More Stellar Writing on Public Education

For the second time in a week, I have been dazzled by some great writing on education.  The Times has an op-ed by SPS high school teacher, Dan Magill, in response to the op-ed  by Brad Smith (whose piece was about needed ed reform). 

He very plainly sets out the challenge and the goal:

I would like to reframe the reality. There aren't two sides. There are four corners. And in the middle hangs the goal: a sober-minded, analytical, skilled population that seizes opportunities by the gray matter.

Waiting in corner one, the students — a word I'll define shortly. Warming up in corner two, the good teachers. The bad teachers don't get a corner, partly because there aren't very many of them. Corner three features the employers — people who just want dependable, qualified employees. And in corner four, we have the reform crowd — ones who influence educational policy regardless of their qualifications for doing so. These are the "meddlers."

I call them meddlers because they promote dubious ideas, such as charter schools, merit pay, techno-schools and accountability driven by test scores, regardless of the contradicting experiences schools have had with them.

He redefines the term "student":

A student is a person who goes to school for a specific and laudable purpose, and possesses the corresponding motivation and work ethic required to meet his goal.

This will no doubt take different forms in a third grader compared to a sophomore. But in either case, it can be summed up in one word: teachable. A teachable student tries.

He hits a home run here:

What the meddlers don't understand is that schools cannot guarantee results. Microsoft sells software. Starbucks sells coffee. Teachers? We sell opportunity. And we don't charge nearly enough for it.

Bravo Dan.  I'm sure that paragraph is going to enrage some who will take it as people saying some children can't be taught.  That is false and we all know it.

 But teachers know that some children have troubled lives and those troubles come right into the classroom.  There are also a small number have parents who have not sent their child to school prepared to learn. 

It has been way too easy to demonize teachers as the number one problem in public education.  We have one presidential candidate who says he doesn't worry about poor people because they have a "safety net."  But the number of poor children in this country is growing.  What is his plan to address that?  Assess teachers more? 

I visited one of the top high schools in the country on Tuesday (it's a charter 6-12).  The students there have to be low-income and the first in their family to attend a 4-year university.  Many of these students are on a bus an hour or more each way, every day.  I met a young man, a senior, who had done this for seven years.  He said his mother told him, as a 5th grader, that an opportunity like this school doesn't come along every day. 

I am mindful that there is an opportunity gap in our country.  Not every child goes to pre-school.  Not every child has a great-functioning school.  Not every child has a school with a PTA that raises a lot of money to boost achievement.  Not every child has a stable life.  

However, everyone has to be reminded of the opportunity that public education is and we should all consider our role in it as adults, whether teachers, parents, mentors, tutors, community members. legislators and voters.


MathTeacher42 said…
I have lunch with this guy, everyday!

I really enjoy our debates.

Nailed it said…
I thought this commenter nailed the issue perfectly:
from Don Matt

I've been a teacher for quite a while and have taught nearly every demographic of student, from grades 6-12. Yes, I do see apathy. Yes, apathetic students are extremely difficult to educate.

However, statewide, we do not graduate 30% of our kids on time - and this number has been about the same - since well before I started teaching.

Every fall, I greet 150 new students and, out of them, perhaps two or three are already checked-out. That means that I have the full attention of 147/150 kids on day one - 98%. Yet we are only going to graduate 70%?

Some of the kids are going to have familiy issues during the year and really struggle. Some are going to find drugs. Some are just plain going to rebel - but, really, not that many. Instead, I see kids who start each year with so much hope and (often) motivation, slowly start to fall behind and, eventually, give up. Sure, We can call this "apathy."

But, let's look at the underlying reasons for that "apathy." Why would a kid, so motivated the first day of school, quit? Generally, the student finds that s/he gets to a point where s/he simply can't do the work. For some, yes, parents are to blame. They fail to set up routines and structures at home conducive to studying, or they value ski trips and baseball tournaments more than they do school work.

However, I don't believe that this amounts to 30% of our families. In other words, there are are things that we are doing in our schools that are not working for a segment of our students. Do we have a "crisis"? No. However, we can do better - and should strive to do so. That is our duty as educators - not matter which families we serve.

