Michele Somerville is the mother of three former NYC DOE public school students, as well as a writer and an educator.

Follow Michele Somerville on twitter. @nypoet
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Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Community College Presentation and The Histrionic Bureaucrat Troll Under The Bridge: Part One, Dateline, Brookline

My son, a young man with Asperger’s, a disorder on the autism spectrum, attends a school/residential program which is designed to support students in  areas of social skills, executive function, employment readiness, and to post-secondary academic study. His progress has been good, but the program, which is extremely expensive, has not been great. With a recent change in leadership came some upheaval which increased anxiety among students. My son attends a local community college beyond the program and his support both at the college and at his program has been very weak. I had been feeling hopeful, about improvement in the residential program, about finding a way to induce the Office of Disabilities at the community college to do its job, and about sending my son back to his program with the expectation that he might have one more good year there before moving along. 

Today, 72 hours, I am not so hopeful as I was. I am discouraged. I never want to hear another pseudo educator say "I've been doing this job for 20 years. Trust me. I've seen it all." I am questioning the commitment both my son's college and residential program have to opposing discrimination. It became clear, via a presentation given by the staff person in charge of the Office for Persons with Disabilities at the college that while there is a baseline of CYA ("cover your ass") compliance with the letter of the law as it pertains to the protections of college students with disability, there is insufficient concern (in her office and perhaps in the college at large) for the spirit of those laws. 

I travelled two hundred miles to attend meeting a meeting with my son's “his team” this past Thursday afternoon.  20 hours later, I found myself demoralized, disgusted and departing the first of four afternoon presentations before it was over, in haste.

The reasons were several. One had to do with the misogynist outburst of a deranged parent. The other was that I realized that the person "presenting" was a functionary in place to ensure compliance who wasn't really saying anything.

But we tried. We listened to the several refrains of "I've been doing this for 20 years and I have seen it all, trust me."  We listened as she unfurled the on list of technologies that would be offered to students (at additional cost, in the absence of screening to determine efficacy and without instruction in how they work). And glorious terminology Accuplacers and Dragon readers.

When the call for questions came, my son's father's hand went up. The presenter called on him. He husband spoke, in strident terms about our son and about the lack of support many or most of the students from the residential program had been receiving. Other hands went up, one of them, mine. Just as the presenter, having scanned the room, appeared poised to call on me, a man sitting a few rows back began to flail and yell. He pointed at me. “No! Not you! YOU’ve already spoken!” he shouted.

I had not uttered a word.

It's worth noting that the presentation was happening, at least in some small part, in response to my concerns and professional input. I'm an educator, and the director of the school had been consulting me on the issues at hand. My question pertained more to policy than to my own son's case.  

I suppose everyone saw, immediately, that the little old man crouching a few rows back, was unbalanced. Still it rattled me.

Without exception, every parent I have ever encountered at this program has been lovely. I had become accustomed to feeling safe in that space (whites literally a deconsecrated church sanctuary). The last thing in the world I might have expected was that a man taking part in an assembly focused unprotecting the oft discriminated against from discrimination might unleash a misogynist mansplaining torrent of flaming histrionics in my direction.

I waited for my turn. and when it came, though rattled and disgusted, I managed to say something: “I realize my husband has already spoken, but I also have a voice---"I am told—I was so shocked and distraught that I barely recall---that some clapped.

That little old venom spewer siphoned every bit of safety out of the room.  He defiled the sacred space. He compromised everyone. And no one in charge thought to stop him. 

The presenter maundered, ducked the question, seemed to know her best bet was to run out the clock.  I realized she wouldn't answer my question. There was no point in being there. Nothing was being said.

Appalled and shaken, I departed abruptly before the charade had come to a close. 

I could not, in good faith, take part in any conversation about discrimination with an acting-out misogynist lurking three rows away. Had I been in a leadership position, had that outburst taken place in a classroom of mine, I would have insisted the mansplaining miscreant be held accountable---or bounced.

