Tag Archives: John Merrow

Parents and Schools

John Merrow, a solid education reporter who should stay away from analysis proves me right once more.

If you ask professional educators in a public forum whether they view parents as assets or liabilities, the answers will vary only in decibel level: “Assets,” “Our greatest asset,” “invaluable partners,” and so forth. But what if you caught them off guard, late at night after a few drinks, say?

So I shall start with the mild compliment: he has nicely identified a bit of hypocrisy. Leave aside the vagueness of “professional educators” (he later declares that a 1st grade teacher is not a professional educator. I presume he’s teaching for free?). Without question, school leaders, many teachers, educational policy wonks make big noises about how important a role parents play in their children’s education and they don’t really mean it.

But that’s because we really don’t need parents. Once parents have contributed their genes and produced a child that’s sent to our schools, we’re mostly good, thanks. We don’t need them to do anything other than their jobs. As parents. You know, feed them, potty train them, give them some semblance of understanding of institutionalized behavior, obedience and self-discipline, and most of all, get them to school.

Alas, when it comes to our basic expectations of parents “doing their jobs” as educators define them, low income parents (disproportionately, but not entirely, black and Hispanic) are most likely to fall down on those essential tasks. Moreover, schools are now assessed on student outcomes and the students most likely not to meet the outcomes expected have parents with performance problems on those essential tasks. Many of their kids are absent a great deal, and when they’re present they aren’t on time, aren’t behaving, they aren’t obedient, aren’t really interested in success, and often aren’t fed.

So yeah, educators talk a good line about parental involvement because they are looking for a way to get buy-in from low income, mostly-but-not-all black and Hispanic parents on the school’s expectations—and it’s a bit tacky to say to everyone else no, really, we just mean them.

Schools might be better off without the pretense and speak honestly about the specific behavior they want. But that brings up other issues. Most educators are white females, which means their behavior expectations have been defined by middle class and higher Americans, mostly whites but also blacks, Hispanics, and 3rd plus generation Asians. Most of the time the behavior expectations are reasonable; some of them are probably not. Like many others, I’m dismayed that the feds are enforcing disparate impact regulations on school discipline measures. But somewhere between “black and Hispanic kids misbehave more” (generally true) and “schools and teachers are racist” (generally false) lies the reality: many teachers discipline—or worse, grade—kids of all races, but disproportionately black and Hispanics, for not meeting their own cultural expectations without having really considered the impact on their students.

Public schools can’t require parents or students to comply with behavior norms, and as you see, the feds will step in if their disciplinary attempts are racially skewed. Charters can require both parents and students to meet their cultural and behavioral requirements, and on this count alone, charters should not be called public schools.

It is, of course, a complete coincidence that the No Excuses brand of charters, like KIPP, specialize in working with just that demographic that disproportionately falls down on parental expectations. That the selective “No Excuses” schools are desired by parents from this demographic who want to do their job, but live in districts filled with parents who don’t and can’t afford to move to a district filled with parents who do, is also entirely a matter of random chance.

Also utterly unrelated: “No Excuses” charters can mandate a certain behavior code for their students, as well as a ferocious dress code, and required character traits for promotion.

Parents with real choices would never tolerate this from a school, which is why white kids don’t do KIPP, or any other of the schools requiring absurd behavior. And since whites aren’t there, No Excuses schools can suspend or expel black and Hispanic kids in willful abandon, free from federal intervention, which is why the cities that pride themselves on their charter saturation also have shockingly high expulsion and suspension rates.

So back to John Merrow. Remember Merrow? This is a post about Merrow. (need a cite, o young uns?)

He clearly thinks that schools should think of parents as partners, that they should live up to their rhetoric. Fine. I disagree, but no matter. Merrow didn’t try to make the case for the essential nature of parental involvement. Were he to try and make that case, he’d run smack into the problems I just spend the first thousand words pointing out. If schools can’t require parental involvement—and public schools can’t—then they can’t depend on it.

The rest of his post is insulting, when it isn’t risibly foolish. Here’s the best part:

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute? Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

He thinks this is profound. Because it’s never once occurred to “education” that parents want their children to succeed. No, educators’ default assumption is eh, these parents, they just don’t give a damn. They’ve never tried to treat them as partners. They’ve never spent millions of dollars on outreach. For the entire history of American education, no one in policy, teaching, or administration has really given much thought to parents.