Nailed it cont said…
Here are some reasons that I see students become apathetic every year:
* The student has advanced into my Algebra 2 class, but cannot multiply effectively and is terrified of fractions. (Perhaps I should generalize this and say: Students are often advanced in their coursework without having mastered the learnings from the previous year/years.) Lacking the skills to tackle the new class, the student is doome for failure, soon realizes this and gives up.
* The student is willing to work hard, but finds a subject difficult. However, because s/he is in a class of 32 students and one of 160 for which the teacher is responsible throughout the day, s/he is unable to get the personal help needed and slowly falls woefully behind.
* The student has a lot of talents, but is really not wired to go to college right out of high school. Nonetheless, the only high school sequence available is college-prep. The student wonders, "Why am I doing this to myself?" Unable to come up with a reasonable answer, s/he finds something, other than school, to occupy his/her time and energy.
* A student finds himself struggling in a course and, being embarrassed (and a bit immature) doesn't get help right away. When he finally gets the guts to ask his (now very old) question, the teacher thinks he is just apathetic and gives him little more than lip-service.

Yes, we need to battle "apathy" in our schools. Let's focus on reforms that will do that.
* Offer graduation tracks that include vocational training instead of college preparation.
* Demand that students really learn course material before advancing to the next course.
* Reduce class sizes so that kids can get all their questions answered.
* Offer after-school programs that provide tutoring.

The single biggest way we judge schools is by looking at the number of kids who fail. However, nearly every "reform" we institute focuses on college preparation. If we really want to improve schools, we need to look at the underlying reasons for the "apathy" start there.

30% of our kids do not graduate from high school in four years. I do not believe we are in crisis, but I very much believe we can do better. Frankly, I think we should be able to get it down to 10%. In order to do that, however, all the adults involved are going to have to grow up.

"Reformers": You need to start realizing that we teachers really love what we do, are working our butts off, and want schools to be the best they can be. Moreover, we actually have a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience in education. It is insane to think that you can improve schools without is.

"Teachers": Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Talk to parents. Talk to the PTSA. Talk to legislators. Talk to the community. Ask for help. make sure parents know what their kids need. Realize that the reformers are not "evil." Rather they feel desperate. Many of these "reformers" are business owners who are really just asking for better prepared employees.

Parents: Make sure your kids are doing their homework. Communicate with the teachers. Don't spend months whining about a teacher without ever b
dan dempsey said…
HERE is another piece from Dan Magill in the Seattle Times on August 19, 2010.

Guest columnist

High-quality teachers are only one piece of the educational challenge. Teacher accountability is at the center of many debates around school performance. Guest columnist Dan Magill argues it's not fair to hold teachers accountable when students have other serious challenges, including an unstable home life. Parents and culture are key.

By Daniel Magill
Tina said…
Dan's point of view has evolved bluntly since the days I worked with him. His staying power despite some of his points of view are commendable. It is, BTW, the same perspective as my parents' generation.
Anonymous said…
I think Nailed It nailed it.

I will add: all of this is an excellent argument for small class sizes. I don't care how many studies show "class size doesn't matter;" I don't buy it. Teachers need to be able to address the students as individuals, and students on the verge of apathy need to not be able to hide in a crowd.

I've seen nearly every one of the factors Nailed It listed at work in my high-school age child at one point or another. They are very, very common.
mirmac1 said…
And for some non-stellar writing, here's Brian.

Isn't this old news, already?
Jack Whelan said…
I'm adopting the term "Meddlers" in all my future references to corporate reformers. It's exactly right.

The main mistake the Meddlers make is to think that motivation is extrinsic, about punishments and rewards, and except for basic mechanical tasks that nobody in his right mind would want to do, carrots and sticks don't work. This is common sense, but if you need research to prove it to you, read Daniel Pink's "Drive".

The point is this, for the attainment of those things that have intrinsic value, you need to have intrinsic motivation. To become educated or to be an effective educator, you need to have intrinsic motivations. The Meddlers are doing everything they can to drive out of teaching teachers who have that intrinsic motivation. And the larger society, within which the school plays a less significant role than Meddlers want to believe, refuses to deal with the underlying structural problems that, as commenter Don Matt (quoted @ 8.34pm) points out, make education a game that so many kids know they are no good at and so feel no inner motivation or desire to play.
Anonymous said…
Interesting that this is considered stellar writing. Maybe it is. But as a parent, my gut reaction to this opinion piece was, I sincerely hope my kid never gets this guy as a teacher.

- new to SPS
Anonymous said…
My thoughts exactly!

