Wednesday, April 13, 2011

AV#72 - Note to Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper (Kurt Vonnegut's "son")

                  ANOTHER VIEW #72

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                                     Dec. 4, 2010

Note to the Gov.-elect, Kurt Vonnegut’s “son”

“My dream of America was great public schools. I thought we should be the envy of the world, with our public schools. And I went to such a public school, so I knew that such a public school was possible. …My god, we had a daily paper, we had a debating team, we had a fencing team, a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra… and all of this with the Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school.”                                                                                                  Kurt Vonnegut, NOW on PBS, Oct. 2005
1.      Vonnegut’s “son” enters the Governor’s Mansion?   - “Welcome to the Monkey House”
Weird, isn’t it, to think a fan and friend of Kurt Vonnegut—one of our heroes back in the day, voice of the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, anti-war counterculture, cynic extraordinaire, sweet and sour  prophet of doom, satirist of government, business, and science, and socialist (?!?)—that this friend, John Hickenlooper, is about to become our next governor!

The affection Mr. Hickenlooper showed for his father’s old Cornell fraternity brother was matched by the generosity that one of America’s favorite novelists of the late 20th century demonstrated for John shortly after he became mayor (see the hysterical 2004 Youtube video – “Is Denver Mayor Hickenlooper Kurt Vonnegut’s Long-Lost Son?” ).  We laugh—and yet we wonder: was it Vonnegut’s description of a mayor as “almost as low comedy as a dog-catcher” that fed John’s desire to seek higher office?  Was the novelist inspiring his young friend to take after Jerry Springer, once a lowly mayor, “but now,” he said, with a straight face, “that man is like a god in the firmament of American culture”?  Do we praise/blame Vonnegut now—he who mocked power so deftly—for urging John to climb the ladder to the highest position in our land?

[A brief interlude: Wasn’t this a bit harsh on mayors? If Mayor Hickenlooper could laugh off his “other” dad’s dismissive joke, I cannot. Some may have noticed a similarity between what Vonnegut called John’s “preposterous family name” and my own:  4 syllables, Dutch, begins with H, ends in per. (And yes, thanks to those of you first meet me and ask: John?)  Can I take you back to the homeland for a second?  I proudly point out that a relative once served his country quite well in a similar role: see Wikipedia’s list of the mayors (burgemeesters) of Amsterdam:
                1836–1842: Willem Daniël Cramer (1788–1856)
                1842–1849: Pieter Huidekoper (1798–1852)
                1850–1853: Gerlach Cornelis Joannes van Reenen (1818–1893)
So sorry, Mr. Vonnegut, poke fun at presidents all you want (e.g. Cat’s Cradle), but don’t ask me to look down on lowly mayors!]

The bond between the author and our next governor invites—no demands—psychologists and literary critics alike to grapple with the question: what does it mean for the future of our state?

How, to be more direct, can we trust a leader who admires this sad comic for whom life seemed but a joke—with more than a few doubts about its Author?  Who struggled so to warn/predict apocalypse, even as he wished we could step back and appreciate love and beauty whenever we see it—and remind each other, as Uncle Alex would do, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

A man who gave us Bokonon’s revision of the Biblical injunction: “Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on.”

A man who created Trafalmadore, and other bizarre fantasies, that seemed preferable to real life for Billy Pilgrim (and more than a few readers), as reality gave us bombs over Dresden, Hiroshima.…   

And finally, a man who in Timequake speaks of John and his dad and offers such a childish joke: “Are you a member of the Turtle Club?”—in which the required answer was a little off-color for this family newsletter, “YOU BET YOUR A _ _  I AM!” (And they call this literature?)  I can see the seeds of a future brewpub owner there, but our next GOVERNOR?

2.      More seriously … where listening to Vonnegut can help

“There is no more pressing priority for Colorado than providing our children with the best education possible.  The stakes are even higher today because our kids are facing a more competitive global economy with the rise of China and India.” 
John Hickenlooper, Denver Post, “If I were governor…” Oct. 17, 2010

This fall I worked on a project grading gubernatorial candidates across the country on their education positions (see Making the Grade, produced by Education Reform Now (ERN) and Education Equality Project).  I began to cringe every time I heard would-be governors reduce schools to being institutions here to serve the economy.  I understand that, in our economic doldrums, with nearly 10% unemployed, candidates for political office will connect everything to jobs.  But my hope is that a governor who has felt the influence of Kurt Vonnegut’s gentle humanity will be less inclined to speak of education as merely a stepping stone to “productive careers … in the modern labor force.”  

Yes, Gov.-elect Hickenlooper—see quote above—noted the connection between the quality of our schools and our economic future.  And it makes sense, given his success in business, that he can relate to those who will bring jobs and “grow the Colorado economy.”  Fine.  But the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut will not allow him, I hope, to start yapping like those who see teachers and classrooms as part of some state-wide assembly line preparing the next generation for the workforce.  Education is richer and broader than this.  I understand the Chamber of Commerce using such phrases, but please, Gov.-elect, keep Vonnegut’s larger vision in mind when you speak of schools.  Articulate a more powerful definition.  I trust you will never use language this constricted, this offensive, as we read on the websites of these gubernatorial candidates in September:

Arkansas—Mike Beebe: “Cultivating the Relationship between Education and Job Creation Gov. Beebe believes that education and job growth are inseparable.”

