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Teachers making a difference in implementing SB-191

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District.

Kudos to the Denver New Millennium Initiative (NMI) teachers for their work on the Denver Report.  The report offers ways to implement the Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness Act (EQuITEE Act), formerly known as SB 191.

The Denver New Millennium Initiative (NMI) unites an innovative, energized group of early-career teachers, diverse in experience but committed to making a difference for students. We teach in eleven districts in the Denver metro area with a variety of students in myriad grades and subject areas. We entered the profession through diverse routes, from Teach for America to a traditional undergraduate program at the University of Colorado. We share common beliefs about the future of teaching and learning, fortified through our unique perspectives, which motivate us to advocate for a new vision for transforming education in the Denver metro area, in Colorado and nationally.

It is heartening to see teachers committed to our profession and to transforming education.

Among other sensible proposals, the report emphasizes the use of teachers as peer evaluators.  The EQuITEE Act made a significant change to who can evaluate teachers.  Prior to its passage only administrators could evaluate teachers.  New language in the Act will allow teachers, after being designated by administrators and after receiving training, to evaluate their peers. The Denver Report says the following about teacher evaluations:

The long history of evaluation failure has been partially attributed to a lack of effective evaluators.  We believe that an evaluation system is only as strong as its evaluators; therefore, a rigorous selection process must be in place to ensure high-quality educators—who have proven their own effectiveness —are selected to serve in these leadership roles.

Involving teachers in this process is key to an evaluation process that is fair and accurate.  For too long teachers have sat on the sidelines while poor quality teachers practiced in their midst.  In my experience teachers would shrug their shoulders and claim it wasn’t their job to call out their colleague. Technically, they were right.  But not now.

The report explicitly explains how to implement a peer evaluation system while also recognizing the limitations of resources that will need to be dedicated to their proposal. But if we are to improve the quality of teachers in the classroom, we will need to increase AND re-prioritize resources. This will mean that some high-quality teachers will be out of the classroom for a few years. Interestingly the most vehement voices against teachers on special assignment are teachers.

Some teachers are uncomfortable with being evaluated by a colleague—it changes their relationship. I think this comes from a lack of understanding of the role of an evaluator. The second reason some teachers do not like teachers being on special assignment is because it may mean fewer teachers in the classrooms. This is especially true today with the draconian cuts to education. But I would argue that quality trumps quantity.

Overall the report is a wonderful example of teachers proactively attending to issues that impact their profession. For teachers concerned with implementation of the EQuITTEE Act I suggest you read the report and hopefully recognize that the Act moves us in the right direction especially when teachers are involved in its implementation.

Popularity: 15% [?]

The real-life impacts of budget cuts

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Hurray!  We will receive an extra $3 to $4 million dollars from the state for our school district.  Now we only have to cut $27 million, about 10 percent, from our budget.  This after cutting 7 percent last year.

Much has been made of the macro effects of the drastic cuts to education:  Increased class sizes, layoffs of both certified and classified staffs, cutting popular programs like outdoor education, and so on.  Our district was forced to layoff 12 elementary librarians—this as more and more people demand that our students become wiser consumers of electronic information.

There is no doubt that these cuts will impact student learning. But I think we need to talk about the micro-impacts of cuts to education if we are to make any headway in ensuring that education is funded adequately.

For example, in my building we now have two deans for over 2,000 students. What does this mean? It means that teachers now have to assume many of the responsibilities that once were done by deans. With over 150 students in my classes, this has a detrimental impact on my ability to help students learn. One of my students has over 15 unexcused absences so far this quarter.  Not school year, nor even so far this semester, I am talking about this quarter. In the past, deans working with counselors (we lost a counselor last year and now have four), would review attendance weekly and proactively respond to absent students. Not so this year.

We need to talk about the micro-impacts of cuts to education if we are to make any headway in ensuring that education is funded adequately.

The student’s family was going through an ugly divorce and the student was now under the care of a legal guardian. The student continued to miss class, so I wrote up a referral. I am not a big fan of writing referrals, but it is important to have a paper trail on students so future incidents can have some context. What was the consequence of the referral?  Work detail and a phone call home. As well as a student pissed off at me because I had the audacity to write the referral. Since the referral the student has missed three out of four days.

