Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Louisiana (Education) Burning

Schools are burning. I like to think that if people really knew what was going on in our schools, there would be protests in the streets. I like to think people don’t actually know – I like to tell myself they don’t have a good idea. There are many reasons. The Times-Picayune reports that there have been six fires in a week at Frederick Douglass High School, but has ignored so many other incidents at this and other schools. I mean, it is a wonder that such a thing wasn’t reported at one or two or even five. It took six incidents of setting fire to a school to get any attention, and if you look at the article, that’s not much attention.

I mean, for all the historical & neighborhood activists trying to save Frederick Douglass HS, the folks who want it gone just have to run it badly enough that the students burn it down. Neglect becomes their ally.

But you won’t read about this in the paper, or many other places for that matter. The article doesn’t mention, for instance, all the classes disrupted over the last week. Why can’t these children learn, when they’ve got whole days devoted to ingress and egress of a building through metal detectors. (Oh, yeah, that’s the fault of the teachers and their unions, right?)

The article doesn’t mention that to set these fires, students were cutting classes. (Students that the school won’t or cannot kick out because of state legal protections of those deemed “special education.” They just learn differently! Their setting fires is the fault of the teachers and their unions. Wouldn’t you be frustrated if you couldn’t read? Wouldn’t that make you want to set fires?) It doesn’t mention that nothing was done by the administration and the only six security officers. (The teachers have to keep these students, often bigger then they are, in the classrooms in their seats, outnumbered 20+ to 1, with no support from the administration, security, or school system to remove repeat offenders.)

The article doesn’t mention that the fire department had to come out there because there aren’t any fire extinguishers or sprinklers in the building. It doesn’t mention that the state ignores its own laws when it comes to making a building safe (but not when it comes to “special education security problems”). It doesn’t mention that, when there were fire extinguishers, the students who were cutting class would take the extinguishers and turn them on security guards, teachers and other students. (Wouldn’t you be frustrated if you couldn’t read? Wouldn’t you want to take a fire extinguisher and use it as a weapon?)

And again, this article doesn’t bring up the appalling conditions at other schools. I’ve seen video of students slapping teachers who were calling for help on their cell phones because the intercom system didn’t work. The cell phone broke, costing the teacher, because they will not be reimbursed nor the student disciplined or prosecuted by the school or the system. I’ve seen video of students trying to bust down the door of a classroom they weren’t supposed to be in (they were cutting class) so they could socialize with the students inside. I wonder why the students can’t do simple English and Math.

Funny thing is, in New Orleans, if all this information were to be brought to light, if the video were to be shown on television – the teachers would get in trouble: one for having a cell phone in the school in the first place; another for not “doing more” to get these kids out of the hall (1 vs. 12 +); one for locking her door and, finally; one teacher or student or concerned observer (whichever it was) for daring to bring a video recorder into the facility. That last person could be sued by the school system and the students for invasion of privacy.

We have gulags in America and they aren’t named Guantanamo. I’d like to believe it is just that people don’t know, I’d like to believe that it is the media that underreports the story. I’d like to believe that people would take to the streets if they actually found out what is going on. But then I read something like this article by Alter that makes me think again. It just proves to me that there are members of the pundit class in this country who really have no clue what is going on.

Here are some statements:
The Gates Foundation has learned some lessons from its investments in recent years in pathbreaking schools. The first big idea—to break up big schools into smaller, more manageable units—proved insufficient without major changes in personnel. Gates argues that rigorous accountability is the only option, from mayoral control (elected school boards are mostly a menace) to principal control (teacher tenure and onerous work rules are quality-killers) to data control (IT systems that closely track performance are a must).


1. Break up schools. Done right, it could accomplish something. Done wrong, you hamstring your staff into teaching four or five different classes to different age groups (quality killer), undermine any elective/extracurricular activities you may have (quality killer) and force the school system to maintain an overextended physical plant (quality killer).

