember that the underlying point of education is building bigger, better brains, literally making the billions of new neural connections over a lifetime that make one more intelligent, capable and flexible in everything they do. Few intellectual pursuits do this better than reading, for reading is the beginning of understanding. It is used in every discipline, even the arts, and it is the foundation that makes possible the building of those bigger, better brains.

I work hard every year to sneakily infuse some of my love of reading in the kids. I do have some success with books like “Of Mice and Men,” “Tuesdays With Morrie,” and “Fahrenheit 451.” I even get them to enjoy “Julius Caesar.” After most of these works, we see the related movie, and lo and behold, many kids will tell me that the book was better than the movie. Heh-heh! They had no idea that was what I was tricking them into thinking all along. I—like Dr. Evil—am an evil English teacher! I simply smile and nod and say: “imagine that!”

My favorite trick is to start reading “Tuesdays With Morrie” to them at the beginning of each year. It’s written in short chapters, so I read one or two at the beginning of each class. At first, they squirm and fidget, but soon, they begin to really pay attention. As I read it—very dramatically—they are dead silent and very focused. When I stop to do other things, they moan miserably, and at the beginning of the next class, it’s just delightful to see the biggest male jocks ask earnestly “are we gonna do Morrie today?” When I get about 2/3 of the way through the book, they’re hooked, and I hand out copies for everyone and require them to finish it. The best part is, most of them are anxious to do just that! Many come back the very next day and confess to finishing it and to crying at the end (I certainly do every time). It’s a bit easier to get them to read after that, but even so, I know that I haven’t transformed most of them into voracious readers, but perhaps, I have slipped reading onto their internal “hey, I could do that!” lists. I wish more parents would do the same. Perhaps if they left interesting books around the house, or gave kids gift cards to book stores, that might help.

Do you see why I am delighted to see kids reading the Bible? Yes, it’s good for them on many levels, but it’s high level, challenging literature too. It builds an advanced vocabulary, it helps them to understand abstractions, it’s a brilliant manual for understanding human nature, and every literary term we’re going to discuss in class can be easily applied. There aren’t many books that do all of that, and much more.

I know that you’ll hear about teachers and principals and schools here and there around the nation who demonstrate what appears to be irrational hostility to the Bible and to faith in general. It’s important when you do to realize that media accounts are often biased or lacking the context necessary to really understand what happened. Still, some educators really don’t know or understand the implications of the law relating to religion and the schools, and that sometimes leads to misunderstandings. I hope I’ve cleared up any misunderstanding as it relates to your questions.

You’re always welcome in our classroom. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. And by the way: have you read a good book today? Has Tom?


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 09:35 PM | Comments (2)

June 27, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #7: A Modest Proposal

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: John McIntyre
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: A Modest Proposal

Dear Mr. Williams:

I was interested to read your recent op-ed piece in the Anytown Review-Blabberer. I’m afraid I must disagree with you regarding the problems of American education and who, specifically, is at fault. Please allow me to make a modest proposal about how to solve the problems that do exist.

We’ll begin by establishing something called “School Districts.” These school districts will probably consist of the geographical areas of certain cities, perhaps several smaller towns as well.

We’ll have the people of these cities elect independent groups of citizens to oversee these school districts. I think we’ll call them “School Boards.” These school board members will serve rotating terms of office. Directly elected by their friends and neighbors, they will be directly responsible to those who elected them. It will be as close to a direct democracy as we are ever likely to see.

The School Boards will hire a Chief Executive Officer who will be responsible for hiring every other employee of these school districts. We’ll call him—or her--a “School Superintendent.” That has a nice ring, don’t you think?

The School Superintendent—my wife tells me that we could also call him a “Superintendent of Schools”—will hire various assistants and other administrative helpers and together, they will hire the administrators of what we will call “Schools.” We’ll have “Elementary Schools” for the lower grades, “Middle Schools” for older kids, and for the three or four oldest grades, we’ll establish “High Schools.” Catchy, eh?

The administrators of these various schools will be called “Principals,” and they will hire their own staffs, which will include “Teachers” and “Secretaries,” “Assistant Principals” and various other workers necessary to do the business of education.

These “Teachers” will be college educated specialists in what we’ll call “Teaching.” Because they will be in daily contact with our kids, we’ll subject them to rigorous vetting of all kinds, and we’ll make them serve a three-year probationary period. Did you know that police officers only have to serve a one-year probation? It’s true. They don’t have to be college educated and unlike teachers (in most school districts anyway) they make life and death decisions.
These “Teachers” will live in the communities they serve, so people will know them and be able to assess their character and abilities on a daily basis. We’ll pay them a living wage, but not much beyond that.

Then we’ll build what we’ll call “Schools,” where the teachers, principals, support staff and most importantly, the kids, will go five days a week to participate in what we’ll call “Education.” And football. That’s the real reason we build schools, but we’ll pretend it’s really all about education, and amazingly, pretty much everybody will go along with it!

When our teachers are not doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the principals to help them improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll fire them and find other teachers who can do the job properly.

If our principals aren’t doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the superintendents—or the various assistant superintendents—to help them improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll fire them and find other principals who can do the job properly.

If our superintendents aren’t doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the school boards to help them improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll fire them and find other superintendents who can do the job properly.

And if our school board members aren’t doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the citizens who elected them to encourage them—strongly—to improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll vote them out of office at the next opportunity and elect other school board members who can do the job properly.

There! What do you think? It’s a system with maximum accountability from the lowest to the highest ranks, and the best part is that the people are actually in control and can actually drive a few miles and actually speak with everyone involved from the teachers to the principals to the assistant superintendents to the superintendent to the school board members.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m making fun of you. Well, maybe I am, just a little, but the bigger point is that our school districts really are as accountable as we know how to make them, much more accountable and responsive than our state governments and certainly, more responsive and accountable then our federal government. When there are problems, we have the means to correct them. That’s the real problem.

What do I mean? If we’re going to correct problems, we have to be involved and ready to play our part in the system we set up. That’s the real problem. If we’re lazy, if we don’t inform ourselves about what our schools are doing, if we don’t complain—rationally and properly—when there are problems, if we aren’t willing to spend time and energy and perhaps even money to run the bums out at the next election, whose fault is it if our schools are having problems? The professionals we hire to do their jobs should be, well, professional, but sometimes, they’re not. Unfortunately we have to hire school employees solely from the human race, and you know the limitations of that bunch!

Let me provide some basic facts about school systems. The blanket generalizations and accusations in your article suggest that you aren’t aware of these simple truths.

(1) Teachers have almost no power in the system. They don’t hire, they don’t fire, they don’t supervise other employees, and they absolutely do not make policy. In good schools, principals listen to them and take their opinions and needs into account when making decisions. In many schools, that’s not the case. But generally, teachers only have the power to determine some of what they do in their own classrooms, and in some school districts, not even that. It’s paradoxical that teachers really know what’s right and what’s wrong in their school districts, but often, nobody will listen to them. After all, they're just teachers; what do they know about education?

(2) Teachers know that they’re at the bottom of the educational food chain. They know that they have perpetual targets painted on their backs. They know that they have little or no power to effect change, and that the public will tend to blame them anyway. Even so, most love teaching, they love kids, and despite the fact they could make substantially more money doing other things (most of those who teach CAN do as well), they pursue what they love. They like to speak with parents. They want parents to visit their classrooms. They wish more parents would call them and stop by to visit. They put an enormous amount of thought and effort into their curriculums. They’re proud of what they do and want people to know about it. They have no doubt that they can be disciplined and fired.

(3) School officials—those who aren’t corrupt anyway—really do respect, even fear the public. They want things to be smooth and quiet. They don’t want negative publicity and they don’t want lawsuits, so they’ll tend to listen and make changes if they think a citizen’s complaint has merit and they’re pretty sure it won’t go away by itself. This means that citizens really do have substantial power, if they’re well informed, rational, and if they’re willing to use it for the right reasons.

(4) School board members are usually people who have a sincere desire to serve the public. Most of them actually care about the schools, and want to do their best to ensure that their kids get the best educational opportunity possible. But some are in it for the power. They might have a narrow agenda, but power is their goal, and they tend to subordinate the greater good to get and keep the power they need to implement their agendas. In some school districts, particularly in big cities, they are paid a great deal of money, and they have substantial power to enrich themselves and to enrich others. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

(5) In most school districts though, school board members do respect and fear the public. They know that school board elections can be won or lost by a mere handful of votes. I’ve seen school board members defeated by a single vote. Think of the power that gives citizens.

