<p>INTRODUCTION</p> <p>Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because their teachers were fired?</p> <p>Since we can't fire poverty, we can't fire students, and we can't fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.</p> <p>-Diane Ravitch, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Author of <i>The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education</i></p> <p>After we read the section of Homer's <i>The Odyssey</i> where Odysseus and his men confront the Cyclops, we watched a movie clip of how the clever Greek hero blinded that wine-swilling, man-eating, one-eyed monster and escaped. We discussed the story for a while, and I then asked my eighth-grade class to break up into groups and write down various plot points. After about ten minutes, we reviewed the points out loud.</p> <p>The kids loved the blood, bellowing, running around, and sailing away. But there was a lot of confusion about who was who and what was going on. In other words, a lot of the students were having a tough time figuring out the story. So I set to work helping them figure it out. After all, it's hard to understand the significance of a story if you don't understand the story itself.</p> <p>The assistant principal, who was observing the class, later scolded me for the lesson's "lack of academic rigor." Instead of merely "identifying" what was going on, he believed we should have been working higher up the cognitive food chain by "analyzing," "differentiating," and "inferring" everything from motivations to psychological states of the characters.</p> <p>Yet the assistant principal knew as well as I did that at least one of these eighth graders could barely read. Alfred, a thirteen-year-old recent immigrant from Ghana, would smile brightly whenever I glanced his way and pop out of his seat proudly, standing straight and tall next to his desk, whenever he answered a question. But reading comprehension was another matter.</p> <p>One day during lunch, I pulled him aside and gave him some fourth-grade reading material and multiple-choice questions about the text to get a basic sense of his reading level. "How was that?" I asked.</p> <p>"Easy," Alfred responded, smiling. "Easy."</p> <p>But looking at the answers he had circled on the quiz, I could see that he had no idea what the material said. Each day Alfred handed in homework, but it never was related to the assignment; it was merely a neatly copied version of what I had presented the day before on the whiteboard or Smart Board. On tests and quizzes, Alfred copied whatever was on the paper of the student next to him and smiled brightly whenever I gave him a look of "What are you doing?"</p> <p>All of his other teachers had the same experience with Alfred, and the principal told us to get together and figure out how to bring him up to speed in our "spare time." In fact, whenever there was an issue with a student who was far behind or had a behavior problem, we were told to handle the situation in our spare time. Unfortunately, with his good behavior and smiling demeanor, Alfred often fell to the back of the line as his teachers performed triage in dealing with the problems at hand.</p> <p>The assistant principal also was aware that some of my students had other obvious special needs and learning disabilities, which were largely ignored or undiagnosed. One student, Siah, spent most of the forty-six-minute period punching the students around him and sticking objects into various orifices of his body. Bigger and taller than the other eighth graders, Siah was a loveable bear of a kid, with a striking resemblance to the rapper Drake and what seemed like a serious case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When he entered my class at the end of the day, his school uniform was blotched with sweat, ink, and the remains of major and minor food fights throughout the day. His shirttails were out, and his tie was loose and flapping like a pennant carried by the color guard of a battle-weary regiment.</p> <p>Despite seven previous periods of punching, throwing, running, shouting, backpack-swinging, and desk-pounding, by the time he joined my class for eighth period, Siah typically was still raring to go. If another kid wasn't goading him by stealing his backpack and stuffing it in the trash can, or challenging him to a human beatbox contest ("Siah, you go first"), he had his neck craned as he searched the classroom for some action, the way an English pointer searches for a pheasant. And it was rare for him to not find it.</p> <p>Siah was among the students with obvious special-education needs in my eighth-period class. From what I could figure, at least eight of the twenty-eight kids had learning or behavior or emotional problems that meant they were entitled-by law-to assistance, guidance, and, typically, medication. But dealing with these students as the law required would have meant employing a school nurse and many more special-education teachers. And not only are qualified special-ed teachers in short supply, but also the low student-teacher ratio required by following the rules would eat up the school's budget. So, instead of directly addressing the problems of these kids, the administration made the students' problems the classroom teachers' problem, pretending that they weren't really special-education students at all.</p> <p>The assistant principal knew that the two groups of girls who actually did what I asked-make a list of plot points in the scene-had a tough time getting them straight. They were earnest in their attempts but confused about chronology and who did what. Even for these "good students," paying close attention and simply describing what happened in the story wasn't part of their academic toolkit.