The deans are overwhelmed. There are four weeks of school left and they just want to make it to the end of the year. To start the attendance matrix process would monopolize time that needs to be spent on other discipline issues; time spent monitoring the halls since we lost three campus supervisors last year; time spent on other duties picked up after losing clerical help in the office; time spent working with seniors who are in danger of not graduating.

I get it. But I also get the fact that this freshman, who is struggling to make it through my class, will be the senior struggling to graduate in three years.

This is but one incident of what the cuts to education mean to me and my school community.  So educators, let’s see other stories. Stories that personalize and bring to life the impact that budget cuts have on our schools.

Popularity: 14% [?]

A wealth of podcasts from Blended Learning Summit

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

For those of you who couldn’t attend last week’s Donnell-Kay Foundation Blended Learning Summit (or attended and want to revisit portions), the foundation has posted several podcasts of presentations from the summit. You can download them here.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Remediation rates misused, misunderstood

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

College remediation rates are the school accountability measure du jour. Once relegated to the dusty realms higher education, a topic largely ignored unless it involves athletics or scandals (or athletic scandals), remediation rates took center court when Colorado and other states linked K-12 and postsecondary databases.

All of a sudden, we could evaluate individual districts and schools by examining what percentages of their graduates were assigned to remedial college courses.

Like too many educational measures, college remediation rates are often misused and misunderstood. Specifically, I have noticed that they are often mentioned in the same breath as high school graduation rates. By this I mean that they are treated as if they are alternatives to standardized exams—i.e. as holistic assessments of the ultimate outcome of 12-plus years of education.

Students often walk onto college campuses completely unaware that they will be required to take a test that day, much less a high stakes test that will have a profound effect on their chances of postsecondary success.

They are not.

At least not in Colorado and many other states. According to Colorado’s remedial education policy, students are referred to remedial courses based upon their math, reading and/ or writing scores on ACT, SAT or ACCUPLACER exams. For instance, first-time undergraduates are referred to math remediation if they earn less than a 19 on the ACT math section, less than a 470 on the SAT math section or less than 85 on the ACCUPLACER Elementary Algebra test.

So unless you believe that these tests are holistic indicators of a student’s past performance and future potential (and some do), remediation rates are not alternative measures that prove or disprove the success or failure of the standardized testing movement or add a new, non-test-related dimension to the test score data already supplied by the state. At least not in Colorado. In Colorado, remediation rates ARE standardized exams.

There are certainly advantages to using a single, statewide cutoff score to assign students to remedial courses: It is quick. It is consistent. It is cost-efficient.

But is it valid? Questions were raised for me by a February Gates Foundation-funded report that Katherine L. Hughes and Judith Scott-Clayton wrote for the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. In their working paper, Hughes and Scott-Clayton describe the results of a 2009 meta-analysis (a quantitative summary of multiple studies) by the College Board, which administers the ACCUPLACER: When it comes to community college students whose test scores are high enough to exempt them from remediation, the correlation between the ACCUPLACER score and receiving a C in the relevant course ranges from .25 for the algebra exam to .10 for the reading comprehension test. (Correlations range from 0, meaning no relationship between the test and the course grade to 1, meaning the test score perfectly predicts the course grade).

Hughes and Scott-Clayton do conclude that ACCUPLACER and its ACT counterpart COMPASS are “reasonably valid predictors” at least for the students who place out of remediation. (The meta-analysis did not account for students who were assigned to remediation based upon their test scores.)

But they note that the tests are better at predicting results in math than in literacy and better at discerning which students will receive a B than which students will fail. Further, the tests do not take into account many factors that are important for college success (e.g. study skills, the presence of a strong support person). The test vendors themselves recommend using multiple measures to more accurately assign students to remediation.

