Monday, March 23, 2009

A Teacher Responds to Latest Kristof Ed Column

Dear colleagues,

I suggest that others reply to Nick Kristof's latest misguided attack on teachers in the widely read (including, I am sure, by Obama's folks and others) op-ed in today's NY Times. He throws his support behind Michelle Rhee of DC. This is his second article in support of school reform on the Bloomberg-Klein-Rhee model.

My reply (to his blog) appears below. Letters to the editor of the NY Times are also called for. Although the media, including the Times, are generally biased against union folks in general, and against teachers in particular, we cannot remain silent at such a time.

Note that blog comments become increasingly irrelevant as the comments pile up, while comments for newspaper articles (where allowed, online) now often close in a day or so. The early comments are usually displayed right below the column or blog entry, and so are widely read. So time is of the essence in replying.

I could find no place for comment on the op-ed online, and so went to Kristof's blog. Both links appear below.

My reply reflects my own experience, that may, of course, differ from that of others. But it is important that journalists, at least, receive input from teachers. That means all of us.

Our stories remain untold, while the myths perpetuated by others come to be regarded as facts. The online blogs offer us an opportunity. Despite any filtering carried out by hired help, some of our comments are bound to reach a wide audience, including newspaper editors and reporters.

If your opinion differs from mine, or if you think I have not included, or emphasized sufficiently, things you consider more important, please write to the NY Times, using the comments section in Kristof's blog (second link blow) or by writing a letter to the editor.

I have a propensity for length, which may irritate and lose all but the most scholarly. Condense my arguments, if you concur with them, and write.

Letters to the editor must, of course, be brief. Blog comments may be longer.

Please forward to others if you think fit.



Dear Nick Kristof,

I have followed, for years, your columns, and have admired your crusading zeal, bringing to light issues of basic justice that we may not otherwise hear about in the mainstream media.

Now you have entered into a field, however, in which your column perpetuates a longstanding fallacy, which I have explained below.

In addition to the "War against Drugs", and the "War against Terrorism", which have created much more havoc and misery than they have alleviated, do we really now need a "War against Bad Teachers", as being instigated by Michelle Rhee, and basically endorsed in your blog and your column?

I write, not as one who is distant from all of this, but rather, as one who has been unwittingly engaged, for two decades, in the trenches of the more real war -- that of defending whatever remains of integrity in K-12 education from the onslaughts of social pathologies on the one hand, and of corrupt or zealot administrators on the other. At stake, is not only the integrity of our discipline, that of teaching, but the futures of our students.

When I say that I, and millions of others like me, ordinary teachers in our public schools, are engaged in this battle, this does not mean that we are all activists, hurling rhetoric, let alone firebombs. It means, mainly, that we leave for work at 6 am or earlier, work through the whole school day, and then continue our work, often with only an hour or so of rest, till midnight.

And this continues through the school year, ending (for those who are not forced, by economic necessity, to teach summer school) only in the blessed summer break. And this schedule has been ongoing, for many of us, for decades.

This is not an exaggeration. It is a reality. What keeps us going, other than the monetary compensation, which has often been meager, but necessary for survival, is the satisfaction we get from doing a good job, and from helping our students. As we begin to lose these basic, intrinsic rewards, we falter and lose confidence. And we leave, or are driven out -- or we continue, like our students, in a state of discouragement regarding our daily work.

You have correctly identified the poor quality of education in many of our schools, especially in urban, minority areas, as one of the greatest threats to our collective survival and well being.

However, if we are to adopt even a quasi-scientific problem-solving approach, there are at least six initial steps in resolving a problem:

(a) the acknowledgement and identification of the problem;
-- for example, "Students in many public schools are not learning necessary knowledge and

(b) the formulation of an hypothesis as to the main cause(s) of the problem;
-- for example, "The problem stems, in large part, from poor teaching techniques."

