Excellent teachers need excellent conditions

Want excellent teachers? Create excellent classroom situations, writes Ellie Herman, who teaches at a charter high school, in the Los Angeles Times. And forget about “the myth of the extraordinary teacher” who can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

The kid in the back wants me to define “logic.” The girl next to him looks bewildered. The boy in front of me dutifully takes notes even though he has severe auditory processing issues and doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Eight kids forgot their essays, but one has a good excuse because she had another epileptic seizure last night. The shy, quiet girl next to me hasn’t done homework for weeks, ever since she was jumped by a knife-wielding gangbanger as she walked to school. The boy next to her is asleep with his head on the desk because he works nights at a factory to support his family.

. . .  A kid with dyslexia, ADD and anger-management problems walks in late, throws his books on the desk and swears at me when I tell him to take off his hood.

The class, one of five I teach each day, has 31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes. I need to reach all 31 of them, including the brainiac who’s so bored she’s reading “Lolita” under her desk.

I just can’t do it.

With less state funding, California public schools have boosted class sizes. That means teachers have less time to get to know their students, Herman writes. With more than 150 students in her classes, she can spend only five or 10 minutes on each essay, writing a few sentences of feedback.

I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.

Herman teaches at a Green Dot school, Animo Pat Brown Charter High School. Students — nearly all Hispanic and low-income — score well above average on state tests.

I suspect Herman would find it easy to teach large classes of students at approximately the same academic level who do homework, show up every day, understand English and aren’t disabled. But that’s not reality.

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Comments

  1. How could any one (including the teacher) read her essay and think it’s about class size? Good lord. As if the kids as described are going to do better in a smaller class? Foolish.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Lone braniac might do better in a smaller class— I had one of those when I taught and the solution was to meet with her at lunch or after school once a week, give her work at her level, tell her she could do it in my class as long as she didn’t bother anyone else and then grade her based on her exceeding class expectation. Of course, this gave her a 150% over two semesters. I successfully convinced the principal that she should NOT have to take the final, since a 100% would actually lower her average in the class.

    It worked and made her life a bit less boring and miserable— however, she would have been better off in a school where everyone was close to her level….

  3. What I got out of this was “Even Superman can’t work around Kryptonite.” Let’s be honest, you can’t set people up for failure and then criticize them when they fail.

    Your later post, though, about paying teachers $60-150K–how would *that* solve *this* problem? Do we think that kind of money would find those Kryptonite-proof Supermans?

  4. So, if there’s a serial killer on the loose, I guess the solution is to hire more docs in the ER.

    The great caveat that people keep ignoring in our current debate is that teachers are the single greatest influencing factor that schools have control of.

    When you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night or whether or not you’re going to make it there safely, who really gives a flying squirrel about the Pythagorean Theorem?

    What good does it do to say “Work hard an you’ll be successful!” to kids who’ve never met a successful person and don’t even know many living people (especially men) over the age of 20 or 30?

    There’s lots of kids who can be saved pretty easily if we can just get them away from the harder cases. Many of the harder cases can do better if placed in a more intensive and restrictive environment. So long as districts continue to be stupid/gutless enough to do the bidding of those who consider it a basic civil right of some students to disrupt the education of others, there won’t be a dent to this problem.

    So long as it is accepted for multiple generations to live without the expectation of ever improving themselves or even being able to support themselves without government assistance, we will continue to have large populations who will live as an underclass, many without the hope of ever being anything more.

  5. In the 40s and 50s, it was an accepted fact that schools should both stress the common American culture (which is not static) and explicitly teach/demand those habits and behaviors that enable success. A relative who attended a Catholic k-8 ES with many new immigrants discovered, as a college student, that he had been taught the Protestant work ethic, without the name. It was recognized that moving into the middle class meant learning some new behaviors and expectations. Today, that is considered cultural imperialism or something, so kids are allowed to retain dysfunctional behaviors and we then wonder why they aren’t doing better. In many dysfunctional neighborhoods, kids have no hope of learning such things outside of school.

  6. Amy in Texas says:

    “So long as districts continue to be stupid/gutless enough to do the bidding of those who consider it a basic civil right of some students to disrupt the education of others, there won’t be a dent to this problem.”

    Amen, Obi.

    Why has this happened? Is is pandering to PC ideas? Just bad theories? Unintended consequences? I watched it for four years, butI don’t have an answer.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    Unintended consequences, I think, Amy. And I do think there’s a culture of a cowed, dully obedient reaction to damaging edicts.

    The teaching profession is pretty much unified in opposing high-stakes testing and ever more of it (I just read this on Alexander Russo’s blog — this goes for teachers of all ages with all types of certification). Now, as we see from the SOS March last weekend, there’s starting to be some more-visible pushback. But as that bathwater was turned up a degree at a time, we didn’t hear cries of outrage and resistance. The same, I think, with policies that make it nearly impossible for schools to deal with disruptive and otherwise highly challenging students.

    I’ll be really un-PC and point this out. I’ve seen both the “social justice” left and the reformy right beating up on schools and districts after bean-counting the students subjected to discipline, identified as special ed and so on. Every time that happens — every single time– it makes it a little bit harder for schools to deal with challenging students.