Idaho – Keith Allred: “Finally, education is a powerful tool of economic development.  Only an educated work- force will attract the businesses that can grow Idaho’s economy and sustain it through economic downturns.”

Michigan-Virg Bernero:  “Virg Bernero’s Plan for Arming Michiganders to Succeed In a Global Economy - Virg has always said that education is economic development …. (For example) - High quality Pre--‐K for disadvantaged students, according to Timothy Bartik, Senior Economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, results in a $59,625 increase in earnings per individual in Michigan.”

Oklahoma-Jari Askins: “Education programs need to meet the workforce needs and engage students so they see the benefits they’ll receive with their hard work. Make education have value that is gauged by an effective workforce, not just test scores.”

South Dakota-Dennis Daugaard: “As early as seventh grade, students begin to make choices that will affect their career options when they conclude their education…. I will urge schools to require every student to adopt a Personal Learning Plan that selects courses to align with career goals. … Students need to know what career opportunities are available in South Dakota, which fields are in high demand. … We will utilize annual market surveys to determine the best career opportunities for our high school and university students, and we will share these results with parents and students.”

Vermont-Brian Dubie: “Strengthen Education and Training - Vermont has a highly motivated, skilled and educated workforce. Employers often cite the quality and reliability of Vermont workers as the most important asset to their businesses. But in this globally competitive and mobile economy, we cannot rest on those laurels; we must continually improve our system of education and training for the benefit of all Vermonters.”

If you attend a liberal arts college—for years not knowing what career it might lead to—and then get a master’s degree in of all-non-utilitarian-subjects, liberal education, you are guilty, of course, of thinking education is first and foremost about being human.  Being free to think, to understand, to question—and to find where your talents and interests take you.  Not primarily about preparing for a career.  You are guilty of believing education is about strengthening good habits, building values—character; of believing, in fact, that education is exactly what the dictionary tells us: “the act or purpose of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1996). (See also origins, Latin, educere-to bring up, raise, lead forth).   

Guilty as charged.

Accuse me, too, of not being practical.  Of course candidates today are going to make the connection between education (and almost everything else) and the economy.  What’s wrong with that?

The harm, as I see it, is that it understates the importance of what we hope takes place in our schools.  It cheapens the meaning of education.  It is condescending.  It recalls the division between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington 100 years ago: the former seeking equality, a liberal arts education for all; the latter content to let Tuskegee Institute and other education institutions train young African-Americans to be cooks and carpenters—trades where they could use their hands “to dignify and glorify common labor”—not to expect them to be doctors, lawyers—or the President. The words of Du Bois—a challenge then to Washington’s submission to the prevailing winds of the day (separate and unequal)—still ring as a challenge to us: “Education is the development of power and ideals. We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls … simply for the use of other people. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.”

It is frustrating when our leaders reduce the classroom to merely a slice of a sound economy. It confirms for educators that policymakers operate on a different plane and have little feeling for the ambitions we have when we go to teach in the morning—where we hope to make a bigger difference in the lives of our students than just to provide them with the skills needed to compete in the global marketplace. 

Education as a tool of economic growth.  What fun Mr. Vonnegut would have had with such language! 
3.      Perhaps 40,000 Colorado students in low performing schools.  So it goes?

Hickenlooper wrote ERN he sought policies that “allow all parents to select excellent public schools for their children…” (Response to Education Reform Now’s questionnaire, Aug. 17, 2010)

As mayor of a city with enormous challenges in its public school system, Mr. Hickenlooper has often seemed more comfortable in the role of salesman than objective critic.  (“… I am confident,” the mayor said in 2004, “we are on the brink of being one of the top urban school districts in the nation.”)  But just as he championed fundamental change in how the city addressed homelessness, he would do well to bring that same voice in making the pitch for how we can better serve our students, rather than overstating the progress we have made.  Sure, as mayor he may have been constrained by his friendship with Superintendent Bennet for several years.  He may have felt it was incumbent on him to offer a positive spin when so many (like me) have perhaps focused too much on the negatives in DPS. 

And yet—like a certain brave writer—let’s be willing to confront some hard realities.  No, we’re not talking about being seeing Dresden destroyed, or 130,000 dead.  But we must admire Vonnegut’s determination to find words to capture the awful truths he witnessed in WW II.  (And anyone who thinks education is merely job training should have been in the classroom with me, 40 years ago this winter, listening to ninth graders wrestle with the themes in Slaughterhouse-Five.  Bigger issues were at stake.)

The hard realities as they pertain to our schools—low achievement and growth, unsatisfactory graduation and remediation rates, and much more—demand change.  The Colorado Department of Education just released its findings that among the 230 schools that need priority improvement or turnaround plans, almost 100 are within 30 miles of the state capital.  “Excellent schools”?  Hardly.
                                96 Metro-Area Schools with Priority Improvement or Turnaround Plans
DPS -                                       44
Westminster 50 -                12
Jefferson County-                 9
Douglas County -   8           
Adams 12                               7
Mapleton 1 -                           6
Adams County 14  -               6
Englewood                              2           
Sheridan____________      2_                                        
If nearly 5% of our schools are in “academic trouble,” my guess is that at least 40,000 out of the state’s 800,000 students are in schools classified as “turnaround” schools, in dire need of major improvement. Policymakers under the golden dome this winter should think of those 40,000 boys and girls. 
A Vonnegut reader in the state capital seeking inspiration—unwilling to accept the fatalism of So it goes—hopeful of change, might recall the subtitle of Slaughterhouse- Five—“The Children’s Crusade.”  

