Bucking the Status Quo

An interesting take. - promoted by david

The education achievement gap between whites/asians and african-american/latinos; between the rich and the poor; between urban and suburban students needs to be addressed properly in this country. Whichever way one labels the gap one thing is undeniable – it exists. Seemingly, the current policies  being pushed throughout the U.S. all revolve around fixing teachers, as if we are somehow to blame for this “broken system”. Reformists call both democrats and republicans to arms: “Let’s get the U.S. back to #1 in education!”

Unfortunately, the US was never even a contender for the world’s “top spot” in education ratings. In fact, we have never ranked higher than we currently do. Secondly, teachers are NOT to blame for any educational shortcomings our nation endures. So, to blame and focus on teachers as the root “problem” and “fixable” solution just will not work. In fact, eroding experience protections and due process as we ever increasingly rely on faulty testing metrics will indeed have a negative effect, but not on the pocketbooks of education publishing companies (i.e. Pearson) or charter operators.

Experienced teachers advocate for real solutions to the shortcomings our nation face, not for easy fixes to complex dilemmas or for unfair scapegoating . Our country’s foremost educational “problem” can be fixed with an attack on the epidemiological crises that creates our achievement gaps. Teachers fight gaps, attacking us while ignoring common sense solutions just doesn’t make common sense.

One such reform tackles the “glasses gap” in our country. The overwhelming majority of kids who need glasses in “underperforming” schools and classrooms are not wearing them to school. This alarming crises is a national epidemic. The Defense Department issues glasses to recruits in order that they might shoot straight. It’s high time a similar initiative be a priority in this country. If we truly are going to ensure that “no child be left behind” then tackling the glasses gap is one easy solution to an enormous problem that is  left out of the conversation. We ensure soldiers have eyeglasses in order to hit their targets. Why can’t we ensure students in every public school have an on- sight comprehensive eye exam and school issued glasses that remain in school so they can hit their reading targets and see the board? If we are going to take closing the achievement gap seriously the playing field needs to be leveled, and this is one way.

Certainly, if we transferred all the teachers from Winchester and Newton Public schools into Boston public schools, improvement would not occur. In all likelihood gaps would become widen. Yet this is the rationale behind the teacher quality rhetoric. Let me reiterate, teachers are not the problem.

Last year I surveyed four regular education classes at my school, grades 4-5. Eighteen kids were identified as requiring eyeglasses in order to properly function in school. Six students had glasses in school, twelve did not. I then surveyed two honors classes. One-hundred percent of the glasses wearers had their glasses, all twelve. Certainly there is a correlation between “achievement” and eyesight.  My anecdote is not the outlier but the mode in our country. See here for independent verification: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqR7rU-4KzU

Crushing the achievement gap takes real innovation, precision, and clarity. Current “bold” “trailblazing” reforms leave the voices of educators out. We need to be heard before the voices of “impatient” hedge fund managers and neo-liberals who mean well, but lack the experience and insight to get the job done correctly. We need to be supported.

Fortunately, I was able to get a partner, New England Eye Center, to help tackle the vision deficits at my school. However, participation is not a requirement and there are many other health disparities that need to be addressed. We need to buck the teacher centered “status quo” reform movement. We are not the problem any more than cops can be blamed for crime rates, or firefighters for firebugs. People who never worked a day in the classroom are leading our nation’s charge for education reform. Their only spokespeople are the likes of Michelle Rhee, whom all have minimal classroom experience and “retired” at age 25. Let’s get real. Let’s fix this. There is no excuse.

Colum Whyte

Boston Public School graduate (BLS 1997)

Boston Public School Teacher 2004-Present

Dot Rat

Honors History Teacher grades 4-6 in Dorchester

Proud Boston Teachers Union member and representative





31 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. A couple of thoughts...

    It is not surprising that those 40,000 ft up can’t see through the clouds and understand the condition on the ground.

    Nor is it surprising that cynical forces find the right issue and twist it to advance their agenda. In this case, they are using the achievement gap as a club to get the cost-cutting changes they want.