During a break, my spouse tried to hold the small man accountable. This, is for me, is the creepiest part. “You were out of line,” he said, “You insulted me wife. You owe her an apology.” Graciousness that led my spouse to speak up. He did so with an expectation that the old man would want to make things right. Everyone makes mistakes.

Instead the bantam grump threw another Trumplike nutty, flailing his arms, twisting around. “I’m not apologizing to her!” he shouted. “I reject that!”

I sat in a cafe writing during the following presentations, but returned to the “parents-only” meeting took place because my spouse was presenting. I figured the poor guy might be too ashamed to attend. But he was there. 

The parents-only meeting was not exceedingly fruitful. I dared not speak. Parents shared. The  misanthrope didn’t yell at anyone at that meeting, but he did his best to monopolize the meeting, and sat with bad posture a few rows back subvocalizing and declining to raise his hand.  Everyone else raised their hands for a chance to share but the little old Caucasian manchild just called out whenever he wished.  “A life-long bureaucrat,” (thus he described himself) he was above the civility ever other human benign the sanctuary exhibited.

He harped a bit on the need for governance ("moderation") on the parents’ listserve. This idea was hard for me to get my head around. Then came little old Ron who shared that "we have moderators" to keep folks in line on the listserve "in my town." 

Where did little bald Ron the mantled troll live, I wondered?

Read Dateline, Brookline: The Community College Presentation and The Brookline Bureaucrat Troll Under The Bridge in its entirety on Bored_o_Ed.

Where did the histrionic spewing troll live, I wondered?

I nosed around later and learned that the Trumpesque grump resides in a pretty nice town, Brookline, Mass. I won't say his name because we all know one.

And the bureaucracy? Retired EPA. And the entitlement? Maybe he got it from being a short white and finessing a stint at Penn.

Worst part of all---he had daughters. 

In the car on the way home, the son whose spring break had just begun, sat in the back seat with the dog heard his parents talking about this creep. “Why’d the guy yell at you, Mom?” he asked.

I tried to make a joke. “Oh he was just jealous. He’s old and miserable and your dad is good looking. And still has hair.”  

I later he is a widower. The wife was the accomplished one.

Which is very hard for small, bald, mean menchildren to take. 

I thought about writing to him, but decided against it. He'd already blown an opportunity to act like a man.

Men who hate women can not hear what we write or say. Their blaring enmity and self-hatred drown it out.  

But here’s what I might have written:

Dear RL: 

I know it is not easy to have an adult child with special needs.

I know it is not easy to have a life with loss in it.  

If you wish that your daughters' voices will be honored as they move through this world, if you wish that people, like your daughter, who have disabilities, might be honored and supported,  you will take note of your own misogyny. 

You will endeavor to change, Ronnie. 

You had no right to humiliate all the other women in that room by intimating that husbands---in any circumstances ever---can be thought of as legitimately speaking for their wives. You had no right to attack me today.

How sad your decision to forgo the opportunity to apologize.

Your refusal to apologize to every woman in that room and to me in particular in the wake of your tiny tantrum shames both your  daughters and the memory of your wife.

I feel sorry for you.



Michele Somerville
March 11. 2017



Michele Somerville is writing an educational memoir, Bored-O-Ed, of which this may be part.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Charter Schools, Obviously

Reports on the efficacy of charter schools appear regularly, and they generally cite fresh finding from a new study that confirms the obvious. I often wish that the time, effort and funding driving these demonstrations of the obvious could be put to the better use of improving conventional public schools. Has there ever been any doubt that some charter schools yield better results for some children of color and for some poor children. Is that not obvious?


Is it not obvious that some schools that operate as private schools while receiving public dollars are sometimes better able to educate some students?

Is it not obvious that schools that select and eject, without doing much else, dramatically reduce the degree of (educational) difficulty?

