The evil of excellence

Via Gadfly: A former curriculum and instruction director writes in American School Board Journal about how she stamped out competition in a Midwestern school district.

In a 10th-grade English class, I found kids writing essays on citizenship for a local bar association’s contest. Moving on to a middle school, I saw seventh-grade science students drawing posters for a county humane society contest in hopes of winning stuffed animals. That afternoon, I watched third-graders hop around a gym as part of a national charity’s pledge drive. The kids who hopped the longest won crayons and coloring books.

She banned competitive activities during school hours. But it’s difficult to stamp out all recognition of excellence.

Recently I saw a first-grade teacher hold up a construction paper cutout of the letter M. “Look, boys and girls,” the teacher gushed. “Madison cut straight on the lines and then she glued on glitter to make her letter shiny. Madison wins a place on our star board.” The principal smiled and saw nothing wrong.

This is not a parody.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. “Author and speaker Marvin Marshall agrees that competition “dulls the spirits” of kids who find themselves outside the winner’s circle”

    That is why kids hate to play sport, competitive video games, etc. When they lose they usually just never do that activity again. Yes, sarcasm.

  2. The thing that jumped out of this essay for me was not the prim, untroubled assumptions of the correctness made by Susan Black. It was her casual approach to forcing her opinions on her subordinates. It exemplifies one of the shortcomings of the public education system.

    The hierarchical management structure puts people into power who aren’t, except in the case of the grossest misconduct, held responsible for the outcome of their decisions. Her power to create mischief is an order of magnitude greater then any of the teachers she has power over yet she’s actually less accountable then those teachers. If her insistance on, and enforcement of, a no-competition policy results in sagging educational performance she’s highly unlikely to carry the onus for the problem. Either she’ll have moved on, proud of her “accomplishment” or the policy will be quietly neutralized and her culpability forgotten. After all, the board and the principals support her and they’re not about to admit they put their signature on a disaster when they can simply forget about it.

  3. Mike in Texas says:

    She was probably part of the “Open Court Police” at her district too. Talk about imposing your opinions on subordinates.

  4. Sorry Mike, it’s just the nature of the beast.

    The money flows through the elected board under the operational control of the superintendant and all the intervening layers of management.

    Big school district? More layers. More layers? More opportunity for accountability to be obfuscated while the aquisition of authority remains a top priority.

    Sorry bubbala, if you don’t want authority to be misused it has to be in the hands of people who are unequivocal and immediately responsible and can be held quickly accountable. That’s simply impossible in the district-based public education system.

  5. Agathon says:

    The “only one person can win” issue is an important one when it comes to skill-building and other classroom things. There’s no reason why classroom activities should all be “winner take all.” But this woman is working with a machete instead of a scalpel. If the activities are competitive, but anyone and everyone has a chance to “win” IF they perform up to a certain level…then there’s nothing wrong with competition–just as there’s nothing wrong with giving letter grades, as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to work their way up to an A. Your A shouldn’t be able to block me from getting one if I work hard enough. And the “star board” should have room for everyone…IF they earn a place there.

  6. We can’t all be good in everything, so we have to learn sometime that the proper reaction to someone being better than you at something is to say “Good on you!” so that when we best them at something else, they will say the same to us. If there’s no competition allowed, nobody can excel at anything, so nobody will feel as if they are loved for their unique contributions and abilities.

  7. AndyJoy says:

    Has anyone read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? As I was reading this article, I kept thinking, “Wow. She’s like Dolores Umbridge with her ‘educational decrees’ and unfettered oversight of other teachers.”

    I think competition has an important place in school, though obviously everything shouldn’t be competitive. She makes it sound like only 1 person is always the winner, and everyone else is made to feel bad. If teachers vary subjects of competition, every child will win at something or be on the winning team.

    I was the kind of kid who thrived on competition and had the highest grade in every subject. However, there was plenty of room for other winners. For example, anyone who solved the “Math Problem of the Day” got a prize—not just the fastest child.

    How will the lowest performing children ever know that they can be the best at something? She evidently doesn’t believe that anyone should feel good about being the best—including the low-performers. I don’t believe for a second that eliminating competition in school will be healthy for them. They’ll know there are others who are academically smarter than them (because that’s life), but they won’t get the chance to compete against them in areas in which they excel.

    If this anti-competitiveness becomes a trend, I pity our country’s future in the high-tech world. Competition fuels invention and innovation. People don’t invent, patent, discover, and create just because they can, but because they are driven to be the first to do it, the best at it, or the most efficient.

  8. P. Abel says:

    I tell a remedial math class that the students refer to as “Math for Dummies”. It’s hard to dissuade them of that belief, but we have contests quite often… if the contests are varied, everyone gets to shine. I had one student tell me it was the first-time he ever won anything in his life. The smile on his face and others as they started believing in themselves was priceless. I make a point to vary the ..ahem, modality for the contests 🙂

    What’s the old adage – You can find good in everyone! Kids are naturally competitive, isn’t it better to use that nature to enhance their self-beliefs? They like the instant feedback, and are more understanding about others basking in their achievements, if they’ve felt the exhilaration of winning a contest or EARNING an A on a quiz.

    False praise is damning, true praise is something every child should experience.

    yea, yea, I heard in grad ed school never to praise, such hogwash.

  9. Miller Smith says:

    Anyone go to her website and reqad her stuff? Notice how Marxist/Mao/Leninist it is?

  10. We must feel sorry for this poor woman, think of the guilt she must feel at having obtained her job at the expense of others who had applied and lost the competition for the job.

    I hope that she had the compassion to have personally written each of the other applicants and expresser her sorrow at the mean and unfair way she got the job, through competieion.

