A Smattering of Thoughts

This post doesn't have much to tie itself together.  It's just a smattering of thoughts I've been mulling over the past few days.

1) I find that people with more questions than answers are the ones worth talking to.  If you've got all the answers, go tell them to someone else.

2) Instead of saying that we're firing teachers, now we're "deselecting them."

3) I like the idea of providing teachers with the opportunity to advance in the field of education without requiring that they go into administration.  More districts should offer "master educator" or "lead teacher" opportunities where teachers who demonstrate extraordinary skill in the classroom have time to assist other teachers, coordinate curriculum development, and possibly take on minor administrative responsibilities for more pay and more planning.

4)  This is not our reality:

5) I've heard Andrew Rotherham say repeatedly that we don't reward administrators (superintendents or principals) for taking risks in our system.  We reward them for adhering to the status quo.  God is that true.

6) EVERY SINGLE REPORT AND EVERY SINGLE STUDY you ever read about whether a school is any good or whether our kids are actually learning anything are ALL BASED ON STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES.  Our national conversation about the effectiveness of schools, teachers, professional development, about curriculum is being driven by the statistical analysis of economists whose data are not only unreliable but outrageously inappropriate.  As I see it, the whole conversation (with test scores at its base) is a fool's errand.

7) I like the idea of teachers specializing in those things they're best at.  How a system that allows them to do that would work is up for debate.  But we can't expect 3.3 (or 3.7 or 3.1 depending on who you ask) million teachers to all be masters of the trillion skills that teachers are expected to be masters of.  Let's make this a little more realistic.

8) Can we please shut the hell up about merit pay - what a worthless idea.  Why is it that we think that the only way to get people to do good work in this culture is to pay them more.  The greedy bastards that go to work in the private sector so they can make $500k a year while not actually providing any valuable services to society are not, by and large, cut from the same cloth as people who aspire to teach (although there are certainly a few of them running around amongst the TFAers).  While teachers do think they're underpaid, when given they choice, they say they'd rather have a lot of other things in their careers before they want more money.  Let's give them those things instead, like SUPPORT!

9) Movies, books, and articles like Waiting for Superman (pointed out to me by Fear the Fellow) scare me not because they say our system of education is messed up, but because they a) suggest that if we could just create better schools then all of our problems would be solved, b) feature Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, which means they think private, choice-based systems of education where administrators seek to minimize cost and maximize test scores will make schools better, and c) shroud themselves as thoughtful analyses of our problems in order to make it difficult for the public to see them for what they are: market-oriented polemics.

10) One of the positives coming out of the otherwise intensely destructive push to transform our schools to become more amenable to the interests of the private market is better teacher hiring practice in DC and NYC.  When I applied in DC this past summer, I was streamlined through the process and presented at the top of the list to hiring principals because it was clear that I was a capable teacher.  When I applied in DC in the summer of '07, I never heard anything back, despite calling principals and the central office multiple times.  The same thing happened in NYC.  This summer I've been placed in a program called TRQ Select, which claims it puts 450 of its most promising applicants (out of over 6,000) on principals' short lists and gets 90% of its applicants hired.  This is probably the best chance I have of getting a job given the incredibly awful prospects for teachers out of a job this year.  Other places that I've been applying (FCPS, MCPS, PGCPS, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas) have done nothing for me, and will probably fill most of their vacancies internally and based on seniority, regardless of the candidate's classroom ability.

11) It would be nice to have a job.


  1. "The greedy bastards that go to work in the private sector so they can make $500k a year while not actually providing any valuable services to society are not, by and large, cut from the same cloth as people who aspire to teach (although there are certainly a few of them running around amongst the TFAers)."

    The best thing you've ever said -- out of many wonderful things you've said.

  2. I'm with efavorite here. As a parent, I really don't want my child around the private sector types.

    I understand getting out, but as a DCPS parent, I wish you taught at my child's school.


  3. Good luck getting a job in MCPS!! I'm a current MCPS teacher and I don't think we're hiring anyone right now...but we sure could use you! I'd love to hear your take on some of the things going on in the "affluent" district (even though there are certainly parts of MC that aren't afluent at all)

  4. Ha - thanks Nicole and Title1soccermom. Yea, I'm not really holding my breath on MCPS or any of the big districts in the area. I did reapply in DCPS, but I think I'd only take a job in the District if I was able to talk to a good amount of the staff before accepting a position - although I have a feeling I may not be welcome back in DCPS ;)

  5. You are obviously very capable and thoughtful and committed to teaching. I truly hope you can come back to DCPS, if that is what you want.

    It is troubling that you have a sweeping distaste for the private sector. This is a government town, but it is not the real world. And the government tends to be incompetent (many if not all elements of the DC government, much of the federal government). The private sector tends to be more competent, but you don't like the values, I infer. Well, overwhelmingly, the private sector pays the bills and provides the jobs. Most pension and union trust funds invest in the private sector more than the public sector (e.g., municipal bonds). And, if you spend time in most agencies of the federal government, you will find that it is trying hard to be managed like a business; GW Bush did not start this, and Obama is hardly trying to end it.