Most charter schools seize the opportunity to shape their student populations in ways conventional schools cannot. Charter schools enjoy the liberty of passing on (to conventional public schools) the burden of educating disruptive and “incorrigible” students, students without parents (or whose parents can not be involved) homeless students, students with severe learning disability, and students who lack English language proficiency. Obviously these must attend school somewhere.

What is not always obvious is that the success of charter schools is predicated on a predatory practice.

The media tends to focus more on charter school success stories than upon their failures, but many charter schools are dreadfully ineffective and wildly unregulated. Also, having hustled three of my own children through New York City’s public schools, I know all too well that conventional public schools are in dire need of improvement.

Given the ability of charter schools to game the system and the putatively woeful condition of conventional public schools, it is surprising that the performance gap (between students attending charter school students and those attending conventional public schools) isn’t greater. In the most well-reputed charter school network in New York City, for example, charter school students’ performance on state-wide tests only slightly surpasses that of children and adolescents studying in conventional public schools. Until quite recently this same network was curiously unsuccessful in placing students in New York City’s most elite public high schools.

Children who are unable to gain admission to great charter schools, and those who do but fail to survive the systematic purging that often guarantees the  ‘success’ of such schools, must attend school somewhere. So they land in the conventional schools.

The greatest flaw in the charter school formula for success is that it is essentially discriminatory.

The shrewd charter school leader knows this. So critical to charter schools’ survival is the show non-discrimination that some charter network leaders are willing to use their educational dollars for slick advertising campaigns. subtle discriminatory character of charter schools. In large cities, charter schools have indeed focused upon recruiting children of color, but without theat focus, they would never have gotten the foot in the door. Charter schools were, at their inception, designed to offer the poorest of the poor alternatives. The fact of “a movement” that comprises is contrary to ethos that first gave way to them. The very existence of charter schools in large cities now rests upon the creation of a veneer of educational activism. Little schools with principals gave way to networks with CEOs. While the gradual smoke and mirrors bait and switch continues on, the public will continue to see black and brown faces in ads for urban public schools because black and brown faces are charter school network’s bread and butter.   

If the charter school model works so well, why not do away with public education entirely? It wouldn’t work. Because predators need prey. 

MMS 6 November 2016 NYC

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bored-o-Ed: Rein in the Tyranny of Homework and Extend the School Day



