A Teacher’s Tale – Illuminates

12 Dec

John Thompson is an historian and a legislative analyst who found his calling – educator. His A Teacher’s Tale is provocative, interesting and a story only someone who had lived with and loved the oppressed black children of Oklahoma City could tell. It is a peek into a side of public education that is ugly and it illuminates the causes of that ugliness. It changed my perspective.

I grew up in a small town in rural Idaho (Glenn’s Ferry, population 1200). Actually, I lived until age 13 on a ranch outside of King Hill, Idaho, an unincorporated village of 99 people. Glenn’s Ferry Unified School District had schools in Glenn’s Ferry, King Hill and Hammett (another unincorporated town). Even with the three communities and the regions farms and ranches combined the four-year Glenn’s Ferry High School had less than 200 students. The truth is that our teachers were not great educators but they were great people who had our respect.

The Viet Nam war and the US Navy brought me to San Diego in 1968. My experience here with schools was not really that different in that people complained about the public schools, but like my little rural schools they were competently run at least in terms of safety and general decorum. Violence and unreasonable defiance were never a big issue even at schools in struggling neighborhoods. A student could go to these public schools and succeed splendidly. Great success stories growing out of poorly thought of San Diego neighborhoods have been common place for decades.

I share my background to illustrate an issue with getting education reform right. We are all like the proverbial blind men who are describing an elephant. Some of us feel the ears, some of us feel the trunk, etcetera. Almost all of us have experience in public school however because public education is such a vast and varied enterprise our vision is limited. My experience said that public schools were safe institutions run by professionals and that they had state bureaucracies insuring competent ethical operations. A Teacher’s Tale counters this view powerfully.

Thompson entered the classroom in 1993. At the time, there was a determined movement to improve Oklahoma City schools. John’s experience working in politics and his ethic of community engagement pushed him into the center of local reform efforts. This book tells the story how his work and that of many others was significantly undermined and even reversed by forces outside of the city.

In 1999, John committed to “a bipartisan district-wide school reform effort known as MAPS for Kids.” He helped draft a student achievement plan for the school system and helped sell the plan during an election to raise taxes and to fund system-wide instructional reforms. (page 202)

He describes how NCLB undermined MAPS:

“MAPS for Kids called for a balanced approach that emphasized improved classroom instruction and a holistic community-wide effort to offer the same high-quality education to low income students that affluent parents expect for their own children. NCLB, however, promoted the theory that the answers to the legacies of generational poverty could simply be found in the classroom. For that reason, efforts to address out-of-school factors were placed on the back burner as the OKCPS complied with the federal law.

“In the early years of MAPS and NCLB, efforts to improve instruction were undermined somewhat as the district tried to negotiate between the data-informed policies promised by local reformers and the data-driven approach favored by proponents of the federal law. For several years, the district was torn between the mixed messages of MAPS, which supported the use of diagnostic assessments as interpreted by educators, and the site-based management for empowering of teachers and principals, and of NCLB high-stakes testing and top-down governance, which overrode the judgments of professionals.”

John relates some absolutely horrific stories of student violence and fear. He describes how in 2006, in the aftermath of the school choice movement, John Marshall and Centennial high schools spiraled out of control. John had experienced large classes including students with reputations for being disruptive but this was different. He says, “I had never had such ‘toxic concentrations of poverty,’ where so many children simply could not control their behavior.” (Page 30)

John relates several stories of absolutely special children who were struggling to grow up in neighborhoods infested with Crips and Bloods. He tells of helping a student overcome a lack of reading skills and become motivated to educate himself only to be murdered. It was a frightful and repeated experience for the educators at John Marshall and Centennial High.

In the book, John presents convincing evidence that taking disciplinary control policies away from local administrators and teachers directly contributed to violence, terrible attendance and safety issues. He describes packs of out of control gang affiliated students roaming hallways instead of attending classes, while site administrators were not allowed by state bureaucracies to take the kind of effective action needed to create positive and safe learning environments. The evidence presented supporting this observation is powerful.

