WTF: Teacher Asks Students How They Would Kill Her In Assignment

WTF: Teacher Asks Students How They Would Kill Her In Assignment

by Sean Levinson

A Maryland English teacher decided that a great way for her students to demonstrate their grammatical skills was to describe how they would kill her.

According to the Washington Post, four classes at Kingsview Middle School were told by Patricia Lorenzen to write a detailed story of the murder using specific types of words.

The story had to include at least three gerunds, three infinitives and three participles.

Only after parents voiced concerns did Lorenzen realize that some of the stories might not turn out to be PG-rated.

Lorenzen wrote a letter to parents in November of last year, explaining the purpose of the exercise and apologizing for assigning it.

She wrote,

I was trying to create an assignment that would be an engaging way to review some grammar concepts, but it was not appropriate and should not have happened.

Some of the students had already written their stories before the letter was sent.

Lorenzen gave those students full credit, while the others were excused from having to turn it in.


Kingsview principal James D’Andrea told the Washington Post that there haven’t been any problems with Lorenzen’s other assignments.

He wrote in an email,

When this occurred more than two months ago, I personally apologized on behalf of the school to the parents who contacted me. The matter has settled down since that time.

RT notes the assignment’s resemblance to an Oklahoma teacher telling her eighth graders last month to circle the verbs on a worksheet describing the 2013 murder of a Massachusetts teacher.

The exercise read,

He followed his teacher to the bathroom, beat her, and slit her throat… He, then, dumped her body in the woods behind the school… Police were notified when a pool of blood was found in the women’s bathroom.

The teacher was disciplined but allowed to keep her job.

Top 5 Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession

Top 5 Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession

by Tim Walker

Well-funded misinformation campaigns succeed in part by leaving no rock unturned in the quest to smear whatever person or institution they are targeting. In these cases, is there any meaningful difference between a hoax, myth, rumor or an outright lie? Not really, because they all serve to discredit and undermine, regardless of intent.

For more than ten years, public schools have been assaulted by a barrage of destructive policies that have been fueled by the widespread dissemination of misinformation. It begins with corporate cash flowing into new think tanks and advocacy groups, or films like Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” And it all eventually trickles down to the neighbor a few doors down who asked you, “I support public schools and I love my own child’s teacher, but, gosh darnit, why can’t bad teachers ever be fired and what’s wrong with being held accountable?”

Needless to say, the conversation over public education needs to change course but is still largely bogged down in the morass of distortions and warped opinions

Education psychologist David C. Berliner and education professor Gene V. Glass hope to help clear a path with their new book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools. Berliner and Glass take on and dismantle every half-truth, falsehood and bad idea that has undermined our schools, using logic and credible data to make their case.

“The mythical failure of public education has been created and perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from the destruction of the traditional system,” the authors write in the book’s intro. “Many citizens conception of K-12 public education in the United States is more myth than reality. It is essential that the truth replace the fiction.”

Here’s a summary of the book’s response to some of the myths pertaining specifically to teachers and their profession.

Myth 1: Teachers Are the Single Most Important Factor in a Child’s Education

Great public schools depend on having first-rate teachers. Teachers work very, very hard. Their days are spent not only providing instructional and emotional support, but also performing countless other tasks to benefit their students.

However, many so-called reformers and lawmakers inflate this importance to such a degree that it permits them to ignore all the other critical factors that influence learning. The result: Let’s pin every failure on teachers.

Accountability is important but, as Berliner and Glass point out, it has become the “cornerstone of the education reform movement, putting teachers in an untenable position.” Do teachers control the economic struggles of their student’s families? Do teachers have the autonomy to make every decision about curriculum and instruction? Does the average teacher have at her disposal a wide range of effective and sustainable professional development opportunities?

They argue that accountability should be based on a metric that is a little more reality-based. “Families, communities, school boards, state and federal government  – society in general – all bear responsibility for student achievement,” the authors write. “Asking teachers to bear more than their share is shameful.”

Myth 2: Teachers Thrive on Competition

Reformers toss around the word “competition” as if it is some indisputably virtuous attribute that can turnaround any and all endeavors, including teaching our kids. Hey, it works well for the Fortune 500, so it stands to reason that a little rough-and-tumble competition will work for schools. Competition breeds better teachers and that will lead to higher student achievement.