  6. Anon at 927: Thanks for the comment and support.

    While I can absolutely see why you'd infer that I have a "sweeping distaste for the private sector," I assure you that is not the case. I do have a distaste for some of the greedy people whose careers often thrive at companies that provide no real service to society (e.g. derivatives trading), but I've quickly learned that just as many of the same types of people exist in government, it's just that their preferred medium of exchange is power and prestige rather than money. I am, though, extraordinarily skeptical of the private sector's ability to have a positive impact on education. I believe in capitalism, but I believe it needs to be regulated, more heavily in some industries than others. However, I tend to think that those goods and services that societies consider essential for a decent life and thriving democracy (sanitation, education, law enforcement, etc.) should be spared the in-the-name-of-profit cut-throat competition that drives innovation and improvement because there are far too many examples of capitalism's indifference to human decency. Furthermore, the free market is at somewhat of a loss as to how to operate in a service like education. In retail, you survive if you're profitable. But how do you define profit and revenue in education. Do you measure it merely by how many people select your school? or do you measure it based on standardized test scores, which are neither appropriate measures of school or teacher quality OR designed to measure such things. THE fundamental problem I believe education is faced with right now is an inability to accurately measure educational excellence, which is in large part due to a lack of consensus regarding what education's purpose is. As a result, I tend to think the public sector is best suited to educate ALL students. However, I'm completely sympathetic to families who enroll their students in charter schools or voucher schools to save their children from the potentially atrocious public schools in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the long-term impact of that will be an ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots. While capitalism has the tremendous potential to radically transform many things for the better, it also has a tendency of concentrating wealth and opportunity into the hands of a few. I believe both sides of the argument are credible, but I, for one, would rather live in a world where people and their dignity are valued over economic progress.

  7. RE- did you see this? Seemed like something you'd be interested in.


  8. Anon at 836: Hadn't seen that yet. Thanks!

  9. 9:27 commenter replying....I used to have reason to see the financial statements of our finest universities. They are not for-profit, and they have little skill at managing their costs, from professor's swollen salaries to overhead. For things like certain research, that private companies can also do in many fields--universities are far more expensive. The inflation in tuition is gross, and the universities don't really care.
    Some of our private schools in the Washington area are microcosms of this--and they don't pay their teachers as much as DCPS or have nearly as generous benefits. The education companies don't make a lot of money, and they face a lot of risks. There is not enough experience to know if they are really good, but I think none is making big bucks, and some have had bad losses.
    They are plausible enterprises because public education is so bad. I think the management of the for-profits actually care more about doing things right, as well as controlling costs. Compare that to, say, DCPS, where not enough teachers and administrators give a damn. And they get paid well and have had, until recently, great job security.
    Frankly, mediocre and ineffective teachers deserve no job security. This is clearly Rhee's view, and I support it strongly. Such teachers would be canned in private schools and for-profit schools, but maybe not instantly.
    I think public education has largely done itself in--bad management, lower-quality teacher stock because of the labor force opening up to women, and mis-governance by communities, boards and mayors.
    Privatizing might be a solution, but the jury is out. I don't think we will ever see much of it in the District because it is attacked as a racist and capitalistic plot.
    (There is far too much racist talk around public education in the District, which only signals the involvement of desperate employees in DCPS and among some segments of the parent set.) Race is being used as one bludgeon to thwart reform. This is revolting in our city where AAs have been the self-governing majority since the District got home rule.
    We get the kind of government we deserve.

  10. Anon at 933: I think you absolutely have a valid point about government's tendency to be wasteful. It's certainly a problem that needs attention. And I agree that some practices of the private market may help make some headway in these areas. However, my primary concerns with allowing the private market to take a bigger role in public education are threefold:

    1) Because education is particularly far from being an authentic perfectly competitive market (information provided to families about the quality of schools is always skewed by many things (especially standardized test scores, which are not designed to be an indicator of school quality), there are significant barriers to entry, it's often difficult for families to change schools when they're unhappy with the one they have), a largely private school system in which schools compete with each other would have far more negative effects on quality education than positive because schools will largely recruit and retain their students by spending lots of money on advertising and not so much money on quality instruction and assessment. We see something similar happening in the drug industry right now.

    2) Because a private enterprise's primary (and often only) responsibility is to generate profit, the employees will do whatever it takes to increase revenue, regardless of whether that conflicts with quality education. One example of this that we are already seeing with the for-profit high ed campuses (e.g. University of Phoenix) is recruiters being pressured to enroll as many students as possible despite their readiness (or lack thereof) for college level work.

    3. Despite all of the virtues of capitalism and its uncanny ability to drive industrial progress and human potential, one thing it often does not do is satisfy the human soul. There are more reasons to get an education than simply increasing one's future earning potential. The more we choose to define success in life by the largess of one's bank account, the more we overlook what really satisfies a person's humanity. John Dewey said that one of the greatest purposes of education was to allow an individual to authentically participate with others in the rituals of life (working a job, having a picnic, discussing philosophy, traveling to foreign cultures). The more the private sector is allowed to encroach on public education, the more likely we are to deprive many students the opportunities to enrich their lives with thought-provoking conversations about Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the more likely we are to drill them to perform well on cost-effective multiple-choice tests.

    The private sector has its place. And anything it can do to help cut public education's overspending should be welcomed. But how we define overspending should be up to educational professionals who truly do have students' best interests at heart (no not unions, but certainly not educrats either).

  11. Thanks for throwing me into your smattering of thoughts! I hope you find a job soon. Are you definitely sticking around DC?


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