Friday, February 27, 2009

That AFT President Annoys Me

An article in the Washington Post yesterday cited American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten saying that Michelle Rhee's recent Op-ed piece was an "apology" to teachers.

In case you missed Rhee's piece, it essentially said that she does not blame teachers for the poor quality of education in DCPS. She writes that though teachers are not the cause of the achievement gap, she thinks they are the only solution. This is seen by some as a contradiction to her claims that a "significant share" of the DCPS teaching corps should be transitioned out. Personally, I think she's right on both counts -- teachers are not the biggest cause of the achievement gap, but there is a loud and obnoxious minority of teachers in DCPS who are contributing to that gap and damaging children.

So then Randi Weingarten says that Rhee's letter was an "apology, basically." And Rhee's spokesperson says it wasn't an "apology, but a clarification." You can read the entire story, I won't bore you with the details.

What I will bore you with is my take on this situation. Randi Weingarten is being a terrible leader. When she calls Rhee's letter an apology, she is doing so to make people believe that Rhee was wrong, and that she is apologizing for it. This, of course, means that Weingarten is right. It's politics, plain and simple. Weingarten -- who was a contender to fill Hillary Clinton's senate seat -- is using her public position as AFT president to promote her own career. This woman has the opportunity to play a substantive role in the reform of one of America's most troubled public school districts. So what does she do? She engages in childish junior high drama. These actions lead me to conclude that Weingarten doesn't consider the AFT presidency to be anything more than a stepping stone in her career. She has her eyes set on bigger and better things, like national political office. By saying that Rhee apologized, she is claiming a personal political victory for herself.

This wouldn't be so terrible if she were promoting herself while still helping the WTU and its members. However, Weingarten's actions are harming the tenuous situation in DCPS. Weingarten knows that Rhee won't simply roll over. The chancellor's spokesperson was quoted as saying, "The chancellor took the chance to communicate her thoughts on teachers in full, which had previously only been reported partially. Her position has not changed." In declaring the letter an apology, Weingarten is making relations between the union and chancellor more strained. Not exactly a great thing to do if you are actually committed to facilitating negotiations.

Whether you like Rhee or don't, I think we can all agree that the Chancellor's office and the WTU need to work together. Weingarten's comments bug me because it indicates very clearly that she isn't committed to facilitating anything but her own career advancement.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Cake Inspired This Post

I was inspired to write this post by this cake over at one of my favorite blogs, Cake Wrecks. They essentially show pictures of cakes "gone horribly, hilariously wrong." The "Congrats on your Teen Pregnancy" cake is certainly something gone wrong, but unfortunately not all that hilarious.

I have often been puzzled by the pregnancy rates among my students. I teach 9th graders -- so students between the ages of 13 and 15 -- and this year alone I have seven female students who either are pregnant or already have children. Out of my 60 9th graders, seven are pregnant or have a child. Seven. I'm no mathematician (wait, yes I am) but that's like 12% of my 14 year-olds. Yikes, right? The high school I went to -- a public school in a relatively wealthy suburban area -- had a pregnancy rate nowhere near this high. I can only remember two or three members of my graduating class (about 550 people) having kids.

I've tried to come up with reasons for this, but nothing I can think of completely explains it. Part of the problem, I think, is that many women (and, therefore, girls) in low-income communities do not have as much reproductive autonomy (in terms of using contraception) as their more affluent peers. Part of it seems to be that abortion is less common among my students, which means that more babies are carried to term. Good or bad (and that's one issue I don't even want to come close to discussing on this blog), it means more babies. These issues explain some of the discrepancy in pregnancy rates between affluent and low-income high schools, but I don't think it comes anywhere near explaining the entirety of it.

The biggest issue that I see is that teen pregnancy at my school -- and likely at schools across DC -- has simply become normalized. There is no stigma, there is no "shame," and so there is no problem. Of course, I don't think shaming people is a good thing to do, but it is definitely an effective deterrent. When you are concerned about what people might think, you're more likely to spend more time thinking about your decision. On the other hand, when you see dozens of other pregnant students and/or students with children around you, it seems like having a baby in high school (or, heaven forbid, middle school) isn't all that big of a deal. Well, I think that's wrong. I'm a grown up and having a baby scares the behoozits out of me.

