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.