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Proviso Probe

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama and McCain debate education

The New York Times has posted a transcript of last night's debate between the major party presidential candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Because the Commission On Presidential Debates is controlled by the Democratic and Republican Parties the following candidates who have qualified for the ballot in Illinois were excluded: Charles Baldwin (Constitution), Bob Barr (Libertarian), Cynthia McKinney (Green) and Ralph Nader (independent).

Having a ringside seat to one of the most screwed-up school districts in the country, I thought I'd comment on the portion of the presidential debates that had to do with education.

I categorize District 209 (Proviso Township High Schools) has one of the most screwed-up in the country for a couple reasons. Test scores are abyssmal. Last ranking I heard was 90th of 90 districts in northeast Illinois.

But, getting lousy test scores is even more shameful in D209's case because it's not serving students that exclusively come from impoverished families or immigrant families. In the aggregate the families the students come from are not poorly educated. Proviso doesn't have the highest level of students walk through the door, but it's a long way from the lowest too. District 209 takes students who should be doing at least so-so and turns them into low test score machines.

Obama said a couple things that made sense in his initial response. Getting better results is going to require we invest money. People who claim there are money-for-nothing solutions are usually fudging or outright lying. Obama also emphasized getting children on-track early, “early childhood education”.

Then Obama talked about higher pay for teachers, especially in math and sciences. I don't agree that raising pay by itself will improve the situation. I would reduce barriers to people with math and science skills getting into education. Also, the quality of life for teachers is an issue.

I read somewhere, perhaps The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, that to get good teachers to work at challenging schools it helped to bring a cohort of good teachers together and also bring in good administrators at the same time.

It's hard to convince people who have the math and science skills that they should go into teaching if they are going to be supervised by people who are mediocre and worse managers.

What management training do education administrators receive? The career path seems to be that they get certified as teachers and then get an additional degree and shazam! the people are now managers.

So, if schools want to retain teachers who are talented enough to get other forms of employment the schools need to treat teachers better in the workplace.

Obama scolding parents rubbed me the wrong way.
But there's one last ingredient that I just want to mention, and that's parents. We can't do it just in the schools. Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They've got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need.

It's not that there's not some truth there, but it's not a prescription to do anything useful. Does Obama want to create a program to prepare parents to do something? Does he want to issue a checklist of things parents should be doing? Or does he judge want to encroach on Joe Lieberman's turf of being the national scold.

McCain started off completely full of shit.

There's no doubt that we have achieved equal access to schools in America after a long and difficult and terrible struggle.

But what is the advantage in a low income area of sending a child to a failed school and that being your only choice?

Which is it, Senator? Have we achieved “equal access to schools” or do we have large swaths of the country with “failed schools”? If we have families who are forced to use “failed schools”, how is this equal? Or are all schools failing equally?

Both McCain and Obama seemed to buy into the notion that there are people who good teachers and bad teachers and that the bad teachers should be identified early and transitioned to something else.

Here's what I suspect is a more accurate model.

Most teachers start as middling teachers. They haven't become skilled yet, but they bring the energy of a newbie. All of them get at least a little better; some get significantly better. Eventually, almost all of them become less effective than they were at their peak. This is called "burn-out".

The problem is partially the salary structure. By the time teachers lose effectiveness they have enough seniority that it's very difficult for them to transition to something else and get paid as much money. The teachers feel they have to stay for the retirement benefits.

The problem isn't teachers who were bad from the beginning, but teachers who have significantly declined in effectiveness.

Neither Obama nor McCain seemed to understand the problem of ineffective teachers.

McCain touted the idea of rewarding good teachers. How would this work at District 209? Would the teachers with the best students (PMSA) get most of the rewards? Aren't they already getting the easiest students to educate? Let's say someone did come up with a formula that took into account where the students were at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. There were no questions about fairness. (This assumption is completely unrealistic, but ignore that.)

