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Thompson: When Wonks Become Parents, Things Change

BrainScott Joftus' "When Education Gets Personal," in Education Next, is excellent in several ways. Although he is an advocate of increasing academic standards, Joftus had an epiphany when his 2nd grade daughter was pushed into doing worksheets on probability "before she had any real understanding of the concept."

Inner city teachers might be frustrated to read that it took twenty years for a policy wonk to understand what happens when a troubled child is so disruptive that a teacher has to spend "more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task." Even so, we must respect his acknowledgement that even one child "reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school." 

Perhaps he can now get a sense of the frustration of inner city teachers and students in classes with eight to ten traumatized students. Joftus' best point was his affirmation that, "One of the best teachers my children have had is our regular babysitter, who speaks English as a second language and never graduated from high school." 

Perhaps he will now endorse community schools that bring the full range of service providers and mentors into urban schools, and bring students out of their buildings and into the full diversity of our democracy. Perhaps Joftus will now remind reformers that education is more than forcing testable information into a narrow part of the brain.- JT (@drjohnthompson) image via


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You're responding to these concerns by advertising test prep for a gifted and talented program qualifying test... That's just heartbreaking, Vicka.

John ...

I'm wondering how many times in your career you had a class that included 8 to 10 traumatized students. By class I mean the students in front of you for a class period, not, say, the whole junior class.

Secondly, you keep accusing reformers of insensitivity to children's needs outside school. But isn't making schools better a worthwhile end in itself, even if doing so does not address children's needs outside school? And have you considered that maybe some reformers are working to meet those needs only we don't hear about that as much as we hear about their education work?

When I started teaching, all of our district's high schools had low income rates of two thirds to three forths. After 15 years of choice, we have a bunch of great magnet schools and a neighborhood high school that is 84% low income, but the rest are 95% and up.

During the first half of my career, I never have a class with eight to ten kids who were so traumatized. Only our toughest middle schools had some challenges like that.

During the last third of my career, a half of my classes had kids with that level of trauma. My last couple of years, I averaged 227 students with nearly 2/3rds being on IEPs, ELLs, or a jacket for an extreme felony (like home invasion robbery with a gun, not some run-of-the-mill offense).

Children's needs outside the class did not change. The change was caused by "reforms" that backfired.

I'm not saying that "reformers" are insensitive to children on the outside. They are insensitive to the evidence that goes against their assumptions.

John ...

In identifying traumatized children, why are you grouping ELL students and students on IEPs with students charged with felonies? Or am I reading you wrong?

I'm wondering what reform assumptions are contradicted by the evidence you present and what reforms backfired to create the conditions you describe?


When I started teaching in a school that was 2/3rds low-income, with 20% of students on IEPs, most of my special education students had reading or math disablities. Even if we weren't notified in advance by our outstanding special ed teachers, most were easy to identify. They would be in their seats on the front row before the bell rang, with their notebook and other materials organized and ready to go, and the worked steady and they worked smart all year long. Back then, our IEPs told us if a student was diagnosed as ADHD, but that changed in the 90s. Even then, we weren't notified about felony jackets or mental illness or mental health conditions.

With the proliferation of choice, as our school's percentage of special ed students topped out at 30%, those students with reading and math disablities took advantage of the opportunities to attend magnet and charter schools. By the time our school reached 100% low income, almost all of our IEP students had conduct disorders, emotional disturbances, or something behavioral, perhaps in addition to the learning disability.

In my regular, non-tested classes,I about 40% of my students were on IEPs and about 20% had ELLs, but there was some overlap. Then we had the "504" students who had problems that we were not informed about. We learned about them by one of three ways. With some, the counslor was give us a cryptic note, that read like it was drafted by a lawyer. Or, when meeting with the student and a counselor or a therapist, we would be given the information we were allowed to know. Or, the student and/or a parent would tell us.

My last year, 18 students informed me of their mental illness, as opposed to mental health conditions. I suspected that another 12 were mentally ill. And yes, there is a difference between mental health problems and a diagnosed mental illness, and I am choosing my words carefully.

Junior and senior classes weren't so bad, but those stats were pretty consistent in 9th and 10th grade classes. A teacher in a tested class would get a special ed co-teacher when facing such challenges. It was much worse, however, in the electives that everyone knew were dumping grounds and who might get twenty such students.

By the way, my classes always overcame those challenges in morning classes. In a first hour class with a half dozen mentally ill students, several more with conduct disorders, and 2/3rds on IEPs, it wasn't a problem. Many of those same kids were uncontrollable after lunch, however. I also had a great class 25 seniors before lunch which became awful after the schedule was changed and their class met after lunch, so the chaos was tough on everyone, not just kids with emotional problems. Conversely, I had a deeply troubled class with crack babies, a kid who had been kidnapped as an infant, an armed home invasion robber, a half dozen kids diagnosed as bipolar, and more seriously mentally ill kids, etc. When it was moved to before lunch, it started to operate smoothly.

Several students in every class every year since 2005 were always dealing with the death or the life-threatening illness of at least one family member. Every year the school lost at least one student to murder and a couple or more would be charged with committing murders, and since most were gang-related, those beefs continued inside a building that wasn't allowed to enforce its code of conduct.