    Maybe if she really believes what she is saying she should offer to rotate with the other applicants for the job. She would work it for a week, then the next week another applicant, and so forth. Of course her pay would only be 1/52 of what it is now, but if she truly believes that competition is bad what a small price to pay for showing the world that her beliefs are so superior.

    Ok — sarcasm off

    Jeff H

  11. Walter E. Wallis says:

    it out-herods Herod

  12. ragnarok says:

    What is a “curriculum and instruction director”? What does she do, and what qualifications are required for this post? Sounds to me like the ultimate make-work post, but don’t know enough to be sure.

  13. One of the most insane things you can teach a kid is that they are capable of doing anything they want to, “if they just try hard enough.” I see victims of that philosophy everyday in the college where I work – students getting C’s in all their classes, insisting they should be doing better because they “tried really hard”. Many of those students would do better if they left the sciences for subjects that better fit their temperment, interest and skills. Instead they graduate with 2.0 GPAs in a subject they don’t enjoy.

    What’s going to happen to these “non-competitive” kids when they get out and try to work?

  14. Mike in Texas says:

    Ragnorak,

    We have 3 of them in our school district. The primary job of one of them seems to be going around and demanding they use Open Court and only Open Court. Another is a past elementary teacher who somehow found herself in charge of the curriculum for K-12 Math. She had the good sense to admit she knew nothing about high school math curriculum but they still put her in charge of it. The 3rd is a part time Social Studies/Science curriculum director who teaches on half her days. She is by far the most well thought of of the 3.

    I worked with the woman in charge of Math Curriculum. This will be her 7th or 8th year being a curriculum director. Her beginning salary was 45K a year.

    Our previous Language Arts CD was a nutcase who thought nothing of bringing Open Court personnel to our school unannounced. The young principal at the time didn’t have enough sense to throw her and the Open court people off his campus. One of them actually got into an arguement with a teacher in front of her class over whether prefixes were a reading or language arts skill. She also chided another teacher, in front of her students, about reading a story about Martin Luther King out of sequence. She didn’t care that it was the day after MLK day.

    In short, you are right, it is a make work post. They spend a large amount of time scheduling meetings and hassling the classroom teachers so they can justify their administrative salaries.

  15. You sure you don’t want to reconsider that last post, Mike? It does put you in agreement with a story from that cesspool of conservative evil, the Thomas B. Fordham foundation.

    I believe your journey to the dark side has commenced. Resistance is futile.

  16. It is domination, not competition, that is bad. Clearly Susan Black doesn’t understand the difference. It is possible and desirable to have competition of a friendly sort, without domination, including the “winner take all” attitude.

    It seems that she was broken so much by the dominator ethic of her upbringing, that she rebels against anything even loosely associated, such as competition. Maybe she had cruel, pushy parents or tyrannical teachers. Maybe she was young enough to be ruined by the false “self esteem” of public education.

  17. Mike in Texas says:

    [email protected]

    Don’t worry, I’m sure there will be tons of other things we will disagree on. I suspect though that on the issues of administrations you and I actually may share some similar beliefs.

    For example, my school district existed for almost 100 years without an athletic director. Any issues relating to athletics were handled by the asst. supt. However, about 6 or 7 years ago, as the rumors go, a favorite coach of the admin. was going to have to be let go b/c he couldn’t pass the certification exam. Viola, the solution was simple, create the position of ahtletic director for him.

    To this day, several years later, he is still not certified.

  18. Recently I saw a first-grade teacher hold up a construction paper cutout of the letter M. “Look, boys and girls,” the teacher gushed. “Madison cut straight on the lines and then she glued on glitter to make her letter shiny. Madison wins a place on our star board.” The principal smiled and saw nothing wrong.

    There is another problem here. Following orders to the letter is “excellence”, and creativity is not? What if Madison instead cut the next Mona Lisa from the construction paper and not an M?

  19. I want my kids to learn how to lose graciously. They’re likely to win many tussles in life, but I don’t want kids who can’t learn from adversity. I don’t need the schools to bend over backwards to shield my children from disappointment.

    Without competition, able kids are likely to drift along with little effort. With competition, they are more likely to learn the value of work.

  20. Mad Scientist says:

    “One of the most insane things you can teach a kid is that they are capable of doing anything they want to, “if they just try hard enough.” I see victims of that philosophy everyday in the college where I work – students getting C’s in all their classes, insisting they should be doing better because they “tried really hard”. Many of those students would do better if they left the sciences for subjects that better fit their temperment, interest and skills. Instead they graduate with 2.0 GPAs in a subject they don’t enjoy.

    What’s going to happen to these “non-competitive” kids when they get out and try to work?”

    Try this:

    http://store.yahoo.com/demotivators/incompetence.html

    I actually own one of these and keep it on my desk as a reminder that good intentions just don’t cut it.

  21. Mike in Texas wrote:

    Don’t worry, I’m sure there will be tons of other things we will disagree on. I suspect though that on the issues of administrations you and I actually may share some similar beliefs.

    The difference between us is that I don’t have to impute stupidity, mental illness or moral turpitude to you to make my case, you do.

    While you see administrative self-indulgence as a moral outrage, I see it as the normal function of human self-interest governed by the circumstances.

    You want a teacher’s utopia in which it’s the administrators who tug their forelock as you pass on your princely steed and wait only to do your bidding. But other then the establishment of the proper relationship between yourself and your moral inferiors, administrators, you want everything else to remain the same – tax-support, mandatory attendance, district structure, no accountability – only more so.

    Take lots of pictures, it’s going away.

    How fast the current structure goes away is a tougher prediction but the pieces are falling into place to dramatically alter the face of public education and no amount of wishful thinking, or union money, is going to stop that change.

  22. BadaBing says:

    Hey, everybody, the great thing about Black’s egalitarianism (read: no one/thing is/does better than anyone/anything else) is that it fits perfectly into your leftist educational agenda.