Obviously, having babies all comes down to sex (sorry if anyone out there wasn't aware of that yet -- ask your parents). Although I certainly don't seek out conversations about sex with my students (ew), I do from time to time overhear things. It seems like sexual activity is way more common among my students than it was when I was in 9th grade. Whenever I make comments indicating to my students that maybe they're not mature enough for such discussions (or such actions), they act like I'm some old fuddy-duddy. I'm sorry, but when you freak out about getting a sticker on your quiz, it probably means you're not ready to be a parent. Maybe that's just me? Probably not, though.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Argument over Class Size

The New York Times today ran an article about class size in New York's public schools. The average class size at every grade level in NY has increased. Although the city does not have data for the overall average increase (the data would be meaningless because class sizes are different depending on the grade) the largest increase was at the 3rd grade level. Last year the average class size was 20.9 students. This year, the average 3rd grade class is 21.8 students.

Teacher's Unions frequently argue for reduced class size as one of the proven ways to improve student achievement. This makes good sense -- smaller classes are easier to manage and allow more one-on-one time between teachers and students.

The question I have is this: to what extent does class size impact student achievement? Does it help more to have moderately smaller classes than it does to have art and music teachers? Does it help more to have smaller classes than to have school psychologists and counselors and special educators? Not being an education researcher, I don't know. But my guess is that it would be better for kids to have the additional resources than it would for them to be in smaller classes. Obviously, there aren't infinite funds, so if we hire more teachers we have to cut something else.

At my school, class sizes tend to be between 25 and 30 (at least, my ninth grade classes are that size -- except for the brief period last year when I had 45 on a roster, which resulted in me throwing quite the hissy fit until they moved kids around). However, on a given day it is rare if I have more than 20 in the room. Now, it is easier to manage a class of 18 than it is to manage a class of 30. However, I would much rather have all 30 kids there every day than deal with the truancy issues. So my point is I'd rather keep the large class size and hire some attendance counselors and psychologists to help kids get to class. I'd rather keep rosters around 30 and hire art, music, and theater to allow our children to creatively express themselves. Hiring an extra math teacher to get my rosters down to 20 would be relatively useless because many of my children would continue to struggle with issues that I can't help them solve.

Monday, February 16, 2009

School Violence

This past week there was a series of fights at Cardozo High School, which led to 16 arrests and a few students being hospitalized (only one for serious injuries, and my sources at Cardozo tell me that the student is going to be fine). There are plenty of places you can read about the actual fight (news articles, The Washington Teacher, DCist) so I won't bore you with the details. My friends who teach at Cardozo say that the "brawl" was not as bad as the descriptions in the media. One teacher I spoke to said that the day after the article ran in the Post, she and her students had a discussion about the fight. Most students agreed that the media was just hyping things up to sell papers and increase ratings. But that is another post for another day.

This whole situation makes me mad. It makes me mad that news crews will show up at Cardozo to film kids beating the crap out of each other, but can't be bothered to report on the institutional violence that takes place every single day in our cities poorest schools. When poor children from abusive and dysfunctional households come to school, they should be able to come to a place that will nurture, care for, and educate them. Instead they come to holding pins where many teachers give them worksheets and ask them to be quiet until 3:15. Instead of reaching their full potential, students become bored, angry, and violent. They lash out.

The fights that took place at Cardozo technically stemmed from some altercations that had happened outside of school. What the newspapers won't tell you is that these fights would have happened whether an altercation had happened outside of school or not. They would have happened, maybe not with these specific students or at this specific school on that specific day, but they surely would have happened. Our children are desperate for control, and fighting is something that allows them to, for some period of time, feel powerful. They see violence not only as a part of life, but as a legitimate channel through which they can increase their social standing. Whereas more affluent students believe they can achieve power and respect through educational success, many of our students believe these things can be achieved through fighting and physical violence. Who can blame them? They are victims of violent oppression at the hands of their parents, their communities, and their schools.

Our schools certainly don't directly cause the violence -- they don't teach kids how to kick and punch. But they do nothing to stem its tide. Schools should be a place where the most disadvantaged children can become empowered through education. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. So students fight, the newspapers take pictures of it, and the people with the power to change it sit their clicking their tongues and complaining about "those violent kids."