And what would teachers be competing over? Merit pay of course, determined by standardized test scores. Putting aside the problems in trying to measure teacher effectiveness with a test score, the widespread potential for cheating, and the drill-and-kill instruction behind value-added measurements, Berliner and Glass argue that boosters of competition are making a number of damaging faulty assumptions. First and foremost is that students will benefit.

“Teachers are pushed to score the highest, which means others must lose. It means that many teachers  are likely to abandon their collaborative efforts of helping students of all classrooms succeed in order to increase the chances of their own classroom’s success. It means that teachers who seek a bonus, or fear getting fired, must plot to get the more affluent students because, as history shows, these are students with winning records.”

“Competition is a repugnant motivator that will alienate teachers from one another and decrease the chances of all students succeeding,” Berliner and Glass continue. “A Darwinian survival of the fittest, applied to education cannot be healthy for an education system inside a democracy.”

Myth 3: Teachers in the U.S. Are Well Paid Compared to Their Counterparts in Other Countries

No one argues that teachers make lots of money, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying to dampen talk of higher pay by claiming that, compared to educators in other industrialized countries, teachers in the U.S. have nothing to complain about.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average U.S. teacher with 15 years experience earns an annual salary somewhere in between $45,000 and $48,500, depending on a variety of factors including whether he teaches at primary or secondary level. While this is higher than the average OECD teacher, once you consider other variables, the salary picture in the U.S. darkens.

“In reality,” write Berliner and Glass, “American teachers are paid less than teachers in many other countries 1) relative to the wages of other workers with similar levels of education 2) based on the amount of time spent teaching each day 3) in terms of the salary differentials between starting and experienced teachers and 4) in relation to salary trends over the past decade.”

Overall, teacher salaries in U.S. secondary schools make up about 55 percent of total education expenditures, notably lower than the 63 percent average of OECD countries. And unlike in the U.S., the salaries of teachers in industrialized countries are very competitive with those of college-educated workers in other professions. Their salaries are on average only 10-18 percent less, compared to a 25-33 percent gap in this country.

Salaries in the U.S. have stagnated, even declined, making it more difficult to recruit new teachers. Consider Singapore, South Korea, and Finland – all high-achieving nations – who not only pay their teachers salaries comparable to other educated workers, but also award bonuses for staying in the profession or pay teachers to continue their training. The teaching profession enjoys a status in these countries not experienced by educators in the United States.

Myth 4: Subject Matter Knowledge is a Teacher’s Most Powerful Asset

What makes a good teacher? A keen grasp of content knowledge? Of course, but teaching is obviously not just about the transfer of knowledge. And yet in the United States, the effort to downplay or outright dismiss the value of rigorous teacher education is fairly widespread. The Teach for America program (TFA) practically thrives on this perception. TFA recruits teachers from top schools who, while they may have impressive knowledge of a specific content area, often lack proper training in learning theory, child development, or pedagogical skills. (TFA’s inflated reputation is addressed in detail in 50 Myths and Lies)

As Berliner and Glass point out, “Telling, talking, lecturing, showing Powerpoints, putting students online or showing films is not what makes a teacher good. Teachers need to know how to start a lesson, motivate, act on information from formative assessments, manage classrooms, design tests and evaluate performance. There are literally hundreds of skills necessary for effective teaching. And these are quite separate from content knowledge.”

The authors also question how far subject area knowledge alone can take teachers who have to teach students 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, decision-making and creativity.

“The best teachers will have to know their content. But if that is their only asset, they will fail as teachers and fail the country.”

Myth 5: “Tenure” is About Protecting Bad Teachers

One of the most enduring and frustrating myths about teachers is that once you become a teacher, you have a job for life (thanks to those pesky unions) regardless of performance. You hear it everywhere: Teachers have tenure and that means they cannot be fired. The purpose of tenure – a term that is frequently misused – is to provide due process protection that allow teachers to voice their opinions, advocate for their students, and challenge inequities and bad practices without fear of unjust retaliation by principals, superintendents or school boards. But for politicians who have targeted educators and their unions, it is much easier to rally public opinion around the fabrication that it’s about protecting underperforming teachers.

“Teachers know their students better than anyone else in the school, and they can be put in a vulnerable position at certain times,” write Berliner and Glass. “What about the special education teacher who challenges conventional ways of schooling and opts for a more inclusive method over his superiors failed methods? … What about the teacher who refuses a principal’s request to change a student’s grade from a C to an A? Or what about the one that demands to teach evolution despite community pressure not to do so?