    “Marshall’s prescription brings to mind a scene I witnessed not long ago in a high school English class. The 11th-graders had just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a 1906 exposé of Chicago’s meat-packing plants. The teacher posed a series of deep questions as a homework assignment: If you were Upton Sinclair, what story would you write today?”

    See, you start off with Josef Stalin groupie Upton Sinclair’s “The Jugle” and ask “deep” questions. Then…

    “When the kids arrived for their first-period class, they clamored to begin the discussion. One boy had already written a first chapter, even though that was not an assignment. Another boy, who was often sullen and withdrawn, talked at length about immigration-related injustices and how he would tell his story from the viewpoint of migrant workers.”

    The kids get stoked about bashing capitalist evils such as the injustices our political system metes out against those that sneak across our borders illegally. You couldn’t have orchestrated this better if you were working with hand puppets.

    From now on my teaching mantra will be “No one does better than anybody else.” I’m abolishing grades, too. Good on you, kids.

  23. Curriculum directors, from what I’ve observed, are burned out classroom teachers they had to stick somewhere. In theory, coordinating curriculum across many schools is a good idea when you have an urban population that moves around a lot — even if they hop schools three times during the year, they can slide into a class that’s more or less doing the same thing as the class they left. Unfortunately, it never really works that way.

    Last year I spearheaded a push to get our kids to ENTER writing contests. The kids had a purpose for their writing, their writing improved, and, as a nice side benefit, we cleaned up in several contests. The parents liked that. Gives ’em bragging rights.

  24. John Anderson says:

    1. Positive interdependence. Sounds good – but what provision is made for slackers? In adult life, they can be isolated and reported up the line. Doubt that happens here.

    2. Individual accountability. Sounds a bit like Maoist criticism groups.

    3. Face-to-face interaction. Maybe this is the answer to my query in 1 – gang up on and beat the crap out of slackers?

    4. Social skills. OK, 3 is the answer to 1, but even a mob needs someone to throw the first brick.

    5. Group processing. Groupthink?

    It all sounds good. Sort of the way things used to be when there was a free period of unstructured time (grade school called it “recess”) when students could meet face-to-face, talk about (sorry, “discuss”) various things (even school work), experience both leadership and teamwork (pick-up games) – and yes, ostracise the slackers.

  25. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen wrote:

    The difference between us is that I don’t have to impute stupidity, mental illness or moral turpitude to you to make my case, you do

    The feature I ascribe to you is ignorance. A wise man once said, “True knowledge is nothing that you know nothing” but yet YOU hold your opinions about education to be more accurate than the people who educate children.

  26. ragnarok says:

    Mike,

    I’m sure Allen will respond to your post, but in the meantime perhaps I could correct your quote; I think you meant “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”, correct? Not “True knowledge is nothing that you know nothing” – this makes no sense at all. Good to get these things correct when one’s having a, shall we say, vigorous exchange of ideas.

    “…but yet YOU hold your opinions about education to be more accurate than the people who educate children.”

    These educators have failed spectacularly. By and large, the public school system is governed by a typical union mentality (pay, benefits, seniority, protecting deadwood, strikes) and not about educating children.

    We pay for it, and that gives us the right to criticise the system. Not so?

  27. The public school system is mostly about “socialization”, which means domination (by teachers, favored peers, or both). Education comes second.

  28. Mike in Texas says:

    These educators have failed spectacularly.

    I disagree, Ragnorak. The American education system graduates more students than the Japanese do, and we have more college graduates to boot. In fact, from having taught Japanese students I know that their college system is a joke. Its widely regarded as their only time in life they can really cut loose.

    The problems facing schools today are societal and governmental. Society’s ills along with government interference are what’s hampering American education. Do you really think its a good idea that Ted Kennedy had a hand in shaping the education of your children?

    I also believe the “crisis” is manufactured. There are scores of big companies out there, including one owned by Bush’s good buddies the McGraw’s who stand to make many more billions of dollars if the public can be convinced American schools are failing. You have fallen for that lie.

  29. ragnarok says:

    Mike,

    I must say I think you’ve rather evaded a couple of the points I raised. Specifically:

    1. Your quote was incorrect, agreed?
    2. Do you agree that we have the right to criticise the public school system, because we pay for it?

    Now for your claim that the public school system has NOT failed. You attempt to buttress this statement by claiming that America graduates more students than Japan. Right? But America has about 300M people while Japan has about 130M. Are you comparing apples to apples? Doesn’t look like it, does it?

    Next point: I was talking about the public school system, not the college system. Are you claiming that the Japanese schoolkids are not as well educated as American schoolkids? Look at the IEA studies (1970 and 1988); the US dropped from 7th to 15th, while Japan was 1st in one, 2nd in the other. In what universe is the US doing better than the Japanese in educating schoolkids?

    Are you saying that you’ve taught Japanese schoolkids and found them less well-educated than American schoolkids?

    Finally, if the American school system is doing well and there’s no crisis, you don’t need any more money, don’t you agree? If we’re really doing better than the Japanese we’re doing fine. Maybe we could reduce the amount we spend on schools? No point in over-engineering the system.

  30. Mike in Texas says:

    But America has about 300M people while Japan has about 130M. Are you comparing apples to apples?

    The United States graduates a higher percentage of its students than Japan.

    Finally, if the American school system is doing well and there’s no crisis, you don’t need any more money, don’t you agree?

    According to Texas Judge Dietz and Texas House Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendor (R) the state of Texas is currently funding a 55% passing rate for the federally mandated tests. Hardly sounds like a fair system to me. I have repeatedly posted links to Judge Dietz’s ruling in this forum, as well as a link to emails from Grusendorf directing a Texas A+M researcher to remove the fact Texas schools need another $4 billion a year to achieve the federal mandates.

