Ms. Moffett’s First Year

The Book of the Week is “Ms. Moffett’s First Year”, by Abby Goodnough, published in 2006. This book raised many controversial education issues, ranging from special education to the curriculum, to the extent to which a teacher should have a relationship with a student.

The story focuses on one Fellow’s trials and tribulations in her first year of teaching. It was the first year of the Fellowship Program (the 2000-2001 academic year), which offered a tuition-free master’s degree (night school), with limitations and restrictions for those accepted. Established teachers were resentful of this perk that new teachers got. Some were still paying off their student loans.

The 40-something Ms. Moffett quit her job as a legal secretary to seek fulfillment changing young lives as a Fellow. She was assigned a class of about 20 first graders at P.S. 92 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a depressed immigrant neighborhood.

There had been federally mandated teaching reforms instituted that year. States received education grant money for buying into various teaching methods, such as “Success For All”. New York liked that method because it had worked for other school districts, and it was tailored for inexperienced teachers. Success For All provided the teacher with a script she was to read verbatim, and the same textbooks for all the city’s schools. The teacher had a pre-fabricated lesson she need not lift a finger planning for.

Throughout the year, several different school administrators observed Ms. Moffett’s teaching. Sometimes she was given contradictory information about what to do in certain situations. In one incident, one student had a strong urge to continue writing a composition when the schedule called for a different subject to be taught.

One administrator criticized Ms. Moffett for letting that student continue to write, and said she should force the student to stop writing– assert her authority. Another administrator told Ms. Moffett it was okay to allow the student to continue writing, as it was so difficult to get students to focus on a particular activity, and this might boost the student’s self esteem.

Ms. Moffett often fell behind the strict schedule dictated by educrats, trying to get the students to behave. Unluckily, she was assigned more unruly students than was usual for a class such as hers. There were about 4 or 5 who could not sit still, had the attention span of flies, and could not learn.

For the first month of school, one student’s parent had to stay in the classroom, lest the student throw a temper tantrum if the parent left her. A few of the kids truly needed special education. However, it was extremely expensive to create a special education class just for these students. Keeping them in a regular class was also expensive– in terms of teaching time taken away from the other students.

Ms. Moffett put in requests to have these students tested for learning disabilities, but her requests were ignored. Instead, by the middle of the year, the students had either moved away, or been transferred to other classes or other schools. Ms. Moffett then got three new students in exchange, who could learn and were well-behaved. This changed the whole dynamic of the classroom. The learning environment was much improved.

School administrators severely criticized Ms. Moffett’s ways in their evaluations, fearing a cutoff of funding from the State Education Department if the school did not follow the standards and practices set by the Department. On the day Department inspectors were to visit P.S. 92, the administrators went into Ms. Moffett’s classroom and pressured her to re-decorate the classroom bulletin boards with student work that would be acceptable to the inspectors. Sometimes teachers even doctored students’ work to make it appear that the students were learning more than they really were.

Deprivation was a major characteristic of many of the students’ home lives. They didn’t get enough attention, enough to eat, enough care in general. Ms. Moffett, an idealist, had a strong desire to help improve the quality of the children’s lives. She did so with one particular child. The school strongly advised against getting involved with children outside of school, not just because there were liability issues.  It was unfair to favor one child, when so many others were just as needy of individual attention and did not get it.

Ms. Moffett survived her first year teaching. Despite all of the negative feedback she received from her evaluators, and all the stress she had to endure, she realized that teaching was fulfilling to her. Read the book to find out what happened.

Who’s Teaching Your Children?

The Book of the Week is “Who’s Teaching Your Children?” by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, published in 2003.

This book describes the ominous future of education in the United States.  There is a dire teacher shortage which is slated only to get worse.  A vicious cycle accounts for this trend.  The authors ask, is it not a contradiction that parents demand quality teachers in their children’s schools but discourage their children from becoming teachers?

A large percentage of graduates who enter the teaching profession are not good students.  The ones who are, take more lucrative, rewarding jobs.  The teachers-to-be receive poor training.  For the most part, during their careers, they are underpaid and underappreciated.  No wonder the good students enter fields other than education.