(6) School boards make the larger policies for their school districts, but they rely on their superintendents to tell them the truth and to give them all the alternatives before making their decisions. Most don’t know enough about education to really know what’s going on, so they must trust their superintendents. Sometimes that trust is misplaced, sometimes it isn’t.

(7) Principals are usually allowed to make policies for their schools, to at least some degree, as long as they don’t conflict with larger district policies. Most are willing to listen to parents and will honestly do what they can to meet their needs.

The best principals know that their primary job is to keep order. When the adults aren’t in charge, there is no learning. They know that they are responsible for making sure that their teachers have what they need to provide the best educational opportunity possible.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Most school districts are responsive to citizens, to parents. The people involved know that they should be responsive and they are. When they’re not, the public has the ultimate power to change things from the top down, but only if they’re willing to spend the time, energy and even money necessary to make necessary changes happen. In most places, it’s not necessary to throw out systems that are actually working very well. In most places, the schools really are on your side.

Do you now understand who really has the power to make changes? Do you realize that teachers have very little?

I know that in some places, particularly those with unions, things are different. Politics and money play an enormous role—providing the best educational opportunity possible is a secondary concern, and usually, it’s not that high on the list--and in those places, citizens have basically two choices: accept it or move. Yes, that’s wrong, but it’s reality, and it’s a reality the public has allowed to get out of hand. In some places, they even support it even as their schools and communities are crumbling around their ears.

But the good news is that in most places, the schools really do a good job. School employees really do care about doing a good job and they see parents as vital partners in their joint endeavor. They really do want to hear from parents and will listen to them.

I’d very much appreciate it if you would do one simple thing for me: the next time you take schools to task, would you be so kind as to be specific? Which school is not doing its job? Exactly what are they doing wrong? What have you done to change things and what happened? I hope you can agree that in this, and in any human endeavor, tarring everyone with the same brush is not only inaccurate, it’s fundamentally unfair. But the worst thing is, it doesn’t solve real problems.

Thanks for listening, and remember: I’ll always be glad to listen to what you have to say. Most teachers are.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 07:58 PM | Comments (2)

June 20, 2011

Letter From the Teacher #6: Parenting and Self-Esteem

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Williams
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Parenting and Self-esteem

Dear Mrs. Williams:

I glad my last e-mail was of some use to you, and I’ll be glad to try to more fully explain some of the things I mentioned. It’s important because most people really aren’t sure why we have decided to spend untold billions of dollars to provide a free public education for our kids. Yes, we do it to provide a common body of knowledge, to prepare citizens for the workplace, to try to make them good citizens, to help them figure out how they’ll fit into the future world of work, to civilize them to the greatest degree possible, and to achieve a wide variety of other worthy goals, but all of that represents what comes later, what is toward the end of the K-12 process. What we are really doing in education is so simple it escapes most people: building bigger, better brains.

We are literally trying to build bigger, better, more flexible, more convoluted brains. We do that by providing the opportunity for kids to make the greatest possible number of new neural connections. They do that by taking maximum advantage of their educational opportunities, which they do by constant, correct practice. Yes, I do mean practice, for you see, English is a skills class, and providing the opportunity for constant, correct practice is how I provide the educational opportunity to build bigger, better brains.

That’s why kids study English. The study of reading, writing, thinking, analysis, speaking, and everything else we do makes neural connections, builds the brain in ways that studying math can’t. Studying math builds the brain in ways that studying history can’t. Learning to be a musician builds the brain in ways that studying geography can’t, and so on and so on. Of course there are very practical reasons to study all of the disciplines the kids study, but at the very core of all we do, we try to build bigger, better brains, and everything we do is designed to further that ultimate goal.

This is where the issue of self-esteem comes into play. I don’t know exactly where this harmful notion originated. I would guess that the people who came up with it were well intentioned. Perhaps they noticed that kids were more engaged in their studies if they were happy, and recognizing that teachers can’t materially change the circumstances of their student’s lives away from school, set out to try to change them in school. Perhaps that’s where the self-esteem culture came from. Perhaps they thought that if they praised kids, if they told them that they were all very special, and smart, and capable and that they were so wonderful they would somehow, magically, reach previously unimagined heights of academic achievement. Unfortunately, that ignores human nature. That’s wishful thinking, not good teaching.

As I mentioned in my least e-mail, at the beginning of each year, I tell all of my students that I don’t care the least little bit for their self-esteem. Oh, they’re horrified, shocked, even outraged. Most of them don’t really know why they should be outraged, but they know enough to believe that they should think that nothing is more important in school than their “self of steam,” as one student put it.

So I tell them about my two decades as a police officer. I tell them that most of the criminals I met had sky-high self-esteem. They thought they were the slickest things since sliced bread. They thought they were smarter, cooler and just all-around better than everybody else. The truth was they were horrible people! They were selfish, crude, stupid and ready to betray anyone and everyone. If you left your mouth open too long within their reach, they’d try to steal your teeth. They were people who would hurt you in every way possible. They left nothing but pain and misery in their wake, but oh did they think highly of them selves! Their self-esteem was truly a thing to behold.

By this point, the kids are starting to think. Some usually ask how can such awful people have such high self-esteem. It’s so because self-esteem means nothing more than thinking highly of yourself, whether it’s justified or not. It’s completely internal. It requires no accomplishment, no character, no altruism, no kindness, and no adherence to a moral code, nothing external to one’s imagination. You think, therefore you are and reality doesn’t matter!

Now more are starting to come around. Some of them realize that they know people just like that and they’re not really all that special. That’s when I tell them that what I care about—what they must care about—is self-respect. Self-respect is earned. It must be worked on every day and in every interaction with others. You are worthy of self-respect in English class if you actually do your practice, your assignments. You are worthy if you really think about them, if you do your best, if you help others to be their best, and if you deal with everyone with sincerity. Ultimately, self-respect is judged on entirely external criteria, criteria determined by others, by teachers, parents, and yes, even by their peers.

I also tell the kids that I will not praise them for behavior that is unworthy of praise. If they hand in an assignment that is essentially dog poo, I will not praise them for their effort in producing dog poo. I will not tell them what good dog poo it is. I will, instead, say: “this is dog poo. Here is why this is dog poo. Now let’s talk about how you can avoid producing dog poo next time.” They learn quickly that when I praise their work, they have genuinely earned it, and once they understand how that feels, how self-respect is actually built, they want more of it and they try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m dealing with teenagers, and not every one of them will buy into this fully. Not every one of them will work even harder next time, but the majority will try at least somewhat harder, and in that process, I have gently, subtly conditioned them into forgetting all about self-esteem and into building bigger, better brains, and they haven’t realized what I am doing! We English teachers are truly a sneaky lot. Heh-heh!

What’s that? Am I actually saying that kids have to produce excellent work to get excellent grades in my classes? In a public school? In schools where self-esteem matters, kids get A’s for dog poo. Not in schools where self-respect matters. That’s what building bigger, better brains is all about, and that’s what is going on in most American public schools. We know there are exceptions, yet the means to fix those problems already exists. But that’s a subject for another time.

I’m not sure why this is so hard for so many. I’m a baby-boomer, and I know that many of the parents of my generation, and the next, somehow got off the parenting track. Somewhere along the way, some of them came to believe that instead of being parents to their children, their highest calling was to be their best friend. From that simple misconception, all manner of harm has been wrought. Perhaps they were raised on the mantra of self-esteem and had no other frame of reference.

You know that one of the current fads, which is all about self-esteem, is what is known as “student-centered” teaching. In this odd way of thinking about education, teachers are not supposed to be learned sages who impart knowledge and ability to students, but instead, they must be “facilitators” who allow students to discover their inner brilliance by letting them decide how to learn and which assignments to do. Would it surprise you to learn that many students decide, and with amazing speed, that they will learn most effectively with no assignments at all or with assignments that require little or no effort?

If I don’t have knowledge to share, if I don’t know how to direct kids in the correct practice, if I can’t inspire them to want to try harder, if I have no idea of the difference between self-esteem and self-respect, why did I go to college? Why am I, even now, continuing my education? Why did my school district hire me? If I’m not the experienced, capable, responsible adult in the room, what good am I?

