Friday, March 13

There May Be Three Scarier Words Than "Brooks: Education Reform" On The Times Home Page, But It Was Too Early To Start Drinking

David Brooks, "No Picnic For Me Either". March 12

IN case you don't know, I am married to a public school teacher who works for an urban school district that last year was a particular target of Colin and Alma Powell, two Americans so concerned with the state of our public education that they were forced to lie about out-of-date figures just to set the record straight.

[I excoriated Powell, the only Four-Star US General of African-American descent with a 1-2 war record, for his command performance, which included saying "We shouldn't get bogged down by facts" when his were challenged by local media, however gently (you'd think grilling Colin Powell about the "facts" he presents would come as automatically as searching John Dillinger for weapons before you locked him up, but then we Hoosiers blew that one, too). Of course, leadership and inspiration are complex and tenuous things; had I known the Powells would convince Tony Dungy to abandon his coaching career while still young enough to lose ten more first-round playoff games I might have been more circumspect.]

Anyway, I heard news snippets of the President's education speech last week, and I intended to find a transcript, but work presses and I spaced the whole thing. However, it's probably best to filter it through Brooks' assent, since that convinces me I'm right to think it's another fast train trip to Derailment Town.
In his education speech this week, Barack Obama retold a by-now familiar story. When he was a boy, his mother would wake him up at 4:30 to tutor him for a few hours before he went off to school. When young Barry complained about getting up so early, his mother responded: “This is no picnic for me either, Buster.”

That experience was the perfect preparation for reforming American education because it underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor. The young Obama had a loving relationship with an adult passionate about his future. He also had at least one teacher, his mom, disinclined to put up with any crap.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don't know if the whole speech sounded like the worst of candidate Obama's Candy-Flavored Ponies For All stumpers, or if that was just the part that attracted "news" editors, but I do know this: if the President had delivered the same sort of homily designed to shame bankers, or defend strident regulation or higher taxes, Brooks would have written 800 words on the President's out-of-touch Ice Cream and Cake Big Spending Liberalism.

And we're not going to bother speculating on why Kick 'Em in the Ass and Put 'Em To Work! is such a popular solution when it comes to urban school districts. Draw your own conclusions.
The reform vision Obama sketched out in his speech flows from that experience. The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

And we have no need of speculation about how the solution always comes down to featherbedding unions "good" teachers. "Good" teachers in this regard resemble "good" grill cooks, when both are evaluated according to the Entrepreneurial Imperative: are they willing to fry up whatever shit is provided, put it on a bun, and serve it? Or do they insist on smelling it first? "Good" teachers are always, in this world, ready, even eager, to work with those vast numbers of highly qualified but totally inexperienced adults out there who are stumped by union requirements and unreasonable education standards from signing up en masse and reforming education one emotional bond at a time. Right. We'll just ask what the response of Mr. Brooks' agent would be should Pinch show up tomorrow morning and announce that the badly-needed reform of failing journalism means Dave'll be writing an extra column per week, and that his pay will be determined by the test scores of his readers, compared to the test scores of Glenn Greenwald's readers, plus he has to make sure that every column is carefully explained to non-English speakers and six different forms of learning disability, but none of them lives in Greenwald's district. Specifically, how many seconds will elaspse before the agent says "We have a contract!"?
Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has data showing that progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates years later — a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments.

Or, just perhaps, it's a powerfully clear demonstration that children who do well on tests do well in school, especially in a test-happy environment designed to assign failure and blame from age eight.

Measuring progress? Well, perhaps we could start by measuring the competence of New York Times Op-Ed columnists to accurately portray the current state of understanding about our incontinent testing, say by at least admitting there's nothing remotely resembling such consensus, and plenty of evidence testing is counterproductive. What we might agree on is this: we've come up with a way to put numerical rating on something as complex as Education. This is something Americans do a lot of ("Best 100 Movies of All Time"; "Best Wines Under $10"), but not well, as something in our national character seems to preclude understanding how stupid the exercise is. My Top Two Guesses being "Inferiority", and "An almost pathological need to kiss ass if there's a dollar in it somewhere".
The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.

Flunk. Here's the fucking problem, Mr. Brooks: a group of people--let's just call them "conservative" Republican mouthpieces--have been milking votes from the public schools, and in particular the racist underpinnings of White Flight that began with the closing of public schools across the South in response to Brown, and continued with Nixon's southern strategy.

And it worked, quite well. It's almost as difficult to find a voter these days who thinks public schools aren't failing--generally exempting that of his own children--as it is to find one who can marshall a single piece of data in the notion's defense. Excepting, of course, the "evidence" from something like The Colin and Alma Powell Tax-Emempt Association for Finding Some Reason To Give Colin Powell Another Public Job, Ever Again, or some dim idea about testing failure rates garnered from extra-bold headlines and presumed, therefore, to have some connection to reality. It's bullshit. We have no basis for comparison, and we wouldn't even if such testing had a suitably long history; we cannot teach students in 2009 the same things we did in 2004, let alone back twenty or thirty years, unless the entire curriculum consists of twelve years of Latin and Ancient Greek. You cannot solve the epistemological question at the center of the thing.