    You are correct on the Socrates quote. What I meant to write was knowing, not nothing. Its not the first time I’ve wished I could edit for spelling and grammatical mistakes.

    I believe Japan has a culture that values education much more than American culture, thus their children work harder and learn more. I hvae experience teaching both Japanese and American students and this opinion is based on my experiences.

    You have the right to opinion no matter how wrong I believe they are.

  31. Mike in Texas says:

    By and large, the public school system is governed by a typical union mentality (pay, benefits, seniority, protecting deadwood, strikes) and not about educating children

    Here in Texas we are barred from striking by law. I believe this is also true in Florida (are it was when I taught in Florida). This law is in two states where the “testocrats” are running rampant and I doubt that is a coincidence.

  32. ragnarok says:

    Well, Mike, as usual you’ve managed to confuse me. You say “I believe Japan has a culture that values education much more than American culture, thus their children work harder and learn more.”, yet in your earlier post you imply that the American school system is doing better at teaching kids than the Japanese system (which the IEA study shows was among the best in the world). Which is it? Which kids learn more, American or Japanese? If American, see my suggestion about reducing funding; if Japanese, then I’m right in saying that the American system has failed.

    It may be true that America graduates a higher percentage of its students than Japan, but there are 2 problems with this. One, that isn’t what you said in your previous post, and two, graduation rates don’t tell us how much they know. In fact many US universities have to send their freshmen to remedial reading and math classes. What does this tell you?

    About the strikes, I think the question is whether or not the NEA supports the right to strike for teachers. Does it or not? Whether the state bars strikes has nothing to do with the NEA’s position.

    Professionals in general don’t belong to unions because it’s degrading. You rely on the value of your skills to get employers to treat you well.

    BTW, here’s a link to a comparision of 8th-grade Maryland GATE students to regular 5th-grade Singapore students. Quite eye-opening, don’t you think? Still think that US students are doing well?

  33. Hey ragnarok, just because there are bad teachers out there who do not do a good job, does that mean ALL teachers are bad and cannot do a good job or know what they’re talking about? I see the following syllogism at work in Joanne’s comments section:

    All teachers are idiots
    You are a teacher
    Therefore, you are an idiot

    And, idiot that I am, I think I’m offering some insight into how schools and teachers actually function so people who are not employed in the schools have a greater understanding of the problems and successes from our point of view (which differs from the student pov and sometimes the parent pov, depending on the parent). I throw these ideas into the pot because I’m interested in improving the system in which I work and to which I devote a tremendous amount of time and energy.

    Now, I’m no Jaime Escalante for sure, but I give it my honest all every year and do a good job. The teachers who comment appear to be thinking hard about their profession (these debates are a form of thinking I believe — they help you refine your ideas or change them).

    Even if we’re idiots, do you think we might know something anyway? Would it absolutely kill your credibility to say, oh, I’m sure you do know what students are really like or how your classroom is funded or even, Heaven Forbid, how to teach your subject area to actual living, breathing children.

  34. ragnarok says:

    RCC,

    Speaking for myself, I explicitly reject the idea that all teachers are bad. That would be quite silly. At the beginning of this exchange with Mike, I said, “By and large, the public school system…”, which clearly implies that not everyone in the public school system should be tarred with the same brush.

    But what about the substance of what I said? Is the American system doing well? Better than the Japanese? Isn’t the union more interested in perpetuating itself than in education? You yourself declined to join the union – why?

    And finally, please remember that we (parents) are more likely to be objective than the teachers; we’re primarily interested in how well our children are being taught.

  35. I will accept that you are not tarring us all with the same brush (a nice comment now and then would help me believe it, though).

    I didn’t join the union because I don’t see where I’d get anything for the money. They’re not concerned with the issues I see as important (job portability, for one), and I can get liability insurance a lot cheaper… free, actually. If I felt my district was trying to screw me, I might feel differently, but we do get tremendous support from our parents and citizens — they choose to tax themselves to death practically to keep our salaries at least close to the county median, most parents are very kind to me when they see me at football games, and I actually like the community in which I teach a great deal. So, there you go. Those are my reasons for not caring to join the union, even though I come from a long line of union laborers and organizers.

    2. Parents are NOT more objective than teachers. Lord, give me strength. If you could be a fly on the wall during one P-T conference, you’d change that tune fast. Here’s a true story: Last year, I took two weeks personal leave for a death in my immediate family. On the day I returned, the very day, mind you, I received a call from a parent. That parent basically screamed at me (dropping the F-bomb and calling me names) and reamed me out for the fact that this person’s child was failing my class. With something like a 22%, if I recall. It was All My Fault that the child didn’t show up for class 45 days that semester, when the child did show up, the child had to be prodded and woken up continuously, the child did not do a single homework assignment, and in fact blatantly plagiarized two papers. There was actually a string of 25 zeros in my gradebook. My fault, though. Obviously, that’s a worst-case example, but it isn’t an uncommon one. I’m not painting all parents with the same brush, though. I also have parents I work with very closely every year, and I enjoy that collaboration greatly. They wouldn’t even call themselves objective, though. I would never call myself objective when it comes to my kids.

    3. I think our system does a good job for what it is attempting, which is educating all children for 12 years. Nobody else tries to do that. Most other countries sort ’em out around 9th or 10th grade, keeping the academically talented for what would amount to our AP/Honors courses, and shooting the rest into vocational training of some sort. I think if we did the same thing, we’d see similar results as those countries. I base this idea on a small sample of foreign exchange students that I have known. I’ve taught a bunch and I’ve hosted 6 personally in my home (including one German who was the top maths student in her state — she regularly lost maths competitions here to American students). I also worked for a time placing students in schools and overseeing them. I know a lot about other countries’ grading systems (including Japan’s, fwiw) and how their secondary systems are set up. I’ve watched how these students do in American schools. My observation is that their top students are about the same as our top students. Their mediocre students are a little better than our mediocre students. I’ve never seen their worst come over for an exchange year.