It wasn't until I became a parent that I came to see the extent to which homework can siphon the harmony out of family life. I'm a big fan of academic rigor for children. Children should work hard in school, but all too often I watched my own children bolt reluctantly from informal, impromptu dinner table lessons in order to complete homework. Very often homework foreclosed on the opportunity to continue on in discussions of politics, art, reason, faith, table manners and global events. Too often meaningless homework kept them from finishing that discussion of Walt Whitman's work as a medic in the Civil War, the Protestant Reformation, black holes, a mayoral race, or why--really--a four-year old could not have painted that Picasso. Drawing, playing guitar and recreational reading often took a back seat to homework.
I currently tutor in an after-school program where I help students (grades 1 through 12) with homework, and much of the homework I see appears to be busy work. Having been a classroom teacher, I know that there is a certain amount of pressure from school administrators and school systems to assign a certain amount of homework each night. Sometimes the talent of teachers and schools is even measured, in part, by the volume homework assigned.
Many of the secondary school students I know receive three or four hours of homework each night. Excessive homework all but does away with recreational reading. Students who consistently fail to keep up with homework are more likely to give up on school entirely because a quotient of humiliation often attends with unpreparedness. When their school days are done, adolescents and children should be otherwise occupied; they should be exercising their bodies, and learning to dance and to play instruments. They should take part in organized sports, meal preparation, and household chores. They should play, interact with family and friends and engage in community service.
Homework should have a clear purpose, but too often it does not. Reinforcement of skills and concepts already apprehended is the proper goal, but I see plenty of homework, each week, that demands the involvement of parents or helpers. Help is not a bad thing; but it can muddy the waters. If a homework assignment is designed to allow a teacher to gauge proficiency, extra help is likely to interfere. If the aim of homework to diagnose, extra help can create an erroneous impression of mastery.
In institutionally racist school systems extra help increases the imbalance between the haves and have-nots. It goes to reason that children who benefit from standardized test preparation and private tutors can expect to have an edge. A decent high school tutor earns upwards of $100.00 in New York City. Middle-class children who attend public schools in New York often receive lots of extra help; poor children--not so much.
Teachers who are forced by school system policy to teach curriculum (and not students) have little choice but to send some students home with work they are unable to complete independently, because even in tracked classes, students learn at various and often unpredictable rates. Students with whom I work sometimes report that "the teacher didn't teach" something, when what they really mean is that they failed to learn something. Even very young children do this, and they frequently appear to feel as if not knowing how to do the homework is their fault. No kid likes homework, but those who continually receive assignments they can't complete wind up feeling stupid.
Usually a period of feeling out of place, incompetent, inadequate, or unsuccessful exists for a while before a student finally decides to throw in the towel. Students drop out of school for many reasons. In my opinion, feeling stupid is at the top of the list.
If I were queen of the schools, I would have students do homework in school.
Schools should remain open later, and especially those attended by children living at or below the poverty line, should make homework help and enrichment programs available to all students.
At one school building in my own middle-class neighborhood, the corporately supported "elite" (recently co-located school) school hosts after-school programs for its students, but the three (black and brown) schools in the same building, for the most part, do not. The "elite" students use the building's pool and basketball courts after dismissal, but the black and brown non-elite students do not. Why?
