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.)

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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

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.