Friday, December 30, 2011

Chapter 8: Who's to blame?

Chapter Eight : To Fail or Not to Fail: Kamikaze, Part 2

If half of the class fails, has the teacher failed?
In the July 22nd, 2011 edition of the New York Post on page 6 (pushed off page 2 by the looming federal budget crisis and other news) appears the headline: “‘18%’ of teachers get an F”.  In his ongoing attempt to run schools on a business model, Bloomberg has pushed for ways to objectify teacher productivity.  A system wherein a human being knowledgeable in education and teaching methods observes a human teacher in action (teaching human students) and makes a determination regarding the teacher’s effectiveness along with recommendations for improvement – such a system isn’t objective enough for business purposes, though it has served well in school districts across the country for decades.
Productivity is defined by the following criteria:
  1. credits accumulated
  2. standardized tests passed
These are the 2 criteria for graduation and so graduation rates would be considered another “objective” criterion but that one falls more to the administrator than to the teacher.  Of course, students need to accumulate credits and pass Regents – soon to evolve into quarterly common core standards based on line assessments (so it is now claimed).  So graduation rates ultimately fall on the teacher as well.
Teachers gladly accept the role.  This is what teaching is – present courses in which the content and skills necessary for leading a literate, successful life are acquired and helping students in any ways we can to master these things.  This is also what learning is.  Students attend class in order to learn the content and skills they’ll need for “college and career” success.
The New York Post article concerns a pilot program that was run on 500 teachers in 20 schools.  It used the proposed “objective” criteria for evaluating teachers: 40% of these teachers’ ratings were based on “student performance”.  This drastically reduced the role of the supervisor in determining the effectiveness of a teacher through first-hand observation.  According to Yoav Gonen, the education reporter for the NY Post, 2.5% of teachers were rated “unsatisfactory” at the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year on the current pass (“S”) / fail (“U”) system.  A jump to 18%, then, is startling.  The new system has 3 grades: highly effective (7% of teachers during 2009-10); effective or developing (75%); and ineffective (18%).  [NOTE: a 4th level has now been added: "developing".]
If half of the class fails, has the teacher failed?
I once taught a 9th grade class that met during the last 2 periods of the day, roughly 2:00 – 3:30 p.m.  With 30 names on the roster, average attendance was 6.  Of the 6 who attended, 2 were high functioning, i.e., they did the work that I assigned with no behavioral interruptions.  The other 4 were low-functioning, i.e., they did little of the work that I assigned and spent most of the 90 minutes disrupting the 2 students who were trying to work.  Phone calls were made, suspensions invoked, parent conferences arranged and then mostly skipped by those parents who could actually be reached.  Two out of 30 passed – 6.67% passed that class; 93.3% of that class failed though I never saw about 60% of them at all.  The two who worked learned and went on to gain the necessary credits, pass their Regents and graduate in 4 years.  I might add that the vast majority of these missing students were missing in most of their classes – not just mine, although end-of-the-day classes have notoriously poor attendance rates.
If half of the class fails, has the teacher failed?
More typically, I once taught a 10th grade class with 25 on the roster.  Of these 25, here is the breakdown:

10 overage (not counting seniors)
2 with I.E.P.s (“individual educational program”)
11 were suspended at least once over the semester – I’m talking about a single semester, mind you; the number would be higher if I went back further.
4 LTAs (“long term absences” – students who rarely come to school)
2 seniors (trying to make up 10th grade credits they’d previously failed)
10 girls
15 boys
1 (of original 26) left during mid-year – was failing at the time he left
1 transferred in mid-semester after being expelled from another school for fighting

If half of the class fails, has the teacher failed?
Let’s start with the seniors.  In a desperate bid to increase the graduation rate, students who had been missing credits for years were routinely put into classes with younger students.  There were also “seniors” sitting in 9th and 11th grade classes.  There were even some seniors in senior classes.  The 2 “seniors” in question here lacked a required English credit – 8 were required for graduation.  They lacked the credits to actually be termed “senior”.  They had failed the course initially; in the intervening 2 years they had also failed to make up this credit knowing that it was a graduation requirement.  In other words, they’d had 2 years to make up this credit in summer school or in p.m. school and had not bothered.  One of them didn’t bother even at this time and failed again; the other squeezed through with a generously given 65 and yet still failed to graduate on a number of other accounts.
Who gained and who lost in this arrangement?  The senior who passed gained, though not enough.  The senior who didn’t pass gained nothing.  The losers were the 13 students who were trying to study, the on-age, on-credit students who were stuck with 2 overage, disinterested and highly disruptive students.  You might expect 2 seniors to set a mature example for younger students, a lecture I gave to them almost every time I saw them, which was about 50% of the time.  But these were not seniors; these were “seniors”.  The fact that they hadn’t bothered to make up a required credit is all you need to know about their “college and career” ambitions.  The amount of time wasted by these 2 through loud, disruptive behavior cannot be reclaimed by those 13 who lost it.  Their lives were stolen.
Moving on to the suspensions – on any given day there were 2 or 3 students suspended.  One student was suspended for a combined 20 days.  Students receiving a “principal’s” suspension – up to 5 days – were to report to school at the end of the day for an hour’s detention and teachers were supposed to provide work so that the students wouldn’t fall too far behind as a result of their poor behavior.  Most, of course, didn’t bother to show up for these periods because most had no illusions, let alone ambitions, of passing the course and anyway, showing up at the end of the day interrupted the vacation.
Who gained and who lost as a result of these suspensions?  The students who were suspended lost class time that they mostly were not using to their advantage anyway.  In fact, they were using their class time to the disadvantage of the students who were there to work.  So the “good” kids gained every time a misbehaving student was suspended.  The suspensions were bad for the individuals but good for the class overall and this was not something that went unnoticed.  The well-behaved, working kids often showed that they were relieved by the prospect of being free of so-and-so for a few days.  It was a sort of reprieve for them and for me.
[A note on the word “good” as used here to describe well-behaved, working students.  I’ve often heard that there is no such thing as a “bad” kid.  This, of course, is completely false.  There are bad kids just as there are bad adults – bad in the moral sense of the term.  There are people – adult and child - who lie, steal, betray, bully and commit violence and do it all deliberately.  But there are many reasons why students misbehave and many of these circumstances are beyond their control.  Teachers have great sympathy for such students and go out of their way to help them.  Nevertheless, their poor behavior steals time from the well-behaved kids.  It does the “good” kids a great disservice to lump them in with kids who do little or no schoolwork and instead disrupt the lesson in every conceivable way.]
There were 4 LTAs.  These were students who showed up at school only enough to keep their names on the roster.  In fact, one of these 4 names disappeared from the roster for a couple of weeks mid-term but when she spontaneously appeared one day, so did her name on the roster the following week, though by then she was nowhere to be seen again.  The absence rate for these 4 students ranged from 60% to 95%.  All four failed though one of them – the one who got her attendance rate up to 40% - began showing up during the last 4 weeks of the term thinking that by copying missed pages from someone’s folder and calling them her own, she could squeak by.
Who gained and who lost by having 4 students on the roster who rarely showed up for class?  The one who began coming toward the end contributed little to the class and spent her time copying missed work or attempting to paint her nails.  Another who attended about 30% of class periods slept most of the time he was there.  A third who missed about 80% sat quietly mostly and did little or no work.  The 4th only showed up to 5 classes the entire semester and did no work when he was there.  They all lost out on an opportunity to study literature and practice writing.  The “good” kids lost out by not being associated with their peers – “peers” being other students interested in work.  The more interested and involved students that there are in the class, the better the class.  The more ideas and perspectives, the better.  While not subtracting particularly through disruptive behavior, these 4 students added nothing to the class and that was a loss to us all.
We were required to keep attendance charts in addition to the various bubble sheets, computerized attendance spreadsheets and Delaney cards.  Here is a typical chart for this group – I’ve concealed the dates:

Total Students on Roster: 25
Each student = 4/100 (1/25) of the class.
LTA – 4
Seniors - 2

Day            Date            Pres            Abs            % Pres            % - LTA            % - Sus            % - Sen
M                                   18               6                 72                      82                    86                   90  (1)
T                                   19                5                 76                      86                    90                   90  (0)
W                                  17               6                 68                      77                    85                    89  (1)           
Th                                 14               9                 56                      64                    70                    78  (2)
F                                    15               8                 60                      68                    75                   83  (2)

Wk                                86              37               68.8                   77.2                  81                     86

Suspension:            [name concealed] (M)
[name concealed] (T, W, Th, F)
[name concealed] (W, Th, F)

Friday Phone Call:            [name concealed]
Goal for Next Week:            70% with no suspensions
SUCCESS!!!  Achieved 85% !!!

