Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chapter 7: Money, Part 1

Chapter Seven: Money, Part 1

It so happens that while I’ve been pasting this book together during the summer of 2011, I’ve also been reading an excellent book about Kit Carson and the relocation of the Navajo tribe to a reservation during the Civil War.  Carson and his military superior James Henry Carleton convinced the Navajos that they would be better off in the long run if they relocated to a reservation and gave up their semi-nomadic lifestyle.  Of course, the only reason the Navajos agreed with this idea was because Carson had spent the fall and winter destroying their food stocks, their “hogans” and their livelihood, leaving them with little choice.  It was starve or move to the reservation.
So the Navajo nation in the “Long March” of 1864 “voluntarily” relocated themselves to a reservation in SE Arizona – 10,000 souls in the 2nd largest Native American migration in American history, 2nd only to the Cherokee “trail of tears”.  They gave up the lifestyle that had sustained them for centuries.  They become completely dependent on the largess of the U.S. government, which had little to give during the Civil War, and on their own ability to grow crops on the new reservation along the murky Pecos River.  Nothing worked out favorably for the Navajo, of course, except for one thing and that was only in the short run, the very short run.  According to Hampton Sides in his book, Blood & Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, a great book, by the way, here is the biggest success, the one that loomed large even after the corn crop, which initially seemed to be prosperous, gave way to the cutworm:

“The elementary school … seemed to work – at least at first.  The Navajo parents sent their children in droves, but this was only because Carleton gave each pupil a meal ticket for daily attendance.  Once this incentive was abolished, however, the children stopped coming.”  (p. 454)

