Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Failure to educate: The Boston school system is churning out illiterate students whose only skills are to pass predictable standard tests

I DID not attend a graduation ceremony in 25 years as a Boston public high school teacher. This was my silent protest against a skillfully choreographed mockery of an authentic education — a charade by adults who, knowingly or unwittingly, played games with other people’s children.

I knew that most of my students who walked across the stage, amidst the cheers, whistles, camera flashes, and shout-outs from parents, family, and friends, were not functionally literate. They were unable to perform the minimum skills necessary to negotiate society: reading the local newspapers, filling out a job application, or following basic written instructions; even fewer had achieved empowering literacy enabling them to closely read, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate text.

However, they were all college bound — the ultimate goal of our school’s vision statement — clutching knapsacks stuffed with our symbols of academic success: multiple college acceptances, a high school diploma; an official transcript indicating they had passed the MCAS test and had met all graduation requirements; several glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors; and one compelling personal statement, their college essay.

They walked across the stage into a world that was unaware of the truth that scorched my soul — the truth that became clear the first day I entered West Roxbury High School in 1979 (my first assignment as a provisional 12th grade English teacher): the young men and women I was responsible for coaching the last leg of their academic journey could not write a complete sentence, a cohesive paragraph, or a well-developed essay on a given topic. I remember my pain and anger at this revelation and my struggle to reconcile the reality before me with my own high school experience, which had enabled me to negotiate the world of words — oral and written — independently, with relative ease and confidence.

For the ensuing 30-plus years, I witnessed how the system churned out academically unprepared students who lacked the skills needed to negotiate the rigors of serious scholarship, or those skills necessary to move in and up the corporate world.

We instituted tests and assessments, such as the MCAS, that required little exercise in critical thinking, for which most of the students were carefully coached to “pass.’’ Teachers, instructors, and administrators made the test the curriculum, taught to the test, drilled for the test, coached for the test, taught strategies to take the test, and gave generous rewards (pizza parties) for passing the test. Students practiced, studied for, and passed the test — but remained illiterate.

I also bear witness to my students’ ability to acquire a passing grade for mediocre work. A’s and B’s were given simply for passing in assignments (quality not a factor), for behaving well in class, for regular attendance, for completing homework assignments that were given a check mark but never read.

In addition, I have been a victim of the subtle and overt pressure exerted by students, parents, administrators, guidance counselors, coaches, and colleagues to give undeserving students passing grades, especially at graduation time, when the “walk across the stage’’ frenzy is at its peak.

When all else failed, there were strategies for churning out seemingly academically prepared students. These were the ways around the official requirements: loopholes such as MCAS waivers; returning or deftly transferring students to Special Needs Programs — a practice usually initiated by concerned parents who wanted to avoid meeting the regular education requirements or to gain access to “testing accommodations’’; and, Credit Recovery, the computer program that enabled the stragglers, those who were left behind, to catch up to the frontrunners in the Race to the Stage. Students were allowed to take Credit Recovery as a substitute for the course they failed, and by passing with a C, recover their credits.

Nevertheless, this past June, in the final year of my teaching career, I chose to attend my first graduation at the urgings of my students — the ones whose desire to learn, to become better readers and writers, and whose unrelenting hard work earned them a spot on the graduation list — and the admonition of a close friend who warned that my refusal to attend was an act of selfishness, of not thinking about my students who deserved the honor and respect signified by my presence.

At the ceremony I chose to be happy, in spite of the gnawing realization that nothing had changed in 32 years. We had continued playing games with other people’s children.


Out-of-control government schools in Britain

To my everlasting shame, I left a teaching job because I was scared of a child. Although he was only 13, Ralph was a well-built boy who was known for taking an irrational dislike to new teachers. Unfortunately, he displayed a greater antagonism towards me than to any of the other five supply teachers at his West Yorkshire school.

Retreating to the back of the class during lessons, he’d proclaim my failings to the other pupils — ‘Mr Carroll stinks of s***’; ‘Sir’s a virgin’; ‘Don’t listen to him. He’s only a supply teacher — he don’t know nothing.’

If I told him to be quiet, he spoke louder; if I ignored him, he laughed. I wished I could send him out, but the head had made it clear that once the pupils were in a classroom, we had to do our best to keep them there.

So I was left with no choice but to endure Ralph’s taunts as I struggled to stop the other pupils chatting and play-fighting. Until, one day, he walked out of the class during a lesson, closely followed by one of his mates. I found them both sitting in the ­corridor outside. As I approached, Ralph jumped to his feet. A vein throbbed in his temple. ‘I’m gonna break your f***ing jaw, you posh c***!’ he shouted, drawing his arm back to swing at me with a clenched fist.