What can be made of this chart?  You might think that attendance is a relatively straightforward and “objective” statistic.  Are the students attending or aren’t they?  That seems simple enough.  If bodies in seats were all that was counted, the attendance for the week was 68.8%, ranging from 56% on Thursday to 76% on Tuesday.  However that number jumps to 77.2% when you discount the 4 LTAs.  LTAs are common in schools like the ones that I have taught in.  Most 9th and 10th grade classes have several.
Discounting the suspensions, the weekly rate jumps to 81%.  Discounting the poor attendance of the 2 seniors, the rate becomes 86%.  Note that on Thursday and Friday there were 2 students suspended, neither senior showed up, and the LTAs were acting in character.  In other words, attendance in this class was starting out at 8 below the number on the roster.  This was the week before a vacation.  17 – 19 was the typical figure for most of the semester for this group.
So what was “my” attendance rate for this class?  Was it 68.8% or was it 86%?  How does either of these figures reflect “objectively” on my performance as a teacher?  Could I have prevented those suspensions?  Most of the behavior that resulted in these suspensions occurred in other classes with other teachers.  One, however, was suspended for tossing some books including a heavy literature anthology through a missing window pane into the hallway and that happened during my class.  The anthology narrowly missed a math teacher who happened by at that moment and helped me get the student suspended.  Another was suspended out of my class when he refused to sit in an assigned seat.  When I called in the A.P. to force him into the seat, he cursed the A.P. and left the room.  To what extent is the teacher responsible for this behavior?
Could I have gotten the LTAs to come to school more often?  I made phone calls and sent letters home.  All of their teachers did this.  Most had been demonstrating this behavior for years.  The “sleeper” described above was in his 3rd year of high school but had accumulated only 8 credits.  Normally 30-35 credits would have been accumulated in that time.  As for the seniors, I opted to give them the chance to get the credit.  I was rewarded for my generosity with loud talking during class and little work.  I was mostly glad when they didn’t show up – which was about 60% of the time.
As for the objective criteria listed above: 13 of the 25 passed the class, including 1 senior; 12 failed for a pass rate of 52%.  Since this was not a Regents course, they will have to wait until next year to determine if this class contributed to their success rate on that state test.  One of the seniors had already passed; one hadn’t.  The senior who had passed was the most disruptive of the two and the one who failed the course.  He seemed to be deliberately refusing to graduate from high school, a syndrome that I’ve seen many times.  See Chapter: Successful Failure.
Next year these students will likely have a different teacher for 11th grade.  Of the 12 10th graders who passed, I would guess that 11 will have no trouble passing the Regents at the end of their 11th grade year.  The other will have to work hard at writing next year in order to pass.  Of the 11 10th graders who failed, 6 of them have a very good chance of passing the Regents next year.  They failed the class not because they were too far behind but because they didn’t do enough work.  The other five, however, are functioning at a very low literacy level and need a great deal of remedial work before they will have a chance of passing the Regents.
How will this reflect “objectively” on me?  How will it reflect on whoever teaches them next year?  How will it reflect on whoever taught them in 9th grade?  As of this moment, all that can be said is that 48% of them failed an English class that I taught, a class where the attendance could be described as anything from 68% to 86%.  I might add that of the 13 who passed, 11 had attendance rates of 85% or higher.  Did they pass because they attended?  No, they passed because of a work ethic that caused them to both attend school as well as work and because this is how they’ve behaved throughout their academic careers.  Of the 12 who failed, 7 had attendance rates of more than 60%.
I might note that the “subjective” evaluation of me during this class described me as “unsatisfactory”.  One class was observed.  During that class these students were writing their own lesson plans for a 15-minute “lesson” they had to teach to the rest of the class, who would be taking notes and writing responses.  They each chose a poem from the book Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, a book of short poems.  They analyzed their poems for literary techniques and wrote a lesson plan to the standard “analyzing figurative language such as imagery, metaphor and other literary techniques”.  Students were working in small groups or on their own.  I spent the period going from student to student to make sure they understood the poem, had an “aim” for the lesson that incorporated the standard, and had written questions to ask during the class discussion, both factual and inferential, a discussion that they would be leading themselves.  This is a lesson that requires independent work, critical thinking and analysis and results in an oral presentation – which I had modeled for them the day before this observation took place.
Though all of the criteria discussed during the pre-observation had been met, I was told that “no learning took place”.  Here is a recreation of part of that discussion.
“Then you had your eyes closed,” was my response to that.
“Why didn’t you tell them which poems to use?”
“Because choice is an important part of differentiation.  You were looking for differentiation, weren’t you?”
It went on in this vein for a while.  Then I made the mistake of admitting that I didn’t care about the sleeper, the LTA who happened to be there that day.
“There was a student in the back who was asleep.  Why didn’t you try to wake him up?”
“I don’t care about him,” I said.
“You have a responsibility to care about every student in the class.”
“Was I busy helping students during the entire class?”
“Why should I spend time on a student who has accumulated 8 credits in 3 years and who has done no work in this class at all when there are students who need my help?  I was glad he was asleep.  He wasn’t distracting anyone else.”
Does this make me unsuitable to be in a classroom like this?  Does this make this class an unsatisfactory lesson?  (That had already been decided before this discussion.)  Maybe so but as with this memoir, as a teacher I’m more concerned now with the students whose lives are being literally stolen from them in these “reform” schools.  If that student had suddenly awakened – and it would have been an awakening – and said, “Hey, Mr. Haverstock, I really want to get to work; could you help me?” of course I would have helped him.  I also would have awakened him if he’d started snoring.
More importantly, before deciding that this was an “unsatisfactory” lesson, did the administrator return at any time during the next 3 days to watch these students teach their poems to the class?  No, that did not happen.  There was no way to judge this lesson without seeing the payoff, the student presentations.  This was not a one-day lesson.  It takes 4 – 5 days if I get 16 students to participate, which was what I got out of this 25.  So how fair was this observation and evaluation of this lesson?  Kamikaze.
If half of the class fails, has the teacher failed?  To what extent was it my fault that this class evolved as it did?  The best way to determine this would not be to attempt to analyze numbers generated by various permutations of attendance figures, grades, and test scores.  The best way to determine this would be to look at the work done by the kids who worked.  That would, of course, require overlooking the non-work from the non-working students as I had overlooked the sleeper during that observation knowing full well that I would be reprimanded and perhaps judged an "unsatisfactory" teacher for it.  But I'm the anti-Freedom Writer teacher, one who is interested in the working students, those good kids who are struggling to learn despite the many obstacles that the Bloomberg reform schools have thrown up for them.  Working students studied mostly from an anthology – everything from short stories to nonfiction, poetry and the traditional Julius Caesar.  By the end they had 100 pages of work in their folders that included class notes, tests, weekly vocabulary quizzes, essays, reflections, fictional diary entries – much of it done as homework.
Am I just out to defend myself and other teachers?  As I’ve said, this memoir is not about me.  It is about what is happening to the well-behaved, working kids in schools where 40 – 60% of the population cannot be so described.  But it is as unfair to judge a teacher on the performance of this 40 – 60% as it is to enclose well-behaved, hard-working students with these kids who mostly interfere with their work.  Bureaucrats like Bloomberg, Klein, Duncan and many others across the country, however, want to pretend that teachers can be evaluated through “objective” student performance statistics and that teacher “productivity” can be improved by making changes according to this data rather than according to the real data, student work, behavior and interaction with peers and adults – which is what I’m writing about in this “memoir”.  The true data can only be found inside the classroom, day-to-day, teacher to teacher, teacher to student and student to student.  A graduate is not a product; a graduate is a human being who has overcome whatever obstacles stood between him/her and a high school diploma.  A passing test score is not a statistic; it’s the result of work done by a human being under conditions that cannot be controlled in the way that the conditions in an office or factory can be controlled.
To fail or not to fail – that is the question.  I could have given out a few more 65s in this class and raised “my” pass rate to 65 or 70%.  A 65 on a report card, of course, means very little to a college admissions person, although colleges nowadays seem to be looking more at the amount of money that a student brings with them rather than the amount of education they can put into that student.  If part of my “objective” evaluation includes “my” passing rate, is it not in my best interest to pass as many as remotely feasible?  I put “my” in quotation marks to ask the question: in what way is the failure of a student who never comes to class “my” scholarship?  But that gets to another question for another chapter – see Chapter: “My” Attendance.
If half of the class fails, has the teacher failed?

NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chapter 23: The Instructional Run-Around

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Instructional Run-Around

“Here is my first premise,” a group of about 45 teachers we was told by seminar moderator Grace Chiu, Ph.D. at a workshop on Dec. 8, 2011.  I quote from the slide that was projected at this moment on the screen at the front under the heading “My Theory of Action”:

The achievement gap will be eliminated only when the quality of instruction in the classroom improves.