As I’ve said, this is a memoir but not about me.  Rather it’s about the students that I’ve taught the last 10 years in the Bronx.  Before you accuse me of comparing the students in the Bronx during the first decade of the 21st century to Navajo children of the 1860’s – wait.  Oh, yes!  That’s right.  Sorry, I am comparing these Navajo children of the 1860s to Bronx students in the early 2000s and the comparison is dramatic, striking and obvious.
The comparison is about hunger, money, survival and motivation.  Was it the money that the U.S. government put into the school buildings, the books, the teachers, the curriculum that got those Navajo students to attend school?  No, it was the money they put into the food program.  Hunger is hunger and hasn’t changed over the millennia.  It’s probably not going to change in the near future.  Any Bronx teacher can tell you that there is plenty of hunger in the Bronx and that one of the best motivators for students is the prospect of food.
I used it once to teach the difference between “want” and “need”.  One of the best students I ever had would say to me upon entering the room, “Mr. Haverstock, I need candy.”
“Need?” I’d say.
“Need,” she’d reply.
“Need?” I’d repeat.
“Okay, ‘want’ but I still need it!”
It became a running joke.  This student ended up writing more essays about the play we were reading than I asked for and she did it even when she knew there was no candy in the offing.  She loved to write (and, strangely enough, sometimes there was candy).
Another trick I’ve used is to insert an empty candy bar wrapper into my sport coat pocket so that it looks very much as though there is a real, live candy bar in there – much more alluring than a handkerchief.  I like to do this particularly at the beginning of a term or when seeing new students for the first time.  It doesn’t necessarily focus them on the lesson at hand but it gets them looking in the right direction, distracts them from other distractions and maybe gives them cause to think that there might be an immediate reward that they can relate to in store.
Spending on education has skyrocketed over the past 20 years in New York City and across the country.  Graduation rates have been left on the launch pad – sorry; that will come out in the 2nd draft.  Where should money be spent?  Food?
Prospective NYC teachers (and others): I’ve already described NYC teachers as kamikazes.  Imagine this scenario, one that has happened to me and to every teacher I know.
It’s 8:10 a.m., 10 or 20 or 30 minutes into the first period of the day.  You’re standing at the door to the classroom.  There are no students yet inside the room.
The principal comes by.  “No one here?”
“Not yet,” you reply.
“Have you been making phone calls?”
“Sending letters, too.”
The principal moves on to the next empty room.
“What do you want me to do?” you’re thinking.  Send a limo?  All jokes aside, I don’t know any teachers riding school buses around but I do know teachers who get up in the morning and make wake-up calls to their students at home so that at least they don’t have that excuse.
One week later, same time, same place.  This time there are 4 students (out of 30 on the roster) sitting in your classroom.  Your lesson is under way.  The 4 students, however, are eating egg sandwiches, which arrived along with them inside their backpacks.  The sandwiches weren’t there when the kids walked into the room but they were there the first time you looked up from the lesson.
The principal comes by, looks in and says to the hungry students, “There’s no eating in class.”
The students ignore this.  They’re paying more attention to breakfast than to the lesson as well and probably haven’t even noticed that someone else is looking into the room.  (They have but they don’t let you know it.)
The principal turns to you.  “Don’t allow students to eat in the room.”
You nod your head because you know the rule.  There is a rule, of course, that says no eating in class and you are supposed to enforce it.  Who wants a rodent-infested building?  Who wants garbage accumulating in the classroom and in the desks?  However, these students have proven to you that given the choice of NOT EATING inside the classroom or EATING outside the classroom, they will eat outside the classroom.  Damned if you do (for breaking the rules), damned if you don’t (for poor attendance).  Kamikaze.
The principal walks away without tossing the kids out of the classroom because he/she, too, realizes that it is better to have the student there eating than to have no student at all.  Yet there is the lingering accusation hanging over your head that you’ve broken a rule and could be reprimanded for it – letter to the file, “U” somewhere down the line.  You, of course, would rather have students eating inside the classroom where they will learn something – and these students, by the way, are the best students in the class because even though they have arrived early in the morning for school with food, they have arrived early in the morning for school – you’d rather have them, I say, eating in the room than eating outside of it.
The idea of simply giving over the first period of the day to food is often discussed.  I’ve even heard that it has been implemented in some places.  Of course, the period before first period already has been given over to food.  At the schools I’ve worked in more than 90% of students are eligible for free breakfast / lunch but in order to arrive at first period on time and still get breakfast, you’d have to be at school no later than 7:15.  7:15 is very early in the morning especially for students who stay up until 2:00 a.m. doing the various things available to them at home.
So the article in the New York Post comes as no surprise to teachers: “Teachers boo$t a bust” (New York Post, July 19, 2011, p. 8).  It is said to have been a surprise to Mayor Bloomberg, however.  Maybe that’s because Mayor Bloomberg, reform school mayor, never has been inside a classroom as a teacher:

“Another attempt by the city to improve student performance through cash payments has failed, much to the surprise of Mayor Bloomberg.  ‘I would have thought it would have had a bigger effect,’ the mayor said.”  (p. 8)

