Feb 19 2013

Et tu, Rube?

On a post I wrote last week called ‘The Status Quo Miracle District,” I got a bunch of angry comments from people who seemed to feel betrayed by my ‘debunking’ of the media inflated claims of a ‘public’ school district.

This is the first comment:

Very unhelpful. With friends like you, public education needs no enemies. You help the reformer deformers with this.
And what do you know of Union City? I expect extremely little. You’re so busy venting a blogger’s ATTITUDE, that you’ve lost all thoughtfulness.

Most were much more thoughtful that that, and there were plenty of ‘supporters’ of the point I was trying to make.

I think the fear is that some politician could read my post and think “So investing extra money and doing the kinds of reform that the unions always say is necessary doesn’t bring up test scores.  Therefore we’ve got to avoid those kinds of reforms and, instead, do the kinds that some claim accomplish miracles.”

And I suppose that this is a risk, pointing out the low test scores in this district, but I just can’t buy into the ‘miracle school’ concept.  In this article, which is adapted from an upcoming book, there is the usual talk of “high expectations” and harder working teachers that have “turned around” this “bad” district.

Now I am all for schools improving.  I’ve taught at four different schools in three different states and I’ve always found that schools were not operating that their highest efficiency levels.  I see a lot of money wasted and a lot of terrible professional development so I do get offended when people say I’m a “status quo defender.”  To think someone as cranky as me was fully satisfied with everything that my various schools were doing is pretty crazy.  And added money which is well spent, and reducing class sizes, and offering students more electives and classes in the arts, I think that’s what makes school a place that students want to come to.

But I don’t think that these sorts of reforms are going to get those standardized test scores to the level that charter schools like to pretend they are accomplishing.  Small class size is great, and this is why the elite private schools have such small classes.  Small classes give teachers the opportunity to really form relationships with their students which can help motivate those students as they have even more adults looking out for them for more of the time.  But even with small class sizes, and I’ve had a few very small classes back when I taught in Houston, what schools can accomplish, I believe, is limited.  That there is a limit, though, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth pushing that limit.

But thinking there is a limit, which everyone would admit there is one — certainly nobody thinks a school can get every kids to win a Nobel prize in Chemistry — and maybe, for me, one that is lower that some other people believe, is part of my belief that there are not so many ‘failing’ schools.

Though I now teach at one of the best high schools in the country, my first five years of teaching were at three different ‘failing’ schools — ‘dropout factories’, whatever you want to call them.  But I found the quality of the teachers at these schools to be pretty high.  My experience has shaped my belief that just because kids aren’t acing those tests, it doesn’t mean that the teachers or the schools are truly failing.

Just as I don’t consider Ted Williams a ‘failing’ hitter because he only got a hit 41% of the time during the legendary 1941 season, just as I don’t consider Chris Rock to be a ‘failing’ comedian because he is unable to cure members of his audience suffering from clinical depression, and just as I don’t consider the woman who cuts my hair at SuperCuts a ‘failing’ hairdresser because I don’t emerge from that place looking like Brad Pitt, I just don’t think that a teacher, a school, or a district is ‘failing’ just because they haven’t figured out how to get those test scores up.

So my pointing out the low test scores at Union City is not my way of knocking the students or the teachers in that district.  From what I read about it, it is a place I’d much rather send my own kids to than to any KIPP school, particularly one where students have to ‘earn’ their desks on the first day.  So, yes, Union City deserves credit for going against the current and doing things that improve the schools even though those improvements don’t always show up on multiple choice tests.

5 Responses

  1. Headlines 2/19/2013 | EdGator linked to this post.
  2. Tee

    Touting “miracle” schools not only reinforces the belief that test scores are everything (as you said). It also falsely suggests that schools themselves can somehow overcome all the other factors that influence a student: home life, level of parental involvement, nutrition, emotional well-being, peer influence, etc. We should be very proud of Union City, and definitely look to it as a model for improvement, but it’s wrong to ignore the bigger picture.

    “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.” – Deuteronomy

  3. Educator

    I’m going to repeat my point I’ve posted on your blog before –

    Do we know if our nation is better off with higher standardized test scores? I guess one could argue that we’d rather have higher scores than not…all else being equal. But I think the pursuit of higher test scores leads to unintended consequences.

    I applaud some reformers for wanting to help improve childrens’ lives in poor communities. But these policies seem misguided.

  4. gkm001

    Gary, I hear what you’re saying about miracle claims, but my fear is not that some politician could read your post and think “So investing extra money and doing the kinds of reform that the unions always say is necessary doesn’t bring up test scores. Therefore we’ve got to avoid those kinds of reforms and, instead, do the kinds that some claim accomplish miracles.” No, it’s that they might read even less carefully than that, and think “So investing extra money doesn’t do squat; let’s forget about the schools entirely and turn our attention to something else.” I live in Illinois, which ranks near the bottom of the nation in state spending on ed. I live in a high-poverty, mostly Latino suburb that spends 1/3 what wealthier Illinois districts spend per pupil. In my high school district, 26.7% percent of kids “meet or exceed” standards on state tests. In Union City, it’s like 60 percent, 70 percent? I don’t want to make standardized tests the sole measure of success, and I don’t believe in education miracles, but the Union City schools look pretty good from where I sit. I want my elected leaders in my state to acknowledge that we need educational equity, that money and time and experienced teachers do make a difference in education, that we can’t keep putting the poorest kids in cash-strapped, overcrowded schools, with stripped-down, bare-bones curriculum and materials, and call that an education.

    It’s not about getting to 100 percent of anything. It’s about making sure no child’s talents and abilities go to waste just for lack of opportunity. – Gloria

  5. Brian Ford

    As I said on your original post, you raised the prospect that the graduation rates were bogus without sufficiently investigating the issue.

    As for the overall test scores still being fairly low, yeah, of course — that is why we feel pretty good about that fact that Union City is more honest than Michelle Rhee’s resume.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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