An eye-opening session I attended at the recent Education Writers Association’s conference in New Orleans raised more questions for me about remediation rates based on test scores. During a panel discussion, Bruce Vandal of the non-profit, non-partisan Education Commission of the States noted that students often walk onto college campuses completely unaware that they will be required to take a test that day, much less a high stakes test that will have a profound effect on their chances of postsecondary success. Math is the most commonly flunked exam. Is it possible that a recent high school graduate has perhaps forgotten what he learned three or four years earlier in high school algebra?

For these reasons and others it is perhaps unsurprising that half of the students assigned to remediation have this reaction: They never even sign up for their remedial course.

Popularity: 36% [?]

Diary: Manual debaters in New York, Days 3&4

Monday, April 18th, 2011
Teague and Theron Harrison in Manhattan

Theron and Teague Harrison in New York

We hit the streets of Manhattan at 6:45 a.m. with all of our evidence in hand. Gray skies had descended upon the city with the intention to downpour at any moment. By the time we got to the subway, you could seriously feel the nervousness of our crew. They had no idea what the tournament was going to be like, but one thing was for sure: 5 rounds and 11 hours of debating. This is no small feat, especially when you are facing opponents of national caliber.

We arrived at Hunter College and began prepping for round 1. Soon, I was escorting Teague and Theron to their room, reassuring them that they knew what they were doing, and to do it well! As the day went on, our teams became more comfortable and confident. It was amazing to witness the Thomas Jefferson team and the Manual team working together. Danite Reda and Talan Lousignont worked really hard on the case that both teams used for the tournament, and they were a great support to Teague and Theron. The TJ coach, Wauneta Vann, was so awesome in how she worked with both teams in keeping morale up and confidence high. It was great to have rival teams come together to represent Denver.

“This year was all about seeing my potential as a debater, and next year is all about fulfilling it.”

Having Jessica Clark, director of the Denver Urban Debate League, there to coach our debaters on the complex strategy involved in national level debate was invaluable. One of the most difficult things about coaching debate and not having formally debated is that at some point, your debaters outpace your knowledge of the nuances of policy debate strategy. Debate is all about experience and perseverance, and Jessica, through her years of debating, was able to provide that support. We were so thankful to have her expertise.

Our teams debated against the best teams in the nation, and while they did not break to quarterfinals, they did an awesome job. Talan and Danite debated against a team from Chicago that went 5-0 during the tournament, and they totally held their own. It was a real learning experience for Theron and Teague, and has totally prepped them to be ready for nationals next year. Overall, the tournament and the entire experience was a huge success!

As we landed in Denver late last night and grabbed our luggage, we all said our goodbyes. We had become like family over the last four days, and had an experience together that none will soon forget. On our drive home, Teague, Theron and I began reflecting on the entire season. We talked about our successes, and like true debaters, we identified our gaps and began to develop a plan for next year. During our discussion, Theron left me with a thought that reminded me of why I coach debate.

Theron said, “This year was all about seeing my potential as a debater, and next year is all about fulfilling it.”

Stay tuned!

Popularity: 5% [?]

Diary: Manual debaters in New York, Day 2

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Editor’s note: Manual High School debate coach Charlie Smith will be keeping a daily diary of his trip to New York with brother-sister debaters Theron and Teague Harrison, who will be vying this weekend for the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues national championship.

Manual debater Teague Harrison

Teague Harrison at debate practice, 2009

I was a little nervous about getting everyone to the lobby at 7 a.m. this morning, when they could have slept in until 8:30 a.m.  However, I was the one that was running late.  Surprisingly, Theron got up extra early and took his mentor, Tarek, to breakfast.  While everyone was a bit sleepy eyed, we were extremely excited to make our way to “Good Morning America.”  As we made our way through the early morning streets of Manhattan I knew that this was going to be a phenomenal day.

As our debaters attended conference sessions about career planning and then had lunch with the rest of the field, you could feel a shift happening

As we rounded the corner to Times Square, billboards flashed the lastest news.  The advertisements crawled up at every angle, looking as if they were taking over the skyscrapers surrounding us. Already there was a small crowd of people gathering in front of ABC studios to hold a spot for the morning show. We found an open place and spoke with the security guard. He called in to confirm that we were indeed on Robin Roberts’ guest list, and that cameras would be shooting live in just a few minutes.