Fictional interlude in “memoir”: That’s funny, the mayor perhaps is thinking.  In my businesses, when I give people raises, they produce more.  I mean, if they don’t, they’re out of a job and out on the street.  Why isn’t it working for these school businesses?  I have spent the last 10 years – well, Joel, Cathie, Dennis and me, that is – we spent a lot of money turning those schools into little businesses.  We’ve even closed a bunch of them down.  They weren’t making any money, er, I mean, they were under-performing.  Why didn’t it work?
Well, for one thing, kids aren’t put out on the street.  There may be a lot of kids out on the street when they ought to be in school, but they weren’t put there for not meeting production quotas.
I know we can’t fire the kids, the mayor might also have thought.  But maybe we can fire the teachers and the principals and the superintendents.  If I could just get some money back from that payroll fiasco ….
Of course, the mayor hadn’t given raises to the students, although cash to students for attendance and good grades has also been tried (see below) but you can see the obvious pitfalls there.
“Hey, Mr. Haverstock, wanna make a deal?”
“What kind of a deal?”
“You know, I can get $100 for every ‘A’ that I get.  Some of that bling could be yours.  You marked me present yesterday, didn’t you?”
Temptation has been around as long as hunger.
Or how about this one: good kid is walking home from school.
“Hey kid,” says bad kid hanging out on the corner rather than going to school.
Good kid ignores him.
Bad kid, perhaps with bad friends, jumps good kid.
Good kid loses money along with other things.
Evil has been around as long as temptation and hunger.
But the “cash payments” that failed, according to the Post, weren’t going to students.  They went to teachers in the form of bonuses.  The bonuses ranged from $1500 to $3000.  The purpose was to motivate teachers to “increase production”, so to speak.  The underlying fallacious assumption here, of course – though never spoken outright, perhaps because it is so obviously fallacious – was that teachers are not working as hard as they could be working and that money will make us work harder.  Underlying that underlying assumption – and this one is often spoken – is that union work rules encourage teachers to do as little as necessary – just enough to comply with the contract and no more.  In other words, union work rules work the same way for teachers as they do for all those other lazy, no-good, unionized sons of ….
Fictional interlude: But Mr. Bloomberg, excuse me, sir, but weren’t you the one who negotiated the last couple of contracts with those lazy, no-good … I mean, with the UFT?  You remember, the contracts that raised the starting teacher salary from $26,000 a year, which it was in 2001 – and you know very well that you couldn’t live on $26,000 a year in New York City in 2001, let alone try to raise ….  I’m sorry, Mr. Mayor, I got carried away.  But you did get them to agree to extending the teacher work day by 21 ½ minutes.
Anyway, according to the NY Post – and I have to keep adding that because as we always teach our journalism students, know your source.  Know their biases, their ulterior motives, ownership, history, audience, supporters, etc.  The NY Post has spent the past decade devoting nearly every page 2 – and, surprisingly, page 2 actually appears on … page 2!  The NY Post has devoted a lot of time, space and reporting – often at the front of the paper on page 2 - to bashing teachers and especially the UFT and to creating the sort of media environment that helped the major make the changes he wanted to make in the system, primarily increasing the number of charter schools, under the guise of “choice”.  Who but the blind man in the supermarket doesn’t like choice?
So when the NY Post admits something like what is admitted in this article, knowing that they’ve spun it as fast and as far as it could be spun away from supporting teachers, it’s better than seeing it in the NY Times, where anything you don’t like can always be attributed to a liberal bias.

“‘Overall, the program had no effect on student achievement at any grade level,’ [the Rand Corp.] reported.”  (p. 8)

What conclusion do we draw from this?  Did teachers just take the money and run?  Those lazy, unionized, no-good ….

“After going through more than $56 million, the city suspended payments in the three-year pilot project last January, pending Rand’s conclusions.”  (p. 8)