“Without due process, they might feel that the risk involved in speaking up is too high and choose to teach as required, ignoring what they see as the best interests of their students or their community.”


American college students say they would rather study with real books, not laptops

American college students say they would
rather study with real books, not laptops
by Sonali Kohli

Ebooks, tablets and computer-based learning might be pervading elementary and middle schools throughout the US, but college students are still old-school. A Student Monitor survey of about 1,200 students in 100 American colleges in October found that for almost every type of schoolwork, students prefer to use a book rather than a computer.

If you combine all digital preferences (including desktop, smartphone and other digital, not included in the chart), they outnumber print, which could be bad news for text-book publishers, who are trying to find a way to stay relevant. But in everything other than scheduling assignments or research (with so many academic papers online, students don’t seem to feel the need for a library), students would still rather use the paper version, by a large margin, than any other single option.

It’s the smart choice. Some research has shown students are able to focus better using print materials to study, rather than digital media. But that might also be derived from the fact that the current crop of college students doesn’t have much previous experience in learning on screens and tablets, says Jordan Schugar, an assistant professor of English at West Chester University, who has researched the topic. Schugar found, using small samples, that college students who read on Nooks in one study and younger students on iPads in another both saw decreased performance on a test of that material, compared to their performance when reading on print.

As tablets improve and become more like books, simulating the page movement and with better note-taking and annotating ability, Schugar says they could become a more viable option for college students.

Are you a truly bad teacher? Here’s how to tell.

Are you a truly bad teacher? Here’s how to tell.

By Valerie Strauss

Bad teacher. There was a movie with that title, and now a television series. Time magazine had a recent cover with the title “Rotten Apples” that was not a reference to rotten Honey Crisps. And many school reformers talk about teachers as if nearly all of them are lousy. Certainly some teachers who should be doing something else (and it shouldn’t take forever to remove them from a classroom), but there’s a legitimate reason why polls show that teachers are utterly demoralized.

So what is a bad teacher (and I’m not talk about the extremes who commit criminal offenses)? This post answers that question. It was written by Ellie Herman, who for two decades was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. In 2007, she decided, “on an impulse,” she wrote, to become an English teacher and got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in south Los Angeles until 2013, when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She is chronicling the lessons she is learning on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where a version of the following post appeared. Herman, who gave me permission to publish this, was awarded first and third place prizes in the 2014 SoCal Journalist Awards given by the Los Angeles Press Club.

By Ellie Herman

I once had a student who was on crack. It was a nightmare. Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro. But crack turned him nasty and out of control. He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him. We did an intervention. We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help. Nothing worked. Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on facebook during winter break he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity. He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls

I lost it. I actually only dimly recall what happened next. I’m sure I didn’t actually drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember. All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut. When finished, I was shaking. He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.

All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher.  I was ashamed of my loss of control.  Even the next day, when I had had a chance to calm down and try to have a more rational conversation with Jorge, I couldn’t reach him.  To be fair, none of us could.  He bombed his classes and did not graduate on time.

The incident with Jorge was the most extreme I ever had, but for all the five years I taught, I was dogged by the worry that I was a bad teacher.  Despite everything the books tell you, teaching is above all a deeply messy human endeavor; for all the exhilarating highs, there are terrible days when you feel like a profound failure, and those are the days when you long for a reality check.  Am I really a bad teacher?  How would I know? 

I know, I know: teacher evaluation rubrics are supposed to alleviate this worry, but if like me you don’t believe that the rubric measures what you’re doing, they’re no comfort and can actually be crazy-making when you score low on something you don’t even value, like the robotic re-iteration of a three-part objective, which would send me into a tailspin of that’s insane! and then no, what if I’m insane? and then a dystopic the whole world has gone insane and I’m completely alone because nothing has any meaning any more! a conviction that rarely leads to good teaching.

Now, with the benefit of time, sleep and the chance to observe many, many teachers across Los Angeles, though the vast majority of teachers I’ve observed are excellent, every so often schools will allow me to go from class to class, and occasionally I’ll find myself in the classroom of a truly bad teacher.  And let me clear one thing up right away: bad teachers are extremely rare, but if you’re in the presence of a truly bad teacher, as opposed to a good teacher on a bad day, you will have no doubt about what you are witnessing.