As Robin made her way through the throngs of people who had now amassed, she made instant eye contact with Teague and Theron and her face lit up. Being noticed by a star within a crowd of people is a special experience, indeed. Immediately the throngs of people were now focused on our debaters. You could feel them wondering who these youngsters were that had attracted such attention from Robin. Soon the cameras were rolling, and we were prompted to give a big cheer as they panned past us. You may have caught a glimpse of our stunning crew, if you were watching this morning.

Soon after, we were whisked inside the studio by security. After riding in an elevator that Theron claimed “…is bigger than my house…”, we were on the set of “Good Morning America.” Everyone was captivated by the whole process taking place: Camera booms moving up and down, mics, lights, producers, soundmen, and Robin Roberts interviewing a guest. As they broke to a commercial, George Stephanopoulos made his way over to us and took photos with our league director, Jessica Clark.  My whole crew was in awe.

Later we were brought to the “green room” and offered breakfast and coffee, while we waited for Robin to finish up the show. Teague stopped into Robin’s dressing room and chatted with an attendant.  I snapped a priceless photo of her standing before the bulb light surrounded mirror.  Theron realized that there was a “Good Morning America” pinball machine in the corner, and took to challenging our fellow Denver debater, Talan Louisgnont from Thomas Jefferson High School.  I sat back and took it all in.  This was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Robin arrived a little later and spent a few minutes chatting with the debaters. The smiles on their faces were huge as they made small talk about the tournament and all of the cool things they had experienced. Her demeanor was so down to the earth, and you could truly feel her interest and excitement for the big day that our debaters will be facing tomorrow. She even gave me her email address and asked that we keep in touch about the tournament results. After a photo op and good byes we were on our way.

As our debaters attended conference sessions about career planning and then had lunch with the rest of the field, you could feel a shift happening. Teague and Theron slipped out of the tourist mindset, and began to focus on the upcoming tournament.  Conversations switched to Affirmative plans and Negative strategy. Theron seemed nervous that several teams had read the Westword article and knew who he was. Wauneta Van, the coach from Thomas Jefferson, and I counseled them to use this to their advantage and to hold their confidence strong.

Nervous chatter about new cases that they’ve never heard before was squelched by my commenting:  “If they are bragging about having a secret case that nobody knows, remind them that this also means they have no idea what arguments you will bring against them.” Surprise attacks are not wise in debate.  It is truly about being the best debater, not the one with the most tricks up his/her sleeve.  They relaxed a little and made their way to the College Recruitment fair planned for the afternoon.

After talking with multiple colleges (NYU, Columbia, University of Wisconsin, Iona College) about future opportunities, our debaters were eager to explore more of the city. Tarek, Theron’s mentor, was so kind to be our guide, and off into the city we went.  The list of things to do ranged from Toys R Us, which has a ferris wheel  inside, to more cultural experiences like Chinatown and Little Italy.  As we roamed around the city our debaters relaxed once again.  However, you can feel the tension building as the big day grows closer.

Stay tuned.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Diary: Manual debaters in New York, Day 1

Thursday, April 14th, 2011
Theron Harrison, manual debater

Theron Harrison as a Manual freshman

Editor’s note: Manual High School debate coach Charlie Smith will be keeping a daily diary of his trip to New York with brother-sister debaters Theron and Teague Harrison, who will be vying this weekend for the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues national championship.

I started the day with a daunting task: Picking up Teague and Theron at 4:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. flight to New York. To my surprise they sauntered out of the door ready to go, bags in hand. They were wearing jackets that depicted the New York skyline, which were bought months ago when they declared that they were going to make it to New York city to compete in the nationals.

And here we were taking the early morning trip towards that reality!

After a smooth flight, which was Theron’s first ever, we landed and I had the privilege of witnessing two amazing teens take it all in, and make sense of all the madness. The taxi cab drive was exactly what you would see in a movie: fast, furious, and daring. We ventured deep into the city of towering buildings and arrived at the Hilton, just a few blocks away from Central Park, Rockefeller Plaza, and Time Square.