Among the mistakes that made things worse were:
a) cutting alternative school slots while moving aggressively to full inclusion beyond anything we'd ever seen,
b) replacing electives with test prep,
c) forcing teachers to use texbooks that were written five grade levels above the average student's skill level, and replacing higher interest reading materials with those aligned with the tests,
d) pressuring teachers to use a curriculum pacing schedule that was too fast for more than in "one ear and out the other," and letting standardized testing replace fun and meaningful activities,
e) spending all new federal money on consultants and top down professional development as opposed to funding and coordinating the supports our kids need,
f) taking a data-driven approach to discipline so principals did not dare to suspend students for extreme acts of violence and disruption,
g) refusing to let teachers or principals enforce atendance policies, so that
h)the school that was orderly before third hour turned into anarchy as lunch approached.

So, not surprisingly, anyone who could take advantage of choice did so, leaving intense concentrations of poverty and trauma.

Wait a minute. Offering choice of schools didn't make children in your school poor or harder to teach.

I see you refer to choice, standards, tests, and, no surprise, "data driven," but you still didn't explain how the situation you describe demonstrates insensitivity on the part of reformers or how it contradicts reform assumptions, let alone how it was caused by reformers.

And what's an example of "data driven" discipline that prohibits principals from suspending students who perpetrate "extreme acts of violence"? Who is tying the principals' hands?

I understand the negativity in a-h because I asked you for examples of things gone wrong, but what would you like to see different in your school? For example, in c and d you complain about being asked to teach kids at a level over their heads and at a pace too fast for them. What kind of support would help that go better?

Finally, it seems to me your school and its students need a champion and even many champions. I don't see how using your school as ammunition against reformers accomplishes anything constructive. Look for champions.

Come on. There is no comparison between a 95 to 100% low income neighborhood school and a 65% low income school (or a selective school that is 95% low income). If that isn't obvious ...

And if it isn't equally obvious that the latest push on suspension data won't further tie administrators hands. And if you don't think that from OKC to Philly and in between that neighborhoods schools that are the dumping ground have their hands tied, I wonder if you've ever set foot in a neighborhood school.

No. Cognitive science says its impossible, regardless of supports, to make things "go better" in keeping up with those pacing guides. The time it takes to learn is the time it takes to learn.

And the Everyone Graduates Center is completely persuasive showing how supports and remediation can work in a school with dozens of kids 2 or 3 years behind, but not with hundreds that are 5 years behind. For the tougher challenge, you need a lot more adults.

My school was in the mainstream when implementing "reforms." It wasn't the players, but the reform playbook that was awful. And it was the same cheap and easy playbook that consultants peddle across the nation.

And you close with the ultimate quick and easy "reform." Exhortations is all we need. It was "Expectations!" Now you say "champions!" But thanks, "reformers" already gave us the full range of sound bites that were patently false ranging from they do it at KIPP with, "same kids in the same building," to ""No Excuses!" and "Whatevever it Takes!"

What we need is reality-based solutions. I advocate for full-service community schoools. But first, we must abandon the fetish for reformers' failed, simple, silver bullets. Data can't drive the determination of how much staffing is needed in the toughest schools in the age of choice. That takes tough decisions by humans informed with data and social science.

Data can't keep tying the hands of educators so they can't enforce codes of conduct and behavioral standards, in the faith that teaching like a champion will solve those problems.

Your power of positive thinking quick fixes drove us into the ditch.Its like Adlai Stevenson said, "I find St. Paul appealing and St. Peale appalling."

John ...

I can make very little sense of most of what you just said. It leaves me wondering why you think that reform and reformers are standing in the way of the "full service community school" that you apparently believe is what your school needs. If that truly is what your school needs, then be the champion for that idea and drum up support for it. Tilting against reform and reformers doesn't do that.

Great, if you disagree with reformers who rejected community schools and investments in socio-emotional supports because they are "just so much kumbaya," and reject the Ed Trust's ridicule of those interventions as "excuses" from "Sociology Week," then join us. My school's $5 million dollar SIG could transform it - if we didn't have to invest most of it in consultants and computer systems. Help us transfer the hundreds of miilions or even billions of dollars devoted to firing teachers based on primitive experimental test score models to teaching kids to read by third grade. Or, if you can figure out a way to invest in high-quality early education and allow engaging instruction for poor kids in an era of accountability, and still claim that that is consistent with the bubble-in mania, ortherwise known as reform,then I'm all ears.

I agree that the system as a whole is wrong. It isn’t fair that one child can prevent a class from learning. But is it conversely fair to leave that child out?

No Child Left Behind was never the answer. It removed the word “educate” from the concept of education, and leaves most classrooms not an exploration of topics that a teacher thinks would actually be useful and applicable in the real world, but a set of guided instructions on how to select the proper bubble to fill in on some test graded by robots hundreds of miles away.

I guess, my question ultimately is, with the economy the way it is, with times as hard as they are, how do we change that? How do we take a system designed to cost as little as possible, designed to industrialize teaching, and make it so that students learn again?

I can’t think of an answer that either party in congress would accept as rational.

John ... There is no federal rule that says SIG funds have to be invested in consultants and computer systems. Where do you come up with this stuff? And there are many schools that provide rich and well rounded learning experiences without shrinking from accountability. So, again, I don't understand why you keep attacking straw men.

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