And you can't solve anything with All Faith and No Facts. Look at your column, fer chrissakes. The single "fact" is the result of your extensive interviews with high school graduates and dropouts to see how many teachers they remembered.

Here's what you claim: the key to academic success is relationships and rigor. We must separate good teachers from bad, based on their emotional bonding with students, then pay them according to test scores. The keys to improving education are testing and accountability; such tests have predictive value, according to Joel Klein. NCLB has established an unquestioned methodology for measuring progress. The self-serving Education Establishment interferes with any attemps to improve education which would involve getting off its lazy butts, and especially vouchers, which prove how little that group of over-paid featherbedders actually cares about students. (It is one of the great ironies of unfettered capitalism that somehow the people who really care about education, and particularly the education of the urban poor, all have chosen to work in some other field.)

Where's the facts? None in the column. Can you defend two of those ideas if I spot you that Joel Klein is a real person? Why is this always the fucking case? Y'all praise Good Teachers, but you sure don't quote any. Testing works because you say it does; schools are failing because you want them to. [Let me interrupt here for a story I can't remember if I told a while back: my Poor Wife rescues decommissioned library books for use as art material; on occasion she'll bring one home to read first. She found one originally from a high school she didn't recognize (closed in the 70s), and when she went looking for info she found a reference to the Indianapolis Public Schools graduation rate in 1957 or '58, thereabouts, and it was under 50%, the same level the Hero of My Lai gets to pontificate and junketeer about today. Yes, apples and oranges to some extent, but not entirely: those schools didn't have a 10% non-English-speaking population, or 20% learning-disability rate, and those with learning disabilities had no recognized legal right to required care or as much mainstream education as possible. They didn't have nearly as many private schools--and no charters--willing and eager to dump any problem student back into the public system to keep their own "results" up. Fifty percent of students weren't from single-parent homes, and 80% weren't receiving free or reduced-price lunches due to family income. Yes, a high-school education was "less important", job-wise, in those days, but does that make students today more academically fit to begin with? And what reason do many of them have to graduate--a job in a fast food joint? The level of pure butt-ignorance that surrounds public education is astonishing, particularly given all the rhetoric about how important it is, but the amount of that ignorance that can be classified as Willful and Politically Motivated is just shameful.]

And, y'know, it's funny, but besides making Top Ten lists the thing this country seems to be good at is raising millions tax-free to support a concerted effort to repeal inconvenient facts in Biology. Though we still can't seem to figure out why, every time some Former Little Lebowski Achiever relates his rags-to-riches tale, all the other poor people in the country don't jump on it and become President of something themselves.

Of course, none of this would be complete without an appeal to Please, Won't Someone Think of the Children:
Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. The idea was to cause maximum suffering, and 58 Senators voted for it.

Interesting. 'Cause here in Indianapolis, thanks to a Republican administration which cut education 2% across the board in an ersatz effort to "balance" the state budget, and which now refuses to consider loosening the slush fund created by raffling off the Indiana Toll Road for anything other than paying wealthy Republican districts to massively screw up road projects, many hundreds of children have been ripped from their mentors and friends because there was no fucking money to keep their buildings open, with many more to come. But they can dry their own salty tears, I suppose, since their football landed on the wrong side of the fence.


John said...

"It is one of the great ironies of unfettered capitalism that somehow the people who really care about education, and particularly the education of the urban poor, all have chosen to work in some other field."

Exactly so, Mr. Reilly. Exactly so.

map106 said...

Okay, well being the son of a teacher, and also her pupil during two rather formative years of my life (junior high), I can remember my mother always saying that standardized tests used as a measurement of teacher competence and student knowledge was a crock, back in the 60s-70s. It induced teachers to teach to the test, and pretty much wiped out any creativity and exploration in the learning process.

And I'm all for teachers creating some bond with students, but the real bond that needs to be established is that between parent and child, and not in a friends sort of way, but in a parent/child sort of way, as in, to continue and misuse the teaching metaphor, I've got the big desk and you've got the little one.

When teachers have to spend most of their time baby-sitting students, what time is left for teaching? And one of the reasons parents aren't being parents is because both of them are working jobs either to stay afloat or to provide every new technological bauble that weekly becomes available and necessary.

And, you know what bond I remember having with most of my teachers, at least during high school? FEAR. Not saying that's necessarily a good thing, but I knew if I didn't do what my teachers said, my intransigence was likely to be reflected in my grades, which somehow miraculously found their way to my mother's consciousness every six weeks.

Then, of course, we have the current national hatred of anything that resembles knowledge, let alone knowledge for knowledge's sake.

But I spent my youth diagramming sentences, so what do I know?