</p> <p>The assistant principal also knew that only Santos was far ahead of the rest of the class. When Santos discovered we were going to cover <i>The Odyssey</i>, he read all he could find on the topic in the class textbook and online. The son of Hispanic immigrants, Santos was tall and thin, and wore thick glasses. Bright, eager, and ready with the correct answer to every question ever asked, Santos was the perfect student. He deserved to be attending one of New York City's elite public schools, but his parents, who didn't speak English, didn't press for a transfer. Instead, he was in my class in the South Bronx at the troubled, dysfunctional public school I call Latinate Institute.</p> <p>Although Santos was ready for an in-depth discussion of <i>The Odyssey</i>, most of the rest of the class was still trying to figure out what the Greeks were doing in the Cyclops' cave in the first place or silently taunting kids across the room by mouthing "Suck my dick, nigga!"</p> <p>But I knew better than to challenge the assistant principal's assessment. I had done that before and been shot down. Trying to get some help for Siah's ADHD (which would benefit not only him, but also his classmates and me) simply led to the assistant principal's suggestion that Siah was acting up because I wasn't sufficiently challenging the writer within him. It was the same with a ninth-grade girl who was pleasant and cooperative one day, violent and disruptive the next, with the pattern alternating every few days.</p> <p>"Oh, no. She is a very good student," the assistant principal assured me, waving the issue and me away with a flutter of his hand.</p> <p>The principal and assistant principal were quite clear that Latinate was a model of school reform, and I quickly realized we teachers were there to enforce that idea. As the principal saw it, all of the problems of a traditional public school in a high-needs area-low student achievement, wildly inappropriate behavior, and a high concentration of special-needs students-would be overcome by the teachers following and enforcing the principal's various mission statements, vision statements, expectations, non-negotiables, and other assorted Big Ideas.</p> <p>If I pressed the issue of Alfred being unable to read, I would have been told that if I were a good teacher, I would spend as much time as necessary with Alfred improving his skills. If I again brought up the issue of Siah and his ADHD and the need for a school nurse to administer his medication, I would have been told that if I were a good teacher, I would be able to "engage" him with interesting work or use "the force of my personality" to at least make him-and the other twenty-seven kids in the class-sit quietly for the forty-six-minute period.</p> <p>And if I raised the issue of Santos being so far ahead of the rest of the class that it wasn't fair to keep him here, I would have been told that if I were a good teacher, every lesson and assignment I presented would span the wide range of academic skills among the students. Or, more accurately, each lesson every day would be tailored to each of my 125 students' individual needs-targeting every gradation between illiterate and near-college-and revised constantly. For me, it wasn't just difficult, it was impossible. From 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day during my teaching career, I was consumed with the work of teaching. It was as though I had just joined the circus as an apprentice clown and was immediately required to juggle plates, bowling pins, butcher's knives, and axes all day long while walking along a tightrope in midair.</p> <p>Clearly, I wasn't a good teacher. In fact, the assistant principal had "proof"-file folders bulging with observation reports and other alleged evidence that any shortcomings in my students' academics or behavior were solely my fault. At Latinate Institute, as in schools across the country, all problems apparently boiled down to one simple cause: bad teachers like me.</p> <p>***</p> <p>America's public school teachers are being loudly and unfairly blamed for the failure of our nation's public schools. From Bill Gates, to hedge-fund-enriched charter school backers, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to an endless stream of reports in the media, everyone "knows" that we must fix the Bad Teacher problem.</p> <p>If only teachers were better...smarter...more committed to their students. If only they had a longer workday and a longer school year. If only they didn't have tenure. If only they didn't have such powerful unions. If only they didn't stand in the way of progress.</p> <p>Today, <i>all</i> teachers seem to be considered bad until proven otherwise. Campaigns for school reform and corporate-style management of our public schools are sweeping the country. As a result, individual principals have been given a stunning amount of power and leeway to decide who's a good teacher and who's a bad teacher. With that much authority in the hands of a few top administrators who have little accountability for their decisions, it's easy for good management and honest evaluation of teachers to be trampled during administrators' efforts to deliver stellar results in unrealistically short periods of time.</p> <p>On top of that, precisely what defines a "bad teacher" isn't clear. There are too many factors-from standardized test scores to subjective department evaluations-and the criteria vary from state to state, school district to school district. But from what I've seen, unless a teacher turns in grades and standardized test scores in the highest level of academic achievement while the students perform in class as the educational equivalents of the von Trapp kids in <i>The Sound of Music</i>, there's a chance of being branded a bad teacher. Too many of America's schools are run on the belief that everything would be great if not for these bad teachers. Today, the term seems to be used almost interchangeably with the word "teachers" itself.