First Person

Dumb Arguments for Stupid Ideas

The reauthorization of NCLB should require states that accept Title I money (i.e. all of them) to require all public school teachers to get buzz cuts. Seriously*. This would benefit our schools and our students.

Think about it. With buzz cuts, teachers could get ready for work faster in the morning, and spend less time touching up their hair each day. That might give them an extra 10-30 minutes each day (fact**), time they could spend meeting with students, giving students better written feedback or creating better lesson plans. Not only that, but it would actually be like giving them a pay raise!!

Think about it. Our nation’s most efficient public service is the military (fact***). It requires all recruits to get a buzz cut (fact***). It is the strongest military in the world (fact). We want our schools to be the best and most efficient in the world, right? Why not follow the military’s model? This also returns us to traditional values for teachers, in this case discouraging their dating (fact). The time they are not spending on dating, preparing for dates and thinking about dates could then be poured into their teaching, as it should have been in the first place (fact***).

As for the pay raise, this is the genius part. The average amount of money public school teachers in this country spend on a hair cut – including tip — is $32.47 (fact**), and the median number of hair cuts per year is 11 (fact**). Plus, the average public school teacher in this country spends $157.32 on hair products each year (fact**). Requiring teachers to get buzz cuts would put an extra $500+ in their pocket each year. Moreover, this is all after tax dollars (fact), and when one takes the local, state and federal tax rates of the average teacher into account, this is the equivalent of more than a $1000 raise (fact**).

(* OK. Not seriously.)

(** = Not really a fact, but filling in the actual fact would not change the value of the argument.)

(*** = Not really a fact, but it suits my argument to say that it is.)

*****************

Last week, Corey Bunje Bower offered the world the most ironic piece that I know of to have come out of Vanderbilt’s School of Education. He argued against Kim Marshall’s recent commentary in Education Week on merit pay for teachers by claiming that “Ms. Marshall” presented a paucity of facts to support her case, and decried the lack of “discussion[s] of merit pay…[that are] based on facts rather than conjecture and [that] approach[] the topic in an unbiased way.”

The irony of this piece stems from its own amazing lack of facts. First, Kim Marshall is a man, not a woman. (This fact is very easy to ascertain. Google “Kim Marshall” and click on the first link. You’ll get a picture. Once I pointed this out to Mr. Bower, he fixed the pronouns.) Second, Marshall claims that all merit pay programs for teachers are collectively based, rather than individually based – though he leaves himself an out. As Mr. Marshall is arguing against individual merit pay programs, it is hard to understand why Mr. Bower thought it appropriate to argue with him. In fact, Mr. Bower writes that he knows of no such programs, but still argues against Mr. Marshall, decrying conjecture and Marshall’s lack of facts.

I do not write this to point out how wrong Mr. Bower is – though on individual merit pay I think he is very very wrong – but rather to note the flaws in his approach. He claims to be offering “Thoughts on Education Policy,” but is he not doing so very thoughtfully.

Yes, conjecture (i.e. “an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information”) is often a problem in policy discussions and education discussions (e.g. Mr. Bower’s post, ironically enough). No question about that. But the opposite of conjecture is not “facts” or even “research.” In my ridiculous argument above, I offer any number of facts – or place holders for facts – and they do not actually make for a strong argument. It remains a ridiculous argument, regardless of how many facts it purports to present.

You see, the opposite of conjecture is informed analysis, something that Mr. Marshall offered and something I strive to offer myself. Mr. Brower closes by calling for “sober analysis of research,” which is a good thing, but it is not enough and might not even be required. Some issues do not need to researched (e.g. buzz cuts for teachers). Some ideas can be dealt with well without research, though research can be useful and at times can be necessary.

A well designed thought experiment can tell us everything we need to know. Let us look at the potential elimination of free Metrocards for students to get to and from school in New York City. The Bloomberg administration has been encouraging the move away from neighborhood schools in favor of greater use of school choice in NYC. Without the numbers in front of us, I think that we could agree that students probably travel a lot further to school today than they did 30 years ago. We do not need research to tell us that there are many families in the city for whom buying Metrocards for their multiple children would be an incredible burden. A single parent with two kids in school, making three times the minimum wage would have to pay 5% of his/her take-home pay to get a paid for Metrocard ten months out of the year. ($870/week before taxes, $666 after. $1780 total for the Metrocards, $35,000 total take home pay.)

We do not need to research the policy to know that it is a bad idea. We can tell that a lot of kids will not get Metrocards. Lower income families will not be as able to take advantage of school choice. And we can easily predict that many kids will be absent or grossly tardy due to a lack of money to pay for the bus or subway. We do not need to do research, or to soberly analyze the results, to thoughtfully examine this proposal.

I will address the basic problems with individual merit pay proposals another time – I do think that Mr. Marshall left out some critically important issues. For now, however, I just want to urge everyone to look hard at the quality of the thinking behind the arguments people make, without decrying them simply because they do not happen to cite “research” as an academic would.

guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

First Person

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.