Many teacher-training schools are for-profit institutions that need to fill seats to stay in business.  Therefore, in order to attract customers (graduates) they need to make obtaining teaching certification sufficiently easy.  “Grade inflation” (awarding higher grades than customers truly deserve in order to pass some customers who would otherwise fail) is one way they do so.

The authors present a scenario of their imagination, named, “The Millennium School.”  It is an elementary school that doubles as a teacher-training school, with a structure completely different from the usual American school’s.  It would be a small school with small classes, consisting of chief instructors “who supervise professional teachers, who supervise the teachers and associate teachers, who participate in supervising interns and instructional aides.”

Everyone on the team would be accountable for each child’s success or failure. The personnel would conduct classes and hold meetings as teams.  The school would be linked to a college, which would allow the teacher-trainees to fulfill the student-teaching component of their training, in teams.

I think the authors make exaggerated claims of such a school’s possible success, although it is a nice idea.  I like the team-teaching part.  However, the whole point is that power is distributed among many educators– they are supposed to cooperate, share ideas, and be rewarded with higher pay, more responsibilities and supervisory duties when they display an interest in advancing their careers. However, to me, this smacks of a corporate ladder.  Human nature is such that the ladder would spur competition rather than cooperation.  That would defeat the whole goal.

In addition, a school is a different sort of entity because it is funded by taxpayers. The kinds of operations a private company might fund for itself would not be possible for a school, due to a limited budget. There is an exception to this situation– in certain areas of this country, schools receive private monies from wealthy donors, making distribution of resources hugely uneven among schools.  As for the well-endowed schools, the funders are not educators, so they may have misguided notions of where to spend their money.  The money might go toward additional standardized testing, resources that reward corporate partners and activities relating to public relations, rather than toward real improvement in education quality.

Further, the government supervises the school, so there are politics from above and within.  The authors acknowledge the Millennium School model would necessarily be more expensive, but they argue that this model would eliminate many non-teaching positions, such as “curriculum coordinators, staff developers, teaching coaches,” etc. The resulting reduced payroll expenses would compensate for the raises received by the teachers and supervisors.

I think raises in pay would be extremely controversial– who would receive how much.  Theoretically, employees who acquired additional experience would deserve more pay.  However, the expedient way to measure the increase in education quality due to that increased experience, would probably be through standardized tests– another extremely controversial aspect of teaching.

I would suggest that various criteria be used to determine additional compensation for supervisors and teachers, that could include tests, as well as qualitative evaluations of supervisors, completed by teachers and trainees, and interviews with students.  Although I give them an “A” for effort, the authors present too simplified a model of the ideal school.

This is an informative, yet depressing book.

Saving Schools

The Book of the Week is “Saving Schools” by Paul E. Peterson, published in 2010.  This book tells the history of education in the United States.  It presents some inconvenient facts many politicians and even education “professionals” do not want to acknowledge.

Sociologist James Coleman did extensive longitudinal studies on thousands of students in the early 1960’s.  He found that “within regions and types of communities (urban, suburban and rural), expenditures per pupil were about the same in black and white schools… students did not learn more just because more money was spent on their education.” Students’ reading ability was not affected by the following factors:  class sizes, teachers’ credentials, textbook newness, number of books in the school library, or any other “material resource of a school.” It was affected by the students’ home lives. Another interesting finding was that low-income African-Americans read better when placed in classes with higher-income Caucasians, but the latter did not do worse when placed in classes with the former.

During the era of desegregation of the schools, Caucasian families moved from cities to suburbs at a higher rate than did African-American families.  Suburban schools therefore became more segregated, and thus there occurred less integration than otherwise in all kinds of communities overall.

One of LBJ’s anti-poverty programs gave billions of federal dollars to schools to provide intensive tutoring to disadvantaged African American students.  Unfortunately, this singled the students out, and made them targets for bullying.  Besides, the tutors “often had less training” than regular classroom teachers.  Research has yet to prove that the tutoring was significantly helpful.

Some education reformers have called for hiring of teachers who lack a master’s degree, as extra schooling is no guarantee of better teaching. Teachers earned master’s degrees in droves in the 20th century only because they were paid more for earning one. Teacher-training schools and unions have vehemently opposed removing this teaching credential.

“…relative to other employees who hold college degrees, teachers today are not as well paid as they were in 1960.”

