Flypaper

Liam Julian

Regarding my review of Hard Times at Douglass High, a teacher (Mr. McDermott) who was featured in the documentary leaves a comment on Flypaper:

While I agree with much of your global criticism in the NRO article, I find your view of the teachers and staff distressingly shortsighted. All the teacher training and certification in the world cannot fully prepare you for what you're walking into each day at a school like Douglass. It's a constant give and take of expectations, discipline, and academic rigor. If you push too hard, the kids drop out. If you don't push enough, they run wild. Factor in the empty mandates from politicians that every child must succeed, add to it the diminished authority of the classroom teacher, and multiply it all by the impotent curricula created by educrats who are disconnected from the realities of classroom implementation, and you've got a formula for failure.

You think I wasn't pining to make literary allusions during my lesson they profiled in the documentary, to elevate it above the concrete here and now that these kids are mired in? I was following curriculum, sir. Curriculum that I, as a certified teacher, was mandated to work from by the state of Maryland. Curriculum passed down from on high by the same pedantic wonks who feel they have the answers to what ails public education, but don't have the constitution take their philosophies to the front lines to apply in person.

I'll be talking more about...

Onetime Fordham-Ohio staffer Quentin Suffren writes in to say:

I would agree that the devil is in the details--but an opportunity could arise in the haggling over a statewide contract to educate more folks (I'm thinking taxpayers, parents among them) about how collective bargaining agreements work. This of course depends upon how the debate over contract stipulations takes place. An open and public debate over what a statewide contract should look like could let a lot of MA citizens in on some of the more archaic restrictions in many collective bargaining agreements. It could also serve as the basis for a broader debate about the costs of these agreements--and whether they are helping or hindering students. The result could be more practical agreement that offers districts greater flexibility to meet the needs of their students. Of course, all of this depends on whether the debate is a public one or, as many insiders might predict (perhaps rightly so), a swift back-room deal that places politics above a real opportunity at reform.

Perhaps I've only added to your two-mindedness, but well-shepherded and vigorously debated, a statewide contract initiative does have its plusses.

Charles C. Haynes of the First Amendment Center turns in a strong counter-argument explaining why religious charter schools are a "Faustian bargain" that aren't "worth the spiritual costs":

A faith-based school without the faith does religion no favors. Devout Christians, Jews, Muslims and others may be tempted to take the money and start the school. But substituting "culture" for "religion" is no way to advance the mission of faith.

Perhaps so. That's why allowing truly religious charter schools would be even better, though Haynes calls that idea "a First Amendment oxymoron."?? So we're back to non-faith-based faith-based charter schools, such as the ones being born from Catholic schools in Washington, D.C. Yes, these schools must take their crosses off the walls, but they avoid being closed outright. As the Center for Education Reform's Casey Carter says in this National Review Online article about the conversion,

After working with local authorities, the Church has created the legal and the financial mechanisms to serve the same children with twice the financial resources.

Maybe such a "bargain" is bad for the Catholic faith, but it's a good deal for inner-city children, bless their little souls.

(That makes two devilish posts from me in one day.)...

Liam Julian

Re Amber's fine post: The mayor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, announced that no evidence exists to support the claim that a group of young girls agreed to get pregnant and raise their babies together (although the girls' principal, who first said such a "pact" was made, has not retracted his earlier statements). Some don't buy it:

Gloucester resident Annette Dion, a 45-year-old private music teacher, said school and city officials should have done more to find out whether the girls truly made a pact to become pregnant. She said denying such a pact existed is "pretty naive."

"I don't think we heard the truth today," Dion said, adding that pop culture has glamorized teen pregnancy and that movies and celebrity pregnancies do not give girls an accurate picture of parenthood.

"My personal feeling, my impression, is they probably talked and discussed and thought it would be cool to get pregnant together," she said.

Brendan Henry, a 17-year-old going into his senior year at Gloucester, said the attention surrounding the alleged pact has taken the focus off bigger issues facing young people, including school underfunding. Still, he did not doubt that a pact could have existed.

"It definitely sounds like something that would happen at Gloucester High School," he said. "It doesn't sound too far fetched at all."

Regardless of what really happened, perhaps this story will help knock down some of the myths about teen pregnancy and give schools, which are under ever-increasing pressure to become health...

Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts unveiled his education reform plan yesterday--sorta. He released a laundry list of new programs that he thinks will improve the "readiness" of Bay State students, mostly along the lines of the "broader, bolder" agenda (pre-K, health services for zero-to-five, etc.). What he didn't do is figure out how to pay for these goodies.

The most intriguing part of his plan wasn't mentioned by the governor yesterday but was floated in this Boston Globe story: a statewide teachers contract. An Administration official explained that such a measure could save time and money at the local level. That's probably true, but would be it good for school reform?

My gut says no, as a matter of realpolitik. Patrick was swept into office with the help of the state's teachers unions; they will never allow a flexible, district-friendly contract like the better ones we identified here. Instead, they will push for the lowest common denominator: a statewide contract just as restrictive as the worst of today's district contracts. That would tie all Massachusetts districts in the same red tape that currently afflicts just a few.

Still, in theory, a statewide contract could be a good thing. It's possible that affluent, suburban parents would revolt if their own public schools had to work under a restrictive statewide contract-and thus would serve as an effective counter-balance to the unions. After all, Rick Hess and Coby Loup found in our Leadership Limbo report...

Our friend Greg Forster wrote a post last week about Checker's and my National Review Online essay in which we report on the findings of Fordham's high-achieving students study and argue that "excellence" (defined as the progress of our top students) is being sacrificed for "equality" (defined as the progress of our lowest-performing students or, in today's parlance, "narrowing the achievement gap"). Greg thinks our evidence doesn't back up our argument:

If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more excellent or less excellent?

Is the whole population getting "more excellent"? No, the whole population is making incremental progress. That's surely good. But excellence is something else entirely. According to Webster's, it's the quality of being "superior, eminently good, first-class."

Greg's definition equates "excellence" with a narrowing of the achievement gap. That's breathtakingly radical. Who knew that Greg had become such a lefty!

Update: My lefty friend Greg now calls me elitist....

Liam Julian

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is going to today??blame Margaret Thatcher for Britain's education woes, the Telegraph reports.

Since??Thatcher is being blamed for things, I think??this school-related??reversal of traditional gender roles??is probably her fault, too.

The Des Moines Register weighs in on Fordham's high-achieving students study and gets it exactly right:

Nicholas Colangelo, director of the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa, said revisions of the No Child law should provide more help to students at the high end and look at how to better measure their progress.

"One of the problems with No Child Left Behind is that it...made the [high-achieving] students invisible. This research is just bringing that out," Colangelo said. "The answer is that we do not have the luxury of not having a better balance. We can't have national policy on education that so strongly focuses on one population of students and pretty much ignores the other. What happens then is there is going to be frustration, and people are going to feel that public schools are not the place for high-ability students. I don't see where the nation gains."

Helping students across the board make academic gains is critical. The national conversation on education should pay more attention to this. It's foolish to waste the potential of any American youngster.

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Liam Julian

A??reader (a teacher, it seems) writes??to the St. Petersburg Times:

Did Jeb Bush really say "our education system is an eight-track system living in an iPod world"?

That proves he is frighteningly out of touch, and that he hasn't set foot inside a classroom in at least 30 years: Nowhere have I ever seen one of those obsolete devices in any school I have been in as a student or teacher.

I can assure you our schools are more technologically current than most people's homes. But Jeb Bush still envisions purple-inked dittos, green boards and yellow chalk, back when the teacher wore her hair in a severe bun and rapped knuckles with rulers.

Liam Julian

About the short review that Coby kindly mentions: I wrote it for a lay audience, one not tuned in to every shift in k-12 minutiae, and so I didn't dive into the issues as much as perhaps I could have. I also didn't write about the positive things going on at Douglass High circa 2004 (the debate program, the choir); alas, word count restrictions made it so, and it was more important to note how the positives were undermined by the negatives. The documentary shows a staff that seems to care about??its students and is generally well-intentioned. It doesn't seem so very different, in fact, from staffs one might encounter at suburban public high schools. But whereas suburban schools may be able to get away with employing people who are kind but in many ways incapable, urban schools such as Douglass cannot. After watching Hard Times at Douglass High, one would be hard-pressed to argue against more mechanisms--results-based mechanisms--for holding teachers and administrators accountable.

Update: Here's the New York Times review.

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