  36. Mike in Texas says:

    Ragnorak,

    The Japanese system is very similar to what someone described above. Many students are sent into vocational ed. programs more suited to their abilities or interests. However, that being said, the US still graduates a higher percentage of students. Why must every student in the country be in a college prep program? At the rate we are going this is what will happen. High schools are already beginning to cut vocational programs, just as elementary schools have cut back on Arts and Music, in the name of highter test scores.

    Singapore is a very different country than ours. For example, the kid who was caned for vandalism, or the fact its illegal to chew gum in public. What are their graduation rates? What happens to students who don’t fit the mold? What is done with kids who don’t behave in class? I suspect their parents can’t run to a lawyer and sue the school districts and every teacher their child has come in contact with.

  37. Mike in Texas says:

    BTW, “By and large, the public school system…” implies most, the overwhelming majority, etc . .

  38. Mike in Texas wrote:

    The feature I ascribe to you is ignorance.

    Which is a proxy for stupidity but a bit more defensible.

    If only I were as knowledgeable as you, I’d see the world as you do.

    A wise man once said, “True knowledge is nothing that you know nothing” but yet YOU hold your opinions about education to be more accurate than the people who educate children.

    Evidently, wisdom doesn’t depend on an ability to proof your own copy…ba dum bum.

    Please don’t bother with appeals to authority. I’ll hold whatever opinions it pleases me to hold without submitting them to the approval of a biased party, that would be you.

    To get back to our area of agreement and why we don’t agree, you are clearly unable to even conceptualize any other system of education except the status quo. The single exception being that of a charicature of an education system that allows you to continue to embrace the system you, in fact, detest.

    You complain about the perqs of administration but the underlying complaint is that you can’t access the perq’s of the administration. They, meaning the administration, shouldn’t have all that power because they lack the moral authority of the teacher. Ergo, as the teacher, you should be the wielder of that power.

    Well, sorry, it isn’t going to happen. The org chart you know by heart has you at, or near, the bottom of the pyramid and that isn’t going to change. There isn’t going to be a Revolution of the Pedaguoges in which all the teachers will band together to bring about an educational wonderland. It’s all just bitching and moaning to help keep you from having to face the reality that the system isn’t going to change because you want it to change.

    The teachers who can imagine anything better are usually gone pretty quick. It’s a rare teacher indeed who’s imaginative, intelligent, a risk-taker, politically ept enough to navigate the public education system and with sufficient patience to wait until the many seeds they have to plant bear their few fruit. It’s a rare human being who has those qualities in the quantity necessary to go up against a large, powerful bureaucracy on which they depend for their jobs.

    Oh yeah, and lucky. You’ve also got to be lucky enough not to work in a school district which employs a bum like the one this topic is about.

    Susan Black has her own untroubled opinions about how education ought to be done and her authority ensures that no one, certainly not a mere teacher, is going to get in the way of the educational nirvana she’s going to produce and the additions to her CV that’ll result.

    That’s your real enemy Mike but you can’t see through to the only realistic means of curbing the authority of her like. You want the current system, the status qou, but with teachers at the top of the heap and administrators humbly doing whatever their feeble talents allow them to do to help teachers do their noble work.

    Well, it ain’t gonna happen. Not, at least, with the current system. Power flows from above and those with power will always find reasons to keep it and look for opportunities to accumulate it. And you, little teacher? You’re out of luck and you’re going to stay that way.

    RCC wrote:

    Now, I’m no Jaime Escalante for sure, but I give it my honest all every year and do a good job.

    Army’s aren’t made of Audy Murphy’s. They’re made of much more ordinary people who, if they’re lucky, are well led. The public education system, free of any considerations of organizational extinction, is almost invariably poorly led. With the administrative staff and the elected board each having their own agendas and neither one concerned with the continued existance of the organization, how could it be any other way? Without the imminent prospect of hanging, what is there to focus the mind? Good intentions?

    Parents are NOT more objective than teachers. Lord, give me strength.

    Strawman argument.

    Parents don’t have to be more objective then teachers and I wouldn’t expect them to be. After all, it’s their children’s future that’s at stake. Maybe parents from the planet Vulcan can be cooly objective but that human parents won’t be so objectivity isn’t the issue and couldn’t be.

    The issue is, who has the greater stake in the child’s future? Who’s most likely to go the extra mile, stay up an extra hour, offer a kidney?

    A really caring, thoughtful, compassionate teacher might put in an extra hour or three but at a certain point that teacher’s own concerns become unignorable. They have their own kids, their own life and they can only be put off so long for one kid among a couple of dozen who’ll be replaced by dozens more next year. And the year after.

    But for most parents, not your drunks, drug addicts and abusers, that kid’s most of their world. They’ll want to do what’s best for that child within the reach of their finances and imagination. If their options open up, they’ll explore them.

    3. I think our system does a good job for what it is attempting, which is educating all children for 12 years.

    If that’s the purpose of the education system then why does your building only keep less then 30% of the funding that flows into it? No, it isn’t an education system. It’s a jobs program, an income redistribution scheme, a socialization/propaganding method and also a means of education. All those other ends, not to mention the less formally sanctioned ends of satisfying the egos of those with personal power in the system, work at odds to the education process or simply ignore it. So, if you think the system is doing a good job, you’ve got to define exactly which of it’s jobs it’s doing well.

    Cripes, I hope my computer doesn’t poop out again. I’ll never be able to catch up.

