Category Archives: Reforming schools

Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools

Kludge

  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.

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Flawed Assumptions about School Reform Strengthening the U.S. Economy

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes

For years I have seen Keynes’s quote and thought little of it. In the past week, however, this economist’s reflection of nearly a century ago pinched me and got me thinking about school reform in the U.S. for the past three decades. Taken for granted is the rationale that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace. Moreover, jobs have disappeared. The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society. That has been the rationale for over thirty years of school reform.

And here is where the influential ideas of “defunct economist[s]” enter the picture. Turn back the clock to A Nation at Risk (1983). The idea of the U.S. losing its global technological, scientific, and economic position was due, the report claimed, to the mediocrity of U.S. schools. Data showed that U.S. schools were failing. Evidence cited in the report pointed to low test scores of U.S. students compared to international students, high numbers of high school dropouts, low curriculum standards, and low salaries for teachers. The call for strengthened curriculum standards and tougher graduation requirements would lead, the report said, to a stronger economy.

Harnessed to the then dominant economic concept of  “human capital,” the public school’s job is to increase students’ knowledge and skills geared to a fast-changing world where information and services drives the economy. Those students equipped with high-tech and thinking skills will be more productive workers thus contributing to economic growth. Few policymakers challenged economists’ confidence in public school investments building a stronger economy.

Since then, beliefs in the growth of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity have led to state and federal laws–influenced strongly by economic thinking of “human capital,” economists–that called for far more intervention into local schools. No Child Left Behind (2002) crowned that intervention with the U.S. Department of Education monitoring state test results for students grades 3-8 and then naming, shaming, and blaming schools and districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. A culture of testing, enhanced by students’ increased access to computers, produced an industry of test prep, narrowed the curriculum, and strengthened traditional teaching. All of this increased policy activity turned the assumption that a stronger schooling would lead to a stronger economy into a fact.

These ideas continue to motivate research by current economists who produce studies (see here and w21770)  that show state investments in schooling produce not only economic gains for individuals but also strong gains in the Gross Domestic Product. Suppose, however, that these policy assumptions that have driven school reform for over three decades are wrong.

Consider the following. The assumption that economists made about the importance of U.S. students acquiring more knowledge, skills, and expertise in computers has severe holes in it, given the depressed salaries of college graduates since 2000 and growing income inequality in the U.S.

As Paul Krugman put it:

Something else began happening after 2000 …. After decades of stability, the share of national income going to employee compensation began dropping fairly fast. One could try to explain this, too, with technology—maybe robots were displacing all workers, not just the less educated. But this story ran into multiple problems. For one thing, if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating? For another, if it was getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t, and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Big corporations (including hedge funds) have failed to invest in commerce but they have used their market power politically to change the rules of the games. Krugman again:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Economists Krugman, Robert Reich, and others see the prevailing ideas of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity–the theories that have fueled the “human capital” thrust to school reform for over thirty years–as flawed. The concentration of U.S. economic power into fewer and fewer corporations (e.g., banking, transportation, agriculture, media) generating profits that have been used to increase their political leverage leaves the current agenda of school reform, based on previous ideas of investing in “human capital” stranded on a deserted island. Lost and failed.

If only current school reformers can give serious thought to the questioning of the socioeconomic assumptions that ground current U.S. policies and practices, then, perhaps the reform palette can shift from painting with Common Core standards, extensive state and local testing, and coercive accountability to project-based teaching, socio-emotional learning, arts and the humanities, wraparound community services, and concerns for the whole child.

I end with another John Maynard Keynes quote: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

 

 

 

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Some Kids Have To Fail: A History of Labels (Part 1)

As long as there have been tax-supported public schools in the U.S., some children and youth have failed.  “Experts,” educators, and policymakers have given names for those students who left school in the late 19th century, early 20th century, and now. And those names for failing students and their early departures from schools have changed over time mirroring reform movements and policy shifts in perceptions of who was (and is) responsible for the failure.

A history of labels for these “misfits” can be summed up quickly: blame the kids for lacking intelligence, blame the kids and their families for not adjusting to schools, and blame the schools for failing students. I describe in a later post where U.S. educators are now in describing those students who fail to fit into the age-graded school.

Students who failed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries

Terms used over a century ago to describe those urban elementary school students who failed academically in their age-graded school focus entirely on an individual’s genetics, character and attitudes. Here were some of the common phrases educators and policymakers used: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, stubborn, immature, slow, dull   (PDF DeschenesCubanTyack-1).