So in case you’re like me, wracked with doubt about whether you’re a bad teacher, I’ve identified five key tendencies that I’ve observed in the classrooms of truly bad teachers.  Take this short quiz and at the end I will tell you if you’re a bad teacher.

1.  Do you dislike children?  I don’t mean that you love every single one of your students every day.  I mean, do children in the age group you’re teaching generally fail to delight you in any way?   The number one quality I’ve observed in bad teachers is that they do not seem to like children very much.  In high schools, this means they do not seem to find teenagers charming, funny or interesting—ever.

2. Do you find your subject matter dull?  If asked “why are you teaching this?” will you respond “because it will be on the test”?   Do your eyes glaze over at the thought of your subject area?  Every teacher has dud lessons from time to time (believe me) but what I sense in the classrooms of bad teachers is that they have no interest in their entire subject.

3.  Do you know what you’re talking about?  I recently sat in on the class of a teacher who was teaching students incorrect grammar.  Actually teaching it—she’d put an incorrect rule on a slide and then was forcing her students to rewrite sentences in order to conform to this incorrect rule.  It was especially upsetting because several students were shyly raising their hands and going “Miss…are you sure?  That sounds wrong.”

4.  Do you ignore a large subset of your students most of the time?  The truly bad teachers I’ve observed tend to engage only with a small number of very compliant, eager students, ignoring the rest except to reprimand troublemakers.

5. Are you totally disengaged?  I don’t mean those bad days when you want to flush your head—or someone’s head—in the toilet, or even those days that you’re so burned out you can hardly keep going.  I mean have you checked out emotionally as an operating philosophy, day in and day out?  A central quality in truly bad teachers is that they seem to have stopped caring; this lack of engagement is reflected not only in their interactions with students (or lack thereof) but in their seemingly random choice of lesson topics.

So are you a bad teacher?  No.  How do I know?  Because if you’ve read this far, you care.  You may not be great (yet).  The inspirational movie of your life may be set several years hence.   It may be that you have a tremendous amount still to learn.  But you’re not a bad teacher.  Because the overriding quality of truly bad teachers, as Azucena Gonzales observed, is that they have given up.  And you haven’t.

Why does this matter?  It matters because as a country we seem to be convinced that our classrooms are infested with bad teachers who must be driven out, and this conviction seems to be the driving force behind most of our supposed “accountability” measures, which are designed like self-guided missiles dropped down to locate and destroy bad teachers first, before installing good teachers.  I agree that there are some bad teachers and that they should be coached or, if necessary, fired.

But I also think this preoccupation with bad teachers in the absence of the more urgent strategy for attracting and retaining good teachers is deeply unfair to students and in fact, unequally distributed, because it falls much harder on teachers in low-income communities who teach in far more challenging conditions and therefore are much less likely to see visible signs of success on a predictable basis.  I think it demoralizes all of us who are in the classroom to feel that we are continually suspected of being “bad,” and that it is this badness, our inadequacy, that is at the heart of the economic inequality in this country.

Let me tell you how Jorge’s story ended.  He did not graduate but made up his classes in summer school.  To everyone’s astonishment, he went to a four-year college.  We all lost touch with him for a long time, then last year, when I was chaperoning prom, I saw a young man waving to me: clean-cut, in a pressed tux, sipping a fruit juice.  It was Jorge, escorting his younger cousin, beaming.  He told me that he’d been sober for two years now.  All those years ago, the teachers had been right, he said, and as part of his 12-step program, he apologized for everything he’d put us through.

Over and over I tell the same story, right?  But the truth is, you never know the effect you’re having on someone.   If you care, you’re not a bad teacher–which doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to learn.  As the Dalai Lama is said to have observed, “You’re perfect.  And you could use a little improvement.”

By the way, Jorge will graduate from college this spring.

He plans to be an actor.


Have You Been a Victim of Math Torture?

Have You Been a Victim of Math Torture?
Math Torture
by Rod Judkins

Schools methods for teaching math fail even the cleverest children.

There is a way to put right the crimes and misdemeanors of math education, a way to help children learn and enjoy math. Math is a subject in crisis. In middle school, two-thirds of students fall behind grade level in math classes. By high school graduation, less than half will be prepared for college level.

The way to improve student’s appreciation of math is to teach it like an arts subject.