After checking in, we hit the streets and had Philly cheese steaks from a street vendor, and it was then that I saw the power of this experience begin to hit us all. Sitting and eating on the steps of a random skyscraper, Teague and Theron’s worldview expanded as they watched a lonely man wailing on a sax, people of all kinds moving in every direction, horns blowing sporadically, and the city exploding to life.

I had the privilege of witnessing two amazing teens take it all in, and make sense of all the madness.

We then ventured into Central Park and got to see a totally different side of the Big Apple. Theron was amazed that there was wildlife in this wild city, and that rock formations jutted out of ground at odd angles, with people sunning on their rounded and smooth tops. After a short jaunt we rounded our way back to the Hilton and prepared for the formal dinner of the evening.

The dinner began with a cocktail hour where we mingled with people who support the league and all of the fellow debaters from across the nation. Theron was not really into it at all, and was withdrawn in the lobby, following the Rockies game. Teague posted up at a table with the other debaters from Denver. I made acquaintance with several coaches and directors from Memphis and Atlanta.

They were both ready to hit the town and get this over with. However, their attention was piqued when they realized that our dinner seating was not only in the very front of the banquet hall, but with none other than Robin Roberts from Good Morning America. Theron quickly noted that she was also a sports caster on ESPN (1990-2005).

Tabled with six other journalists and producers from ABC News, the dinner began with lots of excited conversation about being a newscaster. The smiles on Teague and Theron’s faces were priceless as they listened intently to stories of Robin’s first job as a sportscaster in Mississippi for a measly $5.50 an hour. It was so amazing to see my debaters interacting with such personalities and trading stories about their lives.

The president of ABC news, Ben Sherman, was the keynote speaker. He relayed a powerful message of how his high school debate experience truly shaped his life. I looked over to see Theron spellbound as he identified with the very same issues that debate had helped Sherman overcome: Lack of passion for school, low grades, hanging with the wrong crowd, constantly arguing with parents and teachers.

Sherman brought his speech full circle with a powerful anecdote concerning the abduction of an ABC news team in Cairo, Egypt, just months earlier. The photographer, Akram Abi-hanna, used the power of persuasion to avoid certain death and secure their release. Akram was seated at our table as well. It brought tears to my eyes as Theron got up and went over to shake this remarkable man’s hand.

Teague and Theron’s excitement became surreal when Robin Roberts invited us all to come and join them in the studio for Good Morning America. I quickly jotted down numbers and took directions as Teague gawked at the possibility of witnessing the show.

And so, I have been arranging plans with Good Morning America. With all the names of my crew spelled out correctly, it dawned on me that there is a chance of getting air time tomorrow morning. Who knows…

And to think that we have already experienced so much, and the tournament hasn’t even begun yet. Stay tuned,


Popularity: 7% [?]

Reclaiming the mantle of ‘progressive education’

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Marc Waxman has been an educator for 17 years, including 12 in New York City, and the last two in Denver.

Listen to Marc discuss the ideas in this blog post in a podcast interview. [Click arrow to listen]. Or download the podcast here.

I had the opportunity to meet with Diane Ravitch for about an hour a few weeks ago.  (The meeting was a consequence of an electronic dialogue that started on this website).  In a quick email exchange after our meeting, Dr. Ravitch stated “I could see that you are a real progressive….”

I can’t tell you the last time I have heard the word “progressive” used in that dialogue, forget about positively used.

Yup, she called me the “P” word!  How could she?  Me? My 17-year resume as an urban educator seems to be as un-progressive as they come: Working as a Teach For America corps member, a KIPP teacher, a co-founder and co-director of a high performing charter school in Harlem.  For goodness sakes – I am the founding Head of School of a charter school that will be replacing an existing public school in Montbello with the goal nothing short of having one of the highest-rated schools on DPS’s School Performance Framework.  Can I actually be a progressive educator?

You better believe it!

