Educational Armageddon

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog:

If we fire teachers to fix schools, who will take their place?

Under No Child Left Behind, schools serving the most disadvantaged populations of students are doomed to jump through the Machiavellian hoops of norm-referenced accountability. Indeed the expectations of these schools share much in common with the perennial “Saw” movies. Schools are expected to chew off their own arms in order to escape the chains of the testing apparatus, only to find they must climb a ladder to get out of the cage.

In the star-studded film Armageddon, scientists discover a giant meteor racing towards the Earth, and summon up a crack team of experts and load them into a top-secret armor-plated space shuttle with unheard of capabilities. Just when you think the world is going to end, the U.S.A. pulls an ace in the hole by revealing that they have all the technology in place to stop an impending disaster, and the people to do it. (Why you would keep this technology secret is the real question.) Part of the metaphor, which will at some point be clear, is that, while no one knew about it, we had actually invested vast resources to address problem that, while inevitable, was highly unlikely in any finite amount of time.

In the real world, Armageddon is going on in many schools across the country. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, and its successor, Race to the Edge, States are implementing drastic measures at schools that have been deemed underperforming by intergalactic standards. These measures can include firing the principal, firing or moving the teachers, and closing the school.

Now, on its surface these measures might sound reasonable. If a school were something like Jabba’s Palace, it would make good sense to shut the place down. But to set foot on the grounds of some of these “failing” schools, one would be hard pressed to find a lack of effort, a lack of caring, or anything other than the hardest working people around, dealing with impossible objectives and stark realities that remain unchanged, and in some cases, worsened, by education policy.

I teach in a school that probably missed California’s official “Your F’’d List” by a decimal point. The characteristics of nearly all of the schools on this list are: 1) They serve students who live in poverty. 2) The education level of parents of their students is low (many having not finished elementary school) 3) Drugs and crime are common in the communities served 4) They have a high percentage of students who are still learning English. These are schools working extremely hard, some having great success, but not meeting the bar set in an ivory tower far away, where only data matters, and only th simplest and easiest to gather data (The McNamara Falacy).

In the card game, Magic, the Gathering, the card called Armageddon destroys all lands in play. Land, in the game, is the source of energy, the ability to make progress. The card debilitates everyone playing, including the “caster.” Firing all the teachers works the same way. The teachers are everything you’ve got.

There are some notable ironies in eliminating the teaching staff of struggling schools. Often, these schools have staff with the least experience. Many schools in tough neighborhoods have work conditions that are not conducive to teacher retention. Teachers might get frustrated with the quality of the facilities, the lack or resources and support, their sense of safety, the pressure of unreasonable expectations, or the overall difficulty of the job due to the disadvantages of the students. These teachers might not have the highest qualifications. Those who did, mostly went elsewhere. These teachers might have only 1 to 3 years on the job, they’re struggling to figure things out, and the State comes in and says they’re out of job, and replaces them with ???

Another ironic situation can arise for some of the most experienced, hardest working teachers who have committed their lives to working with the most difficult populations of students. Imagine a teacher who has taught for 20 years in a school where many others have come and gone, who knows the student population, has strategies for working with students from poverty, English Language Learners, or students without parental support. Now imagine that teacher caught up in a policy that fires all the teachers in a given school, in the name of reform.

Back to the movie: There is no secret bunker with an armor-plated space shuttle. There is no warehouse full of highly-qualified teachers ready and willing to go into any high-need school and perform miracles. We need policies that are based on best practices, not pipe dreams. Do we really want Owen Wilson teaching Math? Let’s work with the resources we have, intelligently, and not start Armageddon.


2 Responses

  1. Luke: I had an epiphany recently (they happen so rarely, I took note of it):
    Since it is obvious from all data sources, especially those of the standardized test scores, that teachers are what (who) get in the way of good scores, I have a suggestion. It would be very easy to do, and would require no follow ups or pilot studies in advance, since everyone knows what the results will be.
    My idea:
    Take all the teachers from Winnetka (a suburb of Chicago) and have them all teach in Englewood (a section of Chicago with one of the highest poverty rates and lowest test scores). And, have all the teachers in Englewood go to teach in Winnetka. Snap!! The scores will be reversed–those in Winnetka will rapidly plummet and those in Englewood will skyrocket! Or, Rye, New York to the Bronx. Or, Shaker Heights, Ohio to Cleveland. Or, Ann Arbor, Michigan to Detroit. What a world we could have–and all it would require is a little moving around of personnel.

    • Or we’ll find out that the teachers have very little impact on the scores. Either way, something would be learned.

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