PART 3—CLUELESSNESS OF THE GODS (permalink): Is anyone more clueless than our gods of “education reform?” In this case, we refer to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, the most famous players who loaned their names to this pompous, know-nothing “manifesto” in Sunday’s Washington Post.
The “manifesto” littered page one of the Post’s “Outlook” section. About a dozen other superintendents placed their names on the screed.
Only gods like Rhee and Klein would dream of pimping such drivel. Only the Post would publish such piffle under that glorified heading. That said, the “manifesto” appeared at the top of page one, positioned next to Matt Miller’s plea for more teachers with good college grades.
Oh, yeah—that’s really the problem! When it comes to the public schools, Miller strikes us as rather clueless too.
To all appearances, Miller doesn’t know much about public schools (except that he likes to proclaim on the subject). But then again, to all appearances, neither do Klein and Rhee! We know, we know: Denial centers scream out in the brain, insisting that this can’t be the case. After all, Klein and Rhee are famous superintendents—so potent that they even got themselves titled as “chancellors.” (Rhee just resigned from her post as head of the Washington DC public schools. Klein should resign from his post in New York, given Jennifer Medina’s report about his years of malfeasance as head of that city’s schools. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/12/10.)
Rhee and Klein are gods of reform. What was in their “manifesto?” As usual, the lofty pair were caterwauling about those meddlesome teachers! “Right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something,” they wrote. And just like that, the gods let us know who has been causing this problem:
KLEIN AND RHEE (10/10/10): So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income—it is the quality of their teacher.Klein and Rhee chose to start with “the basics.” This of course meant that they chose to start with some good solid teacher-bashing. They didn’t start with instructional questions, which others might include in “the basics.” They didn’t start with questions of curriculum, or textbooks, or instructional practice—topics on which they’ve never shown much sign of having real ideas. As always, they started with good solid teacher-bashing—and with a word of warning:
A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master's degree—she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.
A poorly performing teacher can hold back thousands of students! But might we add a second point? A poorly performing “chancellor” can do more harm than that!
Such thoughts don’t occur to gods like these—to gods who kick down, not up. But in their overwrought “manifesto,” Klein and Rhee made a rare mistake—they mentioned a basic instructional problem which does occur in the schools. Neither one of these godly creatures has ever shown the slightest sign of having ideas about “basics” like that. And sure enough: Their cluelessness rang out loud and clear when they tried to address this matter.
Klein had no background in schools, you see, before he accepted his post in New York. Rhee spent only three years in the classroom. (After that, she spent ten more years seeming to lie about her alleged record.) And alas! When people have spent so little time seeing how classrooms actually work, it’s no surprise when they lack ideas about ways to improve instruction. Result? Instead of offering real suggestions about the way instruction might work, Klein and Rhee typically spend their time berating and threatening teachers.
We’ll threaten the teachers, these great gods proclaim. They’ll have to figure it out!
In their manifesto, what did Rhee and Klein say about the workings of actual classrooms? Omigod! In the following passage, they describe an actual problem—a major challenge in low-income classrooms. Indeed, in our experience, this passage goes right to the heart of the most basic instructional problem confronting low-income schools:
KLEIN AND RHEE: We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school. Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let's stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.We were amazed to read the highlighted passage. In our experience, it goes to the heart of the greatest problem confronting teachers in low-income schools. A fifth-grade teacher may well have kids who are reading on three or four different levels. The same may be true of their math performance.
Even the best teachers—those who possess such skills—face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy?
What is that teacher supposed to do? How do you teach such a varied group?
In what follows, we show the full answer offered by these gods of reform. Warning! Prepare to avert your gaze! The highlighted answer is an embarrassment—a jumble of words from two gods of “reform” who don’t know squadoosh about schoolrooms:
KLEIN AND RHEE: Even the best teachers…face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy? We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers' time.How should we help teachers whose students are reading on three or four different levels? Sorry, Charlie! Klein and Rhee don’t have the slightest idea!