I teach art and design at Central St Martins College of Art in London. I recently did a casual survey of a class of my students (age range 19 to 25) in a drawing workshop. I asked them what their experience of math was like at school. They were bright, energetic, enthusiastic and remarkably talented students. They all told horror stories of school math classes. The words ‘torture’ and ‘boredom’ were the most frequently used. Most were made to feel stupid and inadequate. Interestingly, they blamed their poor grades on their own lack of intelligence or absence of talent.
One of them pointed out that they are taught math at St Martins. Every now and then as part of my series of drawing classes I teach perspective. Perspective is a geometric a system depicting volumes and a sense of distance on a flat surface. Students learn one point, two point and other types of perspective. I used to hate teaching the subject because when students try it for themselves they can get it wrong and I have to show them the right way. Being right or wrong is not the usual way I think about art.

Because we tutors fear that the geometric nature of perspective classes could be boring, we try to make them as engaging and entertaining as possible. Not so much for the students as for ourselves. We show them medieval paintings before artists used single point perspective, then works by renaissance works by Raphael and others, then progress to de Chirico who used the rules of traditional perspective but subverted them and then on to contemporary artists who use 3D computer modeling. We show plenty of images and discuss the intellectual affect of perspective.

The students complete drawings and then they make the physical 3D model of the space. They become deeply engaged with the geometric puzzle and they enjoy the struggle. They are totally engaged in math. They felt what anyone who loves math feels, the fulfillment of thinking and the enjoyment of wrestling with a problem. They learnt the rules of geometry without even realizing it.

Math classes are not taught with imagination or inventiveness. Math could be taught using music, literature or art to make it more real and engaging. Math should stimulate students intellectually and get students engaged with making and playing rather than passively listening to a teacher. In the classroom math should be taught as a creative endeavor. Math should be an activity. As with music, art or writing, it’s doing the real thing that’s inspiring.

Research by Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford University, shows that enquiry based learning that grounds math in real situations that students can relate to, is more effective. In her studies, different groups of students, which included a control group, were taught math in different ways. Her studies found that student’s who were actively engaged in mathematics learning, using problem solving and reasoning, achieved higher levels and enjoyed math more than those who passively practiced methods that a teacher had demonstrated. It’s no surprise that a war has been waged against her ideas and there have been vitriolic attacks by traditionalists.

The real problem is that schools don’t realize that math is a creative subject. The solution is to hand the teaching of math over to artists, actors or writers who would make it the engaging and entertaining subject it is.

Rod Judkins is an artist, writer and professional public speaker, delivering lectures and workshops that explain the creative process and help individuals and businesses to be more inspired in their lives and work. He is author of the international bestseller, Change Your Mind: 57 Ways to Unlock Your Creative Self.

Teacher: The day I knew for sure I was burned out

Teacher: The day I knew
for sure I was burned out

By Valerie Strauss

Ellie Herman became a teacher after working for for decades as a writer/producer for television shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope,” “Newhart,” etc., and as an author whose fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. In 2007, she decided, “on an impulse,” she wrote, to become an English teacher and got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles until 2013,  when she decided to stop teaching — a decision explained in the following post — and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She has chronicled the lessons she has learned on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., as well as on LA School report, a website that covers the intersection of politics and education in Los Angeles, where this piece first appeared in November 2013. I am republishing it, with permission from Herman and LA School Report, because it is as relevant today as it was when it was written.

By Ellie Herman

I burned out after teaching for five years at a high school in a very low-income neighborhood. What made me burn out was not that so many of my students came in with reading skills several years behind their grade level. Nor was it that many of them also came in with a history of negative experiences in school.

No, my work in the classroom didn’t burn me out. Classroom work was always engaging and sometimes unbelievably rewarding.

What finally pushed me out the door was a monster we called La Bestia — “The Beast.”

La Bestia was a photocopier, the size of a Prius. On a good day, she could spit out 150 copies of an entire SAT practice test, all sorted and stapled. On a bad day, though, even if you just wanted 32 copies of a two-page Junot Diaz story, she’d throw a hissy fit, with flashing red lights and shrill beeps before stalling flat.

The day I definitively and conclusively gave up, it was after six o’clock and I was making 100 copies of 11 different scenes for my Drama class. I’d been at work since before 7 a.m.; it was dark when I arrived at school and dark now. Since our school was mainly windowless, and we were always too busy to leave the building during the day, I had not seen sunlight for three days. I want to say, in case you think I am a total slacker, that I came to teaching in midlife, having spent 20 years as a TV writer-producer. I am no stranger to long working days and, in fact, am something of a workaholic.