    I get what motivates egomaniacs like Rhee, I get the motives of her corporate donors, I even get motives of some public officials and school administrations that think they can do more with less.

    But there should be plenty people in various levels of government, the media or education community that know better and should stop the madness.

  2. why leaves the glasses at school?

    Shouldn’t poor kids be able to do their homework?

    Other than that, I agree with you.

    • they leave glasses at school, so they have them in school. Many kids are not wearing glasses at home AND in school . Once the glasses go home they will be broken, lost, etc and not replaced – or they will not be brought to school because the kid doesn’t feel like wearing them. Just because a student has school issued glasses that stay in school – doesn’t mean his/her parents can’t get them a pair through Masshealth that they can own. If they go home many will not come back – that’s what happens currently.

  3. As long as it's hard to fire bad teachers...

    It’s hard to argue with your logic about teacher’s not being part of the problem: because all you do is just keep stating it as fact over and over.

    “Certainly, if we transferred all the teachers from Winchester and Newton Public schools into Boston public schools, improvement would not occur. In all likelihood gaps would become widen. Yet this is the rationale behind the teacher quality rhetoric. Let me reiterate, teachers are not the problem.”

    And yet, METCO students that attend Newton Public schools have a higher graduation rate and perform significantly better than their boston school peers on standardized tests.

    I don’t want to demonize teachers because I feel they work hard at an important job and don’t receive enough pay. But we have to acknowledge that some are better than others and parents wont stand with teacher’s unions that don’t allow bad teachers to be fired. What incentive does a teacher have to do a good job when they can’t be fired?

    Getting glasses for kids should happen at school if it doesn’t happen at home, but it is not going to stop people from talking about teacher quality.

    • Interesting reading

      Looking at that Pioneer Institute report, I notice right away that METCO has almost nonexistent numbers of limited-English students, compared to 20-30% in Boston schools, and that while the difference in reading and ELA test results is significant, the difference on math tests is nearly negligible. And that’s before even talking about the selection factors in what kinds of families and students participate in METCO.

      To their credit, the authors of the report recognize this when they conclude that “Because of “self-selection” bias, the high relative performance of METCO students revealed here cannot be fairly attributed to the METCO program itself” (16). I recommend this section of the report, in fact, for anyone who wants a good summary of how selection influences all of these alternative school choices.

      I agree with this report’s authors that 1, METCO is a great program and 2, its success does not reflect in any way whatsoever on the quality of teaching in the Boston Public Schools.

    • Agree with cannoneo that

      there is more going on. It’s not attributable to suburban teachers being “better” though many work very hard and are good. In addition to the self-selection issues, a lot of kids in METCO benefit from getting away from out-of-school issues back in Boston.

      My wife’s got H.S. students in the city who are constantly harassing other students because someone they know from their block has a beef with the other student’s brother or something. She spoke with some METCO kids at Newton North a while back and they said they sometimes get crap back at home for being in METCO, but nothing major. When they get to school they aren’t hearing about squabbles on the block and they can do their work.

    • First of all, the contention that students that go to “Metco “programs do better because they are in a different school system is untrue. If a metco student gets in trouble they are easily booted, unlike in BPS. It’s called ATTRITION. Newton schools can’t handle the problems, mostly caused by a wide display of health disparities, which Boston handles on a regular basis. The comparison you make is untrue. If Boston got to choose which students we educated than, of course, “graduation rates” and “standardized test” achievement would be “significantly better”. I’m done with the union bashing as well! You laud Newton for it’s superiority, yet bash Boston as an inferior district because of teachers’ unions keeping bad teachers. This just in: NEWTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE UNIONIZED. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose. Did they forget to keep the bad teachers in the Newton teachers union? I hear that you don’t want to “demonize” , but question teachers “incentives”. Teachers can be fired. We have an evaluation system. We are held accountable. Our work is difficult. And people like you, who haven’t worked a day in your life in the classroom, want to debate us as if you have the qualification to do so. Take your corporate rhetoric about evil teachers unions and incentives somewhere else. Thank You!