Like I said. The man should stay away from opinionating. He’s a hell of a reporter.

So no one asked me, but most people have this backwards. Parents aren’t supposed to support schools. Schools are supposed to support parents.

Teachers aren’t monolithic, on this or any education issue. Some agree with Merrow and blame schools for not seeking ever more input from parents. Some demand an annoying degree of parental involvement. Others blame the parents for not valuing education sufficiently. Still others, like me, think parents largely irrelevant to their job. It often depends—I know you will find this shocking—on their student demographics.

But regardless of these differences, few teachers would deny that their job involves supporting parents. Teachers are the primary adult outsiders in any child’s life from six through eighteen. There’s a reason we’re mandated reporters, why we are legally responsible for our students in our classroom, why you don’t hear stories about teachers running away when the crazed gunman shows up at the door. Most parents have to send their kids to school. Most teachers and the schools they work for take that responsibility seriously. We want your children to be safe and productive, in that order, while in our care. And we have insights and observations about our students—intellectual, social, emotional—that parents might want. Or might not. It’s their call.

Parent interaction isn’t a huge part of the job, thank god. Not that I don’t like parents. I was a parent long before I became a teacher, and my sympathy for the typical suburban parent frustrations is deep and genuine, while my disdain for the usual teacher niceties makes me fairly popular with working class parents of all colors (doesn’t hurt that I came from that strata). But I didn’t get into teaching to be a team player; my quality time is in front of a class and building curriculum. (I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!) So I like my parental interaction to be done via email, with the occasional meeting as needed. No phones, please.

When I mention this view, I invariably get a litany of complaints about the many teachers who don’t return emails within 3 hours, who won’t personally check Sally’s backpack daily because the poor girl has executive function problems and forgets her homework, the principals who didn’t take Bobby’s fear of PE seriously, and, of course, the many stories about teachers and principals who are actually jerks.

We aren’t servants or employees, and you aren’t paying us by the hour. And rare is the teacher who excels at all aspects of communication, while also being a fabulous pedagogue. Just as many teachers and schools (KIPP, I’m looking at you) are unrealistic in their expectations of students, so too are many, many parents absurdly unrealistic in their demands of teachers.

And this information and support is never going to function ideally. Schools are necessarily imperfect, as are parents. All I’m doing is articulating a basic truth: parents need information, feedback, and support from schools.

Perhaps we should frame the discussion that way and discuss reasonable expectations, rather than engage in the pretense that schools need parents.

What, you’re waiting for the ed school insights? Me, too.


Keeping Teachers New

So John Merrow of Taking Note discusses “teacher churn” . Merrow, who I don’t really object to much, is a bit like another veteran education reporter Jay Mathews in that he’s superb at hard reporting but should avoid analysis. (At least Merrow hasn’t been responsible for massive grade fraud and wasted taxpayer dollars. Thanks, John!)

… somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years…The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year. By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers. As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other. Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job.

And in fairness, his flawed reasoning here isn’t any worse than the crap that most policy advocates, particularly on the reform side, go through.

But flawed it is. One, we are hiring more teachers. Two, more teachers are leaving the profession after a few years….but wait. No, we don’t know that more teachers are leaving the profession, as a percentage of the population, since 1988. It’s a bit like an SAT inference question, isn’t it?

Teacher turnover has been an area of study since at least the late 70s. Murnane is a name that pops up often. An early paper by Linda Darling Hammond calls for more data collection, challenging the then received wisdom that teacher turnover and teacher quality were problems that would inevitably lead to shortages—heavens, that sounds familiar. I don’t in fact know that teacher turnover is worse (and trying to hunt that data down is the kind of research that leads to increased lag time between my posts), but certainly it’s been an area of study for close to forty years.

So while Merrow doesn’t actually state that turnover is increasing, he does imply that turnover, or “churn”, is why we’re hiring more teachers. But that’s obviously not the only possibility. The late 70s to early 80s were a tough time for teachers, as the boom generation finally left K-12 education and the “baby bust”, coupled with fiscal issues, led to layoffs. The following echo boom would have required more teachers.

Reduced class size initiatives, the huge increase in special education mandates, charter growth—all of these would lead to increased teacher hiring without entailing turnover. Charters rarely take away enough students from a single school for a one-to-one teacher exchange, and of course charters are allowed to cap growth (nice work if you can get it).