This group of NYC public school teachers, me among them, were there for a full-day briefing on the “instructional round”.  Most of us public school teachers have gotten used by now to the idea that there will be a seismic change in the method of teacher evaluation.  No longer will a supervisor be trusted to make evaluations based on observations of full lessons and then further trusted to work with teachers to improve instruction.  Trust, it seems, is subjective and we are in an era of educational objectivity or so we’re told.  Instead of such subjective exercises, which are perfectly appropriate for the very subjective interaction between teacher and student, we are to be subjected to the objective observation not of an educator but of a generic supervisor who will simply observe interactions in the classroom as though he were watching hub cabs being attached to a wheel.
Teachers are to be evaluated now according to objective, non-judgmental methods.  We’re now being fed the oxymoronic, if not the simply moronic idea that 10-minute low-inference, non-judgmental walk-through’s” – currently dubbed the “instructional round” – will be the basis for the new method of evaluating instruction.  I call it the instruction run-around.  Teachers, students, and parents have been getting the instructional run-around now for more than 15 years when it was decided that testing and choice, according to Diane Ravitch, one of the innovators of those times, would, if not eliminate the achievement gap, at least improve education.
Perhaps this concept of the generic supervisor has something to do with the fact that in the new, Bloomberg reform schools, supervisors often know nothing about the content and methodology of the discipline they are observing.  Gone are the days when an assistant principal was responsible for the quality of instruction in his or her field of expertise.  In spite of or (more likely) because of the explosion of administrative overhead in the Bloomberg reform schools, individual departments are too small to be overseen by assistant principals who rose through their own departmental ranks.  Now former science teachers are overseeing history and English teachers; former English teachers are overseeing science and phys. Ed. teachers.  And so forth.  Now it is those graduates of the supervisor leadership academies who seek to spot dents in hub caps, whether they’ve taught any of those hub caps or not.  Hence, perhaps, the “instructional round.”  Or run-around.
Since nothing can be gleaned from a random, ten-minute glance at a class in which the observer does nothing more than jot down “objective” observations of the talk and behavior that happens to be going on at that moment and with view or hearing, the instructional round has come into vogue as the answer to the problem of ill-equipped supervisors having to improve instruction in disciplines with which they have little or no experience.  This is a true “problem of practice”, as these non-judgmental judgments are euphemistically called.
Yes, these “objective” observations, furthermore, are said to be both  “non-judgmental” and “low-inference”.  In other words, the observer simply notes what he/she sees/hears without putting down what he/she thinks.  The observer looks for nothing but merely brings the information back to the teacher for the teacher to draw his/her own high-inference, judgmental conclusions about those particular details that the supervising observer happened to record.
If this sounds like gobbledygook, that’s because it is but no more so than the premise we were supposed to ingest at the start of this workshop on the instructional run-around.  (No wonder they gave us such good food for breakfast and lunch.)  If we just knew how to teach, we were told in so many words, the problems in education would disappear.  The absurdity of such an assertion left most of us scratching our heads for the rest of the day.
Nowhere, for example, was it made clear just which achievement gap was in question.  Was it one or all of the gender achievement gaps, the age gaps, the various ethnic and racial gaps, the intelligence gap, the motivational gap, the socio-economic gap, the single-parent household gap, the geographical gap – how many have I left out?  Whichever, the solution was better instruction.  If we just taught better, girls wouldn’t excel in language skills at earlier ages; boys wouldn’t excel in math in later adolescence; Asians would fail at the same rate as other ethnic groups; there would be no difference in achievement from the Bronx to Scarsdale to Tulsa and Toledo.
We kept scratching our heads as Dr. Chiu’s second premise again under the heading “My Theory of Action” appeared on the screen:

The quality of instruction will improve at scale when school leaders know what powerful instruction looks like.

At least we were given some hope with this premise – the hope of seeing at some point during the workshop what “powerful instruction looks like”.  Maybe we were going to see some teachers better than us at work since under our tutelage that intractable achievement gap has persisted.  Maybe we were going to actually witness the achievement gap dissolving before our very eyes!  This, however, strangely enough, was not to be.  Instead of watching such performances, we were shown a series of flawed lessons with instructions to make low-inference, non-judgmental observations about what we saw as though we were doing the instructional run-around ourselves.  We then discussed the objective notes we made about these lessons, pointing out neither the flaws nor the successes but rather pointing out the inevitable inferences many of us were quite naturally making about both.
Finally near the end of the day, a willing participant asked the big question: rather than spend our time observing errors non-judgmentally, could we see some exemplars of this elusive “powerful instruction”?  This question was on the tips of most of our tongues and I was happy that a young woman finally voiced it.  The answer to this kept us scratching our heads.  There were, in fact, no such things.  Exemplars of the sort of powerful teaching we’re aiming for and which we need to see, according to premise #2, don’t exist and cannot exist, given among other obstacles the fact that the presence of a camera in a classroom by definition creates an artificial situation.
We were left, then with making the most of the less-than-powerful examples on hand through various west coast institutions, though we were on the urban east coast.  But imagine if we followed this model in our classrooms.  Imagine that we showed our students only what they shouldn’t do rather than what they should do.  Even an instructional run-around might yield a judgment in such a case.
Perhaps this was the reason that the first “norm” that was established by the group that day was that all teachers “have good intentions”.  No one objected to this in spite of the obviously spurious nature of the assertion because, I thought, only a false norm could support these false premises.
Finally we were presented with a third and final premise for the day, again under the banner “My Theory of Action”:

The quality of our leadership decisions depends on developing a deep and shared understanding of quality instruction.  It is a matter of expertiseThe better we see, the better we are able to lead.  [Dr. Chiu’s emphasis; bold type evidently a quote from Fink and Markholt, 2011.]

At least there is an admission in this final premise that there is a need for expertise, though it isn’t clear where that expertise ought to lie – in our subject area and methodology as logic might dictate; or in our awareness that our deficiencies are responsible the “achievement gap”; in the recognition that there is no way at present to know what “powerful instruction looks like”; or in our ability to share with our colleagues what we can’t know.
What’s laughable, of course, if it weren’t tragic for so many of the kids stuck in Bloomberg’s reform schools, was the transparency of this exercise.  It was a direct attack on teachers, an overt and not-very-subtle (though disguised in educrat-ese as well as doubletalk, euphemisms, New Speak, and just plain nonsense) attempt to blame teachers for the problems in education, an attempt to deflect attention from the true causes of the various achievement gaps, which are perfectly obvious to anyone who takes the time to look – differences in social status, cultural values, family life, inherent gender differences, individual intelligence and motivation to name a few.  These problems are much larger than education and much larger than classroom instruction no matter how feeble or powerful.
Of course it is a good idea to improve instruction and to make education more relevant and better suited for all students in all situations.  It is disingenuous, however, to use this obvious fact as a smoke screen for every problem in education from low graduation rates to the inability to improve student performance on standardized tests.  The only thing more misleading than a half-truth is a one-percent truth.  Thus, the instructional run-around.

             NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chapter 21: Choice Schools

Chapter Twenty-One: Hook, Line and Sinker

Is it true that the more honest you are, the more easily hoodwinked you are?  Is it true that people who tell the truth are at a disadvantage when up against liars?  Is honesty really just naiveté?  Is kindness foolishness?  Is it true that nice guys finish last?
In another NY Post article during this summer of 2011, Kathleen Kernizan defends the “charter school option” for New York City kids.  Since she makes all the arguments she is meant to make and appeals to the very honest people she is meant to appeal to, this article is a good case study in the workings of disinformation.  Ms. Kernizan has swallowed the reform school fraud hook, line and sinker.  She took the bait and that’s why this article appears is the reputable Murdoch rag.  [Apologies to Mushnick.]
On page 27 of the Aug. 11, 2011 edition of the NY Post appears the headline: “Stop Attacking Schools That Shine”.  The sub-headline, which appears in the midst of the text reads: “The new test scores are more proof that the UFT / NAACP embrace of failure will only hold back thousands of children.”  As all good disinformation does, this states the exact opposite of the truth as if it were the truth.  One of the best ways to lie is to say it straight out with a straight face and shamelessly.  Better than that, however, is to get someone else to actually believe the lie first and then have that person tell it.  If you believe what you’re saying, are you lying?  That is the ultimate goal of disinformation – the true lie.
I don’t doubt Ms. Kernizan’s sincerity.  First of all she believes that there are “objective” statistics that demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that charter schools outperform what she describes as “local (zoned) schools”.  Here’s what she says – and what better person can you get to tell your lie than a mother with a small daughter:

“When I looked at the schools my daughter could attend in central Brooklyn, I chose Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School because it seemed to offer a far superior education than our local (‘zoned’) school.”  [me – note that the word “Charter” appears to be part of the actual name of this faux prep school – “believe me” when I say that this is a PREP school!]