How does rewarding good teachers fix a dysfunctional and corrupt school board? How does it fix incompetent administrators? How does it get better prepared students to start at the district? How does it get families to be a more constructive part of the process?

McCain's idea about rewarding good teachers won't accomplish much in the real world except to cause teachers to spend time and energy criticizing the formula for determining who is a good teacher.

No Child Left Behind. Two of the most useful insights I've gotten on NCLB have been at the local level.

Randy Tinder, the former superintendent of District 91 (Forest Park elementary schools) said that NCLB is a rigged evaluation system that will label every public school in the United States a “failing school” in a few years.

I will add to Tinder's thought process (and perhaps he already thought of this, but declined to say it publicly), that the Republican Party wants to cut money going to public schools and send it to private schools, especially religious schools. Labelling public schools as “failing” is part of a strategy to shift public money from public schools to private schools.

Barbara Cole is a local voice that defends NCLB. Cole reasons that by testing and including categories and subcategories that there's no way for schools to overlook when they are providing lousy education to minority groups and special needs students.

Obama criticized NCLB as an unfunded mandate. McCain wanted to renew it, but was reluctant to spend more.

McCain and Obama differed on vouchers. Rachel Cooper discusses the definitions of "vouchers" and "charter schools". Ryan Grim (CBS/The Politico) sorta criticizes Obama on the details of the DC schools. And Steve Benen (Washington Monthly) rips McCain's explanation of the DC program and cites research that says vouchers are ineffective.

Here are the links I found for the minor party candidates' education policies.

Charles Baldwin (Constitution) wants to disband the Department of Education.

Bob Barr
(Libertarian) wants to privatize education and speaks favorably of homeschooling.

Cynthia McKinney (Green) calls education a right and decries the disparities in U.S. education.

Ralph Nader (independent) begins his statement about education by say,
Education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments. The federal government has a critical supporting role to play in ensuring that all children -- irrespective of the income of their parents, or their race -- are provided with rich learning environments, equal educational opportunities, and upgraded and repaired school buildings.

Nader sees the two greatest threats to education as being commercialism and vouchers.

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  • The problem at Proviso 209 is not ineffective teachers. It's a school board that uses our tax dollars for their own personal gain (or legal defense, depending on who they are); rather than use the money to run an educational program that creates excellent students who score well on tests out of the underachieveing students that enter from MOST of the feeder districts.

    By Anonymous 81PWgrad, at 1:50 PM, October 16, 2008  

  • Carl:

    While I admire your thoughts on District 209, there are some things you say that are a little too loaded. Because you have no experience in education, the comments are very damaging. Before I even go on, I will head off your claim that I cannot be impartial. Maybe not, but my thoughts are not as loaded as yours.

    "District 209 takes students who should be doing at least so-so and turns them into low test score machines."

    Have you looked at the surrounding elementary districts' test scores? What do they show? They, too, are not performing. They are on the state watch list. So common sense would say students comming from districts that are not performing at acceptable levels as determined by the state, are going to be the same students who are not at grade level less than three years later when Prairie State rolls around.

    While teachers in math and science are needed, they need to be prepared to teach. I don't care how educated you are in math, if you don't have an understanding how children learn, you will not be successful. The most successful teachers have both the content mastery and the understanding of how students learn, and how they can be motivated.

    By Blogger Isis, at 6:50 PM, October 16, 2008  

  • District 209 can blame the elementary school districts for some problems.

    Except for Districts 88 & 89, it's hard to argue that the feeder school districts are disastrous. Districts 91 & 92.5 are pretty decent.

    If the better students from the elementary school districts decline to attend D209 that's not the fault of the elementary school districts.

    I remember a couple years ago when Kelvin Gilchrist briefed the district test scores. I'm working from memory, but I believe it was the Proviso East juniors who scored lower on the same test than they had scored as a class as sophomores.

    It's hard to explain that one away as anyone's fault but D209.

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 9:18 PM, October 16, 2008  

  • Regarding qualifications for teachers, it seems that the current system emphasizes taking courses and not learning material.