Now, if you could somehow teach me, in my dotage, to remember what th' fuck "epistemology" means, I would consider you the greatest teacher of all and be forever indebted.

bill said...

Doghouse Reilly, reading David Brooks so we don't have to since whenever the fuck you started doing it. Thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.

Anonymous said...

Couple thoughts:

1. In the last 13 years of my post-academic life I've had to sit down and answer a multiple choice test exactly, umm, zero times. What exactly does knowing how to take a test prepare you for?

2. When I was in the Army, they started getting tough on how soldiers recreate; urinalysis, curfew, being able to blow a .08 at PT after a night of carousing and soldiers started to get kicked out for off-duty immoral behavior. Someone phrased it thus: for $1.25/hour they expect us to be some kind of moral supermen.

Similarly with teachers, what does Brooks and his ilk expect for $35k per year? How much of Brooks time is he spending mentoring to inner city kids?

Obama can't be serious with this. He must be waiting for the Teacher's Union to bitchslap him so he can come out strong for education that works.


map106 said...

Okay, yet again, realize I'm old and I can't keep up with everyone's acronyms.

PT = performance test?

'Cause the only PT I know is physical therapy, which my dog went through, shortly before he died.

R. Porrofatto said...

Ditto on the thankyous. This one was especially irksome, so your efforts have brought some analgesic relief. In the vein of the conventional bullshit that blowjobs are now a preferred method of abstinence for middle-schoolers thanks to Bill Clinton's example, I think the last eight years of our manifest No President Left Behind disdain for education should be blamed for something.

Davis X. Machina said...

Obama can't be serious with this.

He is. Deadly serious. Teachers are the new millenium's Sister Souljah. Only Nixon could go to Peking -- only a Democrat could tame the wiley teachers, etc. etc.

... unless the entire curriculum consists of twelve years of Latin and Ancient Greek

Didn't hurt me none.

Let's face it, they're public schools.

Public schools are not imposed by some outside agency.

They're the schools the public wants.

They're the result of a series of choices, all of which could be made differently and aren't.

If we wanted better schools, we'd already have better schools. We don't actually want them, or we'd have them.

There's a constituency for mediocrity, because the alternative would cost us our money, our 'freedom', or our money, or our illusions, or our memories, or our prejudices, or our theories, or something handy to bitch about.

It's a constituency large enough to drive policy. There are things we as a nation would rather have than an excellent system of public education, we just can't admit it in public.

The stridency with which people like Brooks write about education is directly proportional to the hypocrisy.

David said...

And now the report is that Brooks is Obama's favorite "inside" "journalist." He has more access to the White House than any other "reporter." First time it's been a guy from the other party, too.

He's taking that crap too far, Obama is.

Jaye Ramsey Sutter said...

I am a community college teacher in the 4th largest city in the nation. I can assure you what is wrong with education is that my students have so many other things on their minds, like getting child support, no insurance, no parents who give a shit, criminal records, court dates, date rape, their children are being raped at school, someone is beating the shit out of them, they have problems with religious zealots in their communities, the police don't come when they are called, they lack a stable home life, can't produce a stable home life, never saw a stable home life. They don't read, they don't write, they don't know that there is another way of life, they are able to take tests but cannot think, cheating is a way of life, or they can't take test but they sure as shit know what a vig is, how to cover the spread, how to deal drugs, how to get into trouble, they don't believe anything, they believe everything.

Brooks wouldn't last a minute with these kids. It isn't about what is wrong with education because there is quite a bit that is right about education. It is about what is wrong with us and our inability to call shit on people like Brooks, Powell, and millionaires, and media that promotes that "something is wrong" but it isn't them.

What time do you start drinking? Because I find that I just can't wait anymore.

Tim Burton is the only person, other than Doghouse, to get Powell right--Mars Attacks--where Powell-like character says to his wife on a cell phone, "See, I told you if I stood around and did nothing I could be in charge." Brooks is every ass kisser I wanted to punch in school and now at work.

Narya said...

The sickly amusing thing, to me, is that we have been having these same discussions about education for more than a century. Back at the turn of the last century, "administrators" expected the nice lady teachers to teach for the "love" of the job, rather than for an actual wage, which is why teachers unionized to begin with. I've always thought that the way to deal with this is to put teachers in charge of assessing teachers' performance. No, I don't know how, exactly. Yes, I would pay teachers a LOT more. Here's the thing at which I'm getting, though: we all know great teachers when we see them, and we all know crappy teachers when we see them. Most teachers are probably competent, rather than great or crappy, and that is to be encouraged. let's get rid of the crappy teachers, let's reward the great teachers--and NOT by making the administrators who no longer teach--and let's encourage the competent teachers. And did I mention increasing pay by a lot? and making school a year-round thing, with a couple of long breaks.

Why, yes, I DID write half of my dissertation on public school teachers and unionization; why do you ask?