  39. 1. I’m pretty sure Ragnarok, who I was replying to directly, isn’t made of straw. He said parents are objective. I objected. (Yes, I know what a strawman argument is; you’re really fond of them, I’ve noticed.)

    2. Our district is considered one of the most efficient in the state. I couldn’t find the exact numbers on administrative spending, but I do know that in 2004, over 50% of the budget went to teacher (only teacher) salaries. That excludes SPED, which is a separate school district that serves all the schools within the county. General and building administration combined is 11% of our budget. I’m sure your 30% figure is a national average of some sort, but it isn’t the reality in my district. Our average teacher salary, in a major urban area, is about $38K. Our expenditure per student is about $7K (well below neighboring districts).

    3. In 2003, we had a 5% drop-out rate, 86% of our graduates went on to a 2- or 4-year college, our composite ACT score was 23.4, over 75% of our 3rd and 7th graders read at or above grade level (we need improvement there, but the actual number of students who are below grade level is 43 — at least 1/3 of that number would be students with some sort of MR). We have the top science scores in the entire state for middle school, and several of our elementary schools were in the top 5 for math. One elementary school was 100% proficient in math last year.

    We have much room for improvement, particularly in the area of the achievement gap, but all our academic trends are up.

    I have no access to any sort of breakdown of numbers for students I have taught.

    While there are certainly problems in public education, were I interested in improving the system, I’d look at districts that are successful in certain areas and see how they do it.

  40. Mike in Texas says:

    I’d look at districts that are successful in certain areas and see how they do it.

    But the problem, as Allen sees it, is you are too stupid to recognize what works. Education concerns can only be cured by administering meaningless tests and handing out harsh retributions to those who fail.

    Allen probably isn’t aware of this but no where in the NCLB law does it say failing schools will have access to more money to get the kind of help they need. Turning a problem school around is expensive and requires additional staff, plain and simple. But yet the politicians somehow failed to include the money. IMHO, that was done purposedly saw people like Chris Whipple and the McGraw’s can make more money in the long run.

  41. ragnarok says:

    RCC,

    Using ‘objective’ was a mistake; what I meant was that parents are primarily interested in their kids’ well-being, not so for most people in the school system.

    As for how well do kids from other countries do compared to American kids, while I don’t doubt your experiences, they don’t square with the studies I’ve cited. Nor do they jibe with the Hoven presentation that I linked to in replying to Mike.

    Mike,

    As usual, it’s hard to discuss issues with you because you seem to change your ground all the time. I’m still curious, do you think the American system teaches kids better or worse than the Japanese system? You brought this up, so I’d like an answer.

    All the excuses in the world can’t paper over the shameful fact that 5th-grade Singapore students do the same math as 8th-grade GATE students in Maryland. And these kids haven’t been sorted (a la RCC); they’re only 5th-grade. Are you willing to admit that this is a disgrace or not?

  42. ragnarok says:

    Mike,

    “Turning a problem school around is expensive and requires additional staff, plain and simple.”

    Really? I don’t see anything plain or simple about it. Try reading “The Mythical Man-Month” for an explanation of how too many cooks can spoil the broth. How do you know the don’t have enough people? Because the administrators say so? Because the union says so?

  43. Whoa! Sound like a long cold shower is in order for all of you mud slingers. Please, don’t keep using the word stupid as an insult term. Branch out – it makes things more interesting for the rest of us(dim, thick, dense, brainless, slipperier than the back of a salamander in spring, more empty than the vastness of space all leap to mind).

    Now – to poke my nose where it probably doesn’t belong, I agree with the person who said that parents try to be good advocates for their kids – they want to best for the little rug rats right? But parents are often confused as to what “the best” is. Let’s face it folks – if this group of “steam rising from their heads while they think” intellectuals who post to this blog can’t agree than maybe there are different ways to solve this problem that are all legit. (My apologies to anyone who objects to being called an intellectual. I take it back.) What bugs me is when the self same parents continue to advocate for their adult children when they are in college. (I’m sorry Mrs. Parent but I can’t discuss why your child got on the last midterm. They are now 21 – I would talk to them about it directly)

    As for the current power structure, good luck changing it. My experience working with the state government is that it is like wrestling with a pig in the mud. You both get tired and dirty and only the pig has a good time. Change is incremental at best and involves more flattery and bribery than wit. Mike has it right in the sense that most of us have to find a way to work within the current system. While I admire all you Jeffersonian types who want to toss the whole thing out, I suspect that it would cause more problems than it would solve to go out and burn down Sacramento or Tallahassee or whatever your state capital is.

    I think we have to keep in sight that the point of this story was that competition is bad! Bad, Bad, Bad! And I think if kids don’t learn how to deal with challenging work, they will be bad, bad, bad at their jobs. Can anyone spell outsourcing? Yeesh.

  44. Wow. Do you really think teachers don’t want their students to succeed?

  45. RCC wrote:

    1. I’m pretty sure Ragnarok, who I was replying to directly, isn’t made of straw.

    Oh, was I supposed to raise my hand and wait patiently to be called on? Ever so sorry. Won’t happen again. Sincerely.

    Hey, get over yourself OK, teacher? All you are is a disembodied keyboard and if you think copping some attitude is going to get you the unquestioning deference you so clearly feel you deserve well, guess again.

    Yes, I know what a strawman argument is; you’re really fond of them, I’ve noticed.

    Yawn. Let’s just roll up this thread and see who’s fond and of what, shall we?

    RCC wrote:

    All teachers are idiots
    You are a teacher
    Therefore, you are an idiot

    An order of strawman with a side of self-pity, I’d say.

    2. Our district is considered one of the most efficient in the state.

    How lucky for the tax-payers in your district and probably, the employees of the district as well.