    I'm ok with expecting career transition people to demonstrate a level of education knowledge before entering the classroom. And, as far as I know, all career transition programs include some training.

    But there are a whole bunch of teachers in classrooms drawing salaries who don't know their material and can't pass tests in their subject matter.

    If we had respect for the students and education this would not be acceptable.

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 9:21 PM, October 16, 2008  

  • What percentage of 209 students come from Districts 91 and 92? Given those district have respectable numbers, they do not constitute the majority of students. Districts 88 and 89 were the districts I was referring to.

    I am still trying to understand your rationalization that the district is the reason for students' test scores. Do you also blame the schools for the students who waltz in at 8:15 in the morning, even though the day began at 8:00? Do you blame the schools for trying to get students to attend classes, instead of walking the halls? What about the students who have racked up 50 tardies in their classes at the end of the first quarter? Is that the schools fault?

    I find it funny that you have a problem with Obama's comments to parents. Having parents turn off the TV during the week to do homework is not a prescription for responsibility? I don't care if having the TV on worked for you, but children need to learn early on there is a time to work and a time to play, and priorities need to be made concerning schoolwork.

    Regarding good teachers: A good administrator would not "reward" a good teacher by giving them the "good" students. A good teacher needs to be with the challenging students, because they have the skills to motivate them and the activities and tools to strengthen their abilities. That is taught in Admin 101.

    By Blogger Isis, at 12:34 AM, October 17, 2008  

  • Dave says: 209 has multiple problems. One problem that affects everything is parental involvement. The Catholic schools have ineffective teachers too and less money to operate than the public schools, yet they produce better test scores. Why? I think the main reason is parental involvement. Parents in 209 don't care if their kids fail. i was a 209 teacher. I sent out lots of failure notices. I was lucky if even one parent called me. In the Catholic schools, parents respond to low grades and get on their kids to do better. They send them for extra help. 209 has the extra help, but it's under utilized. Until parents start backing the schools and taking an interest in their kid's education, nothing will change.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:58 AM, October 20, 2008  

  • Rather than being offended by Mr. Obama's comments on parents, I would suggest shouting "IT"S ABOUT TIME!" What parents do at home with their children has far more to do with the typical outcome than anything else. Laying all on teachers is just shirking your responsibility as a parent and as chief educator of your children.

    By Anonymous mp, at 7:23 AM, October 22, 2008  

  • Except for Districts 88 & 89, it's hard to argue that the feeder school districts are disastrous. Districts 91 & 92.5 are pretty decent.

    How many kids are coming from District 91 and 92.5?
    What is the ratio of students from those two districts to Districts 88 and 89?

    By Blogger Isis, at 7:54 PM, October 23, 2008  

  • Thank you, MP:

    "Rather than being offended by Mr. Obama's comments on parents, I would suggest shouting "IT"S ABOUT TIME!" What parents do at home with their children has far more to do with the typical outcome than anything else. Laying all on teachers is just shirking your responsibility as a parent and as chief educator of your children."

    Carl, are you of the mindset that places no blame on the parents?

    By Blogger Isis, at 7:57 PM, October 23, 2008  

  • Government makes laws, collects taxes and hires people to implement policy.

    My concern about blaming parents is that it doesn't lead anywhere. If D209 sucks because of bad parents what should the school district and other units of government do about it?

    Let's be honest.

    Is the school board doing its job?

    When was the last time D209 had a decent superintendent?

    What about the administrators? Are they doing their job?

    Are the teachers delivering performance that would be expected at a good school district?

    What about the Regional Sup't of Education? Are the State's Attorney and State Board of Education doing right by D209?

    And I'll throw in the students and parents as not pulling their weight. And the voters too.

    But singling out parents by government employees seems a bit self-serving.

    It would be nice to have model students from a bunch of two-parent, upper-income families with well-educated mothers. But that ain't the community D209 serves. If that was the community D209 served it would be like New Trier. What percentage of D209 employees could turn-in their resumes at New Trier and get jobs?