No reason to think the increase in teacher hiring has been caused by increased churn, then.

Given that Merrow hasn’t even really built the case for increased teacher churn, it makes sense that his culprit is totally off.

But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers.[3] Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.

Right, it’s ed schools! They aren’t turning out bad teachers because of their own incompetence, but because it feeds the need for their service!

Except, um, ed schools already overproduce elementary school teachers. (I don’t think they do so deliberately—my sense is a lot of unmotivated women who just want a degree go this route without ever really intending to be teachers. No evidence, but there’d be a lot more complaining if that many teachers each year couldn’t find employment.)

Besides, ed schools benefit from the “step and column” pay structure, in which teachers are paid both by time and acquired education. Most pay scales dramatically slow the “step” increases after year eight to ten, deliberately pushing teachers towards professional development. Teaching is apay to play occupation—the state makes us pay to jump through a bunch of hoops. Ed school benefits from the whole process, not just the entry point. No increased steps, no column. No incentive for massive churn.

As I’ve observed before, teachers and cops have a lot in common and wow, check out the research on cop turnover. Like teachers, policing is a state government job that requires intelligence, doesn’t have a huge amount of upwards growth, but offers qualified people an interesting challenge or a safe job, depending on their inclinations and abilities. And both occupations turn out to be harder than they appear to the outsider, thus leading to what I assume is a higher than average degree of turnover for a professional occupation. Thus I don’t see any sinister cause for teacher churn.

Please God, spare us all from the Linda Darling Hammond solution of more, longer training.

All that said—and in this next part, consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive—I pointed out in the Chris Christie piece above that teachers are clearly targeted in a way that cops aren’t, despite the fact that they’re more expensive, work fewer years and take longer pensions (or disability) and just as hard to fire.

A growing conventional wisdom is forming among the elites—the opinion makers, business leaders, political leaders—that teaching should be a short term job, that they aren’t worth the government expense. While they probably feel this way about cops, too, current memes dictate respect to the men (and they are, usually, men) who fight—crime, terrorists, fires, and the like. Teachers, on the other hand, are mostly like elites except not as smart—because otherwise, they wouldn’t go into teaching—and far more female. Hence the emphasis on their supposedly weak qualifications and determined ignorance of all evidence showing the qualifications aren’t weak. To put it in political terms: the center-left is supportive of cops and critical of teachers in a way that’s relatively new. The bulk of the people defending teachers and criticizing cops (these days on stop and frisk) are way, way to the left.

Acceptable targets change over time. Teachers moved up the chain, cops moved down. Makes sense, really—the crime rate was an issue in 80s and early 90s, then crime rates improved. Meanwhile, we’d spent twenty years thinking that affirmative action and equal opportunity would end the achievement gap and that didn’t pan out—time to blame teachers.

So teachers should hunker down, I guess—attentions and fashions will change again.

Certainly, reformers are trying to discourage long-term teaching careers. I see no evidence that cops, judges, firefighters, professors, or lawyers, to pick a random sample, are studied for “effectiveness”, much less found to be more “effective” with years in service. Nor do I see any mention of police use of sick leave, judges’ work load, or state university academics use of sabbaticals. Somehow, the fact that teachers don’t “improve” with time on the job is put forward again and again as evidence that they should be paid differently than any other government worker. And it’s hard to see Andrew Rotherham’s otherwise ludicrous obsession with teaching pensions as anything but an attempt to increase the sweetener for short-termers at the expense of lifers, to encourage teachers to find another line of work after a few years.

But hey, that’s how reformers make their bones.

The problem with teaching is that all “sides” of the debate accept as a given that we are failing to educate our kids, that we could do a much better job. In fact, we aren’t failing, and there’s no evidence we could be doing much better. But so long as everyone agrees that “schools are failing”, teachers will be on the firing line, and “churn” will be seen as either desirable or not based on absurd expectations and beliefs.

Cops were rescued from public condemnation by a dramatic reduction in crime—which they may or may not have contributed to. Teachers won’t be rescued by a decreased achievement gap. We’ll just have to wait for a new scapegoat to another big policy problem. Alternately, for society to accept that we’ll never end the achievement gap.

Which means we better wait for another policy problem. Hey, folks, did you know that firefighters don’t actually fight fires?