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The paradox of us facing America’s public school teachers

Americans love their teachers. But, do we have the ones we need?

Old School

There was a way in which our country loved John Wayne and Elvis that allowed many to overlook the crass racism of the former, and the high-risk lifestyle of the latter.

Icons too often disable our ability to think rationally about the culture we share, the people we want to be, or the country we want to have.

Likewise, we hold dear a portfolio of enduring archetypes that are nearly unimpeachable.

The heroic soldier. The pious priest. The dutiful police officer. The courageous fireman.

But, none of those archetypes live above the precious, long-suffering, endlessly maternal public school teacher. Her virtuous purity and womanly honor is protected by the same social mechanisms intended to create invisible fencing between white women at-large and the hostile dangers of a largely dark world.

It’s a struggle when we need to speak critically, or honestly, about America’s teachers. The mere suggestion that she could do better evokes a fragile, childlike fortification where teacher egos are made of glass, and rational arguments are summarily dismissed as paternalistic “attacks” or teacher “bashing.”

The fear of being a “basher” puts a chill on the debate. Even so, some of us see our children at the top of our hierarchy of empathy. Teacher egos are secondary and the life-saving truth must be told.

That truth begins by saying we may not have the teaching force we need. No academically high performing nation selects, trains, deploys, or evaluates its educators in the disjointed way we do in the U.S.

We can continuously blame poverty, parenting, and paternalism, as if that is the end of all progressive virtuousness, but those valid areas of inquiry can’t exclude a science-driven focus on how we select educators, train them, and hold them accountable for the enormously important role they play in society.

Our current teacher pipeline draws candidates from the bottom of the collegiate cognitive pool. The teacher preparation programs the enter are University cash cows that help low performing college students gain the benefit of a college degree without the annoying rigors of college.

While top performing countries are celebrated for high admission standards for teacher candidates, American teacher preparation programs have a low-bar for entrance and they suffer from widespread grade inflation.

On the first point, low admission standards, Arthur Levine assessed the issue in his report “Educating School Teachers.” (embedded below)

He said….

So it would seem that, at least as measured by standardized test scores, the future elementary education teachers whom education schools are admitting are less academically qualified than our children need or deserve. Some teacher educators argue that it is wrong to make assertions about the quality of graduates based solely on standardized test scores. There is some truth to that objection. But if there are other qualities that are needed to promote learning among elementary school children, education schools have not accounted for them in their admission requirements, nor have they published research on which such criteria might be based.

On the second point, grade inflation in teacher preparation programs, economist Cory Koedel says “[u]ltimately, a sizable fraction of the workforce in the education sector is trained in education departments where evaluation standards are astonishingly low.”

But things get worse.

Research says the smartest teachers are the first to leave teaching in their early years. Conversely, the weakest teachers persist and congregate in the neediest schools. By neediest, I mean the schools with high concentrations of black and brown students.

To compound the problem a reverse Darwinist tenure system grants “uber due process” rights that make it ridiculously difficult to pursue consequences for a job poorly done. Through their unions, the weakest teachers enjoy a powerful political apparatus to defeat policies that increase expectations or standards.

They also have a buffer against rising concerns in communities of color that our exclusion from many of the best things in life begins in poorly performing schools.

Put it all together: teachers come from the bottom of students, enter training programs that aren’t rigorous, lose the smartests of the them in the first wave of attrition, and then union job protections basically secure them a long term quality-blind position in the poorest, neediest schools.

It would take an implausible string of words to make that sequence of inequity consistent with putting children first.

What do we think happens to school quality when this is the cockeyed wellspring that produces our teachers?

While we struggle for the delicate language to talk about the inadequacy of instruction for our children, we watch mountains of research pile up pointing toward the potential for student success through effective teaching.

Thus, the troubling paradox.

We love teachers and don’t want to “bash” anyone, yet, we love our children more and research tells us it’s time to remove the bubble wrap.

This fall students of color will outnumber white students in public schools for the first time. Our schools are browning and we need more educators capable of identifying with the students they teach. But trends in teacher demographics are not keeping pace.

In 1987 88% of teachers were white. Today, 81% still are.

Meanwhile, the miniscule number of black teachers declined from 8.2% of teachers to 6.8%.

White teachers are the majority of the workforce and will likely continue to be for some time. For that reason we can’t ignore how they are prepared, what they believe, and how they move from school to school. Many of them spend their early ineffective years in schools seen as undesirable because the children are less white, less affluent, and have fewer parents for which white teachers feel an affinity.

By the artful and systemic use of seniority systems they move to more desirable schools over time, creating a teacher economy predicated on constant churn in the lower performing schools and stability in the advantaged schools.

It’s superbly ironic that teacher unionists from the Chicago Teachers Union deride Teach For America as “Teach For A While,” because traditionally trained white teachers have used black and brown schools as starter assignments for decades. Indeed, much of teacher unionism began in defense of white teachers’ right to avoid “minority” schools. By contrast, TFA teachers are more diverse and their white teachers are clear that their assignments are purposefully made to the neediest schools, not as a stepping stone to a cushy career teaching affluent white kids in tony turn-key schools, but as a mission of service.

In studying “white teacher flight” in Atlanta public schools, researchers from Georgia State University found, “[t]he race of the student body is the driving factor behind teacher turnover.”

According to a Cincinnati Post article about the research other studies found the same phenomenon on the rise California, New York, Texas and North Carolina.

Further, a study on teacher sorting puts a fine point on the problem:

When given the opportunity, more qualified and experienced teachers tend to choose schools with higher achieving students, fewer minority students, higher income students, and schools that are safer and experience fewer disciplinary problems.

A study by the American Sociological Association asserts “[t]eachers with more power, due to experience or other factors, may be able to choose their preferred classes. Parents, particularly those with more resources, also may try to intervene in the process to ensure that certain teachers teach their children.”

With the traditional teacher preparation system ignoring how race has always driven the teacher economy, why do we hear so much about the supposed lack of commitment to communities of color by TFA teachers, and so little about the historic, systemic, and widespread avoidance of “minority” schools by traditionally trained white teachers?

As we fight for our right to a quality education, a longstanding battle we’ve had with a country not trying to hear our grievances, my hope is that we grow up a bit. I pray we dispense with the youngish notion that our archetypes are above reproach. John Wayne was a racist. Elvis was a philandering drug addict. Sometimes our soldiers do bad things, as do our priest and police officers.

And, if we google (or bing) “teacher arrested” we find a considerable database of examples that teachers are human too. Further, some teachers are more willing to stand with police officers that abuse us, than with us.

That should tell us plenty.

Of course we must nurture the possibility that white teachers trained through traditional college systems and protected by strong unions can theoretically teach black and brown students.

We just don’t have the evidence yet.

Until we get it we must demand a pipeline that delivers diverse teacher candidates drawn from the smartest possible pools; one based on the science of teaching and learning, and one that evaluates teachers based upon results, not time on the job.

It is possible to love teachers and exact high standards for their abilities. It is not possible to love children and ignore research that demystifies the shortcomings in their classrooms. The stakes are too high and only children bear them.

How willing are we to live in the discomfort of paradox?


Educating Teachers Report


Systemic Sorting of Teachers


Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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