But teaching at a high-poverty school was different because no matter how fast or long I worked, I could not get everything done. I developed a body memory of exactly how much I could accomplish in five minutes, in one minute, in thirty seconds. I was always in a panic because I had limited control over my circumstances: if a kid threw up in the corner or no one could find the cart of laptops even though I’d booked it for the day, I had to make it work.

Everything felt like an emergency. And there was never enough time — to re-tool the grading system because a third of the class was failing, to call parents of kids who did not show up for after-school help, to do a fill-in-the-blanks version of the assignment for the English Language Learners and to find a great extra-credit reading for the brainiacs. There was no time to think. If I had to name the one thing that surprised me most about teaching, it would be how utterly unintellectual it is, or becomes, when you have so many students with so many needs all coming at you at once, and you don’t have the time each of them deserves.

Neuroscientists have identified a condition they call executive function overload, during which your brain, over-stimulated from continual crisis management, becomes unable to think clearly or feel emotions. I can see now that this happened to me. By the end of each day, I was numb. At night, I’d dream I was suffocating. I could not remember what joy felt like.

On that day at La Bestia, she jammed somewhere in the middle of my job and I just stood there. All I could think was: I can’t live this way. And when the time came to renew my contract, I didn’t.

Here in the United States, we continually examine teaching data to understand why other countries are doing better than we are. One thing nobody ever talks about is that teachers in the U.S. have a larger workload than teachers in almost any other country. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the average secondary school teacher in the U.S. puts in 1,051 instructional hours per year. Instructional hours are the hours spent actually in front of kids—in other words, about half of the job, the other half being time spent planning, grading and collaborating with other teachers. In Finland, the average teacher teaches 553 instructional hours per year. In Korea, 609 hours. In England, 695. In Japan, 510.

When teachers in other countries are not in front of students, they can do the other half of a teacher’s job: planning curriculum, grading papers, calling parents, conferencing with students, creating assignments that meet every student’s needs, meeting with other teachers, innovating, thinking, learning. Here in the U.S. we do not give teachers that time. With Common Core on the horizon for LA Unified, we’re planning to blow through at least a billion dollars to train teachers in an entirely new philosophy of teaching. I have to wonder exactly when this training is going to happen. There were literally days when I did not have time to go to the bathroom. What else could I cut out of my day? Breathing?

I miss my students every day. Despite everything, I loved teaching. For every dark day, there were moments of immense pride at what my students had accomplished. I plan to go back. But I’m terrified of burning out again. If the United States is serious about attracting and retaining good teachers, the first thing we need to do is give us the conditions we need to get our jobs done right. Just about every other country in the world does. Why can’t we?

Can you adopt Common Core math without changing how you teach? Maybe, but should you?

Can you adopt Common Core math without
changing how you teach? Maybe, but should you?

By Emmanuel Felton

The Common Core wasn’t necessarily supposed to change how math is taught, but in many schools that’s exactly what’s happening.

Many – some might argue most – American math teachers once followed a simple format: Explain a formula to the class, show an example on the board, then let students practice on worksheets.

Now, many of those same teachers are attempting to lead seminar-style discussions on the division of fractions or the Pythagorean theorem. They’re assigning longer-term projects in which students discover and experiment with math concepts, instead of training students in tricks like the “butterfly method” for adding and subtracting fractions.

Teachers are trying out these new methods even though Common Core – guidelines, which have been adopted by over 40 states, for what students should know in math and English by the end of each school year – don’t speak directly to how math should be taught.

“The Common Core is silent about how to teach,” said Phil Daro, one of the lead writers of the math standards. “When we wrote the standards we were prohibited from addressing how to teach, that’s not what standards are supposed to do.”

Student work in the hallway of Eastside Elementary shows the “partial product” method of solving a multiplication problem, one of many methods students have learned with Common Core. Many teachers say the new standards go deeper than the old standards and should not be dropped. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

But there’s a debate about whether the new content requirements alone are enough to improve students’ understanding of math. Many in the world of math contend changing how teachers organize their lessons and lead their classrooms is essential to making a difference.

Steve Leinwand, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research’s Education Program, argues that the failings of the old format for teaching math has led countless Americans to the conclusion that learning math isn’t something they can do.