Is three thousand bucks not enough?  According to the study’s lead author, bonuses must be “large enough to motivate extra effort” and that criterion wasn’t met.  Maybe Michael Mulgrew at this moment is negotiating a better deal.  Maybe $25,000 would do it.  Yeah, I think I’d work harder for an extra $25,000 – for one semester anyway.  We’ll renegotiate in January.
Did the teachers not “buy-in”?  This, too, is suggested as a possible reason why the program failed as well as the possibility that there was not a “high level” of understanding among educators of just how the program was going to work.  Maybe there should have been more P.D. (professional development) around it.  Maybe another $56 million to make sure the teachers knew what the original $56 million was supposed to do would have turned things around.
Of course, teachers know exactly why the program didn’t work.  Schools are not businesses and students are not “widgets”.  Applying a business model to a school is like playing NBA games according to NFL rules, which is what they seem to be doing these days, or like setting chess pieces on one side of the board and checkers on the other – Chinese checkers.  Same board, different games.
The vast majority of teachers are already doing everything they can.  They were doing it 10 years ago for $26,000; they’re doing it now for $46,000; they’re doing it after 20 years on the job for $100,000.  They didn’t have to pay that teacher anything extra for him to make those early morning calls to wake up students even though it meant getting up earlier himself.  He wasn’t doing that for money.  I don’t mean to say that teachers would work for nothing.  We’ve got bills to pay.  The problems we’re facing, however, have nothing to do with “productivity”.
You can’t speed up production in a school.  For example, the cap on class size at the moment is 34 – no more than 34 students to a room according to the contract.  But you can get 40 or 50 students into some rooms.  According to the business model, that would increase production.  Why not do that?  One teacher per 50 students would be highly cost effective.  Just think of the number of jobs you could cut out without resorting to virtual schools.  The problem is that many studies have shown that unlike bonus payments, smaller class sizes often do result in higher performance.  In fact, 34 is too big.  Many teachers will tell you that the ideal number for general education classes is 20 – 25 – assuming minimal behavioral interruptions.  A ratio of 1 to 25 per class means that teachers would be responsible for 125 students across 5 classes in any given semester.  That’s a lot but that’s manageable.  What is 5 times 34?
The real problem, though, is that teachers have to talk to students.  That is a real problem because that takes time and care.  It takes humanity.  It takes something that machines and computers and virtual classrooms don’t have.  Imagine this scenario in Detroit:
“Joe, you’re slowing down.”
“Sorry, Pete.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s this steering wheel.”
“What about it?”
“It says its hungry.”
“Well, did you give it something to eat?”
“You know that’s against shop rules, Pete.  I can’t do that.  I could lose my pension.”
“Did you talk to it?”
“Yeah, it also didn’t get enough sleep last night.  Why don’t you try?  You’re the boss.  Maybe it’ll listen to you.”
Pete turns to the steering wheel.  “Tired?”
“Uh huh,” says the steering wheel.
“Well, why didn’t you get to bed earlier last night.  What were you doing?”
“Spinning.  I love to spin.”
“That’s good but you’re slowing us down here.  Joe’s got to get you onto this steering column.  There’s 1000 wheels behind you.  You’re holding them up.  He’s got a quota to reach.”
“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to cause trouble.  I just ….”
“Okay, Joe, just toss it out.  Get another.”
“Right, Pete.”
Meanwhile, back in the Bronx, the same NY Post article notes the failure of a recent program that made cash transfers to students’ families for health check-ups, school attendance and passing state tests.  $50 million was spent on this.

“Despite the cash, there was little difference in outcomes between the paid students and a control group that didn’t get a cent.”  (p.  8)

It didn’t fail for the potential problems that I suggested above.  It failed because it failed to “produce” results.  It did not increase productivity.  However, at least this was an experiment worth trying because this one got nearer to the heart of the problem.  The $56 million spent to motivate teachers was thrown away.  The problem is not unmotivated teachers; the problem is unmotivated students.  Teachers are working at capacity; under-performing students are not.  If we’re going to increase graduation rates, we’ve got to motivate these students.  Since hunger is hunger and always will be, it made some sense to make payments directly to the students and their families and this is why I do compare the situation in the Bronx today to the situation on the first Navajo reservation on the Pecos River in 1864.  There is hunger in the Bronx – literal hunger.  Anyone who has tried to work while hungry understands the problem.  There are also all sorts of other kinds of hunger, many of which are not as easily eased by a good meal, many of which were also experienced by the displaced Navajo.  A good night’s sleep can be much harder to get than a good meal.
[I hesitate to go further into the parallels that could be drawn between the public school system in the Bronx and the forced relocation of the Navajo and other tribes onto reservations – both done for the good of the victim, er, student.  But maybe I will later.  I mean, what’s a “memoir” if not a place for you to say anything that pops into your head whether you’ve got anything to say or not?  See Chapter: Sarah Palin’s Daughter (or her ghost writer) Can Write!]
Of course we have to try to help the academically unmotivated student and it ought to be about helping the student rather than about increasing test results or graduation rates.  We’re talking about human beings, not widgets.  We cannot do that, however, at the expense of the students who are already motivated, who are already coming to school every day and passing state tests even without getting paid to do it.  These students have shown that they are deserving of the best that we can deliver to them.  They are deserving of the majority of our time, energy, money, and resources and they should be the ones receiving that.  They should not be made sacrificial lambs.
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the entire book.

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