AV#73 - Class size - For Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates - A lump of coal in your stocking

                   ANOTHER VIEW #73

                                    Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                        Dec. 17, 2010

For Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates –
A lump of coal in your stocking*

The two portly gentlemen have asked for a contribution. Scrooge insists on giving nothing.
“I wish to be left alone,” he said. “… I help support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

’Tis the season. You’d like a story of good cheer.  Sorry to disappoint you. But if Dickens could tell a Christmas story with more than a little bitterness and anger, I feel it’s OK to follow in his shoes.  True, Scrooge finds happiness: “…and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.”  This piece ends with another vulnerable child, Tiny Bianca, waiting for….a better school, where she is not lost in a large classroom.

Stop Making Sense

Those who are “badly off must go” to schools and sit in classrooms with 29 other students.  “They cost enough.”  Teachers begging for smaller classes—that’s just union talk.  We can’t afford it. Add a hand-ful of kids. For the secondary teacher, that’s 5 students, times 5 classes. Another 25 students. No big deal.  

Who would offer such a silly idea? Well ho-ho-ho, if it isn’t Saint Nick himself.  Yes, or at least the two jolly men who must have doled out more money to education reform in 2010 than anyone else in America: Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates.  Mr. Claus at the U.S. Department of Education, who delivered sleigh loads of federal stimulus money and Race to the Top grants across the land. And Microsoft’s Seattle Santa, philanthropy’s leading voice for education reform, our nation’s most generous grant-maker. 

“Even Santa makes mistakes” (or) there ain’t no Sanity Clause

Groucho:  That's in every contract, that's what you call a sanity clause.
Chico:  You can't a fool a me … there ain't no sanity clause.
A Night at the Opera
“Even Santa”—my parents must have told me (a 7-year-old with a crew cut) when I opened that present in my stocking—oops, a brush and comb surely meant for one of my sisters—“makes mistakes.”  (Blame the elves!)  Even these two bright men can be wrong.  Unfortunately, they have outsize influence.  Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and coeditor of Stretching the School Dollar, says: “By stepping up to speak frankly and offer bold solutions, Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates are making it much easier for state and local leaders to make tough but necessary decisions.”  Yes, policymakers and funders listen to these two men.  Already others have chimed in—including the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—singing the same tune.  All of whom I respect for their leadership and views on so many issues.  But on class size, I believe they are wrong.

So a lump of coal in your Christmas stockings, Secretary of Education Duncan, and to you, Mr. Gates. Here is my protest.  For advocating an idea that most teachers, parents, and students can only call foolish. 
* The history of coal in a Christmas stocking is nothing more than being left off the toy list as a result of bad behavior. When stockings were being filled the gift giver reaches down by the fireplace to the bin, grabs a hunk or two of coal, and stuffs the naughty child's stocking while placing toys in the stockings of those children who have been a joy to their parents.
Reader: expect no narrative flow. Perhaps it reflects my anger. Just a few snapshots, potshots, rim shots….

Teacher as widget. Or teacher as human being, seeking to know and connect with students …

Last year reformers heralded “The Widget Effect—Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness,” The New Teacher Project’s powerful study of 15,000 teachers in 12 school districts (including DPS and Pueblo 60).  The message: don’t view teachers as widgets, as “interchangeable parts”—or as Webster’s puts it, “something considered typical or representative, as of a manufacturer’s products: the widgets coming off the assembly line.”

Nice to be told we are individuals. With different levels of success. Who should not be treated as thingamajigs.

You know, we might even be human beings, who are only capable of knowing well a certain number of students. Who cannot teach 120 students as well as we can 100; who cannot teach 100 students as well as we can 80….  And just as true for elementary teachers.  It hurts to see a friend, a teacher who has been so effective with 25 boys and girls, now disheartened, struggling to reach her 34 students in a nearby school.

On the assembly line - with Charlie Chaplin: Speed her up!

Let’s go to an assembly line, the famous scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin is working in a factory, tightening a pair of bolts as they rush by on the conveyor belt, both hands at work; occasionally he falls behind because of an underarm itch, or a bee flying by his twitching nose (and twitching mustache)—and as a result gets threatening looks and gestures from his supervisor and co-workers. 

Upstairs the boss of Electro Steel Corp takes a break from his puzzle and the funny papers long enough to bark out to his beefy minion: “Section 5, speed her up!” We laugh as our tramp snaps his wrists faster and faster to match the raised tempo of the conveyor belt, and then as he chases after some bolts he failed to tighten. Another shout from the Voice on High: “Section 5, give it the limit!” Soon it’s too much.  Charlie jumps on that belt and gets swallowed up inside the machinery and the gears.  When he is emerges, he is, impossibly, fine physically—but briefly out of his mind, which leads to the merry scene in which he dances around squeezing oil in the faces of co-workers, his superiors, the police. A mad rebel. (Splat!)

In asking us to think anew amidst our tighter education budgets, what does our Secretary of Education say?

Our K12 system largely still adheres to the centuryold, industrialage factory model of
education…. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools.
But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century….  
            (Remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, “Bang for the Buck in Schooling,” Nov. 17, 2010)

Good, no more factory model. Then what in the world is he doing from his sleek office upstairs barking–OK, in Duncan’s case, recommending—bigger classes? More Speed!  Give it the limit!