I’m not suggesting that teachers should stand in front of their classes and lecture from the same set of yellowed notes they’ve been using for years. That’s simply bad teaching. What I also tell my kids is that I do want to be their friend, but that I cannot and will not be their middle-aged homey. I can be their adult friend, their friend whose first name is “Mister,” until they’ve graduated from high school, until they’ve earned the right to address me by my given first name. They must expect me, always and in every way, to behave as a completely responsible adult who will always live up to his obligations and will always do what is best for them, whether their friends would like it or not.

I often wish more of their parents would do that. Being a parent isn’t easy. It isn’t always rewarding, but it is the most important job anyone has. I see the kids less than five hours a week for less than a year of their lives. I know that I can have some influence on them, but it’s nothing compared to the influence of their parents, parents I hope understand that they too should not give a boatload of deceased rodents for the self-esteem of their kids.

It’s so important and yet, so simple; when everyone knows that what matters is self-respect, it’s possible to build bigger, better brains. That’s what we’re supposed to do. All of the decisions, all of the plans, everything that eventually flows from 12 years of a free, public education flows from that simple understanding, and from those flexible, bigger, better brains. People in the process of building them tend to take advantage of their educational opportunities. People who can only think highly of themselves tend not to see the need for taking advantage of those opportunities. After all, when you’re that good, what’s the point of improvement?

I hope this has been helpful. Please let me know if I didn’t fully address your concerns, and please feel free to visit our classroom anytime. It’s a brain-building zone.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:02 PM | Comments (2)

June 13, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #5: Mission and Discipline

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Williams
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Are America’s Schools Really Complete Failures?

Dear Mrs. Williams:

Thanks for your recent e-mail. I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard to read much of anything these days without finding an article by an academic or a speech by a politician asserting that public education is a complete failure. When I see talking heads and their guests talking about this as though it is unquestionably true, I’m amazed. Can they really believe what they’re saying, are they working a political agenda, or do they have something to sell?

I’ll put the answer as directly and simply as possible: No, America’s public schools are not complete failures. Specifically, Anytown High School is certainly not failing our kids, and certainly not your daughter, Brittany. By the way, Brittany should be reading Fahrenheit 451 this week. She’ll need to finish it for the test on Monday and to be prepared for her final critique. Has she told you that she will earn extra credit if she correctly identifies what most worried Ray Bradbury when he wrote the novel? Hint: It’s not censorship.

I don’t have statistics and studies to quote. I won’t fill pages with footnotes. I won’t claim that I am the world’s foremost education authority. I can only respond to you with experience, common sense, reason and logic. If the prophets of doom were correct, if American schools—all of them—were really utterly incompetent, wouldn’t we have seen the kinds of consequences of that complete failure long ago? If most people really can’t read and write, or if they can barely read and write, how is it that America has remained the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in history?

I suspect it’s something like the missing child hoax of the 80s. Remember the milk cartons, the TV shows, the overwhelming sense that hundreds of thousands of children were, well, were just missing? Reality finally caught up and the fervor was exposed as hyperbole. Relatively few children in America are ever actually missing, and not nearly the huge numbers the missing children advocates routinely flung about.

We all know that some schools are badly run. In fact, some school districts—including many obvious examples in major cities--are a horror show of incompetent management, bizarre priorities, and blatant corruption. But I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of American schools do a good job of providing a solid educational opportunity. I can’t say that enough: a solid educational opportunity. That’s all any school can do; that’s all any teacher can do. They provide the opportunity for kids to learn.

It’s a pleasure to teach kids like Brittany. Sure, she’s a teenaged girl and teenaged girls are a little goofy from time to time, but she likes reading and learning and she understands that she’s responsible for her education. You’re responsible too, and that’s why I was so glad to receive your e-mail. You’re always welcome in our classroom. I love to have parents stop in to see what we are doing, to find out for them selves what is really going on. Just call ahead so you don’t end up watching kids take a test or write an essay, but if you’d like to do that, you’re certainly welcome.

We all know about the big school districts that have enormous dropout rates, very low academic achievement, continuing scandals and outrages, horrible teachers, and all kinds of other problems. I’ll just note that all of those districts have certain characteristics in common:

(1) The cities in which they are located are virtually always controlled by Democrats and have been for many, many years.

(2) The school boards are also controlled by Democrats.

(3) School board seats are tickets to big money.

(4) The schools, from the top down, have lost sight of the essential—the only--mission of education and are far more concerned about social experimentation.

(5) The inmates run the asylum. There is little or no discipline in the schools.

(6) The schools are unionized and there is substantial collaboration between union bosses and school board members on union objectives. Money often changes hands.

You’ll notice that this is not the case in most American schools. It certainly is not the case at Anytown High School. Our school board members are not paid, and we have no unions. We have our problems with those who want us to be social laboratories rather than schools, but we resist that sort of thing quite well. And most importantly, in our schools, the adults are in charge, and those adults are responsible or they’re gone. It is certainly not impossible to fire bad teachers here, and it’s really not impossible to fire bad teachers in most American schools.

I’ll just spend a little time on two significant and related issues. When any school pays proper attention to these issues, they are very likely to succeed. When they don’t, failure is virtually inevitable. I’m talking about mission and discipline. Every parents needs to ask questions about these issues, and they need to get the right answers. If they don’t, they have reason to be worried.
The mission is simple. Every school exists to provide the best possible educational opportunity for the kids it serves. That’s it. No idiotic jargon, no slick Power Point presentations, nothing but hard work, excellent, consistent preparation, and clear expectations. It’s very old fashioned. Hire good teachers, make sure they have what they need to teach their disciplines, and get out of their way. Don’t take kids out of the classroom for any reason, or for no reason. Kids are there to learn, teachers are there to teach, and everybody else involved is there to support that simple mission. When schools become bus stations that kids occasionally pass through on the way to this field trip or that event, the mission is lost.

The second, related issue is discipline. Kids need structure. They need to know that when they misbehave, there will be immediate and sure consequences. There will be no arguing, no whining, no escape. Violate the rules and there will be consequences.

By that I don’t mean the kind of “zero-tolerance” idiocy in schools that expel elementary students who bring a toy soldier with a ½” plastic gun to school. Zero tolerance all too often means zero-reasoning on the part of school administrators and is usually a sign of a school more interested in social experimentation than in teaching and learning.

Let me give you an example of how an effective discipline program works. It must be written down, must be graduated, and must have multiple options. But the entire point is that teachers must be able to control the learning environment. Kids must do what they ask. If they don’t, there must be immediate, inevitable consequences. If teachers aren’t in control, the opportunity for learning is going to be, at the very least, damaged, and sometimes, destroyed. If students directly challenge a teacher they must be immediately removed from the classroom and must not return that day. If they swear at a teacher, the same thing must happen. If they refuse to do as a teacher asks, the same thing must happen.

Students who assault teachers must be immediately removed, suspended, criminally prosecuted and expelled. After all, if students can get away with beating teachers, everyone is in a “B” movie, not a high school. It would be hard to imagine any behavior that is more destructive to the mission than that.

At the beginning of every school year, I tell all my kids that there are very simple rules in my classroom: They are not allowed to be rude or stupid. They are allowed to be kids; I expect them to be kids, but they simply can’t be rude or stupid. If you think about it, that pretty much covers everything. I explain that I won’t jump up and down, I won’t raise my voice, I won’t turn red in the face, I’ll merely tell them not to act rudely or stupidly, and if they don’t comply, there will be consequences, consequences appropriate to them and to the occasion. I don’t take it personally, and I’ll be just as happy to see them the next day as always. I explain that I always say “please” and “thank you,” and that should I suddenly stop saying those words to them, they should take that as a dire warning. Some always have to see if I’m kidding. They quickly discover that I am not.

Of course, this only works because my principal understands the mission and the necessity of discipline. Without discipline, the mission will fail. He absolutely backs me up because he knows that I use good judgment, and that if I tell him a student did a thing, he can be sure that it happened just as I explained. He’s a good man, my principal. You should consider yourself fortunate that Brittany attends such a school.

An important part of discipline is organization. A well-organized classroom is a busy classroom, a classroom where kids have little or no time to get into trouble. Something as simple as good organization can make an enormous difference.

I wish you could be present on the day I tell the kids I care nothing at all for their self-esteem! The gasps! The looks of shock and horror! I explain that self- esteem is nothing more than feeling good about oneself whether those feelings are justified or not. It’s all internal and relative. What I care about is self-respect, which is earned positive feelings about one’s growth, accomplishments and character. Self-respect is external and judged by objective criteria, criteria established by others. Write an excellent essay and you’re worthy of self-respect. Self-esteem is worthless.