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    “The teaching profession is pretty much unified in opposing high-stakes testing … The same, I think, with policies that make it nearly impossible for schools to deal with disruptive and otherwise highly challenging students.”

    There is a significant difference. My union (the National Education Association) spends a lot of time and money opposing high stakes testing. They don’t put nearly as much effort into the second. I suspect a major reason for this is that a large number of our “progressive” allies actively support the “wrong” side in the discipline debate.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    It’s a tougher one, because the policies that make it nearly impossible to deal with problematic students truly do sound righteous. In the big picture, they ARE righteous. But they do have unintended consequences.

    So what I meant by comparing those two issues was that there’s no immediate massive outcry when a policy that’s obviously likely to have damaging unintended consequences is imposed. It’s all turning up the heat gradually.

    But it’s much easier to raise a righteous outcry against high-stakes testing than it is against what sounds like righting the wrongs of racist social injustice. It’s like, “Ooh, can’t touch that one.”

    This issue makes me ponder: There are various factors in the lives of many low-income students from troubled families and communities that are extremely likely to result in emotional, behavioral and academic problems. Post-traumatic stress disorder and poor prenatal care are two of them. Then there’s a new science (covered in a recent major New Yorker story reported out of San Francisco) about the strong connection between “adverse childhood experiences” and those problems as well as physical health problems — the more ACEs, the more resulting problems and the more severe they are.

    So I don’t even see how it’s racist to acknowledge that low-income students from troubled families and communities (who tend to be disproportionately black and brown) are more likely to have those resulting problems, as they suffer far more of the stressors that cause the problems. But as I say, both ends of the political spectrum bean-count by race and blame schools and teachers, making it much harder to deal with those challenges. My take is that the left does it based on not getting it and the right does it out of malice — grabbing any excuse to gleefully beat up on teachers — but that’s just my own bias, I admit. (I have the exact same take on the motives behind the idiotic “all students must go to college or be branded failures” movement, come to think of it.)

  10. And here we come to the rub with unions. On a district level, I know very few who would want to try to get by without a powerful union to protect against district actions ranging from malicious to merely incompetent. On a political level, however, I have yet to see my union endorse a candidate who I would trust to run a lemonade stand.

    On a national level, unions should be outlining the problems teachers face. Instead, they continue to operate under the completely discredited idea that the amount of money going into schools is the problem (not to be confused with how the money is spent). They consistently oppose every single idea for reform without offering any opposing ideas.

    Most of these problems are blatantly obvious to anyone who has set foot in a school, save for the most oblivious dimwit or most committed idealist who still has rainbows and unicorns in their eyes (but I repeat myself). One side says teachers are lazy and don’t want to teach. The other side says we need more money. Both are wrong; who is there to speak for us?

  11. Roger Sweeny says:

    I think most people on both the left and right want what is best. But too many people approach anything remotely political like Red Sox and Yankees fans.

    If I’m a Red Sox fan, I hate the Yankees and their fans. My car has two bumper stickers, “Yankees suck” and “I root for two teams: the Red Sox and whoever plays the Yankees.”

    If I’m a Yankee fan, I just know that my team is better and anyone who thinks differently is denying reality.

  12. CarolineSF says:

    I agree that there’s no real point to giving my admittedly biased interpretation of the reasons that different voices espouse policies and attitudes that result in harmful unintended consequences. I succumbed to the temptation. But really, it wasn’t very flattering to characterize the side that’s more in line with my politics as clueless, which I did, so I can’t really be accused of saying one side is right and the other is wrong.

    But that’s a side issue in relation to the greater point, which is to address unintended consequences.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    One of the problems with trying to get anything accomplished is that people who agree with you about one issue may be totally clueless about another, or even malevolently ass-backwards. But you need them and have to work with them, even though it often doesn’t seem right.

    How do you deal with the bad feelings? You can become amorally cynical: all that matters is getting results. No doubt this is why so many politicians–left, right, and center–become lobbyists.

    You can get moralistic: my guys are good; their guys are evil.

    You can have selective perception: you see, my allies really are right about just everything.

    Caroline, I admire your courage not to succumb to those (well, maybe a little to the second).

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Worked with a faith-based social justice group for some years. I would not say the unfortunate consequences of such things as making allowances for the kids who disturb and assault other kids and teachers are entirely unintended.
    Some of these people, not merely fans of one kind or another of Cloward-Piven, really want society to fail, and this is one way.

  15. the more ACEs, the more resulting problems and the more severe they are.

    So I don’t even see how it’s racist to acknowledge that low-income students from troubled families and communities (who tend to be disproportionately black and brown) are more likely to have those resulting problems, as they suffer far more of the stressors that cause the problems.

    This is one possibility.  But it may not be the correct one:  other factors (such as low future-time orientation and low intelligence) could also produce ACEs and the other problems.

    We’ve thrown a trillion or three at “poverty” and other things alleged to cause problems like ACEs, yet we have not gotten rid of them.  I realize that many people find it literally unthinkable that social pathologies might be endogenous and heritable, but that’s the most likely of the explanations still standing.