What convinced Ms. Kernizan of this were a couple of basic statistics: this charter school claimed that 60% of its 3rd graders were reading at grade level (compared to 44% citywide) and that 91% of those kids were “on track” in math (compared to 57% citywide).  Statistics, of course, never lie, especially objective ones, but assuming that these claims were valid and that it’s true that her local “zoned” school was doing even worse that the city average, as she says, then the “choice” was certainly clear.  Who wouldn’t have made that choice?
What makes these statistics far from “objective”, of course, is that they compare 2 different demographics.  By definition a ‘local zoned school’ serves the kids in the neighborhood and serves all of the kids in the neighborhood, not merely the ones whose mothers are taking them around to find out where the best results are found.  The very fact that Ms. Kernizan was involved in her daughter’s choice of schools sets her child apart for a large percentage of the kids attending the local school, where as many as 40% of the students have no adult support at home at all.  It is certainly true that parental involvement is one of the primary factors in the academic success of kids.  It is equally true that lack of parental support is harmful, although there are plenty of exceptions – kids who succeed purely on their own, sometimes in spite of their home environment.
But we’re talking statistically here and the statistics are the bait.  It’s easy to show that one school outperforms another when you are controlling who gets into each school and when you’re controlling the gathering, collating and disseminating of the statistics and when you’ve got expensive PR staffs to spin things in your direction for the media that you control.
“Hey, that’s not fair!  Just because the mayor is a billionaire and owns radio and t.v. stations doesn’t mean he’s controlling the flow of information.”
“Didn’t he choose a woman with a publishing background as his new chancellor?  Coincidence?”
Thankfully that was an utter failure but getting back to Mr. Kernizan and her defense of the people who are using her, the fact is that even statistically, as far as that goes, overall the charter schools in NYC so far have only done marginally better than the local schools at best – well within the margin of error or should we say the margin of spin control?  Even if this “Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School” is doing as well as it claims, many of the 124 charters schools in the city now are struggling in the same ways that regular public schools struggle.
The UFT isn’t against the idea of providing the best school for every child or choice and neither is the NAACP.  This is another big gulp for Ms. Kernizan.  These organizations simply refuse to accept the discussion as it is being framed by the powerful Washington education establishment, led by a man, Arne Duncan, who, like Klein and Black, never spent time in a public school.  Their bogus PR spin tries to get us to accept the premise that more charter schools means more choice and fewer charters means less choice.  That is their argument and it is another red herring.  To accept that is to fall into their trap.  If you accept this, you are hooked into the real purpose of charter schools.
The real purpose is not to give parents choices but rather to create a second tier school system above the public schools, paid for with tax money, and to break the UFT and every other union.  In other words, they want to get their hands into the pockets of some of the last unionized U.S. workers and use tax money to pay for their own kids’ “prep” school educations.  Worst of all they want to turn the last great American socialist experiment, the most successful one, the one that created the middle class as we know it – I mean public education, of course – they want to turn it into another for-profit business and we know who is going to be getting those profits, all of which will be subsidized by us.  After sucking all the money out of the middle class mortgage, this is about all that is left for them to loot.
As an Ocean Hill parent, Ms. Kernizan, is this what you really want?
Another thing that ought to be obvious: there are many ways to create better schools within the public school system.  You don’t need the new layer of private bureaucracy that charter schools bring.  At the moment, more charters may mean more choice for some but the organizations like the UFT and the NAACP are looking at the entire school system, every mother and child, not just Ms. Kernizan and her daughter.  What’s needed is access to choice for every student / family.  Charter schools are not that now and do not mean to be that.  Look at the extent to which Ms. Kernizan has digested the bait:

“Choosing a school is one of the most important decisions any parent makes – but in disadvantaged communities, the difference for a child’s future between a good school and a bad one can’t be underestimated.  I’ve never understood why the UFT – and especially the NAACP, an organization that, as a black woman, I’ve revered all my; life – would impose terrible schools on children who most need something better.

Let’s go line by line.  Choosing a school is, of course, very important.  This is one of the partial truths that is used to disguise the larger truth.  The difference between a good education and a bad one is important and more important for the more disadvantaged because it may be the one access to power for that group.  This is another partial truth used as a ruse.  Then comes the lie that these two partial truths are supposed to lead to – opposition to charters means opposition to choice.  It seems to make sense but it only makes a kind of no-other-choice sense if you rule out any other possibilities.  There are literally hundreds or thousands of other possibilities for creating choice within a public school system or more generally for improving the delivery of education and creating safe environments.  I’ve put forth my suggestion on that throughout this “memoir” and I’ll do it again at the end of this chapter.
Now there is another bogus conclusion to be drawn from this fraudulent discussion: organizations that are supposed to be for the disadvantaged are actually against the disadvantage; therefore you can’t believe anything that the UFT or the NAACP says anymore.   Even Ms. Kernizan, who has accepted their parameters for discussion, notices the great disconnect to the statement that the UFT and NAACP are “imposing” terrible schools on disadvantaged kids.  That’s obviously false but it’s one of the false conclusions you’re meant to draw once you accept their premises.  So now they’ve got her hooked into drawing conclusions that she knows can’t be true.  Ms. Kernizan has allowed them to frame the discussion for her.  Charter schools are the only way to provide choice.  Anyone opposed to charters schools is opposed to choice and is therefore “imposing” bad schools on kids.  The UFT and the NAACP, therefore, aren’t what they came to be.  Don’t forget that part of the hidden agenda is to undermine the UFT and all unions – get rid of them, in fact, so that the “free market” can lower wages, benefits, etc.
So of course, you don’t understand this, Ms. Kernizan.  You have not only accepted their bogus premises; you have tried to draw the bogus conclusion from these bogus premises – their conclusion.  You can’t understand nonsense.  Don’t you see, Ms. Kernizan, how they have baited you with the buzz word “choice” and led you on to the conclusion that they want you to reach?  Only by allowing the debate to be framed by “them”, whoever they are, does their bogus conclusion seem to fall into place.
I’ll tell you who they are.  They are those who can see that the middle class in America is disappearing and disappearing fast.  Most of the middle class has its eyes closed to this fact as they struggle to figure out how to catch up on that mortgage.  But the power of the bureaucracy and the power of the media are strong enough to delude us into thinking that these are the issues, that these are the problems, that these are the questions that need to be asked and that they have the answers – to their own questions!  Never mind that when you analyze their premises, they don’t add up.  They are the people who control the flow of money.  In this case they are the Washington education bureaucracy run by Arne Duncan but controlled by the people who put Duncan and Obama in power.  Those are the people framing the debate and they are powerful people, indeed.  Their power comes not from public education – most of them have elite Yale and Harvard educations – but from money.
The biggest lie here is that the only way to provide “choice” is the charter school system.  Not only is that not the only way to provide “choice”, that is not truly a “choice” at all because charter schools are not on the same playing field as public schools, don’t play by the same rules and don’t have the same goal of serving every child no matter what sort of problems the child brings to the school.  What would have happened to that kid who threw the desk in my classroom when he discovered that he’d missed the pizza if he’d done that in a real prep school, one that charges anywhere for $20,000 and up per kid per year?  Most likely he would have suffered the fate of Holden Caulfield.  If he’d been in a real prep school, he probably would have had access to a private therapist to help him cope with getting thrown out of school and wasting his parents’ money.  Charter schools aren’t real prep schools – yet.
It’s easy to see why they have chosen “choice” as their bait.  Who in America is opposed to choice?  We’re supposed to be free.  We’re supposed to be able to do whatever we want.  I can imagine that meeting of the National Governors Association ….  Offer choices, people grab at it.  If you don’t like this one, we’ve got another that you surely will like!  Get one free (for every one you buy)!  I’ll give you a check (refund in the mail if you fill out the paperwork) with each purchase!  So how do you hoodwink people about education?  (And yes, I’m probably using that word “hoodwink” because I just finished the Marable biography of Malcolm X.)  You pretend that anyone against YOUR plan is against CHOICE.  It is brilliant disinformation – these people are pros, you’ve got to admit.
The solution is obvious – track the public school system so that children are grouped in schools with other students performing at their level.  That would provide the choice that everyone is looking for – a school with a safe environment and effective teachers and students who reinforce positive habits and routines on one another for the high-functioning students.  That would provide various environments for the dysfunctional students where they could get the help they need and where they will not be able to obstruct the progress of the high-performing kids.  It is so obvious that this ought to be done, the fact that it isn’t being done ought to suggest to all of us that there is some underlying purpose or reason for not doing it - a hidden agenda, in other words.  They will never come out and say that they are trying to privatize education because they know very well that public education is the greatest of all American successes, which, as I’ve said, is the very reason that it is a threat to those with power.
What is wrong with privatizing education?  Just think of what we have today?  There is a private school system for the wealthy.  There is a public school system for the rests of us.  Traditionally all but the ultra-rich attend public schools.  The middle class has always been the “product” of public school education but the middle class is disappearing.  They know this; we don’t know it only because we dread it.  We can see it all around us every day, however, the disappearance of everything that was once considered “middle class”.  They’ve been destroying unions since the Reagan days.  They shifted private retirement plans into the stock market where it is rare that the average investor comes out ahead and the safest thing is to stay in a large group.  They’ve taken homes through the mortgage “crisis”.  We never really had medical coverage and we’ve got less now than ever.  They’re taking back Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and every other “entitlement”.  What else is this contrived recession about?
The charter school movement is a movement to create a third-world, two-tier society – them that got and them that don’t.  Charter schools will become the educational system for them that got but rather than paying for it themselves, as is the case now, the working class will be paying for it.  The working class will also be paying for their own public schools, too, of course.  There will be no in between.  How’s that for “choice”?
The way to divine a hidden purpose or motive is to stop allowing those with the agenda to frame the discussion.  Rather than accepting what they say, we ought to be thinking about what is not said and asking why it isn’t being said.  Why do they never speak of tracking the school system, for example?  Rather than try to answer their questions, we ought to be asking why they are asking these particular questions and thinking about the questions that are not being asked.  Most of all we cannot just accept what they say, especially when it comes in the form of “objective” statistics.  We have to notice when they’re comparing apples to oranges.  We have to start assuming that whatever they say, it’s at best only part of the truth, the part they use to disguise the whole truth.
If you’ve read any further in this “memoir”, you know that ultimately I’m in full agreement with Ms. Kernizan.  I agree that she ought to be able to send her high-functioning child – assuming that the kid is, of course – to a school of her peers, “peers” being other high-functioning students.  That should be what happens in the public school system.  It is what happens still in many public school systems across the country.  Students are tracked but with the possibility of changing tracks based on performance and behavior.  But that’s just one alternative.