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 8:50 PM, October 23, 2008  

  • I think to single-out teachers is a bad thing also.

    Do the teachers in 209 have control over:

    a. Who is the superintendent?
    b. Who is on the school board?
    c. Who the administrators are?
    d. What curriculum is used?
    e. What policies, in regards to discipline and attendance, are implemented?
    f. Who the Regional Superintendent is?
    g. Who runs the ISBE?

    The answer to all of those is a big NO.

    I'll certainly admit my comments are self-serving (since I am in education). But until you can show me where teachers have the power in any of those areas, I can't find much validity in your argument.

    By Blogger Isis, at 9:38 PM, October 23, 2008  

  • I hope I've never given the impression that teachers are more to blame than the other parties in the system.

    I would argue that teachers are on the low end when responsibility for Proviso's problems is apportioned.

    However, the teachers union does bear more responsibility than the individual teachers for allowing the clowns to be elected and re-elected to the school board.

    Leaving aside partisan politics there are a number of people who lack the personal skill set to be effective board members under any circumstances. Even if Proviso had no special challenges there are some people who just aren't up to the job.

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 4:42 AM, October 24, 2008  

  • isis, I don't get why you see this as a debate about blaming teachers or parents.

    This is perhaps my top frustration with Proviso teachers.

    Proviso teachers seem to offer the #1 criticism of D209 as being that Proviso parents are negligent.

    That seems a particularly small-minded insight.

    Again, through the teachers union, teachers have more influence on the process than they realize.

    If the president of the union isn't using the union's powers to act on behalf of the members then elect a new president of your union.

    Teachers using their energy to make their union work for them seems a more appropriate use of energy than complaining about the parents.

    By Blogger Carl Nyberg, at 4:49 AM, October 24, 2008  

  • Barb says: I was the former union pres. at 209. There is very little the union can do to change the educational environment at the schools. When I was there, I pushed for new teacher mentoring. Oh, Gilchrist went along with it, went to the union sponsored meetings and then said they didn't have the money to implement the policy. If you think the union doesn't complain to the admin., you're dead wrong. This year they complained about large class sizes. Did it change? no. In past years the union has worked on discipline policies, tardies, etc. NOTHING EVER CHANGES. As far as endorsing people for school board, the union has always stayed out of that.
    209 needs strong leaders who can implement school wide policies. They need to get the schools under control. Parents are a big issue too. Parents need to play a bigger role in their kids' education. 209 has consistently tried to get parents involved. They have had coffees in the various communities, tried to get parents to come to school to pick up report cards, and had take your parent to school days. None of these things seems to work. Parents by and large don't come out. Maybe the community is too busy worrying about putting food on their tables. I don't know.
    Until everyone comes together for the sake of the children, I'm afraid nothing will change.
    By the way, there are many good, well-educated and dedicated teachers in 209. 209 needs to support those teachers by taking a stand against the foolishness that goes on in the schools. Fights, tardies, and a lax discipline policy make it difficult for even the best teacher to teach.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:26 AM, October 24, 2008  

  • I wonder about the party that indicated unions stay out of elections. Nothing can be further from the truth.

    Unions hold the "elected's" hostage until they meet their demands. Demands in terms of raises, benefits,etc. Since
    everyone is always looking for better pay and benefits so the politicians give in with the idea that they will be supported by the unions.
    Then the rank and file are encouraged to support the crooked politicians.

    This is individualism.

    So everyone gets what they want-

    -politicos get elected
    -employees get demands
    -kids get whatever is leftover
    -and taxpayers get the bill

    Unions are a big part of the problem.

    By Anonymous Ms Angel, at 8:12 PM, October 28, 2008  

  • I'm with Obama on placing responsibility with the parents -- and with McCain on giving school vouchers to those parents who take that responsibility seriously.

    The idea is to have a system that enables success rather than failure.

    By Blogger chris miller, at 8:14 PM, October 28, 2008  

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