When did “progressive” become a dirty word?  In the current world of urban education reform, it’s ok to say you are “paternalistic” and it’s ok to say you ascribe to a “no excuses” philosophy.  Those terms have clear, and positive, meaning in our current education and education reform dialogue.  But I can’t tell you the last time I have heard the word “progressive” used in that dialogue, forget about positively used.

No – I take that back.  I can recall the last time I heard the word “progressive.”  It was when I was with a group of “progressive” educators a couple months ago who had been called together by a local foundation to figure out how to talk about their schools in the media, to the philanthropic community, etc., without actually using the word “progressive.”

This blog post (and the couple that will follow on the same topic) is my attempt to take the word back, to make “progressive” a word educators, and those who care about education and enter the education dialogue, can use and use positively.

When we lose our ability to collectively know what a word means, we lose our ability to communicate.   There has been tons of media attention focused on “no excuses” schools and “paternalistic” schools, so if you have being paying attention to the current education reform narrative you knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned those terms above.

Unfortunately, we do not have an accessible concept for other educational approaches that can be equally, if not more, effective with the same student populations.  In one of my favorite books, “1984” by George Orwell, the control of language is a key element in the control of thought, and ultimately, in the control of action.

We must ensure that the narrowing of our education dialogue does not get to the point where we can no longer think or act in certain ways because we have lost critical language.  (It should be noted that George Orwell is also the author of one of my favorite quotes – “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”)

The definition of an educational concept is worthy of much more than a short blog post.  But we all need to start somewhere, so the list below is my best attempt to begin to reclaim the word “progressive.”  In fact, I am going to use the term “pragmatic progressive” to help differentiate it.

As a pragmatic progressive, I believe:

  • Academic achievement and social and emotional growth are equally important.  Neither on its own is sufficient.
  • Schools are critical not only to develop individuals who can drive the engine of our economy, but to develop people that will lead socially responsible, productive lives and people that will ensure we have a robust, effective democracy.
  • Great teaching starts with the student.   Teachers must get to know their students, not only as learners, but as people.
  • Instruction must be differentiated.  Children don’t learn the same thing, the same way, at the same time.
  • Assessing students consistently and continually is essential.  The best assessments are the ones that are not standardized, but authentic. Great teachers meet their students where they are and move them forward regardless if they are struggling, average, or advanced.  Assessment begins not with tests, but with observation.
  • A corollary to the bullet above: standards are useful as benchmarks, but should not be the principal drivers of instruction.  The advanced student who is ahead of standards should be supported in even more advanced work, and the struggling student who is making progress should feel success no matter how far below standards he is.
  • Classrooms should be structured, rigorous and have a palpable sense of urgency.  Every moment should matter and every system should be purposeful – whether it is designed to develop an academic skill or instill a core value.
  • School should be fun, but serious.  It should be relaxed, but intense.  (These ideas are not mutually exclusive.)
  • All people that work with children should have extremely high expectations – in regards to behavior and academic achievement.
  • Children should develop strong character traits like grit and resiliency, but also strong values like compassion and empathy.  (Again, these things are not mutually exclusive).
  • Students should be taught to think critically.  I don’t mean just the how-to-think-through-a-complicated-math-problem type of critical thinking.  I mean the how-to-critique-the-social-order type of thinking – to look at the world and decide what is right and wrong with it.
  • Children should develop independence.   They do this by being giving opportunities to think and act for themselves – to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Learning is messy and nonlinear.  The deeper the learning, the messier and less linear it is.

That’s what the “p” word means to me.  Tell me where I got it right, where you think I am lost, what I am missing…. My next two posts will follow up on this list; one will focus on why progressive education is so important and the other will focus on specific examples from a real-life progressive classroom.   So your comments and comments will be greatly appreciated as I expect they will inform my writing.

Popularity: 24% [?]

A must read on urban debate at Manual [UPDATED}

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

UPDATE: Manual is sending the brother-sister team of Teague and Theron Harrison to the national urban debate league championships in New York next month, after the pair cleaned up at least weekend’s Denver championships. Manual student Jessica Keys also played a starring role, taking the prize as first-place speaker. Congratulations to the team and  coach Charlie Smith.