</p> <p>This must change. The bad teacher witch-hunt is destroying our schools and robbing our children of their future. My experience on the front lines of education has brought me to the conclusion that America's public school policies are drowning children, not helping them. Many good, well-intentioned, and truly effective educators across the country are reaching, stretching, trying desperately to save these kids, but those in charge increasingly beat them back, insisting that these teachers are not using the appropriate method of rescue. Meanwhile, the children are carried off downstream, flailing.</p> <p>This is not an exaggeration. Throughout the country, we are told that everything we have been doing in our schools is wrong. The education system that once was the envy of the world has become a hopeless, costly, out-of-control dinosaur.</p> <p>Further, we hear that the only way to save American education is through school reform-to manage our schools as though they were businesses, employing powerful, hard-nosed leaders who make tough rules and use data to measure students' progress and teachers' accountability in order to punish those who impede success. This version of school reform is rooted in the appealing notion of using scientific studies to determine what's needed and how to fix it. A 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education envisioned school reform this way:</p> <p>The primary responsibility of schools undertaking comprehensive school reform is creating programs that result in improved student achievement. One of the most important tasks in this process is choosing highly effective reform strategies, methods, and programs, those that are grounded in scientifically based research.</p> <p>But these days, "scientifically based research" has been replaced by "data"-test scores, class grades, and, as I saw, virtually any number that can be recorded and crunched.</p> <p>The current version of school reform, as championed by those such as Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and now chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has a common-sense ring to it with mantras such as "put students first, support effective teachers, and continue to hold everyone accountable for results."</p> <p>But the more subtle and much more important point is that all too often Bush and others like him replace "scientifically based research" and "highly effective reform strategies, methods, and programs" with data-driven grades for schools and data-driven rewards and punishments for teachers. As Bush put it in a 2011 article on Politico.com:</p> <p>A–F systems [for grading schools] are more intuitive to parents and the public. They also help leaders to clearly differentiate rewards and interventions for schools....Many states and school districts are now adopting more advanced data systems, linking student performance to teachers. For the first time, we can measure teacher effectiveness using transparent objectives and standards.</p> <p>It's a data-driven solution that speaks of efficiency and the digital genius that has built technology powerhouses such as Microsoft and Google and made billionaires of hedge-fund managers. But it masks the real truth.</p> <p>We see the success stories in films such as <i>Waiting for "Superman,"</i> which portrays teachers' unions as venal, data-averse impediments to better schools and casts "reformers" as visionary leaders heroically struggling to overcome the forces of self-interest that are holding children back.</p> <p>We also hear how charter schools produce amazing results. Released from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, charter schools often are free to extend the usual school day by several hours, require weekend classes, and demand extensive parental involvement. Charter schools are often independent-sometimes for-profit-operations that, at least in the public imagination, are managed by tough, visionary leaders who gain the freedom to run the school <i>their way</i> in exchange for accountability in producing results.</p> <p>But the brilliance, easy answers, and immediate measurable results of school reform have not been proven. Studies going back nearly a decade conflict with the popular image of the magically successful charter school. In December 2004, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released research showing that fourth-grade charter school students do no better than their public school counterparts on math and reading assessments, and in some cases score lower. A 2009 sixteen-state study of charter schools by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) turned up a similarly mixed bag, heavy on disappointing results:</p> <p>The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.</p> <p>While the CREDO study is-so far-the gold standard on the topic, headlines from the industry publication <i>Education Week</i> also vividly demonstrate the confused and quite often lackluster state of charter school achievement:</p> <ul> <li>Study Finds No Clear Edge for Charter Schools" (June 29, 2010).</li> <li>KIPP Middle Schools [Charter Schools] Found to Spur Learning Gains" (June 22, 2010).</li> <li>Study Casts Doubt on Strength of Charter Managers" (December 3, 2009; updated April 4, 2012).</li> <li>Study Casts Doubt on Charter School Results" (June 15, 2009).</li> </ul> <p>Proponents of charter schools and school reform, politicians, and business leaders dismiss these dubious results with one explanation. The reason charter schools and school reform haven't been an unqualified success is simple, they say. It's because there are so many bad teachers, and we can't get rid of them fast enough.</p> <p>The truth, of course, is not so simple. Teachers have become scapegoats for a broken system that isn't being fixed, but rather is being gradually destroyed. The real problem, it seems, is that with so many issues plaguing our educational system, blaming teachers is easier than doing a massive system overhaul. As a result, many of our public schools have been put in the hands of "visionary managers" who insist that strictly enforced procedures and data-driven business principles will revitalize American education.