I reacted on pure instinct, immediately raising my arms up to chest height with my palms facing outward. Submissive. Accommodating. ‘All right, all right, I’m going,’ I said, backing into the classroom, hands still in the same position.

As I sat down on the edge of a table, I realised I was shaking. Outside, I could hear Ralph still ranting about smashing my face.

Not many things intimidate me. I’ve been a teacher for four years — and I’ve been threatened and sworn at more times than I can count. But at that moment, for the first time, I believed a pupil could, and would, carry out his threat.

Just a few months earlier, I’d been living in Somerset, forging a successful career as an English teacher in a good state secondary school. I was 27, and I’d already started my slow climb up the hierarchy. Apart from a constant deluge of paperwork and implausible government targets, I enjoyed my work — yet I was uncomfortably aware that some teachers were less fortunate.

One former colleague had been ‘held hostage’ in front of his class by two boys from Year 11 — what used to be the fifth form — brandishing a very real-looking fake gun. Another had a door slammed shut in her face so violently that the glass window shattered over her. And I’d been shocked to discover that almost half of all England’s newly qualified teachers are now leaving the profession within five years.

What was it really like to teach in a school at the bottom of the league tables, I wondered? Before settling down in a decent job, I decided to find out for myself. I set myself the limit of a year: in that time, I’d travel to areas all over England to find work as a supply teacher. A week after making this decision, I handed in a letter of resignation to my headteacher.

My first job was at a technology ­college which had only just avoided closure after a series of visits from Ofsted education inspectors.

Before entering my new classroom, I peeked through a small window in the door. Students were sprawled across the tables, leaning from the open ­windows and throwing missiles at each other. I took a deep breath and walked in. ‘Morning, Year 10,’ I hollered over the din. ‘Time to sit down, please.’

Chairs were flung about, snatches of insults occasionally broke free of the hubbub, and no one appeared to have heard me. By the time I managed to get them all seated, seven minutes of the lesson had been wasted. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘My name is Mr ­Carroll. Today, we’re going to be working on...."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a heavily made-up girl lean over and snatch something from an adjoining desk. Her neighbour immediately exploded. ‘For f***’s sake, Michaela!’ she yelled. ‘Give it back, you bitch!’

More yelling, more chairs overturned as they fought over the stolen object. I tried to make the girls return to their seats, but they knew as well as I did that I couldn’t force them to obey me.

‘Look,’ I said. ‘We need to... ‘No one’s listening to you,’ one lad told me politely.

So I decided to assign them a task: Write a letter to your headteacher, persuading him to get rid of school uniform. The best approach, I thought, would be to urge the pupils on individually. I started with the front row. ‘Right, girls,’ I said. ‘What I need you to do is....'

‘I’m doing it!’ erupted one of them, Tracey. ‘God! Just f*** off, will you?’ ‘I can’t have you talking to me like that,’ I said calmly. ‘Please go and stand outside, and I’ll be out in a minute to discuss this with you.’ She clapped her hands, hoorayed, rushed out of the door — and vanished.

Soon after that, a fight erupted between two 16-year-olds outside the room, and the entire class rushed out to chant encouragement. Another five minutes were wasted.

Once they were all back inside, a dark-haired lad suddenly leapt across his table and began stabbing another boy in the back of the hand with a straightened paperclip, drawing blood.

Five minutes before the end of the lesson, the class unanimously decided to pack up and walk out, despite my protestations. Total teaching: zero.

At lunchtime, the other teachers and I twice had to surround groups of fighting children in the playground to stop an explosion of violence.

Our only weapons were words. The kids were aware that if we so much as laid a hand on them, we could be reported for assault.

I then moved to a secondary school in Birmingham where I witnessed a pupil throwing a water bomb that exploded on a table. He scarpered, but I managed to catch his companion in crime — a thickly built 16-year-old called Ben. When I confronted him, he thrust his face inches from mine. ‘Who the f*** are you talking to?’ he spat out. We held each other’s stares. A crowd grew around us, avid to see the stand-off between the new teacher and the school bully.

After a few tense moments, Ben gave a mocking chuckle and walked off. As I removed my jacket, I noticed two large sweat stains on my shirt.

The lessons at this school weren’t lessons at all: instead, I spent most of the time removing tables and chairs from the hands of teenagers and placing them back on the floor. Usually, I ‘taught’ from the door rather than the whiteboard — if I didn’t bar the way, the kids simply got up and left.

