Monday, June 23, 2008

Unrealistic expectations

As I am becoming older, I am indeed becoming wiser. I’ve learned that unrealistic expectations will nail you every time.

A few weeks ago I started reading “Teaching in the 408” by Mr. TMAO. This blog has been relatively popular for education-issue-minded people, but it was new to me. Nominated as a finalist for the Edublog Awards 2007 (Best Teacher category), the postings and its reader comments offer a peek into the hearts and minds of smart, young, idealistic teachers.

The author, a skilled and clever writer, relates his insights and experiences at a tough, urban school in San Jose, California (Lee Mathson Middle School). This is a nearly 700-student public school that serves many low-income English learners. Entering the profession as a Teach For America corps member six years ago, he had continued working for four years beyond the two year commitment that TFA requires. Perhaps the experience took its toll, for it now appears that he has left the teaching profession for good.

TMAO is a young man who believes that the teachers of today have not only the capability, but the duty, to eliminate the achievement gap. This seems to be an attitude promoted by the TFA program. He says, “We must reject the ideology of the ‘achievement gap’ that absolves adults of their responsibility and implies student culpability in continued under-performance. The student achievement gap is merely the effect of a much larger and more debilitating chasm: The Educator Achievement Gap. We must erase the distance between the type of teachers we are, and the type of teachers they need us to be.”

With teachers being implied as both the cause, and the cure, for the achievement gap, I wasn't totally surprised to encounter entries in this blog that dismiss the conclusions of Richard Rothstein, one of my heroes. At one point the author even says, “That silly Richard Rothstein path is a slippery slope…”

Rothstein is a longtime education scholar who has completed an enormous amount of research. He also personally understands the childrearing process and knows about the world of public education. His wife was a public school principal in L.A. and his three children attended public schools. His perspectives carry a bit more credibility than those of a twenty-something-year-old who has been on the scene for only six years.

The hundreds of findings in Richard Rothstein’s book, “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap” (2004) describe how factors outside of school invariably influence academic achievement. Rothstein paints a detailed and utterly realistic picture. Here are just a few findings from the section in the book about social class differences in childrearing (pp. 19 to 32):

1. Literacy and pre-literacy activities

In homes which practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Are read to more frequently by their parents. As a result, they become more familiar with the experience of reading.

· Have more books in their homes. As a result, they become more familiar with handling books.

· Are asked questions by parents that are creative, interpretive or connective (i.e. “What do you think will happen next?”) when they are read to. As a result, they experience more enjoyment when their parents read to them.

· See their parents reading for entertainment and/or to solve problems As a result, they have more opportunities to see books being used by the adults in their homes (strong modeling).

In homes which do not practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Are read to less frequently by their parents. As a result, they become less familiar with the experience of reading.

· Have fewer books in their homes. As a result, they are less familiar with handling books.

· Are more likely to be given commands by parents (i.e. “Pay attention,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Sound out the word”) when they are read to. As a result, they experience less enjoyment when their parents read to them.

· Do not see their parents reading for entertainment and/or to solve problems. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to see books being used by the adults in their homes (weak modeling).

2. Conversational activities

In homes which practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who converse with them as infants by asking questions and providing answers. As a result, they receive more of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who engage in conversation with them and explain things to them. As a result, they receive even more of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who give instructions indirectly (“It’s cold. Don’t you want to put your coat on?”) As a result, they receive even more of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Are told more stories by their parents. As a result, they have more opportunities to hear words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents with larger vocabularies. As a result, they hear a greater variety of words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents who are more likely to ask open-ended questions. As a result, they are stimulated to develop greater abstract reasoning or conceptualization abilities. These abilities are needed to master high school level academics.

In homes which do not practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who do not converse with them as infants by asking questions and providing answers. As a result, they receive less of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who do not engage in conversation with them and explain things to them. As a result, they receive even less of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who give instructions directly (“Put your coat on right now.”) As a result, they receive even less of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Are told fewer stories by their parents. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to hear words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents with smaller vocabularies. As a result, they hear a less variety of words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents who are less likely to ask them open-ended questions. They are more likely to be given direct instruction. They are more likely asked to recite facts, identification and simple recall. As a result, they are not stimulated to develop greater abstract reasoning or conceptualization abilities. The thinking abilities which are stimulated help to master elementary school level academics only.