You see, when kids understand that difference, life ceases to be all about them. They really do have to perform and grow. To have genuine self-respect, they have to demonstrate, every day, character and responsibility, particularly responsibility for taking advantage of their educational opportunities. That simple, yet vital, understanding is the first epiphany--a light bulb moment, a sudden burst of insight or understanding—I lead them to experience each year.

Whew! I got a little carried away. As you can see, I’m passionate about this. But it really is that simple. In every school district, in every school that is genuinely failing, I have no doubt that you’ll find that they’ve lost track of the mission—perhaps they never had it--and that there is little or no discipline. They really do go hand in hand, for good or ill.

Thanks again for getting in touch, and please don’t hesitate to call whenever you have a question.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 11:09 PM | Comments (9)

June 06, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #4: What's Wrong With Those High School Teachers?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. And Mrs. Johnson
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Your Question

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson:

I’m glad I had the chance to meet you at WalMart yesterday. I’m sorry we didn’t have the time to complete our conversation about college, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to see if I can more completely answer your questions.

Even though John is only a junior, it is certainly not too early for you to start making admission and scholarship applications at the colleges of your choice. John’s SAT score puts him in the top 10% of all students in the nation, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in college. Please let me know if you need letters of recommendation.

I understand your concerns about the quality and value of a college education. Like you, I’ve been reading articles on all of the difficulties in higher education. Perhaps I can explain some of them, or at least those that involve high school. It may also interest you to know that I have actually taught college as an adjunct instructor in the past.

We often hear of college teachers complaining about the quality of students entering college. They claim that many can’t write college level work. They say that they’re unprepared for the responsibility and academic rigor of college. They lament the fact that they have to establish entire departments to provide remedial classes for these kids. And the sad fact is, they’re absolutely right, but not entirely for the reasons one might think. Part of the problem is outlined in an article by Mona Charen (available here).

The simple truth is that Lake Woebegon, where all the kids are above average (and all the women are strong and the men are good looking), does not exist. In the real world, some people are going to excel in academics, most will do at least acceptably well, and some will not do well at all. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has written an interesting article (available here in pdf form) that suggests that there is a minimum level of intelligence necessary for any student to do well, to be able to do genuine college-level academic work successfully. He sets that level at an IQ of 125, which means that only about 15% of the population will meet or exceed that standard.

Murray is certainly onto something. Of course, some people with an IQ lower than 125 can do well in college through hard work and sheer determination. I know a great many of those people, and I have many such kids in my classes. Understanding this, we should not discourage people from trying college, but they should embark on their college adventures well informed and with their eyes wide open. I can certainly make a reasonable argument for the value of college in potentially producing more well-rounded and wise people, but even that depends on the individual. I know more than a few people who eventually graduated from college with a major in partying and a minor in waking up in unfamiliar surroundings in a pool of their own vomit. In truth, college isn’t for everyone. Many people don’t need it to live very satisfying, economically comfortable lives.

In high school, we must deal with a wide range of competing interests. Some people would like to do away with “advanced placement” or “gifted and talented” classes because, they say, such programs make students who are not in these classes feel inferior. Some people want to do away with traditional grades so that no one need feel badly about failing. Some try to prevent score keeping in sports so that there will be no winners and losers. It seems that some simply can’t accept that some people will always be smarter than others. They have no trouble at all buying the idea that some kids will never win a spot on the varsity football team, and that some won’t ever be a first chair musician in the school band. They don’t waste a moment’s concern or a tear for those kids, but suggest that some people are simply smarter than others, or that some will have a genetic endowment that allows them academic success with relative ease, and many people have great difficulty accepting what is self-evident.

When college instructors blame high schools for the problems they see, I must disagree, at least partially. I teach mostly sophomores, as you know, but some juniors and seniors. When my new classes arrive each fall, and I find some who can barely write, I don’t rhetorically ask “what’s wrong with those 9th grade teachers?” Instead, I marvel at how far those 9th grade teachers were able to bring those kids in a single year, compared with how academically deficient they must have been at the beginning of their 9th grade year. Remember, please, that social promotion is the norm and has been for decades. It is, in most American communities, rare for any elementary student to be retained for a year, so we tend to pass such students up the chain and when they reach high school, their lack of academic ability becomes particularly, painfully obvious.

Some of these kids have undiagnosed learning disabilities, some are just lazy, some have chosen not to do very much work in school and their parents have allowed them to get away with it. Some few are simply not very smart and/or academically capable. They just didn’t get the genes, for whatever reason.

One of the biggest problems all teachers have is that relatively few kids are readers. The negative effects of this simple fact are surprisingly wide-spread and stunning, but that’s a topic for another time.

In the not-so-distant past, most kids did not plan to attend college. In fact, most colleges did not want most kids because they knew, like Murray, that most people aren’t going to be successful with actual college-level studies. They still had a sense of honor and decency and felt that enrolling people in an expensive college program they would be almost certain to fail was abhorrent. They probably didn’t quantify it, but they knew through experience that in a traditional, rigorous college setting, it would be impossible for most people to succeed. They were, and still are, correct.

Over time, more and more colleges watered down their curriculums, and today, many don’t require American history or the history of western civilization, for example, substituting instead trendy “studies” classes. Did you know that some colleges offer classes on zombies in literature and cinema? That many offer classes in the kinds of sexual behaviors and trends that would have been illegal in past generations? If you haven’t already visited Mona Charen’s article, you might want to do that to see what I mean.

The traditional collegiate mission of educating the most capable scholars, teachers, scientists and leaders has been replaced, in large part, by encouraging as many people as possible to attend college for any period of time. Why? Money. If you enroll in any college, after a very short time at the beginning of each semester, there are no refunds. It’s cynical, I know, that many colleges are more concerned with getting those funds than with the academic success of their students. In encouraging more and more people to attend college, it is only reasonable to believe that more and more will fail, because only a relatively small portion of the population is truly capable of collegiate academic success. Still, far more people attempt college than ever before.

If this is true, and I submit that it is, what have colleges done about it? They’ve dumbed down the curriculum. They’re reduced the requirements for many college degrees to nothing more than what is required for success in high school. Why else would colleges establish remedial writing and math programs? Shouldn’t people arriving on a college campus be prepared to write on a college level? Of course they should, but not everyone can do that.

Our leaders often don’t help either. Mr. Obama has federalized the entire student loan industry and has often stated his goal that every American should go to college. He is apparently willing to spend any amount of taxpayer money to ensure that happens. This is, of course, nonsense. Not everyone is capable of being a successful plumber or electrician. To believe that everyone can successfully earn a college degree is wishful thinking. But if you lower the standards for college, far more can not only attend, but eventually earn a degree. Of course, it’s reasonable to ask what such a degree is worth.

Many states—including ours—are demanding that we implement “college readiness standards” across the board for all students. They seem to think that merely by establishing hopelessly optimistic standards in academic disciplines, that we’ll have the time to teach them all and that students will learn them all to the same level of performance, a level that will ensure universal success in college. We often hear from colleges who want to send out recruiters and/or teachers who will encourage students to go to college. Aren’t people smart enough to know if they want to go to college? Are people truly unaware that colleges exist? Do we really need the President of the United States to make our college decisions for us?

Hopefully, some reality is being injected into the situation. We’re beginning to realize that a college degree, for a great many careers, is not a guarantee of employment or high salaries. We’re starting to understand that leaving college with enormous student loan debt isn’t very smart after all. Many predict that the higher education bubble is going to burst and that colleges may have to return to actually teaching college to those actually capable of doing college level work.

Where does that leave us in high school teaching? Where we’ve always been. I take kids as I find them when they first enter my room each year and do my best to take them as far down the road to what they need to know to be successful in the future as possible. Some won’t get as far as others, but every one of them will make at least some progress, every one that is, except those who choose not to make progress. Some always make that choice.

As I said, John is going to do very well in college. I know that he plans to study engineering, and in that discipline, the kind of curricular silliness that is common in other disciplines tends not to be present. There is not a lot of nuance in calculating stress factors in bridges. You either have it right or you have disaster. You can help by encouraging him to take more serious electives and to avoid any class with “studies” in the title. I suspect that John will do all of that for you.