“We don’t have an achievement gap in this country,” said Leinwand. “We have an instructional gap.”

Like many Common Core supporters, Leinwand says the “I, we, you” model – where first teachers go through a problem for the class, then have the class work together on similar problems and finally have students work independently on problems – has dominated American math education for far too long.

“I, we, you sometimes makes sense,” said Leinwand. “But sometimes teachers need to turn it on its head with some version of you, we, I. That requires students to struggle, explore, share, justify, compare and debrief.”

Some experts question whether it’s smart or even necessary for teachers to overhaul both the content and their pedagogy at the same time, though.

“The problem was with what we were teaching, not how we were teaching,” said Daro at a conference of the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New Jersey. “Countries have varying levels of teacher quality but are still high performing.”

Daro thinks that the Common Core addresses the main problem of the math classes of yore – that curricula went a mile wide and an inch deep – asking teachers to cover so many topics that none were given appropriate attention.

“In higher ed, we were asking why were these students taking AP Calculus, when they needed to spend much more time on algebra,” said Daro.

And indeed, many states and districts – and teachers — are struggling with juggling the huge project of overhauling both their curricula and their teaching simultaneously.

“Are math standards going to help?” asked David Wees, a former New York City public school teacher and a formative assessment specialist for New Visions for Public Schools, a non-profit that advises 75 New York City public schools. “Yes, but there are the standards as written, there are the standards as practiced by teachers and there are the standards as students will receive them.”

He says districts shouldn’t expect for every teacher to master the new curricula and new teaching methods at the same time. Instead, he says districts should work on the changes more gradually.

“Professional development sessions, where you go over things with teachers very briefly, aren’t enough. They need to see it more than once,” added Wees. “ There aren’t very many model teachers in this country and they tend to be concentrated in only some schools. We need to create more model classrooms, instead of trying to fix the teaching of 3 million, we should be trying to fix the teaching of 1,000 good teachers so that their classrooms can be resources that other teachers visit.”

Education is Not the Answer

Education is Not the Answer

by Dean Baker

Everyone deserves a great public education,
but better schools alone can’t fight inequality.

This article is from Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, a joint project of Jacobin and the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE. The booklet can be downloaded for free and print copies are still available.

It’s common in policy circles to claim that improving the quality of education in inner cities and impoverished rural areas is the answer to halting the growing gap between rich and poor. This view reflects not only illusions about the potential for substantially improving education for children from low- and moderate-income families without deeper economic and political shifts, but also a serious misunderstanding about the growth of inequality over the last three decades.

There should be no surprise, then, that the education reform movement has failed in its effort to boost educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At this point, education “reform” is hardly new; it is the establishment consensus, having led the national agenda on education for the last quarter century. The extent to which it has produced gains can be debated, but it has, without a doubt, not turned around struggling schools. The children in these schools still perform consistently worse on standardized tests and have much poorer career prospects than children attending wealthy suburban public schools or private ones.

But even if reform had improved education, it is unlikely to have done much about inequality. People with more education have, on average, done better than those with less education, but the growth in inequality over the last three decades has not been mainly a story of the more educated pulling away from the less educated. Rather, it has been a story in which a relatively small group of people (roughly the top one percent) have been able to garner the bulk of economic gains for reasons that have little direct connection to education.

The classic story of the education and inequality story is usually captured by the college/non-college premium: the ratio of the pay of those with college degrees to those without college degrees. This premium showed a substantial rise in the 1980s for both men and women. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, the college premium for men rose from 20.2% at the 1979 business cycle peak to 34% at the business cycle peak in 1989. For women, the premium rose from 25% in 1979 to 40%  in 1989.

Interestingly, the sharpest rise, especially for men, was during the high unemployment years at the start of the decade. The rise in the college/non-college pay gap is often attributed to technology and the growing use of computers in the workplace, in particular. But the largest rise in the college premium occurred at a point in time when computers were just being introduced to the workplace.

If the timing of the rise in the pay gap in the 1980s doesn’t fit the technology story very well, the wage trend in the last two decades is even harder to square with this picture. There was a much smaller increase in the college premium in the 1990s than in the 1980s — even though this was the period of the tech boom, when information technology led to a marked acceleration in the rate of productivity growth. After having risen by almost fourteen percent in the 1980s business cycle, the college premium for men rose by just 8% from 1989 to the business cycle peak in 2000. For women, the premium increased by 7.9% points in the 1990s cycle after increasing 15% in the 1980s.

