Urban Schoolteacher Sabotage: 1 of 2, Starring Steve Buscemi

A. The good teachers in High-Poverty Middle and High Schools are mostly set up to fail.

Bracket for a second our arguments about how many teachers are great, good, so-so, bad. Who cares? There are many good teachers. And with apologies to GM, Chrysler, and Ford, good teachers face a Big Three of challenges:

1. Misbehavior: kids playing with cell phones, chatting, sleeping, etc. Small potatoes stuff that cumulatively acts as a regressive tax — often up to 80% — on learning time. Paging Steve Forbes!

2. Accrued Basic Skills Deficits. If you teach 9th grade algebra, and few kids have mastered fractions and decimals, there’s just no easy way forward.

You can try to concurrently remediate all the kids, or you can teach algebraic concepts with really easy numbers. I.e., ask 2X = 10, solve for X; but never 1.4X = 10, or you’re screwed.

3. Student Effort. If you assign 20 problems as homework, and few kids actually do ’em, you face another unpleasant choice.

You can force your way through the problems during class (kills your syllabus, frustrates the few who did the homework), or plow ahead to the next topic, knowing full well that most kids don’t comprehend.

B. Few school leaders — not just in district schools, but often in charters too — are particularly delicious in solving these issues.

In fact, many exacerbate the Big Three.

1. When a teacher sends misbehaving kid “to the office,” busy principal may send kid right back, with no consequence.

2. Often a teacher who asks the principal about how to handle accrued skill deficits — not a whiny teacher, remember, we’re talking about the good one who just wants a straight answer — gets either the runaround (some mushy, political non-answer) or some version of “suck-it-up.”

3. Teachers who try to enforce some reasonable homework policy are often undermined from above if it leads to many kids getting failing grades.

C. That’s why, to many good urban (and rural) teachers, so much ed policy seems besides the point. Higher standards, merit pay, “highly qualified” teachers…relevant at the margins, at best, b/c electeds are not talking about the Big Three.

Guestblogger MG

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