I hope I’ve provided some useful information. Please let me know if I can help with anything in the future.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 11:06 PM | Comments (2)

May 31, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #3: The Merits of Merit Pay

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Ms. Rodriguez
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Answers to Your Questions

Dear Ms. Rodriguez:

Thanks for your e-mail. Alex is doing just fine. After we worked on the rough draft of his research paper last week, his final draft was much improved and his final score was 96%. Alex is a great kid, but he could stand to spend a little more time on his writing.

I was also intrigued by your question about merit pay. I don’t believe our district is currently considering it, but it does come up from time to time, so I’ll take this opportunity to explain it. Please let me know if you need any additional information.

A recurring issue in education is that teacher pay is determined primarily by two factors: longevity and formal education (degrees). For instance, in our state, one cannot be a teacher without at least a bachelor’s degree, and pay scales are based on that minimum level of education. If I have a master’s degree, in our school district, I earn only an additional $1500 per year. That’s an extra $125.00 per month before taxes. If I have a doctorate, I make $3000.00 more per year than a teacher with the same number of years of service and a bachelor’s degree. That’s an extra $250.00 per month before taxes.

That amount of money sounds pretty good, and $250.00 is certainly quite a bit of money for me, but the problem is that graduate credits are very expensive. Earning a master’s commonly takes two years, and a doctorate, at least another two. Tuition costs for a master’s can easily run $20,000.00, and at least that much for a doctorate. With a master’s degree or a doctorate, it would take me more than 13 years to break even on tuition costs, and I’m not including all of the incidental costs of college in time, fuel, computers, books, etc. Economically, at least, any teacher would be far better off with a part-time business or with working during the summer when possible. If a teacher earned a master’s or doctorate after working for five or more years, they’d probably never break even.

Something that many people don’t realize is that few teachers have three months off in the summer. Not only that, they’re not actually paid for 12 months of work, but only for the part of the year that they actually work. Their paychecks are spread out over the entire year, just like normal people. For example, I’m not done with school until the second week of June, and I have to be back the third week of August. All teachers have continuing education requirements. They must continually go to school and be able to document it in order to periodically renew their teaching credentials. Much, if not all, of that continuing education must be done on their own time and with their own money. That leaves the summer. It’s a rare year that I don’t spend at least two weeks of my ever-shortening summer in classes.

Many teachers are like me; they enjoy learning new things and like to further their educations so that they can be more effective teachers. I have nearly enough credits for a master’s degree, and I suppose I’ll get around to finishing one some day, but there is really no financial incentive for me to do that.

In fact, the only way to really make any money in education is to go into administration. Principals commonly make double the salary of well-paid teachers and superintendents can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The problem is that really good teachers usually don’t want to be administrators—they want to teach—so there is no way for them to make more money in education except for their yearly step increases and whatever raises their school boards are able to provide, which these days, will likely be few and far between.

Many well-meaning people—and some not-so-well-meaning people—would like to see merit pay for teachers. I’m not reflexively opposed to this concept, but the devil is very much in the details. Those who mean well recognize that the finest, hardest working teachers are paid no better than the teachers who do only enough to meet basic standards of performance. As one of those hard-working teachers, I’m certainly sympathetic to that concept, and if my evaluations are to be believed--if my supervisors aren't incompetent or playing some sort of ironic joke--I’m a very good teacher too (that, accompanied by a dollar, will buy coffee at any McDonald’s in the nation). On the other hand, some want merit pay as a means of promoting even more reliance on big government in the form of mandatory, high stakes tests (MHSTs). They want merit pay to be mostly, or entirely, tied to MHST scores. Let’s examine the second group first.

Once a government bureaucracy is established, it tends to do everything possible to increase its size and power so that it will become politically difficult, even impossible, for it to ever be shut down. Ronald Reagan said that the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see is a government bureaucracy, and he was right. The bureaucracy that supports MHSTs is very large and powerful and many billions of dollars are involved.

It you’re part of a MHST bureaucracy, you would certainly want teacher’s pay to be based on how well their students scored on your MHSTs. This is so because:

(1) It would force teachers to spend most, if not all, of their time teaching to that test to maximize their income.

(2) It would create an enormous, additional market for supplementary materials to help kids pass the tests, greatly benefiting the manufacturers of the tests, whose campaign contributions will help to keep in office the politicians who make your bureaucracy eternal.

(3) If they’re spending all of their time scrabbling for dollars, teachers, school administrators and school boards won’t be coming after you for your poorly written tests, and questionable policies and decisions, and they’ll tend to be on your side in any battles with parents.

(4) All of this maximizes your power because you’ll have near-total control over the schools and everyone associated with them.

(5) Your attempts to raise your own salaries will meet with little or no opposition from below.

On the school level, the problems are even worse. Let’s put aside the fact that schools would become nothing more than test-prep and test-taking factories with athletic teams, and look at some of the real problems involved. How do we evaluate teachers who teach subjects that aren’t tested? At the moment, most states test only math, English, social studies and science. Educrats would “solve” that problem by mandating tests for everything imaginable, thus spending even more money. Is that really most, or all, of what we want schooling to be: preparing for and taking MHSTs?

The biggest problem is that test results don’t accurately reflect a teacher’s work. They simply can’t. You see, the only thing any teacher can do, the only thing the best teacher in the world can do, is to provide an opportunity for learning. It is up to the students, and their parents, to take advantage of that opportunity. Many kids don’t take full advantage of that opportunity. Some more or less ignore it.

I’m always amazed when teachers are outraged and offended because teenagers behave like teenagers. Didn’t anyone tell them that was likely to happen? I expect and delight in it—it’s part of the great fun of teaching high school kids—but my basic rule—you don’t get to behave rudely or stupidly—stands. The point is that some teenagers simply aren’t going to recognize the value of taking advantage of their educational opportunities. They’re not going to do reading assignments. They’re not going to complete and hand in their work. Homework? You must be kidding! Most will do just enough of any kind of schoolwork necessary to avoid failure. Some won’t do even that much, and their parents won’t make them.

The problem is not that contemporary kids are stupid—they’re certainly not. Many people would be amazed at the kinds of things, and their difficulty, kids are expected to learn. I grew up in a world without computers. Merely grasping that technology and all it entails puts today’s kids far beyond past generations in significant ways. Yet, school is about far more than the accumulation of mere knowledge as evidenced by the ability to regurgitate it in specific ways on specific tests.

I live by a simple aphorism: never underestimate their intelligence, but don’t overestimate their information. Teenagers are very inexperienced in many ways. Despite having at their fingertips access to a body of knowledge unprecedented in history, they simply don’t know what educated adults know. Many know that The Beatles were a band, but beyond that know nothing of their significance. They know that man has walked on the Moon, but many think the first man to set foot on the Moon was Lance Armstrong. In other words, teenagers are simply teenagers. If it hasn’t happened in the last two years it may as well have happened two thousand years ago. Kids tend to live in the moment. Many don’t know the definitions of common words, and most can’t tell you the difference between Conservative and Liberal political philosophy, or have any real idea why they should care.

But we must hold teachers accountable! Sure, and I’m absolutely accountable. If I don’t show up on time often enough, I’m in big trouble. If I don’t prepare, if I don’t teach properly, if I fail in any one of a hundred ways, I have no doubt that someone else will be glad to take my place and will be given that opportunity. This is an understanding I share with my principal. What I cannot do is guarantee that any given student will produce a given score on a MHST. Yes, I can be reasonably certain of the scores of most of my kids, but every year, truly exceptional students do poorly and truly poor students do exceptionally. I’d like to take credit for that sort of thing—I think—but it’s irrational to think that I can or should. Please understand, the MHST scores of my students are so consistently high that I’d likely benefit if my pay was mostly or wholly based on that criteria, but I’m still ambivalent about it.

Here’s a true story: A number of years ago, my school handed out “Teacher of the Quarter” awards. Periodically, one teacher would be given a nice little trophy as the teacher of the quarter. I noticed that none of those receiving the “honor” were being rewarded for actual teaching, but only for high profile things like organizing a prom, a dance, some extra-curricular event or something similar. It was with considerable amazement that I was, out of the blue, given one of the awards. I spoke with an assistant principal and asked why I was so honored. I was surprised to learn that he recommended me for good teaching, and they had never before thought to give the award for good teaching! Don’t get me wrong, these were all good administrators in a good school, but it had never occurred to them to actually reward exceptional teaching with a “Teacher of the Quarter” award! Not long thereafter, they stopped giving them out altogether. It seems that people were getting too jealous and nasty about it when they didn’t get one and the principals were tired of taking the flak.