What should we do for urban teachers confronted by that dilemma? From our experience, we’d say the following:
We need to give them instructional programs designed for kids on many levels. We need to give them readable textbooks, written on various reading levels. We need to fill their classrooms with recreational reading materials, suitable for all levels of readers. We need to have textbook programs which are pre-designed for schools with kids on a wide variety of levels. We need textbooks and instructional programs designed for fifth-graders who may be sixth-grade in age, but who are doing math on the third-grade level.
We need kindergarten programs designed for kids who may be far “behind” on their first day of school.
(We need to explain how our ballyhooed “standards” work. If fifth-grade kids are doing math on various levels, should they all be taught the same “fifth-grade math?” What kind of sense could that possibly make? Is that how our state “standards” work?)
These things must be done on the chancellor’s level. Teachers, even those with good college grades, can’t do these things by themselves. But Klein and Rhee have never shown any sign of knowing such things. Did we mention that Klein never taught at all—that Rhee spent all of three years in the classroom? Understandably, such people typically won’t have a clue about the problems confronting our schools.
And so, they do the one thing they know—they name-call and threaten their teachers! They assume the failures of their systems must reflect a lack of effort by these lazy proles.
Go ahead—read Monday’s report by Medina to see the way Klein boasted and dissembled his way through the past decade. When you’re through, tell us that he shouldn’t be following his associate right out the door. But before you do so, please review a letter to the Washington Post—a letter from a guidance counselor at a Virginia high school. (We’ve googled around a bit.) Like us, the writer was struck by the consummate piffle the two gods wrote in the passage we’ve quoted—the passage in which they tried to discuss a real problem in our real schools.
Sorry: This letter-writer knows more about schools than Rhee and Klein could figure out in a year. In this letter, you see the reaction of a bright person who actually knows about schools:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (10/13/10): I found one section of the manifesto confusing. The writers acknowledged that it is difficult to teach a class where the students have widely divergent intellectual skills, and they asked whether it was reasonable to expect a teacher to adequately address the needs of students who read at very different levels.Quite correctly, the writer noted that Klein and Rhee’s jumble of words “seemed a very pat and shallow non-answer.” She noted the bafflegab nature of their very unclear prose. (How well would they do on a state English test?) She understood that “solutions to the problem of teaching children” who read at very different levels “may not involve technology.” (These solutions may involve better textbooks and better curriculum planning.) In our view, she saw to the soul of these great pretenders: She saw that they don’t have a solution to the problem they limned, that they are just suggesting that someone else “should figure the problem out.”
Their answer? Use technology better and gather data. What does this mean? Maybe it means put more kids on computers. But to do what? To work on individualized lessons?
Maybe it means teachers should collect data about student performance. But to what end? With what free time?
Rather than suggesting concrete solutions to the problem of teaching children with different needs—which may or may not involve technology—the manifesto suggested we should figure the problem out someday soon. It seemed a very pat and shallow non-answer to a genuine problem.
A— H—, Washington
Manifestly, this letter-writer knows much more than Klein does about public schools. By the way: That bafflegab from Rhee and Klein wasn’t a hurried, clumsy response to an unexpected question. This was the best the gods could do with a topic of their own selection, in a passage intended to show that they know how tough things can be in the schools.
This letter-writer was polite, a skill one may learn in the public schools. But might we paraphrase what she said:
The people who penned that jumble of words didn’t know their keisters from their clip boards when it comes to the most basic questions about what goes on in the schools.
The writer is smarter than Rhee and Klein. She knows much more about public schools. She knew a non-answer when she saw one.
She could see that Rhee and Klein don’t know what they’re talking about.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: For most people, it’s hard to grasp how utterly clueless our “educational experts” are. When it comes to the most basic issues of classroom instruction, they rarely show the slightest sign of knowing whereof they speak.
They have very few real ideas for their schools. They don’t know squat about instruction. And so, they simply threaten the teachers. Their strategy seems to be this: The teachers they insult and threaten “should figure the problem out someday soon.”
Tomorrow, back to that recent ETS study, written by another “educational expert” who didn’t seem to know all that much about schools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/10). It’s hard for most people to understand how lacking our “experts” actually are. They sit on their thrones, and preen like gods—and don’t know squadoosh about schools.
Tomorrow—part 4: Caution! Educational expert at work! (Where did the progress come from?)