Melanie Asmar at Westword has written a superb piece on the Manual High School Denver Urban Debate League, focusing on super-smart siblings Teague and Theron Harrison. I hung around the debate team during its inaugural season a couple of years ago and it was clear back then that if they could harness their energies, the Harrisons had the smarts to go places.

Here is my story on the Manual debate team from the fall of 2008. Asmar’s piece is comprehensive. This weekend the Manual team and the Harrisons will be competing in the Denver city championship, vying for a spot in the national tournament next month in New York City.

Kudos to Manual teacher Charlie Smith, the debate coach, and to the kids who have made the program a success against some tough odds. Go, Thunderbolts!

Popularity: 8% [?]

What Dostoevsky can teach us about unions

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

Some will call this a stretch, but one way to shed light on the reason we have teachers unions is to hear from a great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky; specifically, to look at perhaps the most widely discussed chapter (and most widely excerpted—it was in two anthologies I was assigned freshmen year in college) from The Brothers Karamazov.

I taught this chapter myself when I first offered a Russian literature class to high school juniors and seniors in Vermont.  Great works of art, we believe, are timeless.  Maybe it is not so strange to think these 20 pages might tell us about one of our most troubling issues in K-12 public education in America.

Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility.

Like many teachers, I had experiences with the union that disappointed or frustrated me. Observing school reform from inside and outside the classroom, I have criticized the stance taken by teachers’ associations on several issues.  At the same time, I share a conviction that teachers’ views are given short shrift by policymakers and the district office, that class size IS a central factor in teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and that the latest obsession with teacher evaluation could, if badly implemented, do more harm than good.

But post-Tucson, after reminders to be civil and avoid “going negative” and President Obama’s request that we “expand our moral imagination,” I thought it might help to offer a quiet meditation—not a harsh attack—on unions.  It may shed light on why most public schools teachers join the local teachers’ associations.  If this comes close to a truth about the attraction, perhaps it also serves as a warning.

And yet it is an explosive topic.  A too-literal reading of this will assume I am anti-Catholic—or that the teachers union is in league (like the powerful cleric in this chapter) with the devil. Dear reader, it’s about an idea, a view of human nature.  If you don’t see the parallels, I can’t force them on you.  Or maybe, as Ivan Karamazov says to his brother as he concludes his tale, “It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student…”

The Grand Inquisitor

Ivan’s parable, called “The Grand Inquisitor” (Book V, Chapter V in the novel), is set in Seville, Spain, in the sixteenth century—“in the most terrible time of the Inquisition.”  The 90-year-old cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, sees that Christ has returned and begins to win a new following, and so has him taken prisoner.  The old man visits Jesus in his prison cell and tells Him how he and the Church have “corrected” His fundamental error—made 1500 years earlier.

Download “The Grand Inquisitor” for a variety of reading platforms.

In essence, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that He wanted human beings to be free—to choose to follow Him or not.  But this places too great a burden on them.  Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility.  So in Ivan’s astonishing version of history, the Catholic Church has invited people to submit—to the Church, not to Christ—to secure some degree of happiness.  It has “saved” them, it protects them, from the suffering inevitable for those who live as free men and women.  Because His way would reverse everything the church is now all about, the Grand Inquisitor threatens to burn Christ the next day “as the worst of heretics”—a second crucifixion.

“For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good … let me tell Thee now, today, the people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet… I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born…”

“Thou didst think too highly of men…. So we have corrected Thy work…. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.”

According to Lionel Trilling, “no other work of literature has made so strong an impression on the modern consciousness or has seemed so relevant to virtually any speculation about the destiny of man.”  Trilling, one of America’s greatest literary critics, says

“The Grand Inquisitor” is prophetic of the 20th century totalitarian state exercising “control over the actions of its citizens,” attempting “to win their acquiescence and attachment by providing (or promising) material and social benefits that will relieve them of care and anxiety.  It represents itself in a paternal guide, as taking responsibility for the well-being of its people, on condition that they delegate—actually surrender—to the government their will and initiative.”