Poor parents and guardians in New York often encourage their children to return home directly after dismissal. Some are afraid to have their children at large during early evening hours in their own neighborhoods. They cite fear of gangs, fear of problems in transit, fear of kids "hanging out on the streets," and fear of the police. In New York City, the more prosperous the school, the more likely it is to host a variety of after-school programs, because it is parents who tend to fund and work in these programs. Most middle-class families, whether in cities or suburbs, enroll their children in clubs, lessons and organized sports. Their children grow up presuming they will attend college and learn early that both extracurricular and curricular experiences influence college admission outcomes. This thinking, the expectation of college and academic success, is less prevalent among poor students in struggling schools, the very ones who most need longer school days. after school enrichment, homework help and tutoring.
I often hear people blame parents (who putatively fail to impart discipline and civility at home) for the failure of schools. I happen to believe this widely cast aspersion is facile and inaccurate. Furthermore, not nearly enough is said about how difficult this type of criticism makes it for parents, guardians and caregivers of children who attend hell-hole schools to become more involved. We know that parental involvement improves schools, yet the schools most in need of it tend to have the least parental involvement. Why? Because parents in struggling schools are often discouraged from getting involved. When parents feel disparaged by school personnel, they steer clear of their children's schools. Parents living in poverty, uneducated parents, grandparents rearing grandchildren, homeless parents, partners of incarcerated parents, undocumented immigrants and English language learners are less likely to feel welcome in schools their children attend, but there can be no doubt that these parents have plenty to contribute and that their children's schools need their help.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that it is true that schools fail as a result of the breakdown of the nuclear family and problems associated with crime and poverty. Is it not in the best interest of taxpayers, cities and school systems to step in and create more home in school? Are children whose guardians are not able, for whatever reasons, to serve as their educational advocates and learning partners less deserving of the kind of support the children of college-educated, middle-class parents receive? Does a responsible citizenry and public education system faced with this problem just throw up its hands and consign these children to the schools-to-prison pipeline, or to a future on Public Assistance? Or do we acknowledge that more is needed, and resolve to expand the role schools play in the lives of students. If home is a big part of the problem and we all want schools that truly work, we must recognize the obligation of school systems to step in to do some of what home ought. If we refuse to do this, we "cut off our noses," as my very smart mom used to say, "to spite our faces."
When my mother was a child growing up in a large family in uptown Manhattan during the 40s and 50s, she and her siblings all attended after school programs in the parochial school they attended. There they attended dances, worked on neighborhood projects and learned to play basketball. Every school in New York City should be hosting secular versions of this model. School buildings should be used at night--by students. Teachers should be available for tutoring after dismissal, and the school day itself should be about three hours longer.
Free school breakfasts and lunches are outward signs that we already grasp, on some level, the importance of stepping in, at school, to do what is more properly done at home. We acknowledge that hungry students do not perform well and that it is in the best interest of all taxpayers to graduate as many healthy, well-educated, workforce-ready students as possible. We give food away; why not give away tutoring, swimming instruction, second language instruction, vocational training, and instruction in the arts?
Keeping schools open at night would make it possible for struggling students to have more of what middle class children have--whether that be homework help, nutritional snacks, guitar lessons, or studio art. It would foster community, allow students to work more seriously in the arts and would go a long way to alleviate the pressure on parents who, whether due to homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, trauma, illness, youth, disability or lack of English language fluency, are not able to help with homework, afford lessons or coach sports teams. Students would come home with less homework, less stress, more energy, more positive feeling about their educational experiences, lighter book-bags--and, who knows? Maybe with enough time to curl up with a good book.
This would cost more--in the short run, but the alternative to doing school right will prove far more costly.