I thought article was "well written" and well thought out. It had a lot of good comments on the reform movement's naivete. He had some good ideas about the limited offerings and notion of everybody being "college ready." But, I too really hope my kid doesn't get this teacher either!

The apathy I find is from the teachers. And it grows as our kids age into secondary school. Elementary school teachers generally believe that it is their duty to teach all kids. Somehow, that ambition just hasn't made it up to the middle and high school teachers. For them, it is a whole lot of "blame the student." The more we blame we blame the student, punish them with high stakes testing - the more inevitable it is going to be that the teachers also share the "blame".

They divide kids into the "going to make it" kids and the "oh I can't do anything with this one" buckets.

The apathy can just as easily be attributed to teachers like this who throw up their hands and say - all those other teachers failed him, I will too.

The mountain is apathy — a lack of motivation. And motivation springs from within.

Wow. Just a complete abdication of duty. As a coolpapa noted, motivation is actually THE JOB of the teacher. Anybody can go look up facts, math techniques, read books, go online - for information. Any information. We are living in the information age. We can also get loads of opinions, different viewpoints, discussions - on ANY topic imaginable. We can get videos, student accounts, youtube art, etc - for nearly everything. The district provides tutors, special education, etc for "extra help".

Really, what is needed is exactly that: motivation. So provide it! Evidently, this teacher thinks he should just dispense knowledge to the willing and motivated, and leave the rest behind. He thinks all learning is perfectly sequential - any gap that came before him, not his job or problem. Talk about naive.

Guess what? The willing and motivated don't need you!

Anonymous said…
to "-reader"

great job reading all kinds of things into his piece which aren't there!

You can read, obviously you don't understand.

your response is a great example of why it is so rare that working teachers speak up publicly - with our jobs, who has time to deal with people like you?

an irony of the criticisms of this op-ed, limited to ... 600 words? is that there are all kinds of things which are not addressed in 600 words because there isn't enough space - so all kinds of semi-literates attack over what wasn't said!

I'd use his arguments for figuring out better programs to support kids, and better education systems, because all our kids are teachable in the right circumstances - but - you don't want to do that hard work, you want to make up fake accusations blaming us for circumstances which we don't control.

Chris S. said…
Wasn't the point that the current reforms exacerbate the "apathetic kid" problem rather than "the apathetic kids are the problem?"

For some reason, this made me think of what business people might call "efficiency by standardizing input" in this case ending social promotion but even moreso UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL.

From my own profession (neither education nor business) my experience is that efforts to "standardize input" (which of course can't be done completely in this and many cases) can transform an insurmountable problem into a merely difficult problem.

The preschool part of it is just so obvious. But yes, expensive.
Anonymous said…
Really Hiding?

Plenty of other people "read" the same thing. It isn't that we "read" some big huge thing into his comment. He said it all pretty clearly. He starts with the title:

"Teachers can only reach motivated students."

and... ends with:

"And motivation springs from within."

Nice. Sounds like there isn't much for him to do for those pesky, unmotivated losers. Very convenient and self-serving thesis on his part.

And as to teachers responding. Plenty responded during school time. How about spending your time figuring out how to motivate those students, instead of complaining about them, or complaining about people responding to the op-ed. Sounds like you just disagree with the opinion, and can't articulate a better position than "comprehension problem."

Anonymous said…
To Reader: check out the opinion piece in the NY Times Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher

I love this word "motivation." I wonder what parents expect when they use that word. Stories and words influence some students. Grades influence others. Stickers and extra recess minutes also influence. Unfortunately, those two are in limited supply. The best motivators are parents who support educators by highly valuing and monitoring school and school expectations at home.

I wish it could be otherwise, reader. I really do.

Anonymous said…
It wasn't parents who used the words "motivation". It was the teacher in the article expressing his opinion.

Right. There's isn't a one size-fits-all motivator. Individuals are motivated by different things. It isn't easy. Nobody is expecting miracles. But, we also don't expect people to completely abdicate their role in motivating students, and use it as an excuse to fail to educate students.

Nailed it said…
This is why schools need to invest in learning specialists and guidance counselors. These people can spend the time necessary to help individual kids where they are so they are ready to learn when they enter the content teachers classroom. There are lots of good content teachers who aren't good at the touchy feely stuff especially at the secondary level just like there are teachers who are good at the touchy feely stuff but not in delivering skills and content. We need to recognize that kids need both and reorganize our schools so that all students can be met where they are and guided to where they need to be.

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