            … Parents, like myself, understandably like smaller classes. We would like to have small classes      for everyone‐‐and it is good news that the size of classes in the U.S. has steadily shrunk for       decades. But in secondary schools, districts may be able to save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size….

More students! You can work harder, right?  Those of you teaching grades 7-12, with five classes of 25, surely you know your 125 students well by Dec. 17, right?  Of course you have built strong relationships with each and every one of them, yes? But hey, challenge yourself, don’t be a wimp, here’s another 3 or 4 a class, you don’t have a problem with 29 do you?—just another 20 kids to know, 20 more papers to grade….

            Many highperforming education systems, especially in Asia, have substantially larger classes          than the United States. According to OECD data, secondary school classes in South Korea     average about 36 students. In Japan, it’s 33 students per class. In the U.S., it’s 25 students per                     class. In fact, teachers in Asia sometimes request larger class sizes because they think a broad   distribution of students and skill levels can accelerate learning.

Darn! I KNEW there was something wrong with me! I am not volunteering to have bigger classes so that I can have more 14-year-olds whose voices will not be heard in our 50-minute class, so that I can have more paragraphs and essays to read, so that I can spend more time on Saturday and Sunday grading, so that to be even moderately effective as a writing teacher it will now take not 8 or 10 but probably 12 hours most weekends so that I can be caught up and ready to teach my 29 x 5 = 146 students on Monday. What’s WRONG with us that we who don’t ask for an even broader “distribution of students and skill levels”!—(as if we don’t already have a huge range in our rooms with 21-24 students, as I saw last spring with my two 6th grade classes). And guess what—this is how, Duncan claims, we “elevate the teaching profession”!

            We have to learn from highperforming school systems in other nations, including how to    elevate the teaching profession and better support our neediest schools.

Two wrongs make a …  whopper.  What are they thinking?

Two days later Bill Gates praised Duncan’s “terrific speech” and again suggested the belt tightening that must take place in our nation’s capitals is a chance to rethink class size.  He told the Council of Chief State School Officers:

“Your predecessors … could push reforms with big price tags. Schools hired new staff, added more specialists, and reduced class sizes. We went from one adult for every 19 students to one adult for every 8 students. I don’t question the good intentions behind it, but these have been costly changes, and they have not led to better student achievement….
            “We know today that the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent       teaching. It’s amazing how effective the great teachers are. We should be making the most of        their skill. But we don’t….  Great teachers are a precious natural resource. But we have to figure           out how to make them a renewable, expandable resource.”

So that’s what we are: “a renewable, expandable resource”?  I guess it’s better than being seen as a widget— or as a member of an assembly line. And yet a teacher has only so many resources, and so much time.

Gates continued: “… smaller class sizes have not correlated with rising achievement. California spent $20 billion reducing class sizes, and student achievement did not change.” What to do instead?

            Conservative estimates suggest that we can save more than $10,000 per classroom by           increasing class size by just four pupils. If we pay some of that money to our best teachers for          taking in more students, we accomplish three goals at once – we save money, we get more           students in classrooms with highly effective teachers, and we give our best teachers a real raise,     not just for being good, but for taking on more work. 

Pay me to teach more students? No thanks. We compromise enough as it is. We have our standards too.

Here is where I should point to “the evidence based on research” on class size. And go ahead, tell me my autobiography is meaningless besides “the facts.’’ Perhaps.  But teaching has been 18 years of my life and so, yes, this is personal.  To have over 100 students (in Vermont) was “easy” compared to fellow English teachers here in Colorado, today, in schools nearby, many of whom have 150 students– 5 x 30—in their classes. And yet I found 100 too much. It was one reason behind my move from a public school to a private school (no more than 65 students) in the ’80’s. It was a reason many teachers—and the Colorado foundation I worked for in the early 1990’s—supported one of the key principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools—developed by Ted Sizer, a former teacher and headmaster (Andover Academy), a man who knew understood classrooms and teacher-students relations as well as anyone. The principle:

Personalization: Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Efforts should be directed toward a goal that no teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school.

It was a reason that when I returned to teach this past decade, I was only willing to work in schools (including two charter schools) where the teacher-student ratio enabled me to feel I could be effective.  And it was one factor in my not going back to the school (teach 100 again?) where I taught last spring. 

Ignore those Wise Men bearing gifts… On class size, listen to teachers, parents, and students.

Before closing, rather than listen further to Wise Men who come bearing a silly idea on how to make our schools more productive, listen to a teacher.  I asked my cousin, in Florida, who started teaching last year at age 61 after a successful career in computers, about his 2002 state law lowering class size:

We really think our law is good for education.  I think the numbers–18: K-3, 22: 4-8, and 24 or 25 for H.S. were arrived at very responsibly.  After over a year with class sizes in compliance for my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes, I feel that the numbers are just right.  I have 18, 22, and 22 and feel like I have a good teaching relationship with all of my students.    With our “No Child Left Behind” requirement, the class size is especially important.  We get some very hard to deal with students that could not otherwise be dealt with in a larger class size. 

For fun, listen to teachers vent on Duncan’s speech (any day now Wikileaks will release emails exchanged by teachers following Speeches by Folks of Influence Who Should Know Better!) at Joanne Jacobs’ webstite: (Nov. 20, 2010).