Do you base merit pay on the number of students who pass a teacher’s classes? If so, won’t you be ensuring that kids who should not pass, pass? Do you base it on teacher evaluations? If so, won’t you be encouraging cronyism and favoritism by principals who will tend to want to reward those who make their jobs easier rather than those who actually excel and are, as a result, more demanding? Will a teacher’s pay change from year to year based on whatever criteria are involved? If so, it might take only one bad group of kids—and believe me, teachers get those from time to time—to cause many a teacher to default on their mortgage.

I’m sure you know people in your line of work who are ruthless, unprincipled self-promoters. We have them in education too, and those are exactly the kinds of people who mediocre administrators tend to support and praise. When you reward the wrong people, the right people notice and tend to do less. When you reward those who truly deserve it, good administrators can use that example to motivate others. But all too often, human nature interferes with the best intentions, and people who don’t deserve it end up with the benefits.

So as I said, I’m not absolutely against merit pay, but it must be based in reality, a solid understanding of human nature, and not designed to build bureaucracies. Sadly, I’ve never seen a merit pay system that meets these simple criteria. If I cannot directly earn such benefits through my own efforts, what good is it? If, under such a system, I can work harder than anyone else, and my excellence is reflected in year after year of evaluations, yet I earn not a penny more, what—other than self-motivation--is my incentive to keep producing at that level? By the same token, if a mediocre teacher is rewarded for their level of effort, what’s their incentive to improve? Will they even be capable of recognizing that they’re anything but mediocre?

Well, I’ve rattled on long enough. I hope I’ve at least raised some of the most pertinent issues. As always, please let me know if there is anything else I can do to be helpful.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 01:06 AM | Comments (6)

May 23, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #2: The Unintended(?) Consequences of Mandatory, High Stakes Tests

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. & Mrs. Johnson
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Answers to Your Questions

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson:

Thanks so much for attending our “Meet The Teacher” night last week. I’m sorry that we had so little time to address your questions, so I’ll do my best to elaborate on the issues we just didn’t have time to properly discuss. Please let me know if I don’t do that to your satisfaction. But before I do, let me give you a few links that you can review if you like:

(1) For an article on the effects of big government on education, go here.

(2) For a paper on the costs of the No Child Left Behind Act, go here.

It’s important to remember, I think, that while teachers catch most of the flack in the media and in the halls of our legislators, they’re actually the wrong targets. Virtually everywhere, teachers have little or no authority to make decisions, to formulate and implement policy or to affect the direction of their districts. They don’t hire, they don’t fire, and they don’t supervise. In some school districts, they have little or no control over the curriculum they “teach.” They don’t control money, build buildings, or make any meaningful decisions that affect much of anything outside the walls of their classrooms. Yet, they’re the people with the targets painted on their backs. I suppose I’m a little sensitive about that…

Now, as to mandatory, high stakes tests, it would probably be worthwhile for me to clarify some of the things we talked about. As I mentioned, the issues to keep in mind with any part of the curriculum are time, cost and effectiveness. In other words, is any given lesson or activity effective? Does it really teach what we think it will teach? Is it worth the time involved? Some lessons may be really worthwhile but take far too much time to be practical. And finally, what’s the cost? In the classroom, that’s not usually a major issue, but when you’re talking about spending on the state or federal levels, costs can get quickly out of hand.

I know that you’re worried about excessive governmental intrusion into, well, into just about everything. I’m worried about it too. I’m always amazed at Conservatives who rail against big government yet embrace just that when it comes to education. Mandatory testing is one of the worst examples of the excesses of big government. You might want to take the link at the beginning of the letter to a good article that outlines the problem. Mandatory testing is a very large foot in the door for big government in education.

You were right: it really is in large part George W. Bush’s fault. He wanted to help Hispanic kids in Texas improve their academic performance, and when he became president, with the best of intentions, he saw a chance to help even more kids all across the nation. As a businessman, he wanted greater “accountability,” but he had to have data, so the way to generate loads of data was mandatory testing. He also probably thought that if everyone had to score well on tests, they’d more or less automatically improve in every way. The only way to ensure that schools and kids took the tests seriously was to impose major consequences for not taking them seriously, so kids who don’t pass the tests don’t graduate from high school and states that don’t buy in lose billions in federal education funds. That doesn’t sound like small government conservatism, does it?

And if you need any additional proof of big government involvement, consider that Mr. Bush worked with former Senator Ted Kennedy to enact the No Child Left Behind Act (in 2001) which federalized education to a previously unimaginable degree. Republicans tend to consider working with Democrats, for what they think to be the public good, to be bi-partisan cooperation. Leftists consider bi-partisanship to be tricking conservatives into giving them exactly what they want. Ted Kennedy must still be smiling--even in the grave--over that one.

Here’s how it works: You stir up the public with shocking news of a dire problem. In this case, the public schools are horrible, none of the kids can read or write or do math, America is behind the rest of the world, etc. Then you propose a reasonable-sounding solution, in this case, mandatory testing. As long as the public is willing to go along with testing, legislators make their usual sausage and toss every other educational boondoggle and policy they’ve ever imagined, but could not pass, into the mix.

As with so many laws made by Congress, much of this one is plainly preposterous. For example, the law requires every schoolchild in America to be reading and doing math on grade level by 2014. As a political sound bite, it’s great, but because it completely ignores human hature, it’s nonsense. It’s simply not possible for every child in America to read or do math on grade level by any date. It’s like writing a law requiring every child in America to be able to dunk a basketball, or run a sub-12 second 100 meters by a date certain. Many people will simply never be able to do it, no matter how wonderful and well intentioned the law that demands it, yet NCLB demands it anyway, and forces the states to demonstrate and document “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward an impossible goal.

All of this, of course, creates enormous and costly local, state and federal educational bureaucracies to make rules, produce and administer the tests and the rest of the related laws, gather, crunch and disseminate the data from the tests, and the process goes on and on as the bureaucracies—as all bureaucracies tend to do—work assiduously to gather even more power and to expand themselves so that it will become impossible to ever reduce their size or power, to say nothing of doing away with them.

How costly? According to the Office Of Management and Budget, in 2006 NCLB imposed 6,680,334 hours of additional administrative paperwork on the states at an estimated cost of at least $141 million dollars. In 2007, Connecticut spent more than 17 million just to comply with NCLB, while Virginia estimated its yearly costs at $20 million. The federal and state education bureaucracies have certainly grown since then. And Texas, for example, has announced that it will spend just under a half billion dollars over the next five years just to purchase its new mandatory tests. My wife and I spend around $2000 per year, of our money, to buy supplies and equipment for our classrooms. We’re far from the only teachers who do that. I have a suggestion or two about where those millions might be better used.

So we start with a huge federal education bureaucracy that is substantially enlarged by NCLB. The Feds issue new rules and requirements, and the paperwork burden alone requires the state education bureaucracies to become larger to comply. But because failing to meet all the unfunded federal mandates can be very expensive indeed, state educrats don’t want to be surprised by embarrassing test scores, so they often go beyond federal requirements, requiring additional testing that they hope will predict how kids will do on the tests that do count. In this pursuit, many states take advantage of federal intrusions to enact their own legislative sausages, thereby enlarging their state level bureaucracies and imposing mandates of their own on local school districts, requiring them to hire additional personnel merely to keep up with all of the federal and state mandates.

Let’s examine Texas, the state that has an enormous effect on the rest of the nation’s schools. Texas has a large, powerful education bureaucracy that is surely the envy of the educrats of many other states. Schools are scored not only on their mandatory test scores, but on a variety of other factors, including attendance, graduation rates, special education populations and many others. Enormous amounts of data are generated by local districts on a continuous basis, including highly specific data on the relative academic performance—measured by the tests, of course—of specific racial populations. The state hands out rankings, ranging from “Academically Unacceptable” to “Exemplary” each year. What all of this means, for Texas and other states, is a substantial increase in personnel who do virtually nothing but manage the required paperwork, and of course, it greatly increases costs. The livelihoods and careers of educators, from the beginning teacher, to the district superintendent, become inextricably tied up in the production of the right kinds of data in the right amounts, which involves substantially diverting their attention from teaching and learning, which, the last time I checked, is supposed to be the primary purpose of schools.