2. Mayoral control: C. Ray Nagin. Enough. Said. Holding boards or individual elected officials accountable is one of the greatest questions our nation is facing right now. Until we get that right, it won’t matter who controls schools.

3. Principal control: Why don’t we ask these people to start actually managing their schools and facilitating the development of their subordinates? Some do it well, some run their schools in such a way that six fires can be set and no one has a clue who did it. Then, when a good principal does come along, the district or the system hamstring him or her with rules (you can’t expel the “special ed” kids who are trying to kick windows out of classrooms and throw desks at other students) or budget (no, you have to keep the elective teacher who sleeps all day on staff, because if you fire them, your school doesn’t have a high enough enrollment to justify hiring anyone new - please see also ‘break up schools’).

4. Onerous work rules: Speaking from a city where the public education system requires teachers to work from roughly 7:30 in the AM to 4:30 in the PM with a 30 minute lunch break, insufficient planning time (teachers are generally trying to cover other classes due to few substitutes or are chasing students back into their classrooms to keep them from setting fires) during the work day requires extra work at night and on weekends, and multiple preps (we’d like you to teach 7th grade Life Science, Louisiana history, 8th grade Earth Science and U.S. History all this semester, and stay an hour after school for LEAP tutoring…) I guess I would call those work rules a little ONEROUS. But I reckon the plan isn’t to KEEP good teachers around but to piss them off so turnover is high and any union activity is weak.

This quote “unions have simply prevented teachers from being judged, even in part, on whether their students improve during the course of the year” is just wrong. If this is true, then what the hell are all the benchmark tests New Orleans teachers have to orchestrate every three months? The reasons unions fight this sort of thing isn’t because they don’t want to judge teachers, it is because the tracking software doesn’t collect data relevant to students’ improvement. Last year, I got “judged” on the test results of 3 no-shows (students who never showed up at school, not one day), countless organic special education students who did not have the appropriate paperwork for their condition, students who did not take these benchmarks because of absence or transferring to another school (but whose benchmarks still counted as “zeros” for me, the teacher), roughly a dozen students who had shown up at any point during the year from another school (whose benchmarks still counted for me, the teacher, even though I had not been their teacher all year). Not to mention that all of this data was collected from students subject to sitting in classrooms with anti-social borderline personality cases constantly disrupting class because there was no mechanism to deal with them from a system-wide discipline perspective. I’m sure I would have taught these students more effectively, and would have no problem with results and improvements of 15 out of every 20 of my students if the school system would have done something about the remaining 5 who wanted to throw rocks, turn over tables, and start fires.

Alter quotes: “Whenever he gets depressed about education, Gates says he visits one of the more than 60 KIPP schools nationwide, where the energy is palpable and the results irrefutable.” Yes, enrollment standards do produce irrefutable results, Johnny, that’s why colleges look so good on paper. Not all “at-risk” kids learn well by jumping around and chanting all that nonsense. Some do, I give you that, but not all. I had no less than 12 out of every 20 students who would have been able to sit in a traditional classroom and learn traditional material in the traditional way – if they didn’t have other students throwing rocks and furniture at them in class and starting fires. KIPP can get rid of students for throwing rocks and starting fires. RSD apparently cannot.

Then discussing the future Secretary of Education, this quote tells me Alter lives in Never-neverLand with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys: “That's why it's more likely [Obama will] settle on a superintendent like Arne Duncan of Chicago, Michael Bennet of Denver or Paul Vallas of New Orleans, any of whom would suit Gates and other reform-minded philanthropists just fine.

If Obama selects Paul Vallas as his Secretary of Education, with the support of Bill Gates, it will be difficult for me not to immediately switch from PC’s to Apples for my computing needs, and become the best Republican I can be. At that moment, it will appear to me that the Democratic Party will have abandoned all hope for public education in the United States of America. Alter, get your ass to New Orleans and into one of these schools Paul Vallas manages before you make any more suggestions to a national audience about who ought to run the show nationally.


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