Best of all, let’s hear from a student.  This is my attempt to replicate the ending of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  All goes still. The spotlight is on Linus as he reminds us “what Christmas is all about.”  

People ask what school reform is about.  If nothing else, we must argue for smaller classes.  I close with words—not from scripture—just from 7-year-old Bianca (“Personalities of the Year, The Kids of Waiting for Superman,” Parade, Dec. 12, 2010), one of the children in Waiting for Superman eager to find a better alternative to the public school she attends.  Bianca is still waiting.  “We have 30 kids in my class and one teacher,” the Harlem second grader says softly. “She doesn’t have time for each of us.”

AV#74B - Quality of teachers and "data-driven instruction"

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                        Jan. 4, 2011

#74 B - Quality of teachers and “data-driven instruction”
You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for  
Billy Joel

“As data systems and the tools to analyze them become more ubiquitous, experts say we will need more research into how much and what kind of data (is) most helpful to teachers trying to improve their classroom instruction. (Professor Ryan) Baker envisions within a generation pre-service teachers will study data analysis as a matter of course, and researchers will develop easier-to-use tools to help them compare their own students’ behavior and performance to models based on hundreds of thousands of similar students.” (“‘Data Mining’ Gains Traction in Education,” Sara D. Sparks, Education Week on line, Dec. 13, 2010)

Do we really think good teachers must also be experts in data-gathering?  Some now speak as if our great teachers must be born accountants, putting on the green-eyeshade to analyze all the data after testing students every six weeks, pulling out key stats and numbers to “make mid-course corrections.”  We hear how effective Uncommon Schools and others have become with their “data-driven instructional model.” (See Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction by Uncommon School’s managing director Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.)  Teach for America’s Steve Farr has found that one of six key characteristics of their “most effective corps members” is that they “constantly monitor their students’ progress and adjust course as needed” (“The Six Habits of Highly Effective Teachers,” Philanthropy Magazine, Spring 2010).  Who can argue with this trend, if it helps students make huge gains in their achievement?

But stop for a minute.  Think of the teachers who meant the most to you.  Do you think one of them was “driven by data”? Weren’t they driven, in fact, by a hard-to-quantify mix of love of their subject, love of sharing that passion with students, and a deep care for the kids in the classes and their progress?  Aren’t these the qualities we look for when recruiting sharp young men and women to teach in our public schools—especially to work with low-income students who need many of our best new teachers?

And yet it sounds as if being “driven” by love and passion and care—qualities that might be especially critical to sustain one in the often emotionally exhausting struggle to serve at-risk students, from so many families at-risk—are quaint.  No, we are told, data will “drive” us.  The alpha and the omega.

If a 20-year-old is thinking of teaching and is given “a short, visionary tour circa 2025 (of) the central role that data have come to play in American K-12 education” (see “Education Data in 2025,” by Checker Finn, Education Next, Winter 2010), it will look and sound cold: “Software automatically analyzes the resulting information to create a data dashboard for each pupil… an artificial intelligence program periodically ‘sifts’ each students’ cumulating education record … multiple teacher web sites … include most everything a teacher might need….”  Is this a job description appealing to that bright college junior who hopes to share his or her love of literature, history, science, and math?
Teachers are strange

Let me go further: name your favorite teacher.  Was he or she exactly normal? 

No, with apologies to Jim Morrison, teachers are strange.  I say this nicely. Really!  Hey, some of my best friends are teachers!  I taught 18 years.  When we look in the mirror we have to admit: a good many of us in this profession—maybe even some of the best—are, well, unusual.  A little bizarre.  

How else to describe my English teacher, Mr. Lambert, who returned our first papers riddled with 5-10 holes, after he had cut out each “very” in our essays?  (“Avoid the use of qualifiers,” reminder #8 from Strunk and White.)  Who does this sort of thing!  But 45 years later, we still value that lesson: to make every word count.  For many of us, it is the Mr. Lamberts—smart, demanding, kind—and a bit wacky—who made a difference.

Being passionate matters.  To be a fan—O.K., a fanatic—about the subject (for Mr. Lambert, above all, it was Thoreau), is part of the enthusiasm that makes teachers effective.  It has brought us “those looks” from students: what is wrong with this man!  (But often too with a smile, a sudden role reversal—we are part child to our more “adult” students, we amuse them; they condescend to endure our oddities, perhaps they even enjoy them.)  No normal human being cares about where commas go like this, or can be so thrilled at “a beautiful sentence”; nobody talks about characters in a novel as if they are close friends, or gets so animated—has he lost his mind too?—reading aloud that scene from “A Tell-Tale Heart.” Weird, really.

If I'm crazy then it's true
That it's all because of you
And you wouldn’t want me any other way

Only 47% of Colorado students in grades 5, 8, and 10 were proficient in science in 2010.

Will this change with experts in data gathering, or rather with someone who is bit cracked in how he gathers “creepy crawlies” when out for a walk—and who can share that passion in a way that can have a life-long impact on a 9-year-old?  A friend John, in his late 60’s, a long-time science teacher and school head in England—continues to bring in worms, spiders, and birds nests to the teachers in his alternative licensure program and to his classes at the University of Colorado at Denver, just as he did with the boys and girls in his English classrooms over 45 years ago.  John is writing a book about his life in education that will make you, too, wonder at a man still carrying the amber stone he found as a boy on the Larrigan beach in Cornwall, who took students outside to find mealworms for their caterpillars, who sees ammonite fossils where you and I see rocks. 