Sorry if this post is depressing. I'll be back to posting snarky comments about the union or the way my students dress tomorrow.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Uh, thanks?

In addition to navigating that shark-filled waters of teaching 9th graders, I also have one section of AP Statistics. AP students are awesome. They do whatever I ask, they participate, and they're old enough to be actually funny (and not just fart jokes funny). So this class is like the shining beacon of glory in my day. That's not to say I don't love and value all of my students, blah blah blah. It's just that sometimes it's easier to love kids who don't curse at you for trying to teach them (the nerve of me!).

Anyways, this was how one of my AP students described our class to another teacher.

Student: AP Statistics is pretty fun. It's hard though. Mr. Potter gives out a lot of work. Also, he's like really really nerdy. Like, but in a good way. He gets really excited about math problems. It's kind of sad, but it's good too.

Meh, probably true.

(Disclosure: OK, it's totally true. Today I spent 40 minutes after school trying to solve a stats problem that I'm assigning for homework tomorrow. When I finally got it right, I turned on that M.I.A. song "Paper Planes" and strutted around my room. PS, did you see her at the Grammys like 12 months pregnant? Bananas.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

KIPP School Teachers Unionize

Today, while I was putting off going to the gym by trolling the interweb, I came across this NYTimes article about the teachers at a KIPP charter school in Brooklyn. The article essentially describes the unionization efforts of the teachers at KIPP AMP, and the response that the school's administrators have had.

For those of you not familiar with KIPP, it is a nation-wide network of Charter Schools that operates in some of our nations most dysfunctional education systems (including DC), and generally gets some pretty great results. It was founded by former Teach for America corps members, and usually hires TFA alums.

Charter Schools are sometimes able to achieve better results than regular public schools because they are able to circumvent the grossly inefficient bureaucracy that surrounds public education (that bureaucracy, in my opinion, is caused by two equal and yet opposite forces of failure: 1) policy makers, who are more interested in pleasing their political base than doing good things for kids, and 2) teachers unions who are more interested in pleasing the vocal minority of teachers than doing good things for kids). Given the traditionally bad relationship between unions and Charter Schools, it is surprising that KIPP teachers are trying to unionize.

This article leaves me with two questions:

First, if teachers say that there were no problems with administrators before (which they do in the article) then why unionize? If you don't have problems with management, if your school has only 22 teachers, if your administrators are available and open, why do you need a collective voice? I'm not criticizing (yet), I just don't understand.

Second, if administrators were happy with the teachers' performance before the unionizing efforts (as administrators say they were), then why freak out about it? Why haul students in to bad-mouth their teachers? It seems that doing so only creates an environment of hostility, which of course will be damaging to the students. For a system of schools that is generally well-regarded, it seems like a bizarre step.

It seems like people get a little stupid whenever unions come up. Some get stupid in their freakish support of all things union (even the bad things), while others get stupid in their angry tirades against all things union (even the good things). So my question is this: are the people at KIPP (teachers and administrators) catching this disease of stupid, or are there other reasons for their actions?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Are you kidding me, G. Park?

Apparently the WTU did manage to send a contract proposal to the Chancellor's office this past weekend. Of course, the WTU membership has no idea what is contained in that proposal. Click here to read the half-witted non-information that members were presented with.

I go absolutely bonkers when the union does this. Whenever I complain that the union is moronic, and that it doesn't accurately represent me, I get some cock-and-bull story about how I am the union, so I need to make my voice heard. Crap.

I send emails and make phone calls all the time, I attend the meetings at my school (when they occur, which is once so far this year), and I try to go to the WTU meetings (no one ever seems to know when they take place, and they seem to be cancelled every other week), and the letter I get from my union is two full pages of nothing. Their proposal supports "the overarching goals of the DCPS five year plan," with no more detail than that. Wow. Insightful.

The people that run this union are not smart. They are bad at leading and accomplishing things, and they have no desire for people who are good at leading and accomplishing things to be involved because then there would be good leadership and stuff would get accomplished and that doesn't work for these lot. They prefer gross incompetence. I think they believe that if they just keep doing a poor job of things in a hard-headed manner, maybe Michelle Rhee will just quit and leave them alone.