3. Discipline and confidence-building activities

In homes which practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who permit negotiation and explain rules (parents’ occupation is more likely to entail authority and more responsibility). As a result, they learn to feel strongly that they can affect their environment and solve problems (“I don’t have to tolerate this situation. I’ll do something about it.”).

· Have parents who draw them into adult conversation and encourage them to express their opinions. As a result, they learn to feel comfortable with addressing adults as equals and develop a sense of entitlement.

· Are punished less. (Even if the intent was desirable, for example, pouring milk but then spilling it by accident).

· Have parents with behavioral expectations that are more likely to be aligned with the schools’ expectations. For example, it is not acceptable to hit a person, even if they have hit you.

· Have more opportunities to experience after-school activities. As a result, their self confidence is built and they see that unfamiliar challenges are exciting. This contributes to their becoming more likely to succeed.

In homes which do not practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who do not encourage them to negotiate and do not invite extended discussion (parents have more routine occupations that are closely supervised). As a result, they do not learn to feel that they can affect their environment and solve problems. They are more fatalistic (“That’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I can do.”)

· Have parents who do not draw them into adult conversation and to encourage them to express their opinions. As a result, they do not learn to feel comfortable with addressing adults as equals and are inhibited from developing a sense of entitlement.

· Are punished more. (Even if the intent was desirable, for example, pouring milk but then spilling it by accident).

· Have parent with behavioral expectations that are sometimes in conflict with the schools’ expectations. For example, it may be acceptable to hit a person at certain times.

· Have fewer opportunities to experience after-school activities. As a result, their self confidence is not built as much. They do not see that unfamiliar challenges are exciting, so they become less likely to succeed.


Just as our bodies need a variety of complimentary nutrients to grow, and to be healthy and strong, there are many factors (both
internal and external to school) that contribute to a child's ability to learn. Teachers are just one essential nutrient, one portion of what a child needs. It is a naïve and grandiose belief on the part of new young teachers that they alone are capable of, and responsible for, eliminating educational inequity. This mindset might be invigorating for a while, but it eventually becomes a heavy and painful burden that wears at physical and mental health.

So Mr. TMAO, in a few more years when you have a baby (if you still have the same opinions that you have expressed in “Teaching in the 408”) it won't matter to your child's outcome if you suppress your middle-class impulses and try a new style of parenting.

Avoid talking to your baby very much, especially using the big words you know. When your baby becomes a toddler, make sure you hardly ever read to it and never let it see you reading a book. Don't ask your toddler questions; just tell it what to do. When your child is a preschooler, tell it that it's sometimes okay to hit classmates. Then send your child off to school and expect the teachers to fill in the blanks. A few years later, I am certain you will discover that the student achievement gap is not merely the effect of an “Educator Achievement Gap.”

Teach For America’s corps members would benefit by learning the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

7 comments:

TMAO said...

No where did I suggest that all that good stuff that occurs prior to sending a kid off to kindergarten is somehow unimportant. My perspective, held before I taught, justified every minute I taught, and carried forward now that I am now longer in the classroom, is that given kids who did not get all kinds of good parenting, teachers CAN fill the gaps. I know I can't measure up to your hero, but I spent the last six years of my life justifying this belief.

Anonymous said...

TMAO,
So how exactly did that work out for you? Did you close the achievement gap in your classroom? Did all your students score above average? Are you willing to take personal responsibility for any students that didn't score at Proficient?

I think you miss the point entirely. Our current testing/NCLB climate is putting the whole responsibility for student achievement on the teacher. Some students have a heck of a lot longer road to proficiency than others. Expecting teachers to close this gap alone without significant, (i.e. moon landing, Iraq war) resources is only a recipe for teacher burnout or failure.

TMAO said...

So how exactly did that work out for you?

Pretty well.

Did you close the achievement gap in your classroom?

For some kids, yup. For the vast majority, I narrowed it considerably.

Did all your students score above average?

Define average.

Are you willing to take personal responsibility for any students that didn't score at Proficient?

Nope. But I will take professional responsibility for any student who failed to demonstrate significant growth (at least 1.5 years). If they didn't, that's on me.

I'm not missing your point; I'm saying the priorities are misaligned. Of course everything else matters and of course we should uh, like, do something about it.

Step 1) Improve teacher professionalism and accountability.

When that actually happens, we can talk about Step 2), whatever that is.

caroline said...

As a longtime reader and fan of TMAO, I appreciate that he genuinely made a difference for a lot of his kids. He has earned the right to say that teachers can have an impact.

On the other hand, it does appear that he burned himself out doing it. If this can't be done without such a superhuman effort that teachers can't sustain it more than a few years, I'm still not comfortable telling teachers, "Yes, you can do this."

It's a delicate balance. Of course we want to encourage teachers to believe they can truly narrow the gap. But when we cross the line, we invite blame and bashing of teachers for not compensating for the ills of society -- sometimes with sincerity but often with out-and-out dishonest cynicism by the privatizers who are purely out to attack and destroy public education. And BTW, TFA goddess Wendy Kopp appears to fall solidly into that category due to her marriage to Mr. Edison/KIPP.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Hi TMAO: In your six years of teaching did you encounter any long term/career urban public school teachers who were consistently performing at the level of professionalism and accountability you hold as your ideal? If so, of the total number of teachers you encountered, what was that percentage? What were their coping mechanisms for maintaining high morale over the years in the current milieu? Also, I would be curious about what those types of teachers shared with you about sustainability in the profession.

Emmett Mann said...

If the tools for success in American society are unequally distributed, and schools have the capacity to distribute these tools, is it not their responsibility to do so?

What is the purpose of public education, if not to prepare the public, in the best way possible, for the working world?

You seem to suggest that everyone should throw up their hands and say, "Well, we tried, didn't we?" I think what Mr. TMAO is saying is that we haven't tried, or we are not trying hard enough, if kids are achieving in one room and not in another.

The Perimeter Primate said...

The people in my camp are not suggesting that we shouldn’t “try.” We just believe that to produce a consistent, significant, widespread increase in the academic performance of our nation’s low performing subgroups (giving them the tools for success) will take much, much more than what people in your camp seem to believe. From my point of view, unless our nation decides deliver these immense resources to the schools – something that would require a massive shift in our society’s values – not much is going to change. If it did, we could call it true Re-Form. Now we are just playing around by saying that we want one thing, while we are doing another.

I do not believe that fixating the blame on teachers, by believing they have been/and are currently inadequate, is a useful strategy of reform. To complain they aren’t trying hard enough, or working hard or effectively enough, will drive away as many good ones as it will bad ones, and in the end won’t get us any closer to preparing the public for the working world. As with any profession, there will always be a set of superstars, a set of duds, and a majority in between. Many, many teachers have worked with this set of children for decades and decades. Some kids have learned enough to move up the social ladder, and some have not.

Even the same teacher can have one classroom that achieves, and another that does not. One middle school teacher told me that in her 8th grade Geometry classes about 95% of the students turned in homework. In her 8th grade pre-Algebra classes, she was lucky if 15% of the students did. Is her solution to eliminate homework? Call those 70 pre-Algebra students at home every night to keep them on track? Require them to come to her class after school for tutoring, extra hours for which she is not compensated? How does she force each one of them to attend? They are now 14-years-old and they don’t like math or respect it much, and they never have. Their parents don’t either. By the way, this teacher is decent but not stellar teacher with about five years under her belt. You might say she isn’t doing her job. To me she is doing a perfectly reasonable job, considering what she is working with. She enjoys teaching, is developing professionally, and is willing to work in a tough school. Should we drive her away from teaching by expressing our constant disappointment because she hasn’t been able to accomplish more with her pre-Algebra students?

Did you know that some parents fill baby bottles with Coke for their ten-month-olds, and don’t know any better?

Did you know that the U.S. has developed technology that can see a glove on the desert floor from outer space?

Our real priorities are not our children.