Children who left urban elementary schools were mostly children of immigrants and young ( 10 to 12 years old); they went to work immediately in a rapidly industrializing economy. When reformers of the day saw that children were in the streets cadging coins, selling newspapers, and working in factories,they lobbied state legislatures for child labor laws to prevent the young from entering the workforce. Helen Todd, for example, inspected factories in Chicago looking for underage children. She found boys and girls making paper boxes,stripping tobacco leaves, running errands, and shellacking canes in what even then were unsafe and unhealthy workplaces.

Todd asked the young boys and girls would they rather work or go to school if their father had a good job and they did not have to work to bring money into the family. Eighty percent of the child-workers said they would rather work than go to school.Why, she asked? Some answers they gave:

“School ain’t no good. When you works a whole month at
school, the teacher she gives you a card to take home that says how you
ain’t any good. And yer folks hollers on yer an’ hits yer.”

Another told Todd: “You never- understands what they tells you in school, and you can
learn right off to do things in a factory.”

Repeatedly, child-workers told Todd that teachers beat them for not learning, or not listening to teacher or forgetting the correct page (PDF DeschenesCubanTyack-1).

In these decades, the age-graded elementary school (less than 10 percent went to high school then) required students to move through the required curriculum during the school year and learn the skills and content demanded for the next grade. Those children who could not keep up the pace because of language, cultural differences, family issues, or other reasons, performed poorly and soon left school. In effect, the age-graded school produced “misfits,” a retrospective term seldom used then or now.

Early to mid-20th century

With the discovery and development of intelligence testing, a spinoff of mass testing of draftees in World War I, a generation of Progressive reformers applied the lessons learned from sorting adults for the U.S. Army to public schools. And a legion of new terms entered policy-driven reformers’ and educators’ vocabularies (DeschenesCubanTyack-1) to describe children who did poorly in school. Common phrases were:

[P]upils of low I. Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells. sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student. mental deviates, and inferior.

To these Progressive reformers and policymakers, failing students simply did not have smarts. The I.Q. tests confirmed that “fact.” The instructional solution to these students was to teach them different content in a different way in a different place. The language of science provided an objective rationale for sorting students into different curricula (or tracks). And these reform-minded Progressives made the age-graded school even more efficient.

Late-20th to early 21st centuries 

Beginning in the 1960s, especially after poverty was rediscovered by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, “culturally deprived” entered the language of reformers, policymakers, and educators. With many cities now de facto segregated even after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and obvious inequities existing between social classes  the phrase became code for black, brown, and other children living in urban ghettos. As federal funding of programs sharply increased in the mid-1960s, civil rights reformers fought against applying the label to minority and poor children because of the racism embedded in the phrase: low-income, mostly minority families and children have no culture. By the early 1970s, the label exited reformers’ vocabulary to be replaced by “the disadvantaged.”

With the introduction of “disadvantaged,” the adverb in front of it became contested. Socially disadvantaged? Educationally disadvantaged? The former pointed the finger at families  sending unprepared children to school, thus becoming the prime cause for low academic performance. But the use of “educationally disadvantaged” by reformers brought the school, its rules, culture, and staff under the microscope. This occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the growth of the reform-driven “effective schools” movement. And has lasted since with “No Excuses” reformers in the past decade. Nonetheless, labeling children failing school continued.

By the late-1980s, another term, “at risk,” became popular in describing children and youth that earlier generations had called “misfits.” For some analysts it is a borrowed phrase from A Nation at Risk (1983) and applied to low-income children and youth of color who receive an inequitable schooling. Others see the phrase coming from epidemiology where individuals and groups heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and other ills display “at risk” factors. Whatever the source, the phrase is now commonly used among policymakers, reformers, and educators.

So here is a continuing story of different generations of reformers using catch-phrases to salvage the rejects produced by the rigidly organized age-graded schools. Over time, the phrases have morphed from indictments of individual failings to searching examination of the deficit-ridden school in meeting the needs of those who have received (and continues to receive) an inequitable schooling.

The next post looks at the use of “at risk” to describe children today.

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Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

In a recent post from EdSurge (November 5, 2015), the following graphic was shown:

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The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

Everyone loves a good metaphor–and this week, New Jersey principal Jon Cohen made us think with this “pencil metaphor” graphic posted via Twitter, describing the educator spectrum of edtech lovers and resistors [sic]. Where does your school fall? Do you have a lot of leaders, or or are you struggling to convert the “erasers”? We bet this newsletter can help you “sharpen” your skills, even though we all … suffer a few breaks now and then!

EdSurge evangelizes for more and better high-tech use in schools. They ask entrepreneurs and hard-core advocates of more devices in schools to listen to both students and teachers before marketing their particular mousetrap to the world. But this post is not about EdSurge. It is about two graphics, the one above and one below.