    Perhaps you know the individual responsible? My experience suggests strongly that there’s one person, perhaps a small cabal, who are willing to stem the tide of mediocrity that a government-enforced monopoly always descends to. The reason you might want to identify the parties responsible for the singular nature of your school district is when they go their energy and drive goes with them.

    3. In 2003, we had a 5% drop-out rate, 86% of our graduates went on to a 2- or 4-year college, our composite ACT score was 23.4,….

    An urban school district with a 95% graduation rate? Now that is a marvel.

    I’ve been running through my mental file of large, urban, school districts and I can’t think of a single one that even comes close on any of your numbers. Does this marvel have a name or should we just take your word for these spectacular results?

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    But the problem, as Allen sees it, is you are too stupid to recognize what works.

    Is that what I see? So kind of you to inform everyone. My reticence makes me far too shy to post my views. Liar.

    Allen probably isn’t aware of this but no where in the NCLB law does it say failing schools will have access to more money to get the kind of help they need.

    Then maybe the people who’re running the failing schools are too stupid to recognize what works because there are successful schools that get by on exactly the same amount of money, in some cases less. Somehow, I don’t think handing people like that a blank check is a real good idea. Something else we differ on, hey Mike?

    Ivory wrote:

    Now – to poke my nose where it probably doesn’t belong,

    You’ve got it exactly backwards. No one will thank you for being the noble peace-maker, standing in the middle of the road being a good way to be hit by trucks going in both directions, and it’s always a sellers market for well-stated opinions.

    But parents are often confused as to what “the best” is.

    There’s alot of that going around. For instance, many people simply assume that a really good teacher would be sought after. Of course, the truth is a good teacher is held in no greater or less professional esteem then a rotten teacher. Evidence of confusion. Teacher’s are valued by their senority and, because the unions couldn’t hold the line at just senority as a measure of teacher value, by degrees earned.

    But parents aren’t as confused as you might think. School district quality, that being the finest granularity of choice generally opened to parents, are an important factor in home purchases. A school district with an excellent reputation can actually drive up home prices and the opposite can occur as well, Texas being a prime example of what happens when misbegotten policies reduce the precieved value of a school district.

    maybe there are different ways to solve this problem that are all legit

    Maybe but as you watch these arguments unfold note who’s solution preclude any solutions but their own.

    As for the current power structure, good luck changing it.

    Things change, even big things. Rivers change course, pyramids erode, mountains rise and fall. The changes don’t necessarily come when we want them to but at the fringes, when their time starts to come, the changes can be delayed or facilitated. I see the duration, breadth and depth of the changes currently occurring in education as the beginning of changes to that power structure. You can see part of that battle in the fierce resistance to the idea of parental choice. There’s hardly anything more central to the concept of public education then usurping that choice by the education establishment. Any erosion of that control strikes at the very heart of the assumptions underlying public education.

    Cripes, another magnum opus. Good thing I took typing in high school.

  46. ragnarok says:

    RCC wrote:

    “Wow. Do you really think teachers don’t want their students to succeed?”

    Nothing as focused as that. I think that bureaucracies suck the soul out of almost anyone, and the bright young idealist who comes into teaching soon becomes the couldn’t-care-less, gimme-a-raise union hack. Why is this? Probably because they realise that no matter how hard they try, they won’t be appreciated; and no matter how little they do, they won’t be fired.

    Do you remember the Sara Boyd/Bob Williams/Juliet Ellery stories? Do you really think these people cared about their students? Did their colleagues join together to boot them out?

    Answer: I don’t think many of them care.

  47. Just to clarify: The National Center for Education Statistics said in 1999 that Japan had a much higher graduation rate than the U.S.

    The United States had the second-lowest upper secondary school graduation rate of the five countries reporting data in 1999. The graduation rate of 78 in the United States was 17 points below the rate in Japan (95), 14 points below the rate in Germany (92), and 7 points below the rate in France (85). Only Italy, with a rate of 73, was below the United States on the graduation rate (figure 1).

    The U.S. graduation rate includes students who don’t finish high school but pass the GED.

  48. ragnarok says:

    Mike,

    I think you owe me a bottle of champagne, don’t you?

  49. 7% of Japanese students don’t enter upper secondary school (ie. only complete 9th grade). Are those students considered drop-outs or graduates in those statistics? And in fact, the statistics I looked at put the Japanese graduation rate at 86%. The 93% figure was simply those who went on to upper secondary schools.

    Germany has a 3-tier system in which some kids are out in 9th, some 10th, and some 13th. Are all those considered graduates?

    In fact, these countries structure their schools much differently than we do in the U.S. You bet we’d have better graduation rates if we got rid of the lowest performers at the end of 9th grade!

  50. ragnarok says:

    Hmm, an interesting difference of opinion between RCC, who says the US would have a higher graduation rate if we did some pruning (implying that the current graduation rate ain’t so hot), and Mike in Texas, who claims that the US graduation rate is high. Who’s right?

    Of course, none of this addresses the fact that US schools graduate kids who need remedial classes when they go to the university.

    Mike, any more thoughts about Singapore 5th-graders vs. Maryland GATE 8th-graders? Do you agree that it’s a disgrace? As I said earlier, these kids haven’t been pruned.

    As an aside, even if RCC’s figures are correct, the US still lags Japan, not so?

  51. standing in the middle of the road being a good way to be hit by trucks going in both directions

    Sigh – this may be true but it is also the case that if you keep madly dashing past one another, dialog is difficult. What appeals to most people is a solution that no one on the fringes can stand but that addresses the key or core values of both sides. It is not pure or even pretty, but it gets the job done.

    In dense structures like the California State gov. there is only one type of change – incremental. You seem to think we are working on geologic time (pyramids crumbling etc.) and I’d say that’s about right.