In 2008, federal education officials and a team at UCLA proposed national education standards.  However, the portrayal of the United States in historical accounts, and the selectivity of curricular contents turned out to be too controversial.

The book also exposes the flaws of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law.  It covers the pros and cons of school vouchers, and the system that has been widely implemented as an alternative to vouchers – charter schools.

The author obviously favors the use of technology with regard to education.  For, the table of contents bears the headings for parts 1, 2 and 3:  “The Rise,” “The Decline” and “Signs of Resurrection.”  The third part contains a chapter on technology.

The author speculates that the future of education will involve online learning for all students, even declaring: “Each student, each household, each family will pick and choose among the endless variety of options entrepreneurs can produce.”  The use of the word “entrepreneurs” is disturbing when used in the context of education.  The author makes other assertions with which I do not agree, but he does provide extensive documentation on matters of “fact.”

Whatever It Takes

The Book of the Week is “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough, published in 2008.  This book is about Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to improve his community in Harlem in New York City, through both educating kids and providing social services to parents to improve the kids’ environments.  City agencies funded his programs.

Mr. Canada felt bad that he could not save all the underprivileged children in Harlem.  He did not operate his school the same way the KIPP chain of charter schools did– hand-picking a group of underprivileged kids it would make into high-achievers, whose accomplishments would exceed those of their peers.  He idealistically thought all children could become college material, if his Promise Academy charter school (initially a middle school, and later, also an elementary school) did its job right.

However, many studies have shown that success in life becomes much more likely for an individual when that individual is taught specific skills starting in infancy, such as “patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions, and the ability to delay gratification for a future reward.”  Middle school is too late.

But Mr. Canada still felt it was worth trying to turn their lives around, although he had far less success with them than with kids who participated in his programs from infancy and were lucky enough to be chosen in the lotteries that determined who was accepted.  Also, he had the most success when kids stayed in the programs from infancy through at least middle school, but this was extremely expensive.

The jury is still out on whether society as a whole is greatly improved by providing a small percentage of underprivileged people with resources superior to those of their peers, so they may succeed in life.  I doubt Mr. Canada, and even all of the other people and entities helping too, will ever be able to bring success to all of Harlem’s children. Some people do not want to be helped.  Others unluckily are not chosen in the lotteries. I don’t know the solution.

Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

The Book of the Week is “Teacher:  The One Who Made the Difference” by Mark Edmundson, published in 2002.  The author wrote this book as a tribute to his high school philosophy teacher.  One of many memorable questions the teacher asked during the school year was, “Why do we need leaders?”  Answer:  We need someone to think for us.  Many of us human beings are lazy and we do not want to think for ourselves.  The author described how even the class clown was made to think, and learned something in this teacher’s class.

To Know A Fly

The Book of the Week is “To Know A Fly” by Vincent G. Dethier, published in 1962.  This thin, little paperback book discusses how scientists attempt to understand the behavior of a fly.  Those who pull off the legs or wings of flies either come to a bad end or become biologists.

“The [required] college education not infrequently is as useful for acquiring proficiency in the game of Grantsmanship as it is for understanding biology.  No self-respecting modern biologist can go to work without money for a secretary, a research associate, two laboratory assistants, permanent equipment…” a car, books, animals and their accompanying accessories, etc., and a vast quantity of money (called overhead) “to the university to pay for all the transcribers hired to handle all the papers and money transactions that so big a grant requires.”

There is much to be said for the fly as an experimental animal.  The author describes in detail some clever experiments involving the fly’s eating habits and capacity to learn.  “To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge.”

Silicon Snake Oil

The Book of the Week is “Silicon Snake Oil” by Clifford Stoll.  This prescient book (published in 1996) presents evidence that the use of technology in certain areas of our lives, such as in education, is not necessarily a cure-all.

Here is an excerpt describing what happened when the author’s machine was malfunctioning:  “…so I grovel before a technician or pay a long-distance fee to get lost in a thicket of automated help messages…”

Just a few problems in American schools include overcrowding, poor teaching, poor security and budget shortfalls.  “Computers address none of these problems.”  Just because technology might “make learning fun” does not mean students learn any better. It just makes curriculum suppliers richer.

This is a thought-provoking book.