Cut to the next meeting of the National Governors Association.

Gov. #1: Okay, let’s get this thing going.
Gov. #12: Great lap dance last night, huh.
Gov. #14: Yeah, yeah,
Gov. #12: Did you get your socks back?  He he.
Gov. #14: Yeah, they were under …. 
Gov. #1: All right, we’ve got business to conduct.  I assume that none of you saw the email my secretary sent out last week.
Gov. #43: Just tell us what we have to do.
Gov. #17: Did we take any more federal money?
Gov. #1: Yes, you all got “Race to the Top” money.
Gov. #32: What did we promise for that?
Gov. #1: We promised to use it to set up charter schools.
Gov. 18: What’s that?
Gov. #1: You know, those schools where they use tax money to subsidize private companies.
Gov. #26: Oh, like real estate.
Gov. #33: Like oil.
Gov. #41: Like agriculture.
Gov. #36: Like mining.
Gov. #1: Yes, yes, it’s the same thing.
Gov. #12: There’s a lot money in kids – I must have stuffed two hundred ….
Gov. #1: Okay, okay.  Anyway, we’re committed to using this federal money to set up these sort of private charter schools.
Gov. #25: So let’s do it.
Gov. #1: Well, that’s easier said than done.
Gov. #2: Why’s that?
Gov #1: Well, you know, we have to give them money that’s supposed to be for public schools.
Gov. #19: So?
Gov. #1: Just think about it for a second.  The more money we give to charter schools, the less we have for public schools.
Gov. #19: What’s wrong with that?
Gov. #1: Nothing, but people won’t go for it.
Gov. #27: Why not?
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #1: Well, you know, most people think public education is good.
Gov. #27: Oh, right.
Gov. #1: So the PR people are telling us to come up with some excuse to give this money to charter schools.
Gov. #40: Like what?
Gov. #1: You know, something they’ll buy.
Gov. #9: You mean like lottery tickets?
Gov. #1: Not buy – would you wake up Gov. #8.  I mean, believe.  We’ve got to come up with something to convince them that we shouldn’t be giving so much money to public schools.
Gov. #46: Are they really going to check up on this?  Can’t we just dump the money into one of the slush funds?
Gov. #1: Listen, Hack, didn’t Acme Prep Schools, Ltd. underwrite your last campaign?
Gov. #46: Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.
Gov. #1: They’ve got a lot invested in this.  They want their cut.
Gov. #7: Not to mention Schools ‘R Us.
Gov. #15: Bob’s Schools.
Gov. #37: Schools for Dummies.
Gov. #44: Aunt Betty’s Can’t Miss Institutes for Pre-school Achievement.
Gov. #29: Jimmy’s Discount Prep Schools.
Gov. #22: The 99 Cent Academies.
Gov. #1: Right, a lot of people are in this and they expect a return on their investments in or campaigns.  So we have to start funneling them some money.
Gov. #40: Right, those school lobbyists are in my hair every day.
Gov. #34: But this is all legal, right?  I’ve already got three commissions on my ass.
Gov. #1: Not only legal, it’s illegal not to do it.
Gov. #42: So the feds gave us money to pay back our contributors?  Nice.
Gov. #1: Yeah, it’s a sweet deal but we’ve got to do our part.
Gov. #28: What’s that?
Gov. #1: I told you.  We have to come up with some excuse, I mean, some good reason to give this money to our buddies, I mean, you know, the education people.
Gov. #11; Well, we could do what oil does, give them a tax break.
Gov. #34: The Education Depletion Allowance.
Gov. #1: Not bad, pretty good.
Gov. #36: Yeah, since everybody forgets everything they learn, there’s your depletion right there.
Gov. #1: Sounds legit to me.
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #2: But I thought we were talking about money in the bank, not write-offs and accounting gimmicks.
Gov. #1: Oh, yeah.
Gov. #2: Didn’t you say the feds gave us some money for something?
Gov. #1: Right, we’re talking about money we have to get to these private education people.
Gov. #19: [To his secretary] Make a note of that Education Depletion thing.  Maybe we can do something else with that.
Gov. #21: What money?
Gov. #1: I told you.  We all took money to use for private schools.
Gov. #21: You mean we’re supposed to give tax money to private schools?
Gov. #1: That’s what I’ve been saying!
Gov. #43: Okay, so?
Gov. #1: So we need to sell the idea.
Gov. #17: So let’s just call it “smart” money.  You know, “S” is for scholarships and so forth.
Gov. #12 “A” for nice ass.
Gov.. #1: Hey, you might be onto something.  It seems to me I heard something about that.  I think the PR people like that word “smart”.
Gov. #35: Didn’t we already do that?
Gov. #18: What?
Gov. #35: Use that word “smart” for something.
Gov. #1: What are you talking about?
Gov. #8:            Yeah, we used that last time.
Gov. #12:            How would you know?
Gov. #8:            I was there.
Gov. #12:            How many totalitarians did you have last night?  He he.
Gov. #8:            I knew where Bill’s socks were.
Gov. #1:            Wait, let’s have the stenographer read back the minutes from the last meeting.
Stenographer:            Okay, resolved:
1.  The word “smart” is to be used in the marketing campaign for NBLC.
2.  The word “smart” will be applied to the word “goal”.
3.  The word “smart” will be used as an acronym.
4.  The letter “S” will stand for “surreal”.
5.  The letter “M” will stand for “magic”.
6.  The letter “A” will stand for “ABCs”.
7.  The letter “R” will stand for “repercussions”.
8.  The letter “T” will stand for “pterodactyl”.  Did they ever do anything about that?
Gov. #1:            About what?
Stenographer:            You know, pterodactyl.
Gov. #1:            What about it?
Stenographer:            Well, it doesn’t start with a “T”.
Gov. #1:            Really?
Stenographer:            It starts with a “P”.
Gov. #1:            No kidding.
Gov. #47:            Who cares what it starts with.  Can we get back to this private school give-away thing.  It’s almost nine o’clock already.
Gov. #1:            Good idea.  Keep thinking.  “Smart” is out.  We need something else.
Gov. #48: For what?
Gov. #1: To convince voters that it’s good to cut back on public education.
Gov. #9: Why don’t we do what I always do when I have to cut back on some popular entitlement?  Why don’t we call it a “choice cut”?  That’ll get their mouths watering and they’ll forget that they’re being shafted.
Gov. #1: What the hell does that have to do with education?
Gov. #9: I don’t know.  I was really just thinking of lunch.
Gov. #10: Hey, I like that.
Gov. #9: Me, too.  I move we choose to go to lunch.
Gov. #10: I mean that word “choice”.  That’s almost as good as “smart”, isn’t it?  You know, “choice meat, choice school” – same thing.
Gov. #1: Not, bad, maybe you’re onto something.
Gov. #7: Why don’t we get them to change the name from “charter” school to “choice” school.
Gov. #1: Pretty good.
Gov. #7: Who would object to giving money to a “choice” school?
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #44: So we just say that this money is ticketed for choice schools and they’ll just figure that we’re giving it to the good schools.
Gov. #31: I like that.
Gov. #1: Pretty good.  What do you say?  All for “choice” cuts, er, schools.
                       [48 ayes]
Gov. #1: Okay so let’s see.  We’re going to start funding Choice Schools run by Jimmy’s and Bob’s and so forth.
Gov. #3: But don’t these Choice Schools actually have charters?
Gov. #1: Good question.  Anyone know that?
                       [Governors scratch their heads.]
Gov. 47: What’s the difference?  We’ll just get the PR people to shove this down everyone’s throat.  If you want the money, you call it a “Choice School”.  That’s all.
Gov. #46: Acme Choice Prep Schools – they’ll go for that, I think.
Gov. 12: If it sounds like a choice cut of meat, it’ll be a piece of cake.
Gov. #47: Right, that’s their problem.  That’s what they do.
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #9: Hello!  It’s nine-thirty.  I thought there was a motion on the floor.
Gov. #8: What?
Gov. #1: What was that?
Gov. #9: I moved we adjourn for a choice lunch ten minutes ago.
Gov. #12: Seconded.
Gov. #1: All in favor.
                       [48 ayes]
Gov. #1 Let’s get out of here.


NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.


Chapter 18: Bronx Kids Sacrificed in Unholy Rite!

 Chapter Eighteen: Sacrificial Lambs

“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”
Here is how the best students in the Bronx are being sacrificed as a means of destroying the public school system altogether.  The plan is to get rid of public education and replace it with a system of private schools.  Charter schools are the “missing link” in this process.  They masquerade as public schools but they are not public schools.  They are a ruse to distract us from the reality all around us, the move toward privatizing public education.  If you are not prepared to consider this possibility, stop reading here.
The two-pronged assault on public education comes in the guise, of course, of pedagogy and methodology.  One prong is known as “differentiated instruction”; the other prong is known as the “workshop model”.  Together these semi-legitimate concepts are being used to justify and rationalize the sacrifice of the best students in schools like those in which I’ve taught and there are many such schools.  Over the past 10 years these two prongs, as I call them, have become a virtual mandate to all teachers and they are wielded against teachers as deceptively as they are wielded against students.
“Differentiated instruction” means teaching each individual student at his/her own level.  The need to do this is as obvious as the need for a goal to be “specific” and “measurable”.  In a classroom with reading levels that vary from 2nd grade to 12th, for example, the teacher is expected to give each student work appropriate to that student’s level of ability while teaching the same lesson to the entire class.  An English teacher can assign texts at each student’s level in order to move them forward from wherever they are.  Nevertheless, they all have to reach the level of the same test, the Regents.  Some of these Regents come at the end of freshman year, usually U.S. History, algebra and a science test.  Others come during or at the end of the next 3 years.  The English Regents usually arrives sometime after sophomore year.
Differentiating instruction in a math class is more complicated than in English.  Since students cannot progress without learning basic concepts, if the understanding of these concepts is not consistent among the students, it is impossible for a math teacher to teach the same lesson to an entire class.  Nevertheless, they all have to reach the level of the same test, sometimes in a single year but at least by the end of four years of highs school since high schools are rated and graded on Regents pass rates and graduation rates.
It may not be in the best interest of the student to attempt to move him/her through 3 years of work in one semester but it is often in the best interest of the school to do that, especially if the semester in question is the student’s 8th and he/she still hasn’t accumulated enough credits to graduate.  Hence during the summer of 2011 there have been many stories of various ways of getting around the accumulation of credits.  I recently read about a school where students were allowed to go on line to look up answers to tests while taking the test.  This would have been strictly to increase the number of students gaining credits in order to increase the graduation rate.
For many the one-room schoolhouse is a quaint reminder of days long gone.  Imagine, at one time they only had one teacher for an entire town; they only had one small school building for the entire town; they had no choice but to bring all students together.  The teacher had no choice but to differentiate among 1st graders and 6th or 8th graders in the same room.  It was a quaint idea brought about by dire necessity.  Today this same one-room schoolhouse approach is going on in schools all over the city, justified and rationalized by the education shills preaching the “concept” of differentiated instruction, most of them unaware of what they are being used for.
The necessity for this modern version of the one-room schoolhouse, however, has nothing to do with lack of teachers or school buildings and everything to do with the necessity of creating failure in the public school system.  How often are charter schools touted as out-performing regular public schools?  How often is it admitted that these “objective” statistics are culled from groups of students who are screened for entrance into these schools and therefore do not resemble the demographics of the populations of the regular public schools?  No wonder they need so many data analysts.  It’s no easy task creating a specific, agenda-defined illusion for such a mass of numbers.
The 2nd prong of this attack on public education is called “the workshop model”.  This is meant to replace the outdated “chalk and talk” method of teaching.  “Chalk and talk” is where the teacher lectures, writes notes on the board, refers to the text as students follow along and expects students to mostly listen, think and reflect, usually through written homework assignments.  Homework is critical to the “chalk and talk” method because most class time is taken up by the teacher.  The teacher spends class time explaining, instructing, modeling and at times encouraging discussion.  A homework assignment then is meant to give students more practice for the skill that was the subject of the lesson or more in depth reading and understanding of content.
A high percentage of students in schools like those in which I’ve taught, however, do not do homework.  The breakdown is similar to the breakdown I’ve made repeatedly throughout these pages.  There is about 30% who will do homework.  There is 30 – 40% who will do no homework under any circumstances and most of these do little or no class work.  Then there is the middle group, 30% - 40%, who will go either way.  If the do-nothings capture the imagination of this middle group, then the teacher is faced with up to 70% of the class homework-less.  If homework is essential to reaching the goals of the curriculum, this creates a serious problem.
Another problem with the “chalk and talk” method of presenting a lesson is that students are easily bored and distracted.  I like to put up “stop day dreaming” signs around the room.  I place them as high up on the walls as possible.  Above windows is a good spot.  They’re funny but if anything they probably encourage the daydreaming that gets them noticed in the first place.  Hyperactivity doesn’t respond to this; short attention spans pass over it with as much reflection as a hummingbird might give it.  It is certainly true that the attention span of the average Bronx student in 2011 is very short and I don’t doubt that our quick-cut advertising is part of the vicious cycle that has perpetuated and intensified this.  Movies, t.v., even the passing of an advertisement in a magazine or passing taxi cab – these all contribute to shortened attention spans even as they are also a reaction to it.  We live in a very fast-paced world.
Much has been made of ADD and ADHD but the real problem is the 30 – 40% of students who cannot function in a conventional classroom.  The problems with this group go way beyond known disorders.  ADD is a condition that a person can learn how to deal with.  If you know you’ve got a short attention span, you compensate for it if you have a goal that you need to reach.  ADD and ADHD are nothing new.  People my age can remember the students we knew who suffered from them before they were characterized as such.  We can remember how they dealt with their “issues” rather than use them as an excuse for failure.
The use of these as excuses for poor behavior is relatively new.  However most of the disruptive behavior that I’ve seen goes way beyond ADD or ADHD.  Now there is something called ODD.  This comes closer to explaining the sort of sudden, uncontrollable outbursts of emotion that we see.  Even if it is an explanation for something going on internally, however, it is not an excuse for such a student to be placed in a classroom where 30% of the students are functioning normally, can have no positive effect on people exhibiting these symptoms and end up as the victims of these emotionally disturbed people.
So with chalk and talk deemed outdated or too boring or too or ineffectual, the workshop model has replaced it in spite of research that shows that students actually learn better through direct teacher-centered instruction rather than through “cooperative”, student-centered models like the one that is the 2nd prong of the attack on the best students, the “workshop” model.  The workshop model calls for the teacher to make a brief “mini-lesson”.  This is an abbreviated chalk and talk presentation, no more than about 10 minutes of a 50-minute class. The emphasis is on modeling rather than explaining.  The teacher models a skill or a process and then quickly turns the work over to the students.  The students are arranged into small groups – the larger classroom is divided into smaller workshops.  In these smaller groups students practice whatever it was that the teacher modeled during the mini-lesson. The 30% of functioning students are expected to have understood the mini-lesson.  These high-functioning students are then expected to “re-teach” what they learned from the mini-lesson to the rest of the group whose inability to focus prevented them from learning it the first time around.
Creating the groups is an important part of this approach.  Groups usually consist of 4 – 6 students each.  The teacher might group students by reading or math level, according to behavioral characteristics or by taking second language problems into consideration.  Second language learners might be mixed in with native speakers, for example, or they might be put together so that they can discuss the topic in their on language.  Reading levels might be mixed in order to expose the weaker readers to the stronger ones and so forth.  These decisions are up to the teacher who then spends the bulk of class time going from group to group giving help as needed, doing small group instruction, and ensuring accountability.  “Accountability” is ensuring that learning is taking place.  That is, the teacher makes sure that each group is on task and that the conversations that are happening in each group are “accountable” and have more to do with the topic at hand than with Justin Bieber, Beyonce or last night’s basketball game.  As a closing some sort of writing assignment is usually recommended both to increase literacy across the curriculum as well as for accountability purposes.
Pedagogically the workshop method is justified in various ways.  It is a way of encouraging teamwork, something that is said to be very important in the workplace.  It is a way of encouraging independent and creative thinking because students spend most of the group work time without direct oversight from the teacher, who is making the rounds of all 4 or 5 or 6 groups in the room.  It is up to the groups and the individuals in the group, who are assigned roles like discussion leader, presenter, time keeper, scribe, and so forth, to figure things out for themselves before resorting to the teacher.  In theory it is a way of focusing the attention of students who have difficulty listening to a teacher’s “chalk and talk” on academic work.  In practice, of course, it is often a way for the non-working students to ride the coattails of the working students.  The hope is that in doing so, something will be learned.
Of course, the workshop model ultimately is predicated on – as is the chalk and talk method – the students’ ability to stay on task for 45 or 90 minutes.  The 30% of functional students in the typical Bronx classroom are as comfortable with chalk and talk as they are with the workshop model and for them it’s nice to vary things some to give the class a bit of unpredictability in order to avoid the rut of the routine.  Establishing routines, however, is very important.  It is important for the students to know generally what to expect and what is expected of them.