      • A lot of emotion here

        I don’t appreciate the personal attacks. As someone who pays taxes and uses public education, I think I have a “qualification” to debate about public education. I never said that Newton teachers are better. I never said that teaching isn’t difficult. I think we all want better results for our schools. So in your mind, are all teachers equal? What kind of impact do they have on their students? What affect does tenure have on our education system? Unions don’t want to look there and don’t care, they know the answer they want, they’d rather not discuss it.

        Also, the metco program does not choose which students get to enter. Indeed more want to enroll than there are spaces, but there is no test/requirement beyond wanting to be in the program. The biasing is that kids who want to enter the program may be better than the kids who don’t want to.

        • no one is attacking, just schooling

          Ad hominem attacks are not happening, please tone down the rhetoric. I don’t debate heart surgeons about the best way to perform surgery, but anyone seems to know more than teachers who actually do the work everyday, have been educated in our field, and see the consequences of corporate reforms. Certainly you did insinuate that Newton teachers do a better job, I’m glad that my argument has shown you that that is not true. As far as attacks go, you are pretty clear in your demonization cliches of teachers unions.

          We fight for our working conditions, which is our students’ learning conditions. We fight for air quality, asbestos removal, heat, decent facilities, supplies, and the tools we need to get the job done through fair and adequate funding. We fight for a decent salary so that talented people might consider making helping, educating, and advocating for children a career. We know that the mastery of teaching comes with experience and that experienced teachers are paramount to molding future master teachers.

          “What affect does tenure have on our education system? Unions don’t want to look there and don’t care, they know the answer they want, they’d rather not discuss it.” Let’s absolutely discuss it. First of all states that are unionized are the perform highest educationally, while non union states are all clumped at the bottom. In fact the top 15 states, according to NAEP, are heavily unionized. Tenure protects experience on the job. Tenure ensures experience is valued. Without “tenure” than we would have a patronage system, where the friends and relatives of those in power would have an unfair advantage. Without tenure veteran teachers will be thrown away before reaching retirement age, in order to save money on human capital. Without tenure the teaching profession is cheapened to a job that easily manipulated young college students do before moving onto to law school. Without tenure administration would have carte blanche to hire and fire at will; there would be not balance of power, no due process, no fairness. Have you read the papers the last few months? Two administrators in Boston, with nefarious and amoral pasts, have been exposed. Administrators already are driving the truck – do you now think it’s prudent to give them the go ahead to drive as fast as they want without regard to who is on the road?

          Most importantly kids suffer without an experienced teacher at the helm, while number crunchers, profiteers, and corporate reformists love stripping away workers’ job rights for one reason: in order to save money on human capital.

          You also ask: “What kind of impact do they (teachers) have on their students?” This impact question is problematic. Currently “tenure” protections are being stripped and replaced by extremely faulty teacher quantifying evaluations that are based upon student test scores. Statisticians contend that a better method for determining teacher quality would be flipping a coin. Research proves that these “value added” reforms are based on quack science. The consequences for kids are even more detrimental. Schools, especially in high poverty areas, are becoming entirely test focused while the curriculum becomes contrived and narrow.

          Since NCLB and now with RTT social studies, science, music, PE, health, art, et. al have been disseminated in urban schools. Now, test scores are being used in teacher evaluations. “Reading” and “Math” are the only subjects that matter, the rest are second class or non existent. Teacher collaboration suffers from a focus on competition. Pedagogy has been reduced to test prep as teachers’ worth depend on the almighty test. If you want to know if all teachers are equal, that’s certainly not an acceptable practice. Next time you get work done on your house, need your car fixed, go to the dentist, or need a medical procedure completed make sure that you go to someone who is young and inexperienced. I’m sure it’ll be cheaper, but not better. By the way, what is your occupation? I may want to debate you about your job, or at least have a discussion. Transparency is a good thing. Corporatizing public schools is not a good thing for the United States of America.

        • Inaccurate and unfair

          What affect does tenure have on our education system? Unions don’t want to look there and don’t care, they know the answer they want, they’d rather not discuss it.