You, too, should go for a walk with John and his wife, a fourth grade teacher.  They stop and thrill at the oddest details—and fill up a bottle with insects, the knapsack with stones.  To excite kids with “hands-on” science, aren’t these the “lunatics” we’re looking for?

I said take me as I am
Cause you might enjoy some madness for a while

A graduating senior wrote me a note recalling her arrival six years before in middle school.  “Many stories had been told about the 7th and 8th grade teachers: Mr. Halasz, the eccentric science teacher….” (She nailed the rest of us quite well too!)  When Chris Halasz was my colleague across the hall, students often arrived from science class still excited about their experiments, laughing, thrilled at their discoveries ….Part of his success, I am sure, was how well he played his “eccentric” card.

Students in Advanced Placement English classes claim to read little more than SparkNotes.

A friend Jack, with whom I taught an AP English class at a girls' boarding school, saw more in a line of Frost than I saw in the entire poem. Preparing for classes together, I was jealous of his wide reading and knowledge.  He made connections with other disciplines he also taught at times during his career—art, architecture, economics—that were engaging, not esoteric.  I am sure it was his love of Don Quixote that enabled him to take juniors and seniors so deeply into that text.  There may have been a touch of Quixote’s madness in how much books and writers meant to him.  His earnestness may have startled a few students.  But I knew I couldn’t offer my classes anywhere near what he gave his students in his 40 years at Emma Willard.

We are distressed to see how many (college) students know so little history and geography.

A friend Mike, with whom I coached high school baseball, taught history for 44 years.  An understatement.  He lived and breathed history. Most every other summer for 35 years—sometimes more frequently—he led 3-4 week trips to Europe with 40 or so high school students.  During his “off” summers he traveled elsewhere around the globe.  His photos and slides, his desire to make key events from the past come to life, were among the reasons students packed his classroom at Rice Memorial.  His curiosity, his own thirst to see the world, to get to any square, tower, church, battlefield—or cemetery—related to his teaching, rubbed off.  As a result, two generations of Rice students toured Europe.

Accountant types?  No. 

Quality of teachers

We are keenly interested in the quality of our teachers. Work backwards: let’s agree we want teachers like Chris Halasz, Jack, and Mike—like John and his wife—in our schools.  Will we entice them to the job if told they need to spend an inordinate amount of time deciphering what the latest test scores reveal about Scott and Sonia’s weaknesses? 

Of course we must be accountable for learning.  And yes, good information helps. Our state law on accountability expresses the hope that useful data will spotlight “the gaps in students’ academic growth rates and (ensure) that educators have the data necessary to assist the neediest students in making more than a year’s academic growth in a year’s time so that these students can catch up…” (SB 163).  All good.  And of course it makes sense that “pre-service teachers will study data analysis.”

But before we go too far down this road, a little balance please. 

    Don’t redefine the job of teaching in a way that sidetracks us from our focus & our strengths

In “A Parallax View on SB 191,” Alexander Ooms wrote: “To improve the quality of teaching, we need three primary changes (and a lot of secondary ones): First, find a way to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Second, retain the outstanding teachers who voluntarily leave the profession. And third, widen the pool of potential hires so that we can recruit the best possible candidates into the classroom” (EdNews Colorado, 4/23/10).

I can see how better data will help schools hold weak teachers accountable.  But consider Ooms’ second and third points: we won’t retain or recruit the best if we insist they become something they are not.  We still believe, don’t we, that teachers who know and love the material they teach will lift achievement more than those who do not have this quality, but who can tell you each student’s reading and math scores, and the growth needed to get them to grade level?  That latter information has value.  But it cannot drive us.

If curriculum matters, so does a teacher’s knowledge of that subject

Finally, for those of us who fall in the “curriculum matters” camp in education reform, balance here seems especially important.  My examples above are teachers who know their disciplines.  They have taught in part because they love to learn and enjoy sharing what excites them.  Qualities not produced by our colleges of education.

Some see a new hope in our adopting common core standards and asking education schools “to train their candidates to teach a particular body of knowledge” (News analysis: “Learning to teach nothing in particular,” Education Gadfly, Dec. 22, 2010).  In the education school?  Really?  As if this is how we will overcome the shortage of teachers serving low-income students with subject area expertise in math and science?

I see far more potential in bringing folks to our classrooms, young teachers who actually majored in biology, economics, number theory, and environmental studies in college. (Ask most any of the nation’s leading private schools and see if their hiring isn’t based on that same belief.)  Michelle Rhee, a TFA alumna herself, wants to bring a “different caliber of person” into the profession.  “How can we get the best and the brightest,” she asks, to become teachers?  Aren’t TFA candidates (only one of every ten applicants is now accepted into the program) just the kind of folks—with a passion and in-depth knowledge of their subjects—whom we want to attract to our classrooms?

And aren’t they far more likely to become a John or Jack, a Chris or Mike, than those who are told: I don’t care if you love calculus or chemistry—or ideas. You just better be good with data.  How narrow, and how discouraging.  How little that has to do with the qualities we admire in folks we know as great teachers—even if they are a bit strange!
(End #74B)
**             **             **                            

Comment on #74A from John Newlin, a friend, for 40 years a teacher and school head:

I agree …. In my experience as an administrator, I found that while one can tinker with a teacher and her/his performance through all sorts of evaluative techniques, it is virtually impossible to turn someone who doesn't (1) like and relate effectively to kids; (2) have flair; (3) innately enjoy what s/he is teaching; (4) plan well; and so forth to be a good teacher.  Yes, the mechanics of the profession can be improved, but it's really about finding bright people with the above qualities to teach, whose instincts are usually on the mark. 