Michele Somerville has worked as a teacher in New York for 20 years. She is the parent of three children who have attended NYC DOE schools.

Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Caveat Emptor: Charter School Totems and Private/Public Education


Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, closed her schools in New York, on Tuesday October 8th so as to allow students parents and teachers to join a demonstration to defend public school privatization. 20,000 showed up. That's quite a turnout. I did not take part in this demonstration, but I did attend a talk given by educator, education advocate and charter schools opponent Diane Ravitch that evening.
Ravitch started out as a charter school proponent, but has since changed her views. She makes an excellent case against "privatizing" public schools in her best-selling book Reign of Error. Most (not all) of her claims about the charter school movement echo opinions I've formed in my travels as a NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) parent, former classroom teacher and tutor currently engaged in tutoring New York City elementary, middle and high school students.
I too once supported charter school innovation until I saw, up-close, how corporate involvement promised to exacerbate the already egregious condition of institutional racism in New York's schools. I supported charter schools until I began to see how they tend to hang (all but the savant) special needs students out to dry, and how they promote a dangerous anti-union message.
One of the chief complaints about charter schools is that they fail to welcome English learners, behavior problems, children whose parents can not be involved, and children with special needs. It's also worth adding that families that are homeless and parents who are illiterate or unable to use computers never even find out about charter school lotteries.
Students with behavior problems, English as second language learners, and students with developmental disabilities are admitted to charter schools by lottery, but once they are deemed unable to "succeed," charter schools often remand these children to the conventional schools from which they came. This kind of rejection is harmful for children. Furthermore, there is something truly pernicious about the alacrity with which charter schools skim the cream off of the very schools that have little choice but to accept charter school castaways when they wash out of "success academies."
As the parent of three children who have attended NYC DOE schools, I understand what it is to be committed to the public schools. As the mother of son with autism, I remember the great relief that came with finding an appropriate educational setting for my bright, but hard to educate, child. Parents who spoke with New York Post on the day of the pro-charter school march seemed coached as they aimed to dispel the idea that charter schools are reluctant to educate students with special needs.
One mother explained that her pre-school son's speech delays threatened to result in a special education designation. She credits her son's charter school with helping him to avoid being classified as a special education student, and with helping him to succeed. 
"He was really successful in kindergarten. He had just turned 5, and he made such remarkable progress. They decided to advance him to second grade this fall, and he's still performing at the top of his class."