          Teachers’ unions have been willing to discuss all sorts of reforms that will actually make schools work better. But they are not going to sit idly by and be scape-goated. And they’re right.

          Do you really think most teachers are not motivated by a desire to see their student succeed? Do you really think they have a magic wand to solve all social problems that contribute to performance disparities? Do you really think they’ll do better if they spend every day worrying they’ll be fired for being unable to conjure up such a magic wand?

          I just caught a re-run of The Wire. The police brass wanted the crime numbers to come down and told district commanders to make it happen, on pain of termination. You know, a little incentive. End result’: fudging of numbers, like Michelle Rhee and Rod Paige.

          The selection bias for Metco is in the students who apply for the program, as cannoneo wrote. It’s also, as columwhyte wrote, that Newton or any other Metco district can boot the kids who don’t behave or perform. As can most charters. That, too, will skew the testing numbers.

        • A lot of false stereotyping from you...

          From unions don’t care to not being able to fire poorly performing teachers, you seem to have talking points provided by Rush Limbaugh. The fact that you try and use METCO to contrast suburban and urban school systems is another example of how well you have your ear to the ground. But at least you were kind enough to provide the link that easily disproved your METCO point.

          • This is not how to build trust

            1) Teachers have a big impact on school cost and effectiveness.

            2) It is impossible to evaluate how good they are.

            3) They continue to miss expectations.

            4) The only ones “qualified” to make any suggestions or improvements are the teachers themselves.

            Is the quality of a kid’s education something the rest of us should just pay for and shut up about — or be labeled Rush Limbaugh? Please refrain from calling names. I find it really refreshing that if I tell you my profession you will do some research and try to make me feel bad about it — in some way. Am I not allowed to be the tiniest bit skeptical about teachers unions? We should all just go away and leave you to the kids because you’ve got it all figured out — glasses — that’s the last piece. I am a taxpayer and voter and therefore your employer. I am not the only one who disagrees with your central message, and if this is how you respond to people who disagree with you: you will continue to be distrusted and tested and not given a blank check. Programs that allow kids to have more choices will continue to grow. Why should we continue to trust you?

            • Teachers have an extremely diminished voice in education. What does “glasses- that’s the last piece” mean? If that’s how you really feel than you are very much out of touch with the realities of urban education.

              You are not my employer. Am I my own employer because I pay taxes too? Speaking of “trust” – what is your profession? Let’s be transparent. Are you worried about the cost of human capital because you are a taxpayer, or are you looking for a cheaper way to pay educational bills because you feel that you pay too much? How does that translate into putting kids’ first?

              Most likely you are representing business interests who wish to take advantage of the burgeoning edu-market, and real teachers are in the way. “They continue to miss expectations” says it all. Sadly, this is the condescending tone of the aristocratic elite in Massachusetts. In MA our schools are top in the country. Boston is considered the top urban district in the country. If MA were a sovereign nation we would be ranked #1 in the Western world. Teachers did that. Sorry if we are not hitting your “expectations”. Try to do my job, I guarantee you would quit. What’s your profession? I should know what my “employer”, who probably doesn’t even live in Boston (maybe Beacon Hill), does for a living. How can I “trust” someone who is evasive? How can people, who never worked a day in the classroom, continue to be the “expectation” makers? Why do state’s with teachers unions markedly outperform those that do not? Teachers should be supported and not demonized. And yes, we are evaluated – I don’t know where this “impossible to evaluate” rhetoric is stemming from. “Fixing” teachers is not the answer to any of your failed expectations. It’s exhausting trying to participate in a conversation with people who think that they know more than because they have money. The country was nearly in irrevocable ruin because of greed. Forgive me if I don’t TRUST the motives of our affluent aristocracy. Tell ALEC to go home!

    • Spicyfish, the problem

      is poverty. The effect on education is secondary.

      METCO students, like charter school students, self-select to enter a lottery. They have to qualify. They get extra support and counseling. I have METCO students now in Western Mass. I don’t know if they still get host families.