On the local, school district level, the effects are even more disastrous. Because districts don’t want to be surprised, they often impose “benchmark” tests, which are usually approximations of the mandatory state tests, on a regular basis until the actual state tests, which usually take place toward the end of the year, are done. The most foolish districts tie teacher’s evaluations directly to test scores. The inevitable consequence of all of this is a single-minded focus on teaching to the test.

By “teaching to the test,” I don’t mean the kind of focused instruction all good teachers do on a daily basis. I mean spending huge amounts of time doing nothing but covering the information and tricks—and I do mean tricks—necessary to pass those very specific tests, tests that often have little to do with the real curriculum, the curriculum kids need to truly learn to function in the real world. In some schools, particularly elementary schools, very little apart from test drill is done.

All of this is sadly predictable. What for some are the unfortunately unintended consequences of good intentions, are for others very much intentional and are far more about power and control than benefitting children.

The best teachers usually teach more demanding material on a higher intellectual level and demand a higher level of accomplishment and performance from their students. In very real ways, mandatory, high stakes tests are actually a dumbing down of the curriculum. Yet, if your livelihood, your career depended on the test performance of your students, what would you do?

What’s lost is Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Hemingway, poetry, history, science, and all of the other parts of school that are so vital to helping kids build bigger, better brains. That’s really why we have school, not only to socialize kids and to help them learn to be rational, functioning Americans, but to teach them how to think, not what to think, and not how to pass a set of tests that will not, in any way, be of future value to them, and will not build bigger, better brains in the here and now. I lose about 29% of my school year to test drills. That’s 29% of opportunity for real learning lost, forever lost.

Many of those who support such testing don’t seem to understand the nature of tests or their limitations. In order to make it possible for most students to pass the tests, they must reflect only an average level of difficulty, perhaps even a bit less, so while such folks want everyone to read and write on grade level by a date certain, they’re at least somewhat more practical in actually writing the tests that will determine it. Or perhaps they’re doing that on purpose? After all, if you spend much of a year learning to take a specific test, wouldn’t you expect to do pretty well on that test? And wouldn’t those who write and support such testing think that proves that the test is valid? After all, they have the data to prove it!

Test data can’t tell us which students read well and which don’t. They can’t tell us which student tries hard and which doesn’t. They can’t tell us which teachers teach well, which principals are good managers and leaders, or which schools are truly better than others. They do provide data that indicates, statistically, which schools outscored other schools on one specific day in a given year, but given the complexity of human beings and schools, what does that information really tell us and at what cost? Such scores may be suggestive of some of these things, but why not merely ask your child’s teachers how they’re progressing? Why not ask to see their work? That won't increase your tax burden and limit your rights, and will help to limit the size of overbearing government. That’s what matters to parents, students and teachers, not the relative test scores of neighboring or far distant communities.

But what about bad teachers? What about failing school districts? What about incompetent principals? What about communities who fail to hold their school boards accountable? What about corruption and mismanagement? None of these things can be fixed by tests or accurately diagnosed through testing data, and none of them are an argument for grotesquely expanded government. Only involved, caring people on the local level can solve these problems. Fortunately, the mechanisms to solve these problems exist in every school district in America if only people will care enough to use them. Abdicating your responsibility and authority as a citizen to educrats and tests is a recipe for failure.

I suppose the bottom line is that most tests can be of at least some value, but the situation is out of hand. We spend far, far too much money and devote far too much precious classroom time to these tests, and they cannot tell us what any good teacher can tell us, for only the cost of their salary and materials, after a few weeks of class time with their students. And of course, the big government these tests and all associated with them require is never a good thing. It is always wasteful and unresponsive to the will of the people.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Hopefully, I’ve answered your questions; please let me know if I have not. Just one more thought before I go: When legislators or others talk about how horrible the public schools are, I always wonder. Most of them attended public schools, so how were they able to avoid being turned into drooling illiterates, particularly in the days before mandatory, high stakes tests?


Mr. English Teacher

PS: I recently received our state test results. Consider what happened to two of my students. One is a very bright, hard working, capable girl, a straight "A" student, and one of the best writers in our school. Academic accomplishment is very important to her. The other, a gregarious but generally lazy boy, who occasionally earns a low "B," but who is always flitting about either side of failing. He's a mediocre writer, mostly because he just doesn't do the necessary practice to do well. Academic accomplishment is not on his "to do" list. She failed the English test and was devastated. He not only passed, but earned highest honors and was delighted that, once again, he successfully gamed the system. This sort of thing happens all the time with mandatory tests, but never with my assignments and tests because they require genuine knowledge, skill and accomplishment.

Posted by MikeM at 09:55 PM | Comments (11)

May 16, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #1: Mandatory, High Stakes Tests

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. & Mrs. Smith
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Apology

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Smith:

As I stand here watching your daughter, Lauren, working diligently on her mandatory, high-stakes test, I realize that I owe you--and all of the parents of my students--an apology. So I sincerely apologize. Why am I apologizing? Because this week, I’m wasting your daughter’s time. In fact, teachers across the state are wasting their student’s time by forcing them to take a series of state-mandated, high-stakes tests. And you should know that it’s not really my fault, but I feel badly about it just the same, so I’m apologizing.

Whose fault is it? For once it really is, more or less, George W. Bush’s fault. I’m sure you realize that Texas is in many ways, for good or ill, the national educational model. Well, when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, he discovered that Hispanic kids weren’t doing as well in reading and other academic skills as other kids, and out of genuine concern for their welfare and with the best intentions, he wanted to do something about it.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing really, except that he was a businessman, so he applied what he knew--the business model--to education. Soon, all of the kids in Texas--and pretty much everywhere else when he became president--became toasters.

Let’s say that you manufacture toasters, and everything is just toasty, until you discover that a disturbing portion of your toasters come off the assembly line with faults. You immediately began a quality assurance program, which consists of testing, to determine what is wrong so that you can fix it. You test the workers, and the machinery and the process, and you find and fix the faults, and lo and behold, shiny, perfectly happy toasters sprout wings and fly from the assembly line to live long, warmly productive lives in American kitchens.

The problem is that kids aren’t toasters, and the education process has little relation to the business world. In education, our toasters can decide not to come to the factory. They can decide not to accept parts. They can annoy the workers and the other toasters and interfere with the entire process. They can, if they wish, leap off the production line and run out of the factory, never to be seen again.

Education is a calling, if you will, that is very prone to fads, fads that are so brilliant, so bold, so amazing that they will revolutionize education, at least that’s what their authors promise. Except of course, they never do--revolutionize education, I mean. Usually, they make it harder for teachers to teach and students to learn, and usually, they make things worse. They almost never actually help.

Fads tend to last until the people who staked their reputations and careers on the fads simply fade away, are fired, are run out of town in the manner of villagers attacking Dr. Frankenstein’s castle with torches and pitchforks, or a more attractive fad comes along to replace the current fad. The problem, you see, is that these fads tend to become nation-wide holy writ, even laws, and it often takes a decade or more for a fad that was a really stupid idea in the first place--which teachers would have said if anyone had bothered to actually listen to them, which almost no one does--to go away. And oh dear, do we waste billions of dollars on idiotic ideas!

Do you remember the “Open Classroom Concept” of the 70s and early 80s? It was the going fad for more than a decade. The idea was that classrooms were dull, boring boxes that squashed creativity. Why, if only we built schools without walls, we would have previously unimaginable creative potential! Think of the flexibility, the freedom, the brilliance of such a stunning, new concept! And so schools without walls were built across the nation. Untold billions were spent at a time when a billion dollars was real money. And it was an utter disaster, as any teacher could have told them, had they bothered to ask or listen.

With no walls, the distraction factor went off the scale. The disrupting effect of what was going on from class to class was overpowering. Discipline went out the window, and teachers found it nearly impossible to teach anything. Schools spent additional millions for free-standing office-divider-like walls, still trying to salvage the concept, but it was futile. The distraction factor from noise alone was impossible to overcome. If one classroom watched a movie, everyone within earshot heard the movie. Kids selectively tuned out and tuned into lessons all around them.

So what eventually happened? Those who had a stake in the brilliant concept eventually retired, fled for their lives ahead of lynch mobs of angry parents, or made more money hawking other fads. But hundreds of millions more were spent building walls in buildings that weren’t designed for walls. Even today, the remaining buildings have a bizarre mix of strangely shaped and sized rooms with horribly uneven ventilation, and electrical outlets--where they have any at all-in the strangest places.