If this little boy is performing operations with rational numbers at the age of seven, he is advanced, and it is probable that he would have "succeeded" in any school. This mother is proud of her son for skipping a grade, as well she should be, but she doesn't know what the boy's fate would be had he attended a decent conventional public school. And what if her black son had not been academically successful at the charter school in question? What if he had bounced out and landed in her community school's special education program? Would this mother still be extolling the "privatization" of schools?
Another mother spoke about her daughter: 
Abi Fenelon was desperate to find a good school for her autistic daughter, Sunyyah Foristall. She secured a spot at the Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene.
"She was lost. The Department of Education told me my child will never be above grade level and will not attend college," Fenelon said.
"Now, she reads in the seventh-grade, middle-school level. My daughter plays guitar and violin. She writes music . . . She is the poster child of what a great public charter school can do."

"She is the poster child..." That says it all.
I do not doubt that some unenlightened NYC DOE staff may have offered an ignorant assessment of this girl's potential for college scholarship. I do not doubt the child was "lost" in the NYC DOE CSE (Committee for Special Education) system, and I do not doubt that the mother knows a great deal about this talented girl's level of contentment--which is a lot.
But I doubt very much that this exploited mother knows all she should about her daughter's academic progress, because "poster children" and their parents often need to be "managed."
As the mother of a former "poster child" for an ASD Nest program, I know how this works. My son was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of three, and I too have felt the kind of relief these two parents describe. My son was lucky enough to land in the first grade class of New York City's first ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Nest program. He progressed well in this elementary school. He entered a sixth grade in a middle school ASD Nest program putatively modeled after the elementary level Nest program from which he graduated, but this program turned out to be a poorly run, discriminatory, disgraceful mess.
Although my son seemed happy enough during his first year, it quickly became clear he was not progressing academically. The school's first attempt to addressing this took the form of requesting that I revise (dumb down) my son's IEP (Individual Education Plan). That fall I found failing marks on quizzes, misplaced homework, missed assignments, days of nothing at all recorded in his homework planner, and an abundance of incomplete classwork in his book bag on a regular basis.
Imagine my surprise, when I learned at the conclusion of his first marking period that my son had made the Honor Roll! This, at a school that was considered to be one of the better schools in the best public school zone and district in Brooklyn.
Parents of the children in this program were surprised and happy to learn that their children were doing so well. I too enjoyed seeing my child enjoy a feeling of success, but the smoke and mirrors aspect of the grade charade left me wary and suspect. If they were lying about my boy's scholastic performance, what else were they failing to be forthright about?
I soon realized that grade inflation was being used to create the illusion of success at the program. I learned that year that special education students receive more per capita dollars from the state than do general education students, and that students with Aspergers make excellent cash cows, and that ambitious administrators who recognize this can double-dip to excellent effect by collecting the extra special education dollars for enrolling these often highly intelligent students.
Shortly before pulling my son out of this middle school, I discovered that teachers working with him relied on a strategy for "assessing" (aka "testing") children that would guarantee a target grade. In my son's case, this target grade was "B." It is good to get B's, but the process of hammering him over and over again on the same content until he got it right made him anxious. I remember how his fervor for studying Thomas Paine's Common Sense was extinguished by the having to repeat his oral presentation on Paine over and over again until he got the B. The irony is that my son and most of his classmates a were more than capable of being on the Honor Roll--eventually, in time--without the help of grade inflation.
But their new program needed them to be "poster children" right out of the gate.
Does the mother of the violin playing middle school girl who has autism really know whether her child is progressing academically? My guess is that when it comes to her daughter's proficiency in this school, the mother of that violin playing "poster child" knows what the school wants her to know.
What would this girl's experience be if she were not a "poster child" for charter school education? What if she were a male child with autism, prone to outbursts, and did not play a musical instrument? In other words, what if she were autistic and not a "poster child?" Would she wind up kicked to the curb as is the case with so many children who can't "cut it" at charter schools?
Furthermore, if charter schools really do so well with educating children with special needs, does it not make sense for many more children with autism and other developmental disabilities to attend these schools? Why aren't the charter schools clamoring for more?
This trotting out of black, Latino and special ed success stories is exploitative and sinister. It bears the stench of that "some-of-my-best-friends-are" logic. By parading a handful of children before news agencies in the service of defending school privatization, charter school leaders reveal more about their desire to appear committed to diversity than about their genuine commitment to it.
These testimonies of pro-charter schools parents are powerful, but they are tainted by the pandering that engenders them. Of course the mother of the violin-playing girl who was told her child could never go to college and the mother of the boy so smart he skipped first grade are willing to extoll their children's schools! They've been in the belly of the beast!
But once a child becomes a totem for privatization of public schools--Caveat emptor. "Privatization" of schools, if left unchecked, will weaken the public education system as a whole. Fixing public education by opening private school-like schools for the children of the affluent is a bit analogous to like posting more police--and more expert police--in low-crime areas while removing most from high-crime neighborhoods. Former New York City Police Department Deputy (now deceased) Jack Maple's COMPSTAT might apply. COMPSTAT uses crime data to target high-crime areas. In theory, neighborhoods more in need of policing receive it. As a native New Yorker and a progressive I recognize the flaws in the implementation of COMPSTAT. As the daughter of  NYPD lieutenant who grew up around cops, I know that law enforcement sometimes gets it right. I think COMPSTAT for policing increases racism but that a form of COMPSTAT for education might have the opposite effect. I'm not sure.  As an educator, I know for sure that New York's poorest children need more teachers, more expert teachers and more help and more scaffolding than do children from middle class children who live in low-crime areas of the city. Children like the three mentioned in today's reports on Tuesday's march across the bridge--the black, the brown, the developmentally disabled--will be the first to be thrown under the (corporately-funded school) bus, yet they are the students who most need and deserve the kind of extra support Eva Moskowitz's so-called "academies" are currently receiving. 

Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bring Up the Teaching Profession's Intellectual Game

I was teaching the novel Jane Eyre to honors sophomores about 28 years ago in one of New York City's top high schools when a student raised his hand: "Why are you a teacher? You seem smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer." He was being a smart-ass. But he was also being smart.


Something happened when highly intelligent women began to have a wider range of professional options--when women interested in medicine were not automatically consigned to nursing--something good!--but there can be no question that the teaching profession took a hit. Despite that more men now become teachers, teaching children is still seen, to some extent, as women's work, as we might expect in a culture which tends to undervalue women's contributions in general. In 2013, neither women, nor men being graduated at the top of their college classes are entering teaching in great numbers. It is doubtful that schools will improve until this changes.
What has not much varied even since Plato held a teaching job is that the best teachers tend to be those of high intelligence who are passionately engaged in rigorous enrichment outside of the classroom. I'm talking about thinkers and intellectuals, not city workers racking up junk scholarship credits in costly teacher education courses designed to help education professors peddle their fresh-off-the-press "publish or perish" projects on the school system's dime, while offering matriculants a boost as they ascend the pay scale ladder.
Everyone knows that the New York City Department of Education is notorious for wasting millions of dollars each academic year, but many do not know that much of that waste takes the form of graduate school tuition for teacher education programs that not only lack rigor, but which often interfere with innovative, inspiring teaching.
Certainly some study in such areas as psychology, classroom management, administration and instruction of students with special needs can be helpful to classroom teachers; certainly some is necessary for teachers working with very young children and students with "disability," but ironically enough, school systems' over-investment in teacher education programs often forecloses upon teachers' intellectual growth. A middle school social studies teacher should study political science, history, international relations or philosophy at a graduate level. Teachers should not be made to serving as pawns in the racket of keeping floundering education programs afloat.
One often hears about the preponderance of unemployed Ph.d's and the grim dearth of employment prospects with which they contend. Philosopher and Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting proposed, in a June 7, 2012 New York Times opinion piece that appointing some of these Doctors of Philosophy to teach children might be a good idea.
Some might argue that teachers should have teaching certifications, as physicians do. Not a bad argument--on the face. The most elite college-preparatory schools in the United States not only decline to require their teachers to have education credits, they actually discourage 5 through 12 teachers from obtaining them. These schools embrace a 'teacher as scholar' ethos. In New York City, teachers at the weakest schools have certification, and teachers at the strongest do not.
I spent a lot of time in my children's elementary school classrooms when they were younger, and for about eight years, I watched their fine teachers struggle with teaching writing. (It's writing, not rocket science, I often thought. Why don't schools just hire writers to teach writing?)
Teachers in my children's school were required to use a particular pedagogy which was not without merits--but it was cumbersome; teachers complained bitterly about it, and students found it tiresome in the extreme. Teachers were pretty much required to muddle through it and often they were "successful" in training their charges to churn out formulaic, standardized test-appropriate paragraphs.
The fifth-grade teacher who taught my oldest daughter to write a proper essay was near enough to retirement to brave teaching reading and writing imaginatively. He dispensed with the graphic organizers and templates and "just right" independent reading texts in favor of a methodology whereby he, a thinker, and an avid reader, taught his fifth grade students how to "read like writers," as he calls it, and write like readers.
There's an old NYC public school faculty room joke that's probably 50 years old: English teacher #1: "Have you read Tale of Two Cities?" English teacher #2: "Read it? I haven't even taught it!" It is difficult for a teacher who does not have an lively reading and cogitating life to teach children to read like writers and write like readers.
This tyranny of mediocrity was not limited to reading and writing either. It extended to "'rithmetic." I recall commiserating, one afternoon, with a schoolyard dad about the previous night's fourth grade math homework. I was a poet who stopped taking math half way through high school. I expected to struggle with fourth grade math homework. My co-complainant, a piano-playing licensed architect who had been teaching advanced math at one of New York City's most competitive public high schools for two decades couldn't figure out the fourth grade math homework either! We laughed, but it was sad. "They just make it harder on the kids," he said.
I know one school principal whose command of standard English was so weak she would have strained to pass one of my City University of New York Freshman English classes. Yet, she was somehow able to parlay a short term of undistinguished classroom teaching, weekend and summer school coursework (on the taxpayers' dime) into what she now refers to as "a Columbia University doctorate."
I'm sure some excellent work is done at Columbia University's Teachers College but these credit hours do not come cheap. One needs 32 credits for a Masters degree. These credits cost upwards of $1,200.00. I'd like to know who paid the $75,000 plus for that aforementioned Columbia doctorate? Who pays the upwards of $30,000 it costs to complete a Masters Degree at Teachers College? Certainly not the NYCDOE teachers themselves. I have a hunch it is the taxpayers.
Do we also bankroll the cost of furthering the education of teachers who would study Arabic, Particle Physics, Zoology, Constitutional Law, or Art History at Columbia? Probably not.
Why not?
Log-rolling.
Because private school educators teaching grades 5 through 12 eschew teacher education courses, the very survival of these programs--especially ones housed in private universities--depends upon public school teacher enrollment. A subtle quid pro quo arrangement underpins this alliance. Schools implement the education professors' methodologies, and, in return, education programs confer advanced degrees to candidates (who would not otherwise be "graduate school" material ). These advanced degrees make it possible for teachers to obtain pay increases. Everyone wins. Except the students.
By the time they get to middle school, students are smart, and they need smart teachers. Students at all levels respond well to educators who show signs of having vital intellectual lives outside of the classroom. Posting genuine scholars, scientists and artists in children's classrooms would expose public school students to a higher standard of academic rigor than they currently enjoy, while helping to infuse the teaching profession with the prestige it deserves.
Consider the virtuous circle aspect; if teaching in public schools were to become prestigious (again), a higher caliber of college graduates would be drawn to the profession. More intellectual rigor all around would bring up everybody's game.
By the way, I answered that kid in front row. For all teachers I got all up in his grill: "I am smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer. Teachers are smart."