EDUCATION Education 101: The education mill

By Bruce Adams

Imagine for a moment that you work in a spinning mill. The equipment in the mill you work at is outdated, and you’re expected to spin yarn out of poorly processed fiber. Nevertheless, being full of ambition, you are determined to turn out the finest yarn possible. There’s another mill in town with the latest equipment spinning highly processed fiber. The work is not easy at either mill, but you face many more challenges than the other mill. To complicate things, your fiber actually has a will of its own, and resists your efforts to make it into yarn. Often the fiber is not even there to spin. As a result, despite your continued attempts, much of your yarn comes out unsuitable, while the other mill produces mostly exceptional yarn. You feel disheartened, but you keep struggling year after year. Then one day you’re told you will be fired if your yarn doesn’t improve, while the other mill’s workers are paid extra for their excellent results.

Welcome to the education mill.

The Hoyt and Obama reforms
New York State Assembly Member Sam Hoyt has proposed an Education Reform Bill that touches on just about every hot button issue in education today. Hoyt has described it as the product of an “angry legislator.” President Barack Obama recently announced his national Blueprint for Reform, which addresses many of the same issues. Obama is promoting what he calls a “well-rounded education,” including “… civics, foreign languages, the arts, financial literacy, and other subjects.” To my delight, there’s even a picture of an art class in the Blueprint publication.

Both Hoyt’s and Obama’s proposals have nuances and implications too mind-boggling to cover in a single article. Common to both, however, is the focus on “assessments” and “incentives,” politico-speak for merit pay for higher test scores. Hoyt’s bill proposes to “require student performance to be included in teacher assessments,” and provide “bonus incentives for teachers for improving student performance.” Obama’s plan goes a step further by identifying the lowest-performing five percent of schools nationally. Schools falling below this apparently arbitrary cut-off point would face one of four draconian intervention options, exemplified by the recent wholesale sacking of the entire staff of Rhode Island Central Falls High School. In my spinning mill analogy, these would be the workers toiling away spinning unrefined fiber. It kind of stretches the imagination to suppose that all seventy-four teachers, plus the school psychologist, reading specialists, guidance counselors, and administrators were incompetent. But students were failing and someone had to take the fall. The solution is obvious: fire the whole staff except the superintendent (apparently the buck stopped short of her desk), then hire high-quality educators from the Good Teacher store. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thought this was a great idea. He commended the school board for “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”

Test scores and teaching skills
Diane Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and an education historian. She recently spoke about the Obama plan on National Public Radio. “What Obama’s plan will do,” said Ravitch, “is to ask schools to rate teachers based on their students’ test scores. This is a very flawed idea. It has no basis in research.” Sam Hoyt’s bill also proposes using test scores as one component of teacher evaluations, and New York State recently announced that it would do just that as it scrambles for a share of President Obama’s $700 million “Race to the Top” federal education grants. Ravitch goes on to say, “… most of those [low-performing] schools will be found to be in high poverty communities where the kids are facing multiple challenges. Many of them will be found to not speak English, or have English as a second or third language, they’ll have all kinds of challenges that they bring to the school, and it’s not really a reflection on the school staff that the kids are doing poorly. We’ve known from social science research for almost a century, the strongest correlation with low academic achievement is poverty.” No big surprise that Central Falls is the poorest city in the state.

Demoralization through merit pay
Rewarding teachers in high-achieving schools with merit pay for their students’ success is every bit as dumb as punishing the teachers for failing students. Students from affluent communities like Williamsville and Clarence do well largely because of cradle-to-college societal expectations and advantages often lacking in poorer communities. Recompensing teachers in affluent communities for their teaching “success” is a double prize on top of the reward of teaching largely motivated students. There are many factors that contribute to students’ success or failure, and effective teaching is only one. Consider my own experience as a thirty-year Western New York art teacher now retired from public schools. I taught in a well-equipped, mostly white, working class district with moderate class sizes. Over the years, I had many exceptional students. I still hear from quite a few, and I revel in their successes. But an alarming number of my students were not successful. I struggled along with my fellow teachers and staff to improve student achievement, but as in the mill analogy, my students had wills of their own. (See sidebar.)