Assaults were common. One boy strode out of the classroom only to return a minute later with a long plank of wood with which he intended to ‘batter’ a girl. Fortunately, he was physically restrained by another pupil.

There were many evenings when I felt shell-shocked, not so much at the quantity of bad behaviour, which has probably always existed in the worst-performing schools. No, what struck me forcibly as I travelled from one chaotic school to another is that it’s the nature of the bad behaviour which is driving teachers away.

They’re up against behaviour that’s become personal, aggressive and vicious, dealing with outbursts that can’t be glossed over or laughed about later in the staff-room. Yet, at the same time, fewer pupils than ever are being excluded from school. Why? Because the Labour government brought in tough financial penalties for schools that use this much-needed last resort.

Chucking money at failing schools, I soon realised, made very little ­difference. One school near Chesterfield in Derbyshire, for example, was brand new, with state-of-the-art equipment and resources — yet a large percentage of its students were persistently vile to the staff and cruel to each other.

There was one boy who spent an entire computer studies lesson doing a porn search on a school computer until he found one ­picture that had escaped the school’s filter: a close-up of a large pair of breasts. Hitting the full-screen key, he shouted over to a quiet girl, ‘Hey! Bet you wish you had these, ya flat bitch!’

I lost count of the number of times a teenager shouted — no, screamed — in my face.

For me, though, the lowest point of the year was my confrontation with Ralph, the 13-year-old bully who threatened to break my jaw.

I’d had no choice but to back away when he faced me down, but the head’s response was to set up a meeting with Ralph and me. When the boy was asked why he’d threatened me, he said: ‘Because he’s a f***ing div. I hate him.’

He reluctantly promised he’d never threaten an adult again, but he refused to apologise. There was no punishment. As he walked out the door, he called over his shoulder: ‘Posh c***.’

Later that day, I resigned, telling the head that I couldn’t work in an environment where this kind of thing was allowed to happen. The head told me he understood, and offered to write me a reference...


BritGov goes to war with the teaching unions: Will allow heads to decide salary levels

Ministers are heading for a showdown with teachers over their pay deal and plans to rank schools by staff qualifications and sickness rates. The Coalition could break up national deals on teachers’ pay, allowing heads to dictate salary levels and severely weakening the power of the unions.

The plans emerged yesterday in a five-year blueprint issued by Education Secretary Michael Gove’s department. Parents will be given a wealth of extra information on school performance, including the standards of education attained by teaching staff and how often they go off sick.

New-look school league tables will tell parents what proportion of staff have only basic qualifications and how many have education degrees, masters or doctorates.

Levels of pay at each school will also be laid bare, but the information on pay and qualifications is likely to be set out in a range of bands so it cannot be pinpointed to individual teachers.

The initiatives will infuriate teaching unions who guard national pay bargaining rights closely and are staunchly opposed to league tables. They say regular negotiations to fix a nationwide level of pay for teachers are essential, but yesterday’s blueprint says head teachers should be handed ‘flexibility’.

The Coalition will ‘develop proposals on pay and conditions’ beginning next spring, with a predicted implementation date of September 2012. Reforms are expected to include a plan to abandon fixed pay scales to allow heads to pay premiums for the best teachers or those in neglected subjects such as science and maths.

In a further move, parents will be given extra information about how their children are doing at school, including new ‘readiness to progress’ measures at five and 11. For five-year-olds, this measure is expected to be linked to their achievements against the so-called ‘nappy curriculum’, which has come under fire for requiring formal learning too soon.

The Coalition has said the framework will be reformed by September 2012 to make it ‘less bureaucratic’.

The assessment for 11-year-olds will show parents whether or not their children have basic command of the three Rs.

Further developments include a new ‘school choice’ measure allowing parents to gauge the extent of choice in their area.

Parents would also be able to find out what proportion of children at prospective schools are entitled to free school meals and have special educational needs.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said: ‘These proposals demonstrate the deep-rooted contempt this Coalition Government has for teachers. ‘The negative attitudes which are clearly underpinning this proposal will leave a nasty taste in the mouth of a hard-working and dedicated profession.’ She added: ‘To focus on sickness absence in this way merely gives the green light to employers to harass and pressurise sick teachers back into work or force them out of the profession.’

Leading businesses yesterday accused schools of creating a generation ‘who struggle to read, write or do basic maths’. Executives from supermarkets and the food industry warned that school leavers had such a poor grasp of the three Rs that they cannot be trusted with basic elements of business. A poll found that 85 per cent of food industry executives said teenagers who came to them for employment lacked basic numeracy.


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