(c) the testing of this hypothesis, in a rigorous fashion;

(d) the falsification (as is usually the case) or confirmation of the initial hypothesis;

(e) either the discarding or modification of the hypothesis, if proved false or inadequate,
or else a reassurance as to its validity, if confirmed;

(f1) a search, next, for a different hypothesis, that may be more accurate, as to the main cause(s) of the


(f2) an attempt, next, to solve the problem based on the confirmed hypothesis.

Many of the difficulties that the public schools systems have faced from attempts at reform stem from the fact that politicians and the educational establishment have skipped, by and large, steps (e) through (f), those of testing and either honestly confirming or discarding the hypothesis, and proceeded, out of impatience, ignorance or carelessness, to step (f2) -- that of taking steps that are based on the (untested) hypothesis.

This is, of course, only when they have had the guts and energy (or been compelled) to at least take steps (a) and (b) -- that of acknowledging the problem and of formulating a hypothesis. But this has occurred, every few years or so, over several decades. Unfortunately, each time, it has only compounded the problem, rendering it more intractable.

This is not an abstract exercise in logic. It has affected, firstly, hundreds of millions of students, and, secondly, millions of teachers. The conditions that led to the initial demise of the quality of public education, along with the attempts at "reform" that have periodically caused chaos and further demise, have resulted in a double tragedy -- the major one affecting the sincere students, and the minor one affecting the sincere teachers.

After long and careful observation of conditions in many schools in New York city, ranging from Brooklyn Technical High School to those much more troubled, both as a regular teacher, for sixteen years (of many science subjects, with a license in physics and general science) as well as a substitute, on family leave for six years, working both as a sub-teacher and a sub-para, I can say, with some measure of confidence, the following:

The root cause of the problems faced by many schools in the city are social pathologies that enter into the classroom and hallways, as well as being present, in the first place, in the communities and homes. These make it nearly impossible for effective teaching and learning to proceed in the classes, and for students to put in the study and work at home needed to succeed. The causes for these pathologies are historical in nature.

However, they are transmittable, being acquired, for example, by new immigrants and others over relatively brief periods of time. As such, they are probably treatable and reversible, but not by either coercive methods or by denial or blame-shifting. This is "hard problem", one that cannot be solved by easy measures. It calls for a rethinking of basic assumptions, much as does our current fiscal crisis.

In addition to these social illnesses, there have always been structural problems in the schools. These have worsened from neglect. These include issues such as:

-- severe shortage of time;
-- excessive class size;
-- disregard for necessary sequence and prerequisites;
-- disregard for students' basic right to choose and specialize, especially in their final three years, as they prepare for work and college;
-- excessive workload on teachers and students who are sincere;
-- lack of two-way communication channels between classrooms and policy makers, resulting in lack of feedback necessary for timely course corrections;
-- the expansion of special education to accommodate increasing numbers of children;
-- the disposal of vocational and other alternative educational streams;
-- etc., etc., etc.

Furthermore, as the social pathologies take over a school or a school system that is unprepared to deal with them, and is unable, publicly, to even address these issues, and as both students and teachers consequently suffer, a point is reached where discouragement sets in, in all quarters.

In this atmosphere, the scum floats to the top. The corrupt, the zealot, the ambitious and the evil thrive, while those who are honest and decent, mind their own business and concentrate on their work find themselves increasingly in trouble.

Some, including many administrators who have fled the classrooms rather rapidly (as did Chancellors Rhee of DC and Klein of New York), even to the point of obscenity, give up rather easily, or opt for jumping on bandwagons.

Others, such as dedicated teachers who have had some success and attained confidence, and students who have had similar experiences, along with those who are just naive and sincere and "don't know better", persevere for longer periods. There are teachers, for example, who resist intimidation by those in the system, including supervisors, who are lazy, corrupt, or unscrupulously ambitious. And yet such teachers are eventually hounded out. For these, this principled. but painful, resistance may last to the bitter end, and leave them with careers, and even lives, torn to shreds.