Maybe it's a huge failing of mine, but I've never been able to turn a mediocre teacher into a great one, not ever.  Great teachers are also learners; they find ways to make themselves better.  They are people who derive energy and joy FROM the experience of teaching.  But these are characteristics they bring TO teaching as a career.

So, trying to make poor teachers into good ones seems to me to be an exercise in futility, with the added possibility of being horrifically expensive, too.

AV#74A-Teacher evaluation: Hiring, trust - and cheering on the best

                     ANOTHER VIEW #74

      Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                  Jan. 4, 2011

To recruit and keep great teachers

#74 A – Teacher evaluation: Hiring, trust -- and cheering on the best

#74 B – Inserton an issue
that also may run counter to attracting and keeping
quality teachers:
“data-driven instruction”
I split my 18-years of teaching between public and private schools (three schools and close to nine years in both “worlds”).  Twenty years ago I had the chance to support and study the 1990 alternative licensure law in Colorado that welcomed new folks into the teaching profession, often without taking the usual education courses; this more flexible process felt similar to the way many of us had been hired in our first jobs in private schools.  I hoped it would be one of many approaches that had worked well for independent schools and that might be adopted by public education. 

In Another View #68, “A skeptic on SB 191 takes a closer look” (Sept. 26, 2010), I raised a few concerns about the new law.  Here are two more, in which I put on my private school hat—and ask those hammering out the details of and implementing the Educator Effectiveness legislation, please keep these points in mind.

And to assure you this is more than theoretical, I know an incredibly talented young public school teacher who might move to a private school next year.  So that this teacher continues to work with young people, I celebrate such a change.  However, it will be public education’s loss.  I ask that we keep such gifted educators in mind as we take our next steps to put SB 191 in place.

We want public education to attract wonderful teachers.  Ask a number of terrific teachers in private schools if they would consider switching.  In most cases the pay in public schools is greater.  But in my experience a far majority who have found a good place to teach would not be tempted.  Yes, you’ll often hear: I don’t want that kind of class size or teacher-load, or the frequent discipline issues I hear about.  It would keep me from being the teacher I want to be.  I am aware this can seem snooty, even a bit selfish.  You might say you have little patience for such an attitude.  OK, but it goes further.  Please bear with me. 

Private school teachers will also say they enjoy the freedom to develop and teach the curriculum that they think best serves their students, without interference from the state, or the district—or from their own principal, who feels so pressured by test scores that the school begins to lose its way, to forget its mission.  In fact, a large percentage of independent school educators are devoted to their school in large part because of their belief in its mission—which will not change with a new governor, legislature, or superintendent.  And they are glad to be in a school environment where families and students are there by choice.  It is hard to overstate the many intangible benefits this produces.

OK, you say, but what does this have to do with SB 191?  How would implementing this bill affect a 22-year-old’s decision about whether to seek work in a public or private school?

1.     Hiring

“I think hiring is the most important thing I do. “
Chris Gibbons, principal West Denver Prep charter school

If Colorado fails to implement SB 191 wisely, I believe it will be one more roadblock to attracting bright, committed folks to teach in public schools.  

The new attention given to teacher evaluation may put the cart before the horse.  Improving who enters the profession will pay far more dividends down the road than how we evaluate that six or fifteen-year veteran.  If we want people with the intellect, skills, and values that will make a powerful difference for students for many years to come, we need to expand—not tighten—the alternative licensure path, and we need schools of education to undergo huge changes—or go out of business.  The bright, motivated learner who has succeeded in some of our strongest liberal arts schools entering the classroom through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project will certainly need mentoring and evaluation.  But who he or she is as a person at age 22 is ultimately more important than what checklist an administrator uses to see if a teacher is doing the job.

“How do we attract the best teachers?” That was the question posed by David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, to Bruce Stewart, former head of Sidwell Friends (the private school the Obama children attend in Washington), when NBC devoted a week to education reform issues last fall.  Can we bring “the best and the brightest” into teaching?  Stewart’s response:

“When I began teaching in the '60s, we had that population of people.  And since then, because greater opportunities have opened up for young women and for minorities, there's been a great brain drain from American schools.  I think we want to get those people back. If you look at Singapore, look at Finland, the reason they consistently are testing their population of students in the top levels of international exams, it's the quality of their teaching force.  They all come from the top third of their colleges, universities.  In the United States, our tendency today is to have that pool of teachers coming from the bottom third of college and universities and from the bottom third of those classes.  That's something we need to reverse and to change.”

I never minded the extensive application process at a good private school, which in one case—once I was one of their final candidates—included coming for a day, teaching a class, visiting other classes, meeting with the principal, dean, and department chair, having lunch with potential colleagues—being sized up by everybody, it seemed.  Quite a number of folks had read my file, had specific questions to ask about my past teaching; it was clear the school had talked with previous principals and employers.  I respected the time and care that went into the process.  This was the judgment stage, the critical determination if I was likely to be a good teacher in this setting, a good member of their team.

Once hired, there was a level of trust and respect that told me: you’re one of us. Yes, I was observed and evaluated.  It was not a job forever—I wasn’t vetted for a life-time job on the Supreme Court!  But I never felt that the real “judgment stage” had now begun.