      You are sadly informed about keeping bad teachers. First of all, we have three years to get rid of bad teachers before granting them professional status. Second of all, we have a new evaluation system that allows bad teachers to get corrected or get the door. Third of all, the reason there are so many of what you think are bad teachers is because urban school systems are difficult places to work. That’s why there’s a 50% turnover in them.

      To address the education gap for real–not just in test scores–we have to address poverty and the ills associated with it. Period. We can’t hire or fire our way out of the achievement gap.

      • A credible way to progress

        is what we need.
        Mark-bail, it could be that poverty itself is the problem. Is it true that as poverty has increased, scores have gone down and vice-versa? What about efforts to provide preschool and longer days to students? Do those show any promise?

        I am encouraged by Gov Patrick’s interest in providing preschool, given the evidence presented. If a small program could be shown to have benefits, I would support it’s expansion.

        • We don't need a credible way to

          progress. We need progress. Continued progress. We don’t need BS excuses and milquetoast union-bashing.

          Your question puts too much faith in scores. Yes, in general scores have gone up, but each group of scores is a different cohort. The Class of 2012 is not the Class of 2013. So fluctuation is normal. Another ignored factor is test score inflation–the increase of test scores from constant practice–without actual learning. In short, test scores may or may not fluctuate with poverty. The relationship is not a simple one.

          The efficacy of early childhood education has a lot of research–in fact, generations worth–to support it. It’s unlikely to close the achievement gap, since it boosts learning of advantaged kids as well.

          Extended Learning Time (ELT) may or may not boost test scores. There isn’t a good research base to make a decision on. It depends on how much time it is and how the time is spent. Time spent in enrichment activities sacrificed to test prep wouldn’t necessarily affect test scores, but it might be good for students.

  4. funding is also an issue

    The way we fund our schools now is back-asswards. The richest communities pay the most tax and have the best schools. The poorest who have the most needs have the fewest resources. This is true at the state level and at the national level. Mississippi needs more help than Massachusetts, but whose schools are better funded?

    Changing our funding and organizing away from local control/ property tax is an extremely heavy lift that won’t happen anytime soon, but it would be good to start the discussion.

    • Agree 100%

      Its also ass backwards that we have a national defense, a national safety net like social security and medicare and medicaid, but absolutely no national education policy. Every other developed country does not treat education as a states rights issue, but sets a national curriculum with a national funding mechanism so that all schools get their resources on a need basis rather than just via property taxes. Nationalizing the curriculum and federalizing the funding are vital, and I will agree, sadly a policy solution in search of a political advocate.

  5. “Certainly, if we transferred all the teachers from Winchester and Newton Public schools into Boston public schools, improvement would not occur. In all likelihood gaps would become widen. Yet this is the rationale behind the teacher quality rhetoric. Let me reiterate, teachers are not the problem.”-columnwhyte

    If Boston teachers all went to Newton, scores would not go down…but I’d suggest that Boston scores would go down if the reverse happened. I’ll bet those Newton folks don’t deal with scripted lessons, daily DIBELS, and the other test-centered manias of truly urban systems. Newton schools are test centered, Boston schools are test fixated, unless the teacher secretly rebels. Of course, are improved scores “school improvement”? I don’t think so.

    • Interesting perspective

      My wife did her student teaching at a middle school in Newton not long ago, and now teaches in a high school in Boston. I think she doesn’t face the test issue quite as much as some teachers (she teaches Spanish) but it’s true there are major differences both in the backgrounds of her students and the way the teachers go about lesson planning.

  6. Hm

    Interesting on the glasses. I think there are many pieces to this puzzle.

    However, I need to come back to the caution of embracing the contention that American schools lag badly. I know many people for good or for ill embrace this idea, but the data simply does not reflect it once socioeconomic status is controlled. Furthermore, the typical studies such as PISA and TIMMS are shot through with methodological gaps and lack of quality control; groups from The Economist to the Council of Europe have warned against putting much into their results.

    sabutai   @   Thu 7 Feb 10:08 PM
    • can't parse "caution of embracing the contention that American schools lag badly"

      My public school education is probably to blame.
      Do you mean that you think American schools aren’t lagging? Or that we shouldn’t accept that they should lag? I think they can be better. I am not sure what role Teacher’s Unions want to play in that regard. I know they don’t want the teachers blamed, that’s clear.