The 2000s don’t fit any better with the technology and inequality story, as even college grads could no longer count on sharing in the gains from growth. For men, the premium rose by 2.8% between 2000 and 2011. This corresponded to a 2.4% gain in wages for male college grads between 2000 and 2012. The college premium for women increased by just 0.8% points over this period, with the wages of female college grads rising by 0.7% between 2000 and 2012. This situation holds true even if we look at just the segments of the labor market where we might expect especially strong demand. The average hourly wage for college graduates working in computer and mathematical occupations increased by just 5.3% from 2000 to 2011 —less than one-third of the rate of productivity growth over this period.

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else. This pattern of inequality will be little affected by improving the educational outcomes for the bottom quarter or even bottom half of income distribution.

Of course, this does not argue against efforts to improve education. It is almost always the case that workers with more education do better than workers with less education, both in terms of hourly wages and employment outcomes. Unemployment and non-employment rates are considerably higher for those with less education.

Education does provide a clear avenue for mobility. Certainly it is a positive development if children from low-income families have the opportunity to move into the middle class, even if this might imply that someone from a middle-class background will move in the opposite direction.

And education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school.

However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality. This will require much deeper structural changes in the economy. As a practical matter, given the dismal track record of the education reformers, substantial improvement in outcomes for children from low- and moderate-income families is likely to require deep structural change in society as well.

Why You Must Remind Students Of Their Purpose

Why You Must Remind Students Of Their Purpose

by Michael Linsin

If not reminded, and reminded often, your students will naturally slip into believing that school is just something they’re supposed to do.

They never consider that school doesn’t need them, individually anyway, but that they need school.

So many students approach their education as if it were the other way around, as if their school is lucky they showed up on time.

This attitude can cause students to take their education for granted, to see it as a grind, as something they’re forced to do rather than what it is:

An opportunity of a lifetime.

Doing anything begrudgingly, anything with the specter of having to do it hanging over your head, can be a dangerous thing. Because it saps vital energy, creativity, and motivation. It makes students feel as if school is being done to them, rather than for them.

So they walk into your classroom like they’re heading for the salt mines—reluctant, sleepy-eyed, resigned to their fate.

When students lose track of its wonderful benefits, they begin seeing school as a negative, as something to endure, and if all possible, avoid.

So they goof off when they get a chance. They shutter their mind to learning. They attend to their daydreams, distractions, and the enticing call of misbehavior.

Your words, then, carry little significance, urgency, or interest to them. The colors of the classroom turn muted. They melt into their seats. The idea of personal responsibility is no more than a vague concept.

Worst of all, they develop a growing sense of entitlement.

Of course, if you’re a regular reader of this website, then you know that when students like you and trust you and enjoy being a member of your classroom, everything becomes easier—from motivation to listening to rapport-building to managing behavior.

But along with this powerful force is the importance of ensuring that your students never lose track of why they come to school.

It is the ‘why’ of school, after all, that cracks ajar the gates of learning. It is the ‘why’ that provides the initial spark of motivation that unlocks hearts and minds, giving you the opening you need to grab your students by the lapels and pull them in.

It is the ‘why’ that enables students to feel the first ounce of responsibility upon their shoulders. It is the ‘why’ that points out the truth to the expression, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” It is the ‘why’ that makes them realize that they need school.

So how do you do it? How do you get the message across?

You tell them. You tell them every day why they’re there, why what they’re doing is important, and why what you have to offer them is a most precious gift.

Good morning room three! Welcome to another beautiful day of learning. It’s my job to give you the best education you can get anywhere, and I plan on doing just that today. But it’s your job to think, read, listen, participate, and give the very best of yourself and your proud family name, so you can take advantage of the many opportunities that good education provides . . .”

Coming from someone your students like and admire, and delivered with passion, this simple message—which will vary in depth depending on grade level—can be powerful and deeply impressionable.

It puts their day-to-day, to-and-from school existence into perspective, infusing it with purpose and direction and underscoring the worthiness of learning’s pursuit.

It causes students to see beyond their current place in the world, no matter how challenging or difficult, and into a high-def technicolor vision of their future.

It alters their view, wakes them of their unrealistic fantasies, and places upon their heart a true path to their hopes and aspirations.

It sets ablaze the desire to not just accept the gift of their education . . .

But to reach out and take it.