Once SB 191 is in place, will teachers entering our public schools be given this vote of confidence?  Or will it seem that the evaluation process is based on mistrust—we really aren’t sure about you, we can’t assume we have hired well, so we now need to supervise and micromanage in a way that –well, sorry if you find this demeaning, but this is what the law demands!  
 (#74A is continued on page 3)
(#74A- con’t from page 2)

Please forgive the analogy to the automobile industry—two weeks after I wrote how upsetting it is to be treated like we’re on an assembly line and we can be MORE PRODUCTIVE if we have LARGER CLASSES!  But take Toyota and the huge expense and damage to its reputation with all the recalls this past year.  The “new” Toyota insists it will care about “quality control” from day one.  It sure would seem cost effective! 

In education, it would be a step backwards if we start with the assumption that our teacher training programs produce a defective product, and therefore we aren’t sure we want this “car” on the road.  (Yes, this introduces legitimate questions about our schools of education and teacher preparation—but that is a separate issue.)  Won’t it be less costly, and more responsible, to hire—in two stages: first, with great care, but then, with real confidence in the new person we bring in--ready to roll?

A warning then.  Let’s not create a system that assumes we hire with considerable indifference and then get serious about measuring if we have good folks in our classrooms.  We will not attract good new teachers to public education if our first message is: we do not trust you!

2.     When we see how good they are, be glad and cheer them on!

Another reason for my skepticism about this latest obsession with teacher evaluations: In the debate about teaching as a career some are “born” into versus one where you can learn the craft, I lean to the former.  Not a popular view if you think we should focus on “Building a Better Teacher,” to borrow a headline from last spring’s New York Times Magazine (March 2, 2010).  And sure, we do need to take the teachers we have and provide them with strong professional development, new tools and technology, and evaluations that reveal their shortcomings and new ways to better meet their students’ needs. 

And yet many veteran educators like me would say, we have known when some people “had it”—and when some did not.  Those who, in my view, were “born to teach,” who “had a gift,” were not perfect.  Though not universally loved, they were highly respected.  On a scale of 1-10, they were 9’s and 10’s.  And such men and women were probably there by year 2 or 3 in their careers.

I am thinking of teachers like Jane, Jim, Louise, John, Jack (colleagues, English teachers), Mike (history, fellow baseball coach), another Jane.  I think of Kathleen, today a celebrated master teacher, but when she began, 15 years my junior, I sensed she was already a better teacher than I was at age 37.  And here in Colorado, I think of many more, including C. and E. and L. and J.  And M, 30 years my junior, also “born” to teach, embodying all the kindness, humor, intellect, passion, and curiosity one could ask for, along with the right degree of goofiness to click well with middle schools students.  Several good friends too –and you know who you are.  10’s.  Among the best in the profession.

I doubt teacher evaluations would have helped them.  Yes, such teachers could help others, and often did—or will.  But it would be my hope that exceptional folks like them, who early in their careers demonstrate a special talent, should be rewarded with the appropriate trust and autonomy (which many will insist are bigger incentives than another $10,000).  In direct contrast to the recent push to monitor and supervise and judge, I say:  Let them close their door!  Ask them what they need so the profession, or at least public education, does not lose them.  Don’t swamp them with unneeded observations. 

I overstate. Yes, of course, keep that door open in another way: administrators and colleagues should visit and enjoy their classes; what they see will assure them, or remind them, of what their students are capable of when focused and challenged.  Learn what works from these teachers.  Visitors should follow up with meaningful conversations about what they saw; any good teacher is thirsty for another pair of eyes.  (I emphasize conversations, as opposed to my recent experience: emails from the administrator that merely related what she observed after sitting in the back of the room and taking notes for 20 minutes.)

In such discussions no doubt our best teachers will be more self-critical than self-congratulatory, disappointed that they did not do more to compliment the soft-spoken student who made a rare contribution, that the conversation did not go deeper, or that those two students seemed to tune out for five minutes.  Two-way discussions, where the gifted teacher asks what the visitor saw, eager to hear another adult’s perspective on L’s focus, if B’s whisperings to his buddy seemed related to the task at hand, if that group of three in back was paying attention—and how else the brief disruption by K could have been handled. Still learning.  Teachers of this caliber are proud of their classes and are glad to open their doors; they chew over visitors’ comments—and use them to improve. 

But it is not clear this is what SB 191 has in mind.  We must not create a system that is
condescending to these folks.  I hope we see how petty it can feel, for our very best, to have the observer note “needs improvement” on item 24g from a three-page checklist of “skills to demonstrate.”

Nine of the 17 teachers I mentioned above were or are in private schools.  Fellows like Jack and Mike found a home and stayed 40 years at Emma Willard and Rice Memorial, respectively.  The many administrators who came and went over those years must have known their good fortune to have such educators on their staff.  The trust and respect Jack and Mike received surely played a role in their saying: I can teach here. I can have a good life here. I will stay

As we look ahead 40 years, we’d like such terrific teachers to enter and stay in public education. Let’s make sure we don’t turn better teacher evaluation into unneeded exercises of micromanagement based on mistrust.  For if we do, we might drive a number of today’s best young teachers away—and off to teach in private schools.

      Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view       of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225.  NEW EMAIL 

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
8802 N. Piney Creek Rd.
Parker, CO  80138