School life

This teacher wondered why intelligent, thoughtful colleagues could turn to the union—could immediately think, “file a grievance!”—when so many options (like a rational conversation, or an open debate, with the administration) seemed possible.  I wondered why colleagues submitted to group-think and turned on a colleague I admired—who crossed the picket line that fall we went on strike.  Or why colleagues were so intent on keeping the new administration in check—running battles, it seemed, to test who was in charge (them or us); to make mountains out of molehills in order to keep the union’s power in tact—or as leverage for the next contract negotiation.  The union I saw gave voice to a few, yes—our union representatives—but it was striking how many teachers merely echoed their leaders’ complaints.

The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher. “United we stand,” I guess

The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher.  “United we stand,” I guess; no individual educator can influence an election or a piece of legislation, union money and lobbyists can.  But as the teachers union seldom expressed my views, I saw I would actually be surrendering my voice.  When teaching that Russian literature class in the fall of 1980—including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn—I picked up the Vermont Education Association’s material and was told VEA members should vote to re-elect Jimmy Carter.  Solzhenitsyn was in exile two hours away, in Vermont, for speaking up to a totalitarian state. The Soviet army was in Afghanistan; President Carter seemed surprised that the Kremlin could be so wicked. In contrast, Ronald Reagan understood the invasion as part of a pattern over the past 60 years—of an evil empire.

It is not that my vote for Reagan that November felt right.  But it mattered to me then, as it matters to many of us in the teaching profession, that we find our own voice.

Need for protection, or “the gift of freedom”?

My conflicts with principals surely made me wonder if I had colleagues who would stand up with me.  I wanted their respect.  What I did not want was their protection, or a structure that turned a difference of opinion into a labor-management issue.  Yes, a reprimand from the administration made me unhappy.  One winter I felt compelled to sign a piece of paper promising the administration I would never bring up the subject of the daily schedule—for two years I had questioned the block schedule—as long as I was on the staff.  Humiliating.

Another principal hurt my pride by coming into my classroom, as I taught, to inspect “the lesson plans that need to be on your desk.” It was my 15th year as a teacher, but it felt as if I were in year one, as if I needed to fear her judgment to try hard to be prepared each morning.

Many uneasy moments.  But there was always a choice.  Speak up; perhaps go too far and get fired; compromise; or resign.  It was up to me.  And I could live with that.  Not easily.  But you sign an at will contract—as I did most of my 18 years of teaching—and accept it.

Ivan’s parable is cynical to some, but it gives us one way to understand why so many teachers join and stay.  Is it a factor why most teachers prefer the safety of the union’s hold?  Does it explain union opposition, time after time, to reforms leading to more freedom—schools granted waivers to control their personnel decisions; more flexibility on employee work rules—expectations that go past 3:30, even on to Saturday, and beyond the 175-day contract; teachers allowed to skip much of the required coursework through the alternative license program?  Too much freedom!

The union’s grumbling resistance brings to mind the old folks in Footloose. Rock music? Dancing?  “No, no, no, that’s not a good idea.” Frightened of this new freedom.  Fearing a loss of control.

“All he wanted to do was dance”

I won’t say I am proud of leaving six teaching jobs.  Stability and continuity have their place.  And I would never argue a school community is well served by a principal who is allowed to mistreat his or her faculty.  It feels awful to be silenced by a principal.  But you can resign.

We all want to work in a healthy work environment.  I found the best—and the worst—climates in private and charter schools with no union “to protect my job.”  My conclusion?  That’s life.  “The gift of freedom” includes risks.  This is news?

When I started at a new school and struggled in my first month with the principal’s micromanagement, a friend said: caveat emptor (as if it were my fault I hadn’t seen these tendencies before I took the job).  But when you “buy” into a school there is much hidden from view; less benign patterns only come to light once you join the team and show up every day.  Again, c’est la guerre.

We’re big boys and girls, I want to say to the union; we can fight our own battles, thank you.  Your “security” does not make me more free.  Just the opposite.  Like most everyone, I always wanted a school community where I felt I belonged.  A few times I found it.  No need, from my experience, to seek that belonging—that safe haven—in a union whose beliefs I do not share.

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