What was lost in all of those years was time. Time, to the dedicated teacher, is their most precious commodity. A single class day lost is time that can never be regained, educational opportunities lost. All of the lessons, information, intellectual growth lost to that generation of students is impossible to quantify, but it’s very real--and tragic--nonetheless. This is the hidden downside, the danger, of educational faddism.

And so we are in the throes of the latest fad, which often goes by the name of “accountability.” Yes, we’re going to make school accountable, apparently for the first time. Strange. I’ve always been under the impression that I’m accountable for my work every day, and oddly enough, so is my principal, but the state and federal governments always know better than we do, so who am I to argue? By “accountability,” I mean mandatory, high-stakes testing. If Lauren doesn’t pass her tests, she doesn’t graduate from high school. It doesn’t matter that she has, through twelve years of academic excellence demonstrated hundreds of times, earned her place as the Valedictorian of her class, if she fails one of the tests by a single point, her twelve years of exemplary academic performance mean nothing. Lauren deserves better than that. We all do.

Oddly enough, teachers like me have a problem with that kind of “accountability.” Who knows Lauren better, an educrat looking at a few test scores in the state capital, or her teachers who work with her daily and read and grade hundreds of her assignments? Who knows her academic strengths and weaknesses? Who actually cares about her, putting real thought and energy into her intellectual and personal development instead of seeing her as a politically useful bit of data?

Even if we put that bit of common sense aside for a moment, perhaps examining the tests in terms of costs and benefits will help. Who does the testing benefit? Educrats, people who live and die by data, by regulating and constraining the professional lives of teachers, yet who have little or no contact with them or with the day to day reality of the classroom. Educrats love data, for it is the mother’s milk of their jobs. It justifies their positions and gives them the power to pick winners and losers.

You might be tempted to think that these test scores benefit everyone, student, teacher, and parent, but they do not. Remember, please that this is not Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average. Such tests are written with a middling level of difficulty. If they weren’t, far too many kids would fail them, which really calls into question why we do them in the first place, particularly at such great cost. The truth is that most people are average; that’s what average is, and the tests are written for the average. What does Lauren’s score on her English test tell you, particularly compared to the 150 tests and other assignments of all kinds she’ll complete in my class? What does it tell Lauren? It tells me nothing I didn’t know by the second week of school. It cannot help you be a better parent; it cannot help her be a better student; it cannot help me be a better teacher.

Some will say that we absolutely need such data so that we can compare and identify failing schools. This is a misrepresentation. There are a great many other means of identifying such things, and they all cost a fraction of the testing fad.

Every school district in the nation has the means available to fail or succeed, and the essential element in that success is the involvement of parents and the community in holding their elected school boards accountable, truly accountable for providing the best educational opportunity possible. Tests cannot and will not do that. Merely paying attention to what is going on in the schools will, and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

But the data reveal that the students of the Smithville School District scored, on average, 4.2 points higher than the students of the Jonestown School District! So what? What that likely means is that Smithville spent far more of their school year drilling for the test than Jonestown, and while Jonestown scored lower on that particular test that day, the Jonestown kids actually had far more time to actually learn something other than how to take that particular test.

But all kids need to do to pass such tests is to be taught the state-mandated standards. Teaching to the test is not necessary! Right. Who is saying that? State education officials? The publishers of the test? I’ve talked to both of them and called them on that whopper. Let me assure you that when you call them on that particular point, they become very angry, irrational, turn an unattractive shade of red, sputter convincingly, and suddenly lose interest in taking further questions. Lauren will do well on this test because I know that I have to drill her on it, and that I must do so in very, very specific ways, many of which do not apply at all to anything else we do in class. In fact, I’ve told her, and the rest of the kids never to write as they had to to pass the test again. Bless their hearts, they do it as they’ve been drilled, and revert back to rational, effective writing thereafter.

The costs will surprise and probably disgust you. Did you know that for only the English test, we dedicate at least nine weeks of the school year--about 25% of the entire year--to passing and taking that single test, to prepare for that one day out of the year? Merely taking all of the required tests wipes out an additional week. In addition, our school has a great reputation for passing those tests, so we’re given the honor of being guinea pigs for vetting future tests for the company the state pays huge amounts of money to develop and produce the tests. That wipes out an additional week of class time, time that we could use to actually learn something, to build bigger, better brains, which is what we should all be primarily focused on doing. All of this means that Lauren’s English class will lose about 29% of its class time just to pass one test, one test whose results help us--and her--not at all. Don’t worry. I could have told you Lauren’s score on the English test within a few points before she took it. She’ll not only pass, but will be in the highest rank. But you see, I know that because I know Lauren. The educrats know only the data generated by her test.

Be thankful that Lauren isn’t in elementary school. Many of those dedicate virtually the entire year to preparing for tests. I have to spend time every year re-teaching my new high school students such elementary concepts as “noun,” “verb,” “simple sentence,” and other basics earlier generations mastered by 6th grade.

What would I have done in that time, time forever lost? We could have read and discussed at least three books, written many major assignments requiring real academic effort and higher level thinking skills, completed a variety of smaller assignments to sharpen the kid’s writing, reading and thinking skills, and in general, made significant gains in brain development and language skills. Instead, we were forced to concentrate on a single, mediocre test. And rest assured, we’ll be very successful. Virtually all of our kids will pass that test--we’ve figured out how to teach them to pass it--but they will lose so much more.

I know some people will say that not all teachers are good teachers, and that’s certainly true. But tests don’t solve that problem. Aware, professional, competent people do, and they do it most effectively and least expensively on the local level. Some will say that some school districts are bad, and that’s true too, but tests don’t solve that problem either, and they don’t solve it at exorbitant cost. Even the worst districts can be fixed if the public cares enough to, at the next election, throw out the school board that allows such disasters. Tests can’t vote, and if Lauren failed the test, her score couldn’t tell us that the district superintendent was taking vendor kickbacks, or teachers were sleeping during class time, or that the kids ran the school, or about any other impediment to learning. Only professional people can know and correct such things.

How much do such things cost? Again, Texas provides something of an answer. It has been recently discovered that Texas will be paying their test provider just under half a billion dollars over the next five years to develop and produce their new test series. That’s just under half a billon dollars over five years for one, single state. And that doesn’t count the salaries and additional expenses of the state education bureaucracy involved. I don’t know about you, but a half a billon dollars still sounds like a lot of money to me, especially in our relatively hard economic times. I’m sure the costs elsewhere are similar.

So, once again, I apologize. With what remains of the school year, I’ll do what I can to try to make up for lost time, but I’m fighting a losing battle until this fad, eventually, goes the way of all educational fads before it. I wish I could say that I could do something about this, but I’m just a teacher. What do I know about education?

Thanks, and please let me know if I can be helpful in the future.

Lauren’s English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at 10:18 PM | Comments (18)

May 11, 2011

Coming Soon To A Blog Near You...

Beginning Tuesday, May 17, and hopefully continuing every Tuesday thereafter, I’ll be posting a new addition to the blog, tentatively titled “Letter From the Teacher.” Regular readers know that my day job is teaching high school English. Yes, I am a defender of the mother tongue. Yesterday I could not spell English teacher and today I are one!

Few people would think that they know more than a doctor or even a plumber or electrician about their business, yet everyone, it seems, knows just what is wrong with education and just how to fix it. I suspect that this is because most Americans had 12 years of experience in the public schools and that familiarity breeds a certain amount of comfort, for the truth is, most Americans were--and are--well served by their schools. Yet many, when confronted with headlines that scream that American schools are horrible failures, tend to reflexively agree. It’s rather like congressmen: many Americans think they’re all crooks and incompetents, except for their Congressman.

In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss and hopefully provide some thoughtful commentary on many educational issues, such as:

Why most of what you hear in the media about America’s schools is wrong.

Why mandatory high-stakes testing is not only harmful to children, but insanely expensive and wasteful.

What a teacher’s real job is and why it’s irrational to believe that they can be held fully accountable for student performance on tests.

What political correctness is doing to education (it’s not good).

Why prayer has never been removed from the schools, and can’t be.

Who is really running our schools and their mindsets.

How sports do less--and more--than you would expect in our schools.

Why good administrators can fire bad teachers while upholding everyone’s rights, and why bad administrator’s can’t and won’t.

Why public schools really are a good idea.

I’ll look forward to seeing you on Tuesdays, and as always, to your comments.

Posted by MikeM at 08:56 PM | Comments (4)