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I begin with the pencil graphic. While titled “Integrating Technology in Schools” it slams all those teachers and principals who do not leap on the latest high-tech bandwagon careening through school boards and superintendent offices. The graphic assumes that all high-tech innovations are positive for both teachers and students. Those who wait and ask questions are labeled “resisters.”

The “leaders” and “sharp ones” at the pointy end of the pencil are the early adopters, implying that they are both smart and astute about teaching and learning while those further down the pencil’s shaft–the “wood” and “hangers on”–are way behind the curve as adopters. Then those at the “ferrule” and “eraser” end of the pencil are active resisters, even enemies, of using tech in the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense but it does mirror many an evangelist’s view of teachers and students using (and not using) devices and software in schools and classrooms. The title is a misnomer since nothing here is about “integrating” high-tech into school routines or classroom lessons.

The pencil graphic, at best, is a warped version of Everett Rogers‘ “diffusion of innovation” graph that he had published in his 1962 book (it is in its 5th edition now). Diffusion of Innovations has been a staple of those interested in institutional and sector innovation across agriculture, medicine, health care, business, and, naturally, education for over a half-century. But, at worst, the pencil graphic is an unfunny indictment of those teachers, students, and parents who raise questions, express skepticism, and lay out reservations about the wisdom of mindlessly adopting the next new thing produced for schools and classrooms.

Now, look at Roger’s graph of adopters. Rogers avoided the loaded words used to describe adopters except for “laggards.” in the U.S., few teachers would puff out their chest after being called a “laggard.” Rogers was aware that the graph he constructed prized innovation–that it is “good” to adopt a new idea, practice, or technology– and possibly from that core assumption, the word “laggard” snuck into the categories. The five categories Rogers created roughly map onto the “pencil” but note the far more negative and positive language in the pencil graphic.

For each category, there are many examples among teachers. The sixth grade teacher who bought and brought into her school the first Mac machine was an innovator. The first teacher in a building who designed a piece of software just for her class is another innovator. Early Adopters are those teachers who first tried out email, spread sheets, iPods, iMacs, laptops, and tablets in their classrooms shortly after they heard about them or the district technology director invited teachers to demonstrations of the hardware and software. As the number of teachers seeing colleagues using devices and software spread, more teachers asked those early users how it worked, for what kinds of lessons they were used, and even watched the tools being used in lessons. In many schools, two-thirds of the teachers (Early and Late Majority) became occasional (weekly or monthly) to daily users. In short, these teacher-users became the middle of Rogers’ graph. In every school, however, there were non-users and reluctant participants–“laggards,” in Rogers’ phrase.

Seldom did the categories and percentages of “innovators” to “laggards” map perfectly onto specific schools or districts. What Rogers built was a map for researchers and practitioners to use in understanding how innovations–again, a positively charged concept in U.S. culture–spread across sectors and in institutions. It is a heuristic, not GPS directions for innovators.

Evangelists would find the “pencil” to their liking because of the shared assumptions under-girding the clever graphic. Those assumptions are dominant in the U.S. where if you do not have the latest device or software, eyes roll or snide comments get said. Evangelists for technology seldom engage in reflection because they are true believers. True believers seldom entertain questions or skepticism because they are often taken as an attack upon bedrock principles.

And for teachers, principals, parents who ask questions or raise issues about the new technologies, they risk being called resisters, an epithet that in U.S. culture, enamored with innovation and technology, is akin to the Scarlet Letter.

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Not Every Success is Scalable: Uncommon Principal, Great School:

Stories of uncommon principals who labor for decades to create structures, cultures, and political success are popular in national media. The story-line is that a principal arrives at a low-performing, minority and poor school and through much work turns it around into a successful school, as measured by test scores, low teacher turnover, and parental support. No, I am not referring to charter schools or magnets. I am referring to neighborhood schools. When such schools emerge policymakers and champions of school success call it a model and urge replication of the school. Make more of them, they cry. Scaling up such successes is rare as any observer (or participant) can tell you. It is devilishly hard to reproduce such victories over mediocrity in another neighborhood much less across a district, state, and nation. Think of KIPP for a moment. In 21 years, KIPP has created 183 schools enrolling 70,000 and done so by preparing principals and teachers, monitoring closely the quality of each school–its five pillars and school culture–and raising large sums of money.

