Back 2 Basics

Everything that’s wrong with urban education reform in a single, bitter-tasting tale

B2BReader: I feel that I must address the elephant in the room. I’m talking, of course, about history—the sore subject that is absolutely not being eliminated from the Boston Public Schools. And irregardless of what you may have heard, there is no truth at all to the rumor that students in the city’s schools will now receive their daily dose of history and social studies only at lunchtime, served up from the schools’ fallow salad bars by historical impersonators. I’m happy to report that a growing number of students in Boston can look forward to a rich and nutritious curriculum, if by rich and nutritious you mean *two squares* of math and English. 

ed talksBoston Ed Talks
A glimpse of the menu that awaits Boston’s students, especially those of the low-income variety—which is to say most of them—was on vivid display recently at an event called Boston Ed Talks. Held at the Boston Foundation, Ed Talks featured seven teachers representing a mix of public, charter and Catholic schools. And since food metaphors are the order of the day, I will use another here: the teachers who made it through the rigorous and highly competitive Ed Talks selection process represent the cream of the crop. [Note: the following sentence was typed in a spirit of the utmost sincerity. These teachers are seriously impressive as you can see for yourself here.]

elephant 2The ELAphant in the room
At last it’s time for the main course, and please don’t blame me if you don’t like the way it tastes; I am merely your server today. You see, there was an uncomfortable element to this particular appreciation of teachers—an elephant in the room, if you will. Three of the selected teachers, Neema Avashia and Chun Ying Wang, who talked about early warning indicators for dropouts, and Brandon Lee, who described his work teaching engineering to elementary students, just happened to be from a school that was recently placed into receivership by the state—and the respondent was none other than the receiver in chief: our career readiest education commissioner, Mitchell D. Chester. In other words, *awkward.* What say you, Commissioner Chester?

So, I need to address the elephant in the room. I don’t mean this as a personal attack, but 3 of the 7 presenters tonight are from a school that I have decided to put into receivership. The Dever-McCormack is a failing school. For the past several years, science, literacy, and math scores have been low. What that tells me is that you might be doing creative things at your school, but you’re not teaching the basics. Kids aren’t learning the foundations. And that means that you teachers need to do more for your school. 

apple with wormHappy Teacher Appreciation Week
In other words, happy Teacher Appreciation Week (which it was, by the way). Now I should explain that the Commissioner’s extraordinary statement was captured on video, which was available for the world to see—for two days, after which the Boston Foundation took the video down and edited his remarks out of it. [Note: I made a request to the Foundation to view the original but received no response]. When the Foundation makes that video available, I will happily correct any errors in the above paraphrase, provided by one of the teacher panelists, who had the foresight to write down the Commissioner’s remarks.

doorDon’t let the door hit you on the way out 
What followed was a substantive discussion regarding how failing schools are defined, and how it is that some of our best teachers can teach in struggling schools when we know for a fact that it is the teachers themselves who cause the failure. Actually, nothing of the sort ensued; the Commissioner left, leaving the elephant in the room behind. A meeting between Commissioner Chester and the Dever/McCormack teachers has been scheduled for June 24th. And not a moment too soon. Panelist Brandon Lee leaves for California, where he’ll be starting a new job teaching elementary engineering at a brand new tech school in San Diego, on June 30. Brandon: take us home.

I was really excited two years ago when I accepted my job at the Dever Elementary. My work at Tufts University as an undergrad focused on how to incorporate engineering into the elementary classroom, from robots to technological fluency and programming. I’m leaving Boston because I can’t teach what I want to teach. I fervently believe in engineering education, but there aren’t opportunities to teach that in Massachusetts. The Commissioner made it pretty clear in his response to my Ed Talk on the topic that it is less important than teaching the basics. How can I exist in this setting if the person running the show doesn’t think this is important?  On the other side of the country, my new school focuses on STEM education with a project-based learning model. I will be able to do long term engineering projects that engage students. I am sad that I will be leaving my students, but if I just can’t teach due to the circumstances, what else am I supposed to do?

An excellent question. I’m looking forward to hearing Commissioner Chester’s answer. 

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  1. The elephant in the room is that behind every “failing school” is a bunch of failing students and communities –students and communities that can be helped and improved, but only incrementally and only with great effort. And it’s important to note that failing at school is not failing as humans. It’s not politically correct to say this, but it’s the truth.

  2. Edushyster must be getting noticed. A troll attack! Acknowledgement of the problem is done, but the cause is assigned to the lower class (the social one, not the ELHI ones), the solution is mentioned but the effort to fix the problem is considered too big to be done, and so the status quo / elephant is not disturbed.

  3. “I fervently believe in engineering education, but there aren’t opportunities to teach that in Massachusetts.”

    I’m curious which state he thinks engineering education can be taught, if not Massachusetts. North Carolina? Louisiana? Illinois? New York? Most of the other states? Good luck.

    Vermont is going to be getting awfully crowded.

    1. 2 Points

      1) Upon being released by the State of Massachusetts, I was immediately picked up by an elementary school in another state that wanted to build an engineering program in their school. And it was not Vermont.

      2) This point is not so much about my personal struggles, though I do believe elementary education needs to exist in all elementary schools (did you watch the Ed Talk this is all referencing?). The point is rather that the person in charge of educational policy and oversight in our state does not believe in content like this. There is no room for growth if innovative programs are going to get shot down.

  4. Please inform the speaker that there is no such word as “irregardless.” the word is “regardless.” Perhaps he should also go back to basics and learn correct grammar.

  5. Here’s the thing – the Dever has a population of about 85% poverty, 50% English language learners and 15% SPED kids. And some number of these kids have hit a triple – they’re poor kids with IEP’s who are learning English. I think the teachers are actually doing a pretty awesome imitation of Sisyphus.

    Here’s a link to the state plan for the Dever. If you go to page 6, there’s a chart (which I could not paste here) with proficiency scores for ELA and math. They are unsurprising, given the school’s population. Actually, that 16% of 8 year old kids in such challenging circumstances score so well in a test in a language that is not their first is a testament to their teachers’ efforts and professional training. And note that the number of kids scoring proficient or advanced in math is more than double that of ELA – which just makes sense, no?

    Under the turnaround plan, the Dever’s dual language program will be dismantled. That no one with a linguistic background has been included in the decision is obvious; Chester seems to believe that instruction in languages holds back language development.

    1. Chester used the MCAS scores as evidence of the failure of the dual language program. It shows that as students progress in the grades, i.e. from 3rd to 5th, their scores decline. What he doesn’t say, and chooses to ignore, is the fact that the 3rd graders are the first to have had the dual language program since kindergarten. So it is at least as plausible, if not likely, that the dual language program is an improvement over English-only: those students who have been in the program for four years are doing better than their older siblings.

      But it is too easy to find the one thing that sets the school apart from others and pretend that that is where the problem lies. That way it is much easier to justify turning the school over to an outside management organization, Blueprint Schools, rather than keep the talented, dedicated staff at the school to figure out what is working and what isn’t.

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