      • I take it to mean

        that American schools aren’t lagging once socioeconomic factors are accounted for. In other words, American schools are lagging only where our socioeconomic indicators are lagging as well.

      • Spicytroll, did it ever dawn on you that

        teacher unions don’t want to see teachers blamed on issues for which they are not to blame?

        International comparisons are apples to oranges. Sabutai knows what he’s talking about. Here’s a recent study on international tests. Bear in mind, it’s just one study, there are many more available should you choose to know something. Key finding:

        Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.

    • Agreed

      And I appreciate your input and those of other teachers on these boards, including the author of this post, as well as less frequent commentor and friend on and off BMG joelpatterson (incidentally a former teacher of mine). As you may recall I once drank the reform Kool-Aid but have become an agnostic on charters and a nuanced supporter of unions. Ravitch is right and Rhee is wrong. Sadly there is no party supporting the Ravitch view right now, though I do think of the ‘reform’ crowd Geoff Canada figured out that poverty and nutrition are just as important and I will still defend HCZ from its critics. Urban Prep is a great Chicago school as well, but its innovation is in is curriculum (classical preporatory model) and composition (all male), and its has significant sources of outside funding.

      That said when the union went on strike I stood with the CTA and supported the compromise Rahm was pushed towards.

  7. Is education/poverty a chicken/egg proposition?

    I tend to come from the school that education is, or at least can be, the great equalizer. If we make sure that every child gets an excellent education, literally leaving no child behind (and holding no child back for that matter), then doors are opened for all to better themselves. I support testing to measure our progress, but not the way some testing is handled and used. Sabutai, however, makes the case here as he has previously that our stats look bad not because our education is inherently worse or our kids are stupid, but because there is socioeconomic inequality to start with. So I am asking with honest interest in learning more, which do we need to solve first and how, or is there a way to do both on parallel tracks? How do other countries control for socioeconomic inequality while making sure that opportunity and excellence are available to all?

    • Other countries, which are rated “higher”, do not have the child poverty rates that the US has (over 20%). So, to answer your question, other countries do not “control for socioeconomic inequality” than the US does. Currently, there is not nearly enough focus on health disparities or epidemiology. It’s not that a child is “poor” that he/she doesn’t achieve, but other factors which are exacerbated by poverty. There are many ways schools can be “equalized”, but policy has not yet evolved. Quantifying student and teacher worth by relying on faulty testing metrics not only treats children like commodities, but is undermining their education in countless ways. Policy needs to focus more on tackling disparities in vision, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, physical activity, breakfast, and inattention and hyperactivity. Research Charles Basch, he makes sense – I just wish more people would listen.

  8. So I guess the question is...

    …how do other countries avoid the 20%+ child poverty rate to start with? We are still the richest country in the world, right? Therefore if other countries can figure this out surely we can.

    • Absolutely agree, achievement gaps began to close when fixing, or at least paying attention to, problems that poor people are more likely to experience became a national priority. LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty started to level the playing field, and that’s when gaps began to close. There are many economic policies that favor the rich in this country, yet the discussion tends to focus on poor “freeloaders”. To start with “outsourcing” needs to be reigned in. If a CEO enjoys a tariff free existence because he runs a domestic enterprise, then said CEO should hire American workers at a living wage. Currently, many US corporations are de facto foreign corporations. They may “incorporate” in the US but hire children overseas for slave wages. If you are a domestic corporation you should hire workers from the US and adhere to our labor laws. If not than you certainly should not be receiving tax breaks by selling out your own country. Hefty tariffs should be enforced when a company acts like a foreign subsidiary.

  9. Colum, you're completely right

    about glasses.

    Although it’s more stylish to wear glasses these days, I often found students in my lower level classes refusing to wear my glasses. In fact, my student teacher went so far as to make a collage of people wearing glasses and even wore his glasses instead of contacts one day. It’s definitely one of the issues that contributes to learning issues.

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