  52. Mike in Texas says:

    The very fact the study Joanne mentioned describes “upper” secondary education graduation rates in other countries shows other countries have different kinds of programs. How many of the total # of students who start high school in these countries go through 4 years of high school, as the graduation rates of US are calculated?

  53. ragnarok says:

    Mike,

    There’s no doubt that other countries structure their educational systems differently. What’s relevant here is, is the US school system doing well when compared to the rest of the world. You say so, but where’s the proof? If you can disprove Joanne’s data, let’s see it.

    In the meantime, I’d still like an answer to my question about the Singapore 5th-graders; same to my question about US students needing remedial classes.

    For the most part, what I hear from public schools is excuses, pleas for more money, blame for the parents, really illogical arguments against vouchers and charter schools, and (saving the best for the last) “we know better than parents what’s good for your child”.

  54. Mike in Texas says:

    Ragnorak,

    The Center for Education “Reform” is an anti-public school/ pro charter organization and they make no bones about it.

    The link you posted is to a presentation done by John Hoven, who is a very vocal supporter of the Singapore Math series. I have not done any research on Singapore but I believe we covered in another discussion how conformity is enforced throughout Singapore. Perhaps you can enlighten me on some facts about Singapore. How many different ethnic groups live in Singapore? What is typically spent on education in Singapore? If they are so much better as you have indicated, then tell me why this is so?

    But let me ask you this; Do you really believe most teachers would not do everything in their power to help their students learn? Do you think some of the ills of American schools might be outside the control of school districts? Can you provide proof that charters and privatization truly represent an improvement?

  55. Mike in Texas says:

    Instead of waiting for your reply I’ve been researching Singapore schools. I found this very intersting:

    Parents begin to ensure their child’s educational success from grades as low as kindergarten.Communities provide tutoring centers where students from lower income groups can receive additional assistance as well.It is not unusual for parents to spend between $150 and $650 (U.S. dollars) per month on their childís private academic coaching

    This was my favorite tidbit from the story:

    Singaporeís Minister of Education decided to visit the United States just after the release of the TIMMS information.He was visiting the United States looking for education ideas.Someone asked why, given his studentsí outstanding test scores, he decided to look to the United States for ideas.He replied, “Thatís all they can do.Take tests.î”

    http://www.math.umd.edu/~dac/650/samuelspaper.html

  56. All systems have pros and cons. Asian countries do typically have over-emphasis on test taking and memorization (I have this conversation often with my dentist, who is from Hong Kong). On the other hand, they do get good results. I don’t think most American parents would go for what it takes to get those results, though — I don’t see us culturally giving up sports, etc.

    In Japan, they have a longer school day with their activities in the middle of the day. Teachers get a lot of in-school time to collaborate (Japanese teacher collaboration is fabulous!!) and plan, grade, etc. They don’t typically take their work home like we do. (One of my former Japanese exchange students is now a teacher and we write back and forth all the time about the differences in her job vs. mine.) But, again, are American parents willing to give up all that other stuff?

    In Germany, they have a much shorter day because they expect the kids to be able to do homework in the two hours that our kids are still in class. On the other hand, no high school athletics.

    All these countries typically do not have the kinds of electives American schools offer.

    Not saying good or bad here, but there are parts of our culture that we’d have to give up to emulate these other cultures and get those types of results. Tradeoffs.

  57. Ivory wrote:

    Sigh – this may be true but it is also the case that if you keep madly dashing past one another, dialog is difficult.

    Democracy’s messy, loud, quite often undignified, always teetering on the edge of unedurability and usually looks like it’s going nowhere in the most inefficient way possible. Somehow stuff gets done in a manner appreciative of human shortcomings but not slave to them. Besides, what are the alternatives?

    In dense structures like the California State gov. there is only one type of change – incremental. You seem to think we are working on geologic time (pyramids crumbling etc.) and I’d say that’s about right.

    Over at Ebay you can buy a, purportedly, genuine piece of the Berlin wall.

    Sometimes change is incremental and sometimes it isn’t. Depends on the circumstances.

    The distributed nature of public education argues for incremental change. A great deal of change in one state, none in another.

    But there are forces in place that may neutralize that distribution.

    The greater role of the federal government, both as a funding agency and an enforcement agency, work to reduce the independence of the state public education agencies. That makes the entire public education system more vulnerable to uniform change.

    The rise of charters hasn’t just provided an alternative to the conventional, district-based public education model, it’s beginning to bring into question the value of the school district. If charter schools can get along quite nicely without a school district, what value do school districts bring to public education? That’s a question that has collapse-of-the-Soviet-Union written all over it and wouldn’t have been, wasn’t, asked until charters made the question meaningful.

    Then there’s the technology.

    Computers are generally seen as having brought little value to education. I happen to agree. But that’s today, probably tomorrow. But the next day? Technology has a way of preciptating profound changes where it makes it’s mark.

    The education profession today is largely indistiguishable from education several thousand years ago. Socrates could probably swap stories with RCC and they’d both have reasons to shake their heads ruefully. The clothing fashions may have changed but the stories about the smart kid who skates through, the dumb kid who tries so hard it breaks your heart to watch him fail, the wise-ass with the potential that seems to be forever one wise-crack out of reach, those are almost certainly the same. Which means that when the technology finally arrives that’ll make a real change in something that deeply intertwined in the fabric of society, it’ll be very big, very disruptive and won’t be easily stopped.

  58. Especially since I use Socratic methods.

    Human nature doesn’t change, though, no matter what technology you introduce. Sex, violence, and greed are the driving forces behind the internet, and we seem to be having a hard time fitting education into that mix. I was very involved in bringing the internet into the public domain, so I’m pretty well aware of the history and the lofty goals at the outset of this great adventure.