The 30% to 40% of dysfunction students are as uncomfortable with the workshop model as they are with chalk and talk.  The problems experienced by this group are not addressed by routines, methodology, standards, lesson plan formats or even visits to the dean’s office.  If a student is unable to control his/her own behavior, nothing in the structure of the class or in the teacher’s behavior will address that.  In the minds of many in this group, the workshop model is nothing more than legalized cheating.
“You mean, we present together?”
“Yes, you present as a group.”
“You mean I get to turn in the same work as our group leader?”
“Yes, you get to turn in the same work as everyone else in your group.”
“You mean, I can … copy?”
“No, you’re working cooperatively.”
“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”
When one of my best students said this to me, I had to admit that something was drastically wrong.  I was attempting to follow recommended procedure with a 10th grade class – aim (focus of the lesson), “do now” (something relevant to get students started), mini-lesson, group work.  For this particular lesson I decided to use mixed-level groups.  That is, I decided to mix some of the high functioning students with some of the lower functioning students in terms of reading level.  (This was an English class.)  So I came into the class with groups that I’d written into the lesson plan with this purpose.
One of the “low” functioning students was actually non-functioning.  This student had done no work at all over the course of about 14 weeks.  He certainly suffered from ADHD at the very least but that was the least of his problems.  When I instructed him to sit with group two, he flatly refused to move his seat.  He was used to spending a great deal of class time in the hallways was not interested in being grouped with anyone.  He had problems with authority; he had problems with male authority figures; he had problems focusing in any situation that was larger than one-on-one.  His skills were so low that he frequently acted out as a ruse not so different from the sort of ruse used by Michelle Malkin as described in Chapter 16 – a way of diverting the teacher’s attention from the fact that he was reading at a 1st grade level in the 10th grade and he was overage for 10th grade.
This, by the way, is a common excuse for misbehaving students – they act out because they can’t do the work.  No doubt this is frequently true, although for the student in question this wasn’t the primary issue.  No doubt, it is good for the teacher to understand this about the student.  Understanding the problem, however, is not solving the problem.  Understanding that a student is acting out because he is well below grade level does not stop the student from acting out and wasting the time of the students who are not so far behind.
For pedagogues to justify mainstreaming dysfunctional students with functional students as a means exposing a student with weak skills to students with strong skills is to do a great disservice to those students with strong skills and that is the point of this chapter and this “memoir”.  We have done a great disservice to the best students that we have.  More than that – we have used this sort of pedagogical new-speak to rationalize sacrificing those very students in the name of … what?  What can be the justification for asking a high functioning student to spend his/her class time instructing, modeling, tutoring, helping – whatever you call it – a student with problems too serious to be addressed by teachers, let alone by other children?
I spent 5 minutes trying to get this student to sit in his assigned group – the best group in this particular class.  I was trying to help him, which was in my mind the purpose of this form of the workshop model.  I wanted this weak student to work with the stronger students, to expose him to their work ethic, their ability to focus and stay on task, their approach to solving problems independently and their ability to organize their team.  In short, I was trying to help this student for all of the right reasons, for all of the reasons preached by the pedagogues about the benefits of the workshop model.
Pedagogy, of course, meant nothing to this student.  He was ruled by the forces inside of him that forced him to confront authority and oppose it.  In his mind these actions gave him his identity.  These actions somehow gave him a sense of dignity.  I don’t know if this was clinically ODD; symptomatically it was.
I called in the dean.  Again he refused to change his seat.  The dean called in the A.P.  Again he refused to change his seat or perhaps even more did he refuse to budge from that seat for the higher the authority, the more successful the opposition.  This is another form of “successful failure”, a syndrome that I described in a previous chapter.  Finally when confronted with a teacher, a dean and an assistant principal who were as adamant about moving him as he was about not moving, he left the room.  This took up about 15 minutes of valuable class time.
At that moment I was l looking upon this unfortunate turn of events as a lost opportunity for this low-skilled student.  This student failed to take advantage of something that would have been highly beneficial to him.  It was his loss; therefore it was my loss and a loss to the class since we try to create a sense of community with classrooms, particularly with the “self-contained” classroom, the one where students spend the day in the same large group, in the same room.  It might even be described as a loss to the school since the school will be judged in part on this student’s ability be helped and to help himself.  If he doesn’t get the credit and doesn’t graduate, that will be another crack in the wall.
“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”  This question came to me at the end of that class.  It came from one of the best students in the class, one of the students in that top group to which I was trying to assign this low-functioning student.  It came from one of the leaders of the class, the one who every day set the best example for anyone who cared or was able to notice.  It came from the student whose name I had penciled in – for all these reasons - right next to the name of the student who had stormed out of the room, unable to grapple with a situation that didn’t fit into his sense of who he was, unable to overcome the forces aligned against him – benign as they were and with his best interests in mind – but also unable to overcome the forces within himself that were driving him to deliberately fail.  This was a spectacular case of successful failure.
“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”  This student did not have successful failure in mind; she had success and nothing but success in mind.  It came to me that I was looking at the situation from the bottom up rather than from the top down. As this student stood there in front of me with these words ringing in my ears, it came to me that the top down view was as legitimate as the bottom up view.  As this student turned and walked away from me because I couldn’t think of a meaningful response, it came to me that I had swallowed the reform school propaganda, which insists that that we look at things from the bottom up rather than from the top down.  I came to me that while I might have been trying to help this low-functioning student, at the same time I was trying to hurt the high-functioning one.
It wasn’t intentional but, as Paul Simon said, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”  In trying to do good, I was also doing harm.  It was thoughtless.  Of course, it’s good to expose someone with poor work habits to someone with strong ones.  But at the same time the opposite isn’t merely bad, it’s wrong.  Why should it be the responsibility of the hard-working student to sacrifice his/her time to help someone else?  How can a teacher ask a student to take responsibility for other students?  How can a pedagogy be touted as the rule for methodology when it demands that one student give up his/her time and work and energy – time, work and energy that ought to be devoted to that student’s own progress and education?  The student who asked me that question was the most responsible kid in the class, the one who did the most work and always took care of herself and that was the only thing I could reasonably ask of that student or any other – that she do the best possible work she could and if she had time and energy left over because she worked faster and more thoughtfully than most, why shouldn’t that time left over be hers?  She earned it.  It should be for her, not to be sacrificed for someone else.
I might suggest that there is a tinge of Christianity in this – if I thought it was anything at all like that.  It is changing, particularly with the influx of African students, some of whom are Muslim, but most Bronx students are still Christian and many of them are fundamentalist or evangelical.  Sacrifice is not alien to them.  In fact, it is something that has been instilled in their worldviews both consciously and subliminally.  This may be the reason why it has not often occurred to them that the sacrifice of their own lives ought not to be asked of them.
But this is what this vicious, two-pronged attack on our best students does and it is driven by something far different from a religious – any religion – agenda.  It does, in fact, involve sacrifice – the sacrifice of the best students in the Bronx for the worst – but the agenda is purely secular.  Differentiated instruction and the workshop model – what are these but rationalizations for the crime – sin? – of demanding that students give up their own lives in order to help someone who may need it but is not even likely to appreciate it and certainly doesn’t deserve it, though it has nothing to do with forgiveness either?  What is this forked “methodology” but the excuse for the abdication of responsibility by an entire school system?  By what right do we take away a person’s time and work and give it to someone else?  By what right do we sit an exceptional child down with a perfect stranger with the expectation that this exceptional child will give up his or her time and thought and ideas and work for this perfect stranger who has no right to it and has done nothing to earn it?
So this is my answer, finally, to that’s student’s rhetorical question: “Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”  It’s the well-adjusted, well-functioning students who are being led to the slaughter by a system that cares nothing for them and everything about making itself look good by raising graduation rates, i.e., getting semi-literate kids to score 65s and graduate even though a 65 means next to nothing and if it predicts anything, it predicts that the student is not “career or college ready”.  It’s the well-adjusted, high-functioning kids that are being led to slaughter by being placed into rooms where high percentage of their “peers” are dysfunctional and in desperate need for some of that work ethic and ability to focus and learn to rub off on them although this never happens.  Having spent a decade observing and encouraging this sort of miracle osmosis, I have very rarely seen anything like it happen.  Instead what I’ve seen are the well-adjusted, high-functioning students being used by desperate school administrators to keep their schools open and keep their jobs and a despicable school system to undermine the very concept of public education.
These are the questions we ought to be asking: How much of the time of these exceptional kids is wasted?  How much work that ought to be completed is actually completed?  How much work that ought to be completed isn’t even arrived at for these exceptional students?  How much further could these kids be going if they weren’t forced to waste their time on dysfunctional kids?  Why can’t a school system of over a million students group students according to their abilities so that they can progress at the quickest possible pace?  Why can’t the school system itself differentiate between these high-performing kids and the dysfunctional ones?  Why isn’t the NYC school system tracked from top to bottom in order to save these kids, in order to stop them from being the sacrificial lambs that they are now?
