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.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.