Multiple attempts at intervention were the rule. Students had numerous opportunities to improve their grades. In fact, they would often tell me that I gave too many opportunities. Letters, phone calls, and progress reports alerted parents to problems, or should have. Parent/teacher conferences were common. Still, students failed, not because they were incapable, but because they just didn’t care. Such deep-rooted apathy is distressing, and over time, it can crush a teacher’s spirit. Imagine, then, what a delight it is for teachers to learn that political leaders from President Obama to Sam Hoyt want to evaluate them and tie their pay to the performance of students who choose to fail. This would be like paying Hoyt according to the productivity of the State Legislature, or assessing Obama on the level of Republican support for his agenda.

Schools don’t fail, students do
Teachers often cringe at the phrase “failing schools.” With few exceptions, it’s not the schools that are failing students; it’s the students and their parents who are failing the schools. Rather than firing teachers when high school students fail, what if New York withheld student working papers? What if teenage driver licenses were contingent on student achievement? Instead of teacher merit pay, maybe parents should receive tax incentives for student success. But then that would be holding students and their parents accountable, and it’s so much easier just to fire teachers.

A case study in student apathy
STUDIO IN ART is a foundation course high school students often take to graduate. Near the end of the 2009 school year, I spoke privately with individual failing students asking them one simple question: “Why are you failing?” Here’s a small sampling of their frank responses. (The names are fictitious; my comments are in italics.)

Katie: Because I’m not doing my work? (Many answered similarly.)

Bob: I don’t sleep at night. I get up after 10 o’clock, so I’m not in class much.

Lisa: I don’t know; I never look at my grades.

Bill: Cuz it’s garbage. Have you turned in the work you’ve already finished? No; I guess I should do that.

Brian: Because I don’t try, and I walk around and talk.

John: Because I don’t pay attention. It’s not you; I don’t have a problem with you. Kids sometimes say that about teachers when they fail.

Joanne: I don’t know; maybe it’s your grading.

Sally: I’m failing another class, too. If I don’t pass this class, I don’t graduate. I don’t even care.

Anthony: I admit it; I’ve slacked all year, but now I really need this grade.

Garrett: I’m stubborn, lazy, I become distracted easily, and I lack work ethic. (Several students described themselves as lazy.).

Sam: I’m failing all my classes.

Peter: I missed too much school to be able to finish the projects.

Mike: I don’t like the assignments. Are you failing other courses? Yeah. Is it for the same reason? Yeah. Are you concerned at all about failing? No. Why? I don’t know.

Jim: This is your second time through the class. I don’t consider art class important, no offense. You know you need it to graduate? I don’t see why. But you know, right? Yes. So what’s your plan? I’ll figure it out when it comes time. Well, you’re halfway through high school; don’t you think it’s time? Yes.

Tom: It’s first period so I’m always tired. You know you can work outside of class, study halls, after school? To be honest with you, I don’t have any study halls and my mom picks me up every day at 2:55. Would your mom let you stay if you asked? Probably. How does she feel about you failing? I’m not allowed to do anything … anything! But that hasn’t changed you. Nope, I’m used to it.

Zack: Honestly? I just don’t want to work. Are you worried that this could cause you problems? No. I’m either doing bad because I’m never here, or I just don’t like doing the work. If I can’t finish high school, I might drop out, get a job, and get my GED. I really just stay here to see my friends.

Not a single student reported that he or she was unable to do the work or found it too difficult. Several students had declared their intent to fail the course near the start of the year. Several were unavailable to answer the question due to chronic truancy. None of these students had taken advantage of the many opportunities for additional time or assistance.

—B.A.