We’ve gone so far at this point as to reward the dysfunctional.  A well-meaning program in one school decided to try to raise the self-esteem of the do-nothing kids by having an awards ceremony for them.  Students who had not passed a single class, students who rarely came to school, students who came to school but rarely came to class, students who slept through class, students who refused to sit in an assigned seat, opting to do nothing in the back of the room, students who spent their class time throwing things around the room from paper balls to books and pencils, students who found it appropriate to inflate a condom and bounce it around the room like a beach ball at a ball game – these students were being “rewarded”.
What were the “awards”?  “Best effort”.  “Most improved”.  “Most likely”.  One of the more notorious of these award-winning students ran into a colleague known for his no-nonsense approach to instruction and learning.  The do-nothing student flashed his “award” and stuck out his hand, expecting to be congratulated for being rewarded for behavior that ought to have gotten him expelled on any number of accounts.  What do you think this colleague did?  What would you have done?
There is nothing wrong with trying to help people who need help – unless it comes at someone else’s expense or unless it is counterproductive in some way.  In the summer of 2011 the New York Yankees announced a program by which students who were truant from school would receive free tickets to ball games if they showed up at school some number of times.  [See chapter “Attendance Scam” for details on what it means to be “present” at school.]  This, of course, is akin to awarding a former drug addict with the “rewarding” career of counseling people at risk for this sort of successful failure.  Once again, they are shooting in the wrong direction.  Why not give these tickets to kids who have already shown a high attendance rate and then publicize this so that the truant kids can see that there is some reward that they can understand for going to school?  Is this scheme ultimately counterproductive, evidence that there really is no point in doing the right thing – that it’s better, in fact, to do the wrong thing because that is what gets rewarded?
How is it that the school system has come to this?  How can so many teachers be willing to sacrifice their best students for their worst?  In one sense it is again an injustice done by people who are “just doing my job”.  Teachers create their own lesson plans but they are observed delivering these lessons.  If the lessons don’t conform to what administrations want to see, the lesson is deemed unsatisfactory (“U”).  Once this happens, the administrator is in a position to dictate the format of the lesson plan.  In fact, it becomes the administrator’s duty and responsibility to guide the unsatisfactory teacher toward a more satisfactory outcome.  In this way the two prongs are wielded against teachers as well as against students.  They’re wielded against administrators as well.  When administrators themselves are being judged on their ability to institute recommendations made to them so they, too, are “just doing my job”.  This doesn’t mean that these administrators and teachers are not working hard.  The problem is that the job that they are working at is not in the best interest of the best students.
Thoughtlessness then is another reason for the sacrifice of the best students for the worst in the Bronx.  It’s easy to assume that the experts know what they’re talking about and there are experts a-plenty in the DOE.  There are consultants, partners, liaisons, coaches, support groups, workshops enough to keep you busy thinking about what they’re telling you rather than what you’re actually doing or what your students might be telling you.
One “expert” that comes to mind is a man who was brought in to coach a small group of teachers in methodology of “ramp up”.  Ramp up was and still is, though not pushed by the NYC DOE as it was a few years ago, an approach to literacy that emphasized independent and in-depth reading of relatively simple texts along with reflective writing and, of course, differentiated learning and the workshop model.  The school system was flooded with “Aussies”, as they were known – ramp up experts from Australia, though the program originated at the U. of Pittsburgh.
An Aussie came to coach us on how to institute this program.  He sat down with us and holding in his expert hands a gigantic three-ring folder that described in detail the ramp up program from another consultant group, America’s Choice.  Our conversation with him went something like this (I paraphrase):
“So, Mr. Aussie, when you taught ramp up ….”
“Actually,” he interrupted in that distinctive and startling accent, “I’ve never taught it myself.”
His candor seemed refreshing.
“Okay, then when you observed the program in classrooms ….”
“Actually, I’ve never observed it.”
This was a little surprising, given that he was the expert and was there to show us how it was done.  We had not taught it or observed it but we were willing to push ahead, though one colleague, known for his hot temper, was already starting to bubble over.
“Well, then,” we said, indicating the large folder at his fingertips, “when you read through the program ….”
“Actually,” he admitted, “I haven’t read it.”
(I am not kidding – this conversation took place.)
It was certainly the hot-tempered one of us who next said something like, “Well then what the hell are you doing here and why are Australians the supposed experts in this anyway?”
“Actually,” he said in what turned out to be his faux-Aussie accent – he’d married an Australian, “I’m from Des Moines.”
Now we find that tens of millions of “Race to the Top” dollars are going to consultants, analysts, measurement specialists and “innovation managers” (see Chapter 19).
Then, of course, another justification for the sacrifice of our best kids is the admitted benefit of differentiated instruction and the workshop model.  As methodologies there is nothing wrong with them.  However, as I’ve described, the insidious underlying premise of these is to use the talents of the best students not for those students themselves but in the interest of other, low-functioning or non-functioning students – a responsibility that ought not to be put on any kid, let alone the best kids who otherwise could be working ahead, doing SAT prep or working on their own special interests.
The UFT held a huge rally at Madison Square Garden a few years ago during the waning tenure of Randi Weingarten.  This was a big event starring Phoebe Snow and the G.E. Smith Band, among others.  At issue, of course, was the next UFT contract then being negotiated with the Bloomberg / Klein administration.  Union leaders from most of the unions with members associated with the DOE lined up to make the speeches to a very large crowd.
The speaker, however, whom I remember best was a young woman, a NYC high school student.  She had one point to make and she made it very well, as well as any of the professional speakers who preceded and followed her.  Her point was simply this: “I want to be taught by my teachers,” she said and again I paraphrase.  “I don’t go to school to be taught by students.  I want my teachers to teach me.”
She then specifically described the workshop model wherein she was being used as I tried to use the student who is the star of this chapter and therefore of this entire “memoir”.  This young woman at MSG, a student at one of the “elite” high schools, as I recall, was being used to teach weaker students.  Instead of her class time being used productively for herself and her needs, her education and her own learning, she was being forced to give it up so that she could be used to help others catch up.  This, she said, was not fair to her.  She was right.  She said it then but it took a more direct experience for me to fully grasp the real consequences of what is going on in the Bloomberg / Klein reform schools.
It’s time for the NYC school system to do the right thing by the best and the brightest.  It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff.  It’s time to track the system so that students are placed with groups whose individuals can progress at similar paces.  It’s time for these best and brightest to be set free from the confines of differentiated instruction and the workshop model, the one-room schoolhouse, so that they can be taught by their teachers.  It’s time, too, to place dysfunctional students in environments where they can be helped rather than pretending that they are being well-served by being placed in general education classrooms where they cannot function and can only obstruct the progress of those who can.  The arrangement as it with its pedagogical, two-prong justifications is unfair to both groups but vastly more unfair to the best and the brightest because their time and lives are being literally stolen right out from under them by the very people who are supposed to have their best interests at heart.  It’s more than mere theft; it’s betrayal.
I’m reminded of Carl Schurz, the secretary of the interior during the 1870’s and ‘80s – simply because while writing and pasting together this “memoir” during the summer of 2011, I’ve also been reading for fun books like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  Schurz oversaw the final resolution to the Indian problem that had confronted American manifest destiny for the past 100 years or so.  By then Americans had realized that Indian territory wasn’t as worthless as we thought it was when we signed it over “in perpetuity” with laws and legal documentation to the Indians – all the land west of the Mississippi, that is.  Of course, we had yet to steal much of that land from Mexico.  Stealing, I guess, is as American as ramp up, the workshop model and apple pie.
Schuz sat in his office in Washington D.C. as reports of atrocities and massacres of Native Americans came in.  Suggestions and recommendations for kinder treatment also occasionally crossed his desk.  But rather than see for himself what was going on, Schurz stuck to the agenda, the one that he had vowed to pursue at all costs, which vow had brought him that nice suit that you see in the photographs as well as the related amenities of his exalted position in the U.S. government.  The agenda that he’d vowed to pursue to the bitter end, of course, was the final theft of all Indian land and the forced “civilizing” and “Christianizing” of the Natives, a hidden agenda that was never articulated to the victims but which by this time was clear to them nevertheless.
There is a hidden educational agenda, as I’ve described elsewhere in this “memoir”.  The agenda is to dismantle public education, thereby closing this last route to power for so many.  For many of us education has been our only access to power.  Education is empowering and it was for this very reason that even as America was committing genocide during the 19th century, there was also this very altruistic ideal of an educated population and the idea that democracy could only work if the people involved were educated.  There is no doubt about that.  Democracy demands education and education for all.
It is for this very reason that the state governors and education bureaucrats sit in their offices with their agenda, just as Schurz did.  If the sacrifice of children is required to accomplish this agenda, as the sacrifice of innumerable lives was deemed necessary to accomplish manifest destiny, then so be it.  How is it that a school system can come it this?  How is it that school system can sacrifice the very students it’s meant to educate?  By blindly following an agenda set by people who don’t know and don’t care to know about the harm they are causing, this is how it can be and that is how it is.

NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.