Monday, October 19, 2009

Where have all the children gone?

Our school's enrollment is down, and attendance is lower than I've ever seen it. When I first started at my school, I routinely had between 25 and 30 students in my class each day. Now, I'm lucky if I get 12. Today, less than half of my students were in class, and last week the average was 55%. Now, the kids who are there every day are learning like FIENDS, but at this rate 45% of my kids are going to fail. So what gives?

Is attendance down at other schools? Anyone have any ideas? I've called home, posted notes in STARS (our student attendance and tracking system), and referred students to attendance counselors, but I'm not seeing much of a change. Is it some massive Rhee protest that no one's told us about?

I'm also getting a little annoyed with my students' parents. I've called the home of every kid in my classes, but haven't always had success in reaching parents. Apparently working phone numbers are a hot commodity. Even without a phone call, though, parents should be aware that their kids aren't in school. I've seen my students lie -- they aren't good at it. No homework, no assignments, no tests or grades or anything coming home -- you'd think parents would figure it out. So I'm frustrated, annoyed, and more than a little lonely. Where are my kids!?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What does PSAT stand for (part deux)

Last year, when my blog was in its infancy and no one except for my wife and my mom (hi mom!) read it, I wrote a post about the PSAT. My thoughts on the matter haven't changed at all in the past year, so I'm reproducing the post in its entirety. Lazy? Sure. But hell, I'm tired.

What does PSAT stand for?

If you answered Practice SAT, then, OK, fine, you are technically correct. However, I think the real answer is "Pretty Stupid-Ass Thinking."

Today, every child in my school (and in most high schools in DC) took the PSAT. Every single child. Even 9th graders with learning disabilities who can't read. Even children who do not know their multiplication tables, let alone any form of algebra. Every child.

The PSAT should be optional for 9th and 10th graders (there are some who could really benefit from the practice). It should be required for 11th graders (because that is when it counts for the National Merit Scholarship). But it should not be required for all children.

Call me crazy ("you're crazy, Mr. Potter") but I don't think that children need to take a test that they have no chance of doing well on when it doesn't count for anything. I'm all for high academic expectations, but there are 9th graders who can't read, and therefore cannot answer reading comprehension questions. Forcing them to try to do so will not work for anyone. A teacher down the hall from me asked her students to write one paragraph to our principal explaining how taking the test made them feel. All of the responses were things like "it made me feel stupid" or "it made me think I won't go to a good college."

Also, the PSAT costs money. It was free to our students because it was paid for by DC taxpayers. So, good work DCPS. We just paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make tens of thousands of students feel dumb. I bet we could find a cheaper way of doing that...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

People don't actually get "race cards," right?

So here's the thing about this RIF: it sucks. I get that there isn't money to pay people, but I think the whole thing went down in a way that can only be described as "icky." First, it was supposed to happen on Wednesday. Then it didn't. It finally went down on Friday, and I got the impression that my administration didn't have a plan for it. There was zero communication between admin and staff, which was disconcerting and unprofessional. The whole thing is gross and I don't like it.

Apparently, I'm not alone. The (admittedly small, egomaniacal, and usually bizarre -- myself included) DC teacher blogosphere has been blowing up with allegations that race and age were motivators for the RIF -- specifically, people are accusing the chancellor of using the RIF to get rid of African American teachers over 40.

Many people on many blogs have made the comment that the people who were laid off were "disproportionately" older Black teachers. Here's the thing: we don't know if that's true, and we won't until someone does some pretty complex statistical analysis on the numbers. Rather than wax philosophical on the nature of race relations, I'm going to unleash my inner nerd (OK, it wasn't on a very tight leash to begin with) and give a statistics lesson. *adjusts glasses* Here we go.

In order to say that there is statistical evidence that Rhee's team (and her principals) are racist, we need to know several things. In each school, what are the demographics of the staffs in each competitive rating category? What are the demographics of the people who were laid off? If we can then compare those proportions, we can get some answers. (DORK ALERT) This is called a chi-squared test for independence. Here's what I mean:

Imagine that I wanted to know whether or not race was a factor in the layoffs for teachers. First, I'd need to know the proportion of teachers in each ethnic sub-group. Then, I'd need to know the proportion that was laid off. In general, we'd want the proportion laid off to be the same for each ethnic group -- this would mean that race and layoffs were independent of each other. Make sense? Well, it gets complicated.

For example, let's say we wanted to know whether or not race was a factor in the layoffs of educational aides. In my school, 100% of the educational aids are African American women. Therefore, 100% of the educational aides who were laid off were African American women. The chi-squared test would show us that the proportions are the same and there was no evidence of racism here (note that I say "no evidence of racism", not "no racism" -- statistics can't prove the absence of something).

Next, let's say that we want to look at teachers. Well, each teacher was rated within his / her department. The principals had to decide whether or not they could afford to lose an English teacher, for example, and if they could then the lowest rated English teacher was let go. In order to see if race played a part in that decision, we'd need to look at the racial makeup of the English department. At my school, most English teachers are White. One English teacher was laid off -- a middle-aged Black woman. While the proportion of African Americans in the English department is only about 40%, 100% of the people in the English department who were laid off were African American. This means racism, right? Not necessarily. When the sample size is one, as it is here (only one English teacher laid off, remember) then we can't really conclude anything. 100% of the English teachers laid off would have been some race, after all.

If you're still reading, here's my point: it's too early and the statistics are too complex for anyone on any blog to be accurately declaring that racism was involved. Certainly, we're entitled to our opinions, but it's irresponsible to make assertions -- especially using specific terms like "disproportionate" -- when facts and evidence are as murky as they are here. One thing is certain, though: this RIF blows, and it blows hard.

It is my opinion that DCPS is a pretty racist place, and that we live in a generally racist society. One only has to look at the glaring inequality of opportunity on one side of the river and the other, or on one side of the park and the other, for evidence. But I don't think it's responsible to declare as fact that Michell Rhee is racist because we notice a trend in some of the people laid off. We need to give this issue proper investigation and analysis.

That is all. Please go back to your previously less nerdy lives.