Students in poor areas are as capable of learning as are those in affluent ones. However, two things are often lacking:

(a) the belief (that comes from small successes achieved by diligence and perseverance) among students that they can learn, and from teachers, that they can teach, topics that may appear difficult;

(b) the conditions under which these small successes can be achieved, which include an atmosphere relatively free of distractions and interruptions, in which students can concentrate, and teachers can teach and help those that need help.

Those who wish to bring about meaningful reform of failing public schools would do well to figure out how to best conserve and accrue these two necessary, increasingly rare and yet undervalued, elements of education.

I will end with an anecdote. I met, once, a retired Chemistry teacher, whom I had known at Brooklyn Technical, who was boasting about the techniques he had used in his Advanced Placement and Regents Chemistry classes. He noted that his students had had a 95% plus passing rate in the NY State Regents examinations.

As I had taught at his school as well as in others, and had noted that, despite my valiant efforts, the results had been rather different, I asked him whether he had taught Chemistry recently at other schools. He replied that he had taught Regents Chemistry one summer at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, a school I myself had subbed in and knew was headed downwards at the time.

I asked him how his students had done in Lafayette. He told me that only one of his 30 students had passed the NY State Regents Chemistry examination that August. And the one who had passed, he was candid enough to inform me, was a girl who had mistakenly been programmed into his class, as she had taken and passed the Chemistry Regents before!

I admired his honesty at telling me this, but was also puzzled why (assuming he knew in advance, as the girl would surely tend to try and tell him) he had allowed her to suffer through the summer in his sweltering class. But I did not pursue the matter at the time. Of course, the thought occurred to me that, had he done what was right, his percentage would have fallen, from his proud 95%+ at Brooklyn Tech, not just to a measly 3%, but to a miserable 0% at Lafayette.

(Of course, there could be legitimate reasons for the girl taking the Regents again -- for instance, not passing the class, for whatever reason, while passing the state exam, as may (rarely) happen, in which case it is up to the school to decide whether she should still take the class again or not.)

The point of this story is -- same highly qualified teacher, drastically different result.

I recount this anecdote, not to negate any possibility of improving teaching and learning in schools, such as Lafayette, where average student performance plunged as the neighborhood demographics changed, but rather to rebut those who say such change could be accomplished by replacing the teaching staff with better trained and qualified teachers. It is possible to greatly enhance the learning that takes place in such schools -- but not by replacing staff, especially experienced staff.

I should note, that even in its declining years, Lafayette High School in Brooklyn still had staff (as well as many students) that were remarkable in their levels of achievement and diligence. I say this because I subbed there, in science, mainly, and was astonished at the students taking Regents and A.P. Physics, whom I found were highly competent, as was their teacher -- who was later forced out (as were several other Physics teachers of my acquaintance in Brooklyn's high schools) for her fighting spirit.

In my experience, it took me about three years of teaching a particular subject (even my own -- Physics, in which I have a Ph.D.) before I got it about right -- smoothing out rough edges, figuring out where students' weaknesses lay, fixing illogicalities or gaps in the syllabus that sometimes became apparent to me only from students' questions, calibrating the pace at which I taught different topics, redoing handouts, tests, etc., etc.

In conversations with other teachers, I found that many concurred. There is no substitute for this kind of experience.

And the three years I quoted are sufficient to ensure good teaching and learning only if the student population, and the curriculum, including prior requisite classes, all remain relatively steady -- as is rarely the case.

Teachers have to constantly readjust their teaching to deal with all these things, along with terrible distractions such as freshly mandated teaching methods (often puerile in the extreme) and disruptive behavior from misplaced students, with no real support.

In sum, there is much work to be done in the public school system. But, unless we want yet another Vietnam or Iraq, we need to talk, and listen carefully to, not just swiftly promoted generals, like Michelle Rhee, but the troops on the ground.

Arjun Janah
2009 March 22nd, Sunday
Brooklyn, New York

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