Myths of Education Reform

Myths of Education Reform

Ilana Garon: Myths of Ed Reform

This past Saturday, Joanne Barkan, Leo Casey, and Ilana Garon spoke about teacher unions and education reform at Dissent‘s board meeting. The following are Ilana Garon’s remarks from the meeting; to read more of her writing for Dissent, click here.

During my second year in the New York City school system—this would be back in 2004 or 2005—I remember a period of about a week or so wherein the teachers in our school, led by our UFT [United Federation of Teachers] reps, were picketing daily outside the building. We teachers would arrive early, stand outside protesting until classes started, and then go inside and do our regular jobs. The students would pass us on their way into the building; we were all holding signs saying “No Contract – Unfair!” or “Stop the attacks on teachers’ rights!” and the kids would stop to look at us with amusement.

It was only several days later, when I tried to give a quiz, that I realized how much they’d paid attention: my tenth grade class spontaneously broke into chants of “Garon – Unfair! Garon – Unfair!” and held up handmade signs on notebook paper that read, “What do we want? No quizzes! When do we want them? Never!”

I’ve thought a lot about those kids recently. In truth, they received a powerful lesson about the uncertain and sometimes disappointing end results of union action: just as New York City teachers—despite UFT efforts—have been working without a contract for a year and a half, my students still had to take their quiz.

The last year or so has been a particularly difficult one in which to be a teacher. Popular opinion, galvanized by movies like Waiting for Superman, holds that incompetent teachers are everything that’s wrong with public schools today. The union protects bad teachers at the cost of poor kids’ education (often by firing talented newbies who bring innovative pedagogical techniques to the classroom). If only we teachers would stop being so lazy and complacent, our students would catch up to their peers abroad, graduate from high school and college, and dominate the global marketplace. Fortunately, there’s a panacea for all these problems: charter schools with extra private funding, which only a few lucky kids can ever attend.

In my talk today, I wanted to debunk some of these myths.

I’ll start with the myth of the ubiquitous “bad teacher.” Independent of my belief that there are far fewer incompetent teachers in the system than Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim would have you think, to assert that this is the #1 problem in education is to plainly ignore the economic and social factors that affect our students during the twenty-three hours a day we’re not with them. In my senior AP English class—comprised of the best students in the school—five students failed to achieve a passing grade last term due to not having turned in any of their work. Of these five students, one is pregnant, one just moved into a shelter with his family, one is currently bouncing between foster homes, and a fourth inexplicably left the country for three weeks in the middle of the term due to a mysterious family situation. In all cases, I’ve been working with the students to make sure their grades go up, but it’s unreasonable to expect that these problems can be completely circumvented by good teaching.

My students don’t only come to school without pencils or paper; they come to school hungry and tired. I keep a vanishing supply of snacks in my locker in the back of the room, but waking a kid who works all night and therefore falls asleep in class produces a cranky teen more often than it does a diligent student. They and their peers are often not in the mindset to learn; the poor classroom behavior many of them exhibit—talking back to the teacher, refusing to do work because its “boring,” chatting and fighting with peers at top volume—the endless barrage of gang fights in the hallway, and trashcan fires in the bathroom attest to that. They miss school constantly—and their truancy is often enabled by parents who want them to stay at home caring for younger siblings. At parent-teacher conferences two weeks ago, only 20 percent of my students’ parents showed up; that was a shame, since I wanted to speak with many of them.

All this is particularly demoralizing in the face of the endless criticisms teachers face—so many days, we sit around in the teacher’s lounge talking about the latest accusations leveled against us, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated: first, at the infinite situations in our students’ lives that prevent us from teaching them the way we’d like to, and second, at being lambasted by people who’ve never even been inside our classrooms.

Let’s talk now about the charter school myth. Diane Ravitch (a role model of mine) has already written a number of articles about the fact only a small percentage of charter schools actually produce better results than the public schools, and Joanne Barkan’s brilliant article “Got Dough?” deals with the problems of allowing billionaires complete influence on education. A study mentioned in the New York Times on March 31 reports that KIPP schools, often cited as the country’s most successful charter network, receive significantly more taxpayer dollars per student than the average public school—not too surprising.

But what really gets the teachers in my school annoyed with charter schools is the fact that they can, to a certain extent, pick what students they get to teach. Sure, some have quotas of English language learners or students with learning disabilities—but public schools end up with a greater number of these students, and then we get penalized for producing lower test scores at the end of the year. It’s also true that charter schools are largely self-selecting, in that it’s an involved, savvy parent-base that plays the charter school lottery to begin with. Someone’s got to teach the kids who have learning disabilities or behavioral problems, who are only just learning English, or whose parents are completely uninvolved—as my parent-teacher conference attendance demonstrates. And we work with these kids every day. But then we get assailed for test scores without regard for the fact that we’re working with a different population than the charter schools, which is really frustrating.