In addition to the evidence from his Oklahoma experience, John sited evidence from Chicago:

“Marshall would soon learn the hard way why the Consortium on Chicago School Research, in Organizing Schools for Improvement, Identified the intertwined factors of discipline and attendance as prime reasons why troubled schools fail to improve. When the consortium looked deeply into stalled reforms, its “most powerful single finding” was the relationship between attendance problems and the failure to manage disciplinary issues. Moreover, the consortium “found virtually no chance of improving attendance in schools that lacked safety and order” and “where instruction alignment was weak or predominantly basic skills oriented.” In other words, discipline, attendance, and effort to provide more effective instruction were interrelated in Chicago schools as in our Marshall.” (Page 356)

My impression is that Thompson is liberal minded and likely a Democrat. However, I like his open-minded approach and willingness to work with conservatives. His work with the group that created the MAPS for Kids school reform agenda was clearly a bipartisan effort by liberals and conservatives coming to consensus for the benefit of students. John’s book demonstrates that most conservatives care for their schools and want to fix problems rather than destroy schools or privatize them. It shows that conservatives and liberals can develop unity and consensus about how to run their schools. However, big moneyed interests and outsiders tend to wreak havoc.

One of the many examples of this was the famous historian David McCullough criticizing NCLB mandates for “narrowing the scope of the curriculum and promulgating a growing suspicion of teachers.” John continued:

“Before NCLB-type testing, few educators would have disagreed with him. Pedagogies that previously would be considered essential for teaching students to flourish in the modern world would struggle to survive the contemporary school reform movement.” (Page 164)

Referring to data-driven accountability and the need for disruptive change to shake up the “status-quo”, John writes:

“The charge was to produce rapid ‘transformational change’ in outcomes at challenging schools like Marshall in Oklahoma City. This accountability-driven reform was imposed, unfortunately, by advocates of disruptive change who typically had little knowledge of high-poverty K-12 schools. Inner city schools need more disruption like we need another gang war.” (Page 83)

Seeing community schools as an essential building block of a healthy society, John criticizes the no-excuses mentality that refuses to look at community health when designing approaches to improve schools. He observes:

“Community schools, however, are the tough-minded solution. Teacher-driven reforms like Rhee’s policies have yet to demonstrate much success, and now that billions of dollars have been invested in computer systems to keep track of teacher quality, they are no longer inexpensive. If nothing else, NCLB has prompted a golden age of educational research that has shown why test-driven accountability has failed. The time has come for a new generation of holistic reforms building on social science and the power of our diverse communities.”

The last five or six election cycles and school reform have spotlighted a nation divided. This division is the great obstacle facing America. We must find a way to respect each other’s opinions and discuss them with an open mind. John demonstrates by his activities in Oklahoma City that conservatives and liberals can reach common cause and make good policy, but we must stop demonizing each other. Everyone loves their children and we all want good education for them. That is a good starting point for dialog.

In the conclusion section of this book John makes this salient point:

“Due process is no more political than any other legal issue, which means that politics is pervasive in it. Government by fiat is no less political than grassroots organizing. The effort to impose technocratic solutions in order to avoid the messy politics of instruction is just as political as any other autocratic regime.”

A Teacher’s Tale is a valuable book from which anyone interested in public education or education in general will learn something.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “A Teacher’s Tale – Illuminates”

  1. 33Horacio May 17, 2017 at 8:26 pm #

    I must say it was hard to find your site in google.
    You write great content but you should rank your website higher in search engines.
    If you don’t know 2017 seo techniues search on youtube:
    how to rank a website Marcel’s way

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Education Discernments for 2017 | tultican - December 28, 2016

    […] Thompson’s A Teacher’s Tale presents convincing evidence that taking disciplinary control policies away from local […]

  2. Education Reform Musing | tultican - February 14, 2017

    […] misguided political policies and graft especially by politicians. The schools in Oklahoma City that John Thompson described fell into their miserable state because of top down mandates and lack of funding. Schools in Newark […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: