Saturday, December 09, 2006

People who suck; teacher quality data; horror stories from the trenches; why New York City schools are more chaotic than Newark's

I thought hard about using my friend's phrase "people who suck" in my last email because I recognize that some who read that might think, "He's anti-teacher." Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. I LOVE capable, committed teachers and want to treat them and pay them MUCH better than they are currently. It's the incapable, uncommitted teachers that I have a problem with. Unless they can quickly improve their performance, they need to be removed from the classroom as soon as possible so students don't continue to suffer and so the teacher can find a profession in which he/she can succeed.

Why is it controversial to say that some (and, too often, many) teachers and principals are lousy at their jobs? It's not controversial to say that some plumbers, doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, police officers, etc. are lousy at their jobs – and I can assure you that many money managers are!

I think there are two reasons why it's not politically correct to criticize educators:

1) Education is viewed as a noble profession, involving great self-sacrifice. In some cases this is true, but in generally I'm not convinced that teachers are making any greater sacrifices than nurses, police officers, firemen and the like. In fact, overall, as these slides show (, teachers are quite well paid, have excellent benefits and extraordinary job security.

2) Because there are few sophisticated accountability systems, it's hard to tell who is lousy. But let's be clear: MANY are.

How many? I've never seen any data on principals, but there's some on teachers. The most shocking data is on pages 3, 18 and 19 of this slide deck on teacher quality ( Page 3 is based on a Bain & Co. 1998 study of Boston public schools: they measured student ability in math and reading at the beginning of the year and end of the year to see how much students had learned. Then, they sorted by teacher and grouped the teachers into three groups, based on student learning. As you can see ONE-THIRD of students failed to learn ANYTHING over the course of an ENTIRE YEAR!!! And Boston isn’t even close to being among the worst school districts in the country – imagine what the data would look like in Newark, Washington DC, etc.!

Slides 18 and 19 are based on a study in Illinois. It’s not as good of a study because teachers were ranked based in INPUT measures, rather than the output that we care about, student achievement. But the input measures are pretty robust:

1) % of Teachers from More/Most Selective Colleges

2) % of Teachers With at Least 4 Yrs of Experience

3) % of Teachers Failing Basic Skills Test on 1st Attempt

4) Teachers’ Average ACT Composite and English Scores

5) % of Teachers with Emergency/Provisional Certification

Based on these five measures, the teachers were ranked. The bottom decile teachers were ones who went to nonselective colleges, have little experience, failed the basic skills test on the first attempt, had very low ACT scores and are uncertified. While some of these bottom-decile teachers are excellent, I’d bet my last dollar that the great majority would be in the bottom 1/3 in the Boston study (e.g., fail to impart much if any knowledge to students).

Then, the Illinois study looked at which schools received the top teachers and which received the bottom teachers. Slides 18 and 19 show that SIXTY PERCENT of the teachers at the highest-poverty and highest-minority schools (undoubtedly mostly in inner-city Chicago) are in the BOTTOM TEN PERCENT of the Teacher Quality Index!

There’s lots more data among these slides that tells a similar story. Hence, my estimate on page 9 that “20-30% of teachers in these [high-poverty, high-minority] schools are highly ineffective” – and I’m probably being conservative. Until these highly ineffective teachers are improved or, more likely, replaced, there will be little progress on closing to achievement gap.

I’m not letting principals off the hook, however. Let me tell you stories I heard this week from one current and two former NYC public school teachers that will curdle your blood. (These are from memory, so are not exact quotes.)

Keep in mind that what these teachers are describing is happening RIGHT NOW and it’s NOT UNUSUAL! In fact, my impression is that for middle schools and especially high schools serving primarily low-income, minority children, both in NYC and in other big cities, this is the NORM!

In a million years, I could not imagine sending one of my children to schools like these, yet every day of every year, we force MILLIONS of low-income, minority children to attend catastrophically failing schools like these (four million children nationwide attend public schools that have been designated as failing for SIX CONSECUTIVE YEARS). This is especially tragic when much better schools (like charters, parochial and other private school) are often literally right down the block, in many cases struggling to survive for lack of resources, while we pour more and more money into our very worst schools. THIS IS MORALLY BANKRUPT AND CERTIFIABLY NUTS!