</p> <p>But as dozens of test-score-manipulation scandals from Atlanta to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., have proven, all too often these administrators are neither visionaries nor managers. They are, in many cases, misguided or tyrannical number-crunchers who use their skills with spreadsheets and theatrics to make parents and taxpayers believe that our children are being educated-and educated well, at that-when in fact, they are just bit players in a giant pageant of data and window dressing.</p> <p>Along the way, these administrators secure their power by demonizing the people closest to our children, their teachers. Consider, for instance, Michelle Rhee, one of the most famous proponents of school reform. The student achievement numbers she's reported from her own teaching career have been questioned, and while chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, she fired 266 teachers who, she claimed, "had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed seventy-eight days of school." (The statement appeared in the February 2010 issue of the business magazine <i>Fast Company</i>.)</p> <p>When pressed to back up her claims, Rhee "clarified" that actually only one teacher was dismissed due to sexual abuse allegations, and she didn't address the other issues. Teachers' union officials pointed out that Rhee presented no evidence for her charges. Still, the damage was done. Meanwhile, Rhee, despite her record of suspect data and unnecessarily vilifying teachers, remains a powerful, listened-to voice in American education.</p> <p>But why believe me? I'm a bad teacher.</p> <p>According to my personnel file at the New York City Department of Education, I am "unprofessional," "insubordinate," and "culturally insensitive." I can't maintain order in the classroom, and even when I do establish order, I can't properly explain the lesson. As if that's not enough, I tend to place students in a "dangerous and unsafe situation," and I might be a racist.</p> <p>Mind you, I didn't set out to be a "bad teacher." When I left a high-level publishing job in a Manhattan skyscraper to teach English at a public school in New York City's South Bronx, I thought I could do some good for underprivileged kids. I am a middle-aged professional, but I'm not lazy. I'm not crazy. I'm great with kids and I love literature.</p> <p>My love of words has taken me from a troubled, working-class childhood to a wonderfully happy, successful life. I have been writing-and teaching others to write-for a long time. And I have enjoyed helping younger writers build great careers. During a three-decade career as a writer, editor, and corporate executive, I had traveled to more than a hundred countries, met heads of state, and picked up some wisdom about getting along and getting ahead in life that I thought was worth sharing with those just starting the journey. I wanted to make an impact directly with kids in the classroom. To use the cliché, I felt it was time to "give back."</p> <p>There was something else at work here, too. For want of a better word, I will call it patriotism. The flood of immigrants into New York City in recent years has been astounding. Currently, nearly 40 percent of the city's residents are immigrants, according to data compiled by the Weissman Center for International Business at Baruch College. Queens and Manhattan have seen huge influxes from China. The Bronx and Brooklyn are teeming with Dominicans. Africans, especially from the central belt of the continent, are numerous in the Bronx. Needless to say, the children who have come with or been born to these recent arrivals are the future of our country. They need teachers and mentors, guides to help them navigate what often is a new world. Teachers like the ones I had growing up. Teachers who can present a passion for the greatness and potential of learning and the greatness and potential of America. Teachers who can make kids want to be upstanding, successful Americans.</p> <p>The school where I landed touted itself as a model of school reform. Its website presented a showcase of high standards and a passion for learning. The interview that sealed the job was more about practical concerns than such lofty ideals, but what did it matter? It was the job offer I had clinched, and no matter what, I was determined to help poor kids, immigrant kids, and kids who simply needed people to inspire them, believe in them, and encourage them to succeed.</p> <p>Instead, I experienced firsthand school reform gone terribly wrong. Students who did nothing were passed, and students who did nothing more than cut and paste from Wikipedia were deemed high performers. Special-needs students were swept along with their classmates while their real problems were swept under the rug. Disruptive students were permitted to rob their classmates of precious teaching time.</p> <p>Teachers who were skilled, enthusiastic, caring, and hardworking were held accountable for every ill in the school and every problem each student faced, most of which were entirely unrelated to their classes. Some teachers were able to survive the system with luck, savvy, and years of skills to rely on, or with sacrifices to serve the administration's interests, rather than the students'. Some, like me, were not so fortunate. And all because the data could be worked over-or even invented-to give the appearance that the kids were learning and that the principal was indeed a visionary leader.</p> <p>As common as this is, the media spotlight rarely shines on the schools that are failures of reform. Schools run by tyrannical principals. Schools where the much-vaunted data is easily manipulated. Most importantly, schools where our children aren't getting the education they need. When it was clear that my teaching career was doomed, I decided it was time to bring this issue to light and wrote an article for Salon.com describing my experiences in the Smart Board jungle.