Why is it so hard? In most cases, success comes from complex, interacting factors: the principal who has been there a long time; he or she plays three competing roles well (instructional, managerial, and political); the principal has selected a staff that works closely together learning from its mistakes; the principal has built structures that engage in constant improvement; the community supports the school and acts to keep it flourishing. This mix of ingredients is hard to replicate–no algorithm, no online tutorials, no university program–can do it. The fit between principal, staff, children, parents and community is tight.  Yet it is fragile and can easily unravel. Were the principal, a few of the key teachers, and parent advocates to leave within a short time such a school can easily slide back into the mediocrity existing before that principal and teachers appeared on the scene.

Consider Jack Spatola and P.S. 172 in Brooklyn as described in a recent New York Times article. Appointed principal in 1984, Spatola who came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1970, took over a school that was predominately Puerto Rican. Thirty-one years later, Spatola leads a school that has mostly Mexican and Latin American students with more than 85 percent eligible for free lunch. One in four students are designated Special Education. The reporter described the school’s academic success:

Demographic realities have not hindered achievement. Last year, 98 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders, those required to take state exams toward the end of the year, passed the math test. Seventy-six percent passed the language test. Those figures far exceed citywide averages, which sit in the 30s for both disciplines, and they match or surpass scores at many affluent schools. On the tests administered this past spring, students at P.S. 172 did better than students at P.S. 234, a celebrated school in TriBeCa, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Steady increases in city test scores has brought crowds of out-of-state educators and business gurus like Jim Collins–of Good to Great fame–to the school. Spatola labored long and hard to build a strong, stable staff inhabiting a culture that prizes both student and adult learning.

Teachers, students and administrators are engaged in a constant process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; why, for example, one student might be quickly gaining an understanding of symbolism in reading while another isn’t. Professional development is an experience that is not relegated to occasional seminars but is lived daily. Strikingly, members of the school’s senior staff have an extended shared history of knowing what is effective and what isn’t — Mr. Spatola’s assistant principal, Erika Gundersen, has been with him for more than 20 years; the math and literacy coaches on hand to work with teachers to enhance practices have been with him on average more than 12 years.

And he is an ace at finding money in and out of his school budget for all of the professional and academic activities that have become routine at the school.

Mr. Spatola doesn’t use textbooks, which are notoriously expensive…. In the past fiscal year, the city and state spent $100 million on textbooks in New York City schools. At P.S. 172, the allocated money is used to buy primary texts, works of fiction and nonfiction selected by teachers and administrators. Students will, for instance, use the Internet to research how the branches of government work. The many dollars left over are spent on other services…

Spatola believes that textbooks “cheapen the experience of learning.” Instead, the school creates its own lessons and units for each grade and maintains notebooks on each child’s performance. Nearly $50,000 of budgeted funds are supposed to go to buy expensive curriculum packages recommended by the district to meet Common Core standards.

It is absolutely crazy to me that a company out west would really have any idea what my children need,” Mr. Spatola said. “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.”

Spatola uses the money for materials teachers choose and develop.

Are the structures and culture that Spatola and teachers have created at P.S. 172 scalable? Not impossible but hard to do given a principal who manages well, guides instruction, and provides political leadership to a staff and community. He and his staff have built by hand a successful school over many years that fits its students and community in Brooklyn.

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Cartoons on School Boards, Superintendents, and Principals

This monthly cartoon feature looks at those in authority in the 14,000-plus school districts in the U.S.  Cartoonists’ pens caricature those in positions of authority–a favorite among those who draw for a living–and reveal both the strengths and shortcomings of citizens and educators who serve the community’s children and adults. Enjoy!

'The superintendent is saving money by training driver's ed students in school buses.'

 

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'The recurring poor enrollment prognostications plays havoc with our school district's budget. What will next year's enrolment be.'

 

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'There's a meeting at school tonight, Dad. The superintendent, the principal, the school board, and you.'

 

'Making all of our district schools more adept at teaching math and science sounds like a good idea. Run it by legal first.'

 

'I chose 'Superintendent' for Career Day and fired all the math teachers.'

 

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On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions (Michele Kerr)

Principals perform three competing, overlapping roles (managing, leading instruction, and politicking). In doing so, they are forever caught in the middle between competing interests. In serving bosses in the district office, teachers who they lead, and parents who want the best for their sons and daughters they inevitably make decisions that become fodder for critics among those groups. It goes with the territory. Medical clinic directors, FBI agents in charge of field offices, and appointed project leaders in software firms experience similar tensions in trying to manage, lead, and politick to reach  personal and organizational goals. Nothing new here. For those principals who have succeeded well in parlaying the conflict that inevitably arises from performing these competing roles, even those principals may need to inspect a far more subtle factor–personal taste in people and their “fit” within the school–when it comes to staffing classrooms. Here is one such concern raised by an experienced teacher.

 

At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs

 

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