I’m a second-year teacher at a public school [on the West side of northern Manhattan] that shares a building with a kick-ass charter school. Let me tell you two stories that will tell you all you need to know about my principal. First, at a recent meeting of all of the school’s staff, she announced that the state would be evaluating the school and would be rating it undeveloped, proficient or good on a range of factors. She said, “We aren’t good at anything, but I don’t think we’re undeveloped at anything either.” Way to set the bar high! Later in the meeting, she was asked if she planned to make the school an Empowerment School. Her reply (keep in mind, this is to ALL of the staff at the school): “No way. Then I’d be accountable for students’ test scores.”

Story #2: We recently had a day off for professional development. These days are a total joke – we usually end up stuffing paper into binders. So, I had the idea of taking some of the new teachers down the hall to visit the highly successful charter school so that we might actually learn something (I’m friendly with the principal). I knew the principal wouldn’t like it, so I slipped it into a last-minute memo, hoping she wouldn’t notice it, but she did and said I couldn’t do this. I did it anyway. When she found out about it, she totally lost it, put a letter of insubordination in my file and spent 20 minutes at the next staff meeting going on a total rant about how insubordination destroys the school’s culture (like there is a culture).

FORMER NYC TEACHER #2 (now teaching in Newark)

At my old school in New York, the principal barely ever showed up, mostly because he was studying toward a law degree pretty much full time. The assistant principals were no good either, so the school was a mess. To hide the mess, they massively cheated on the student tests. A couple of other teachers and I documented this and went to the district office. The person there told us they would definitely look into it.

A few weeks later, we were thrilled to see state examiners show up. They crawled all over the school and we were so excited when, at the end of the process, they called a meeting of everyone at the school. Here’s what they said: “We wanted to come see what you were doing to produce such remarkably good test scores. We’re really impressed with everything we saw. Keep up the great work!”

After I left the school, I found out that they eventually got the principal.

Here’s another story: I wanted to start an after-school basketball program for the students at my school, but ran into a problem with the union rep because I was going to do it in my spare time and not get paid for it. This is a big no-no because if one teacher starts going the extra mile, unpaid, for his or her students, this might lead other teachers to feel pressure to do the same. Fortunately, my union rep was cool and agreed to look the other way and I created a very successful and popular program.

FORMER NYC TEACHER #3 (also now teaching in Newark)

I taught in a large 1,000+ student school in northern Manhattan that was a mess as well. It was a four-story building and didn’t have elevators, so the security guards never went to the 4th floor because they were too lazy or perhaps too fat to endure the climb up the stairs, so the 4th floor, where I taught, was particularly chaotic.

There were two stairwells that were designated as “off limits”, which of course meant that only adults never went there, so the kids knew that’s where they could go to do anything they wanted. I’d often find used condoms in the stairwell – and these were 6th through 8th graders!

After I left, they broke the school into four smaller schools, one on each floor. Two weeks ago, I stopped by to see the school and, unchallenged, walked right in and up to the 4th floor. It was pure bedlam. Though classes were in session, there were more kids in the hallway than in the classrooms, singing, dancing and fighting. I’ve seen a lot of chaos in schools, but this was the worst I’ve ever seen!

My observation is that there is more chaos in New York City schools than in Newark’s for two reasons:

1) You can’t touch the kids or you’ll get sued – it’s much more litigious than Newark – and because of the media. Every day or two, the NY Post runs a story about teachers beating kids, which is nearly always not true, but they publish whatever the kids say anyway. Newark doesn’t have these newspapers. I remember one time a student who I’d angered ran out of the school and down to the local police precinct and told the police that I’d thrown him down the stairs (I hadn’t been within 100 feet of him)! And another time, another teacher tried to break up a fight and got slugged in the face and the principal was furious AT THE TEACHER! It’s so bad that if you come across two kids in the hallway, pounding on each other, you can’t grab one of them (I’m a big guy) and pull him away. In Newark, you can do this and nothing happens.

2) The other reason New York is more chaotic is larger classes – often 35 kids vs. maybe 20 in Newark. This is perhaps the only benefit of the huge amounts of money that Newark is spending per pupil [more than $16,000 vs. $11,000, still very high, in NYC] – it’s easier to control a class of 20 than 35. The quality of the teachers in Newark is horrible and the kids aren’t learning anything, but at least there’s a bit less chaos.

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