</p> <p>"Confessions of a Bad Teacher" told of my heartfelt efforts-and sometimes successes-at teaching English to eighth- and ninth-grade inner-city kids while a crazed visionary manager (the principal) terrorized the teachers and filled folder after folder with our misdeeds. The article went viral, and Salon's comment section swelled:</p> <p>"I'm a teacher, too. This is exactly what it's like working in urban schools."</p> <p>"Great story. Maybe the best story I've ever read about what it's REALLY like in an urban school (I worked in South Central LA for eight years)."</p> <p>"Heartrending."</p> <p>"A beautifully written tragedy."</p> <p>"At last, a voice of experience."</p> <p>Thousands of people reached out from all over the country to tell me how much of a major problem this is throughout America. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and best-selling author Diane Ravitch tweeted my article to her 18,000 followers. MSNBC brought me to its Rockefeller Center studios for a live interview. From blogs to discussion boards to emails I received from readers who tracked me down through LinkedIn, the message was clear: "Confessions of a Bad Teacher" had struck a nerve. It was the truth behind so much of today's school reform.</p> <p>That's why I wrote this book-to tell the story of this outrage, of this total failure of visionary managers and easy solutions for our broken educational system. Across the nation, in communities of all sizes and at every rung of the economic ladder, hundreds of thousands-perhaps millions-of children are cheated of a real education, and hundreds of thousands of passionate, hard-working, results-oriented educators are demonized and belittled because America is looking for easy fixes.</p> <p>Another reason for writing this was to explore solutions to our public education woes and offer advice for parents, teachers, students, and anyone else who understands that education truly does represent the future of America. Toward that end, I have included some key facts and figures that illustrate the scope and depth of our national problem, as well as crucial lessons I learned from my time at Latinate and from the hundreds of other educators, administrators, parents, and students I've spoken with since then. And, although I'm supposedly a bad teacher, I also respectfully offer some suggestions to add to our national dialogue.</p> <p>This is not a book about policy. It's a book about people-primarily the people I taught, taught with, and worked for during my career in education. Each is an individual, though I'm sure there are people much like each of them at schools around America.</p> <p>As we journey through the school and the education system, you'll meet students, parents, teachers, and administrators and hear their stories. Some are hilarious. Some heartbreaking. There are some dedicated saints and a couple of unmitigated villains. Most, however, are just ordinary people grappling with extraordinary situations. And there are lessons for all of America's parents, educators, and taxpayers in their stories. Among the people you'll meet are:</p> <ul> <li>Africah, the foul-mouthed, sixteen-year-old, eighth-grade girl who became an odd teacher's pet.</li> <li>Rikkie, the tough, snarling ninth grader whose father was serving six years in prison and who just needed a chance to prove that he was smart, perhaps brilliant.</li> <li>Cristofer, who fancied himself a fifteen-year-old Puerto Rican tough ("I didn't even cry when my father died"), and found purpose and discipline when entrusted with a classroom job.</li> <li>Ms. Lyons, the veteran science teacher whose knack for survival includes such rules as "Never lean against the wall, or the cockroaches will crawl up your back."</li> <li>And, of course, Ms. P, the principal and "visionary leader," whose perverse ego and incompetence were combined with a serious case of Crazy Boss syndrome.</li> </ul> <p>You'll also read firsthand reports from other teachers across America and what they face in this era of school reform and bad teachers. My school's situation and mismanagement were terrible-both for the teachers and for the students. Yet the school was not ranked among the worst of the hundreds of high schools in New York City. In some ways, the data placed it in the top tier of city schools. That a school this awful should be highly ranked shows just what a mess we're in.</p> <p>But there are steps that we as a nation can take to clean up this mess. It must start, of course, with an honest search for answers. And honesty demands that we stop the polarizing bad-teacher witch-hunt, which isn't solving our public education issues. At the same time, we must stop believing in superhero principals and administrators as the quick and easy solution to this problem. They are myths, products of popular imagination. As much as America might want them to, visionary managers are not going to save our students and schools. In fact, from what I've seen, the opposite is true. In today's educational system, not only does power corrupt, but combining power and data corrupts both the person and the data. And that leaves us worse off than ever.</p> <p>Instead, we need to address directly and honestly the needs of so many of our children both inside and outside the classroom and how those needs affect our ability to educate them and their abilities to learn. And despite what school reformers lead America to believe, no teacher can provide or be responsible for everything every child needs. Only by taking an honest approach to solving the problems can we save the drowning children who are in our public schools.</p> <p> </p> <p> </p>
Excerpted from Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education
by John Owens
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