Now I’d like to talk about the union. Waiting for Superman and other movies like to portray the UFT as some sort of evil cabal whose sole mission is to undermine the education of poor kids in order to make it impossible for schools to fire lazy, incompetent veterans—who are of course highly paid. Well. Obviously, as a teacher with some seniority, the bulk of my time is spent lying on my pile of money thinking about how to embitter the lives of school children. But seriously, I’m not sure how this idea that senior teachers are inherently bad teachers became so popular, because it’s quite the opposite. When I was a new teacher starting out, I depended on more senior teachers to help me with my lessons and classroom management; I don’t think I’d have gotten through my few years without the unofficial mentorship I received from several teachers who had been at this game a while. While experience and proficiency do not necessarily have a causal relationship, it’s undeniable that they’re correlated. Unions keep experienced teachers in our schools by making them able to do their jobs—providing health insurance and negotiating reasonable living wages. They make it so that an experienced master-teacher can’t be fired for disagreeing with a principal, or for being expensive enough that two first-year teachers could be paid his or her salary. In short, unions enable teachers to be professionals.

Critics of seniority, of the “last in, first out” policy, will say that in the current climate of layoffs, the union makes it so that all these brilliant first-year teachers are losing their jobs in order for incompetent, expensive senior teachers to keep theirs. I have several thoughts about this: first of all, who the heck are these brilliant first-year teachers?! I would love to meet one! I sure wasn’t brilliant in my first years. My classroom was a zoo, my lessons needed tons of work, and my students regularly threw baby carrots at me. And I don’t think today’s first-year teachers are any different.

There’s a young teacher in my school who is only just getting his sea-legs—and his classroom management is, admittedly, kind of disastrous sometimes; for instance, he’ll seat two kids with behavior problems, or a couple who can’t keep their hands off each other, side by side in the back of the class. So I’ll pass by and say, “Hey, I think you should separate those two.” He’s learning. Furthermore, the union makes it so that it’s tough to dismiss first-year teachers without serious efforts on the part of a principal to help them improve (mostly through mentorship and observing senior teachers.) And that’s crucial, because this profession has a really steep learning curve, and everyone needs time and guidance to get better.

Another of my favorite myths is that unions want to make it so that teachers don’t have to improve, or cannot be held accountable to standards. This is factually untrue. This past summer, I was sent as the English department leader at my school to a colloquium on the new “Race to the Top” curriculum standards, which I was then in charge of “rolling out” to our faculty–teaching the other teachers how to implement these new, more rigorous standards in their lessons. The colloquium was inspiring to attend, not just because these new standards were an improvement on the old ones, but because it gave all the participants the time to interact meaningfully with some great teachers, share ideas, and really learn from one another. I told our principal that it was the best professional development I’d ever been to.

However, that’s not saying much: last year, the history and English departments at our school were sent to a day-long, Department of Education–sponsored professional development seminar that was supposed to teach us how to incorporate public speaking into our lessons. This is how the day went: first, a motivational speaker who shall remain nameless came on stage and talked to us for two hours about how we should buy his book, telling us that if we did, he could connect us with celebrities like Britney Spears who could come to our classrooms. Then a rep from Lockheed Martin came on stage and told us how the company was helping the environment. Then we heard a five-minute pitch for açai berry juice. Then Elizabeth Kucinich talked to us for an hour about how school lunches are unhealthy—a point all of us totally agreed with, but one that none of us actually had any control over. Then a Microsoft representative came to talk to us about how the Bing search engine would change our lives. And finally, actor Noah Wyle—who seemed as perplexed as the rest of us—spoke to the hundred or so assembled teachers and told us we were all doing a great job.

It’s funny in retrospect, but at the time, we all found the experience infuriating; we left seven hours later with the feeling that we’d been scammed. I was with six teachers in my school, and over lunch we had actually discussed the possibility of getting up and walking out—but we stayed, thinking it had to get better. That session was noteworthy for me in reinforcing a fact I’d already known but hadn’t really examined head-on, namely, that professional development (at least for public school teachers in this city) is a joke, and that if our the higher ups at the board of education were really serious about improving teacher quality, they’d give greater scrutiny to the agendas of professional development sessions they offer and talk to teachers about what would really be useful and instructive. Personally, I’d ask for more time to work collaboratively by department with teachers from other schools, and for chances to learn about best practices from teachers who have implemented particularly successful and replicable units. In that way, I think we’d all improve.

I asked my tenth graders on Friday what else I should mention in this speech. After ascertaining that I was not, in fact, going to lecture you all on the use of allegory in Animal Farm, but rather that I was going to talk about education issues, they said I should tell you that we need a new sports field, that our bathrooms are “mad grimy,” that our classrooms are packed thirty-five-deep, and that our history textbooks are so old that they don’t mention 9/11. They want you to know that it makes them angry when they go visit high schools outside of the Bronx that have shiny new facilities and working computers everywhere. They also said that teachers have tough jobs, and if you pay us more money, we’ll be happier. (They really said that!) When I asked what things I’d done lately that were examples of good teaching, they said I’d made a graphic organizer that was easy to use, that I’d written comments on their papers, that they like the book we’re reading, that I call students “sweetheart” (which is because I can’t remember any of their names), that I make funny but terrible drawings of animals on the board, and that I’m “mad happy all the time.” Above all else, they said, you should come visit.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that an April 1 New York Times article suggested that successful charter schools benefit from higher funding per pupil than public schools. The article, actually published on March 31, referred to a study on the KIPP charter network, which does receive higher taxpayer funding per pupil, but not to successful charter schools in general. The article also called charter schools “privately funded”; charter schools receive public money from the state, but also often receive supplementary private donations.