Cast Iron Skillet

A blog about teaching, English, and teaching English

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Crunched by the Numbers

[ Editorial in the newsletter of Shaker Heights Teachers Association SHTA newsletter ]

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and data.
— Mark Twain (actually, Twain said “statistics,” not “data,” but it’s close enough)

The Ohio Department of Education has given us an F in “Gap Closing” (which is pretty much what my wife gave me after I attempted to insulate the house before a particularly cold and drafty winter). The sweaty toilers of the ODE engine room shoveled our numbers into the great cruncher. The digits tumbled into the spinning teeth of its mighty algorithms. It chewed, it cogitated, it spat out a judgment. Shaker: F.

First of all, I’d like to point out that 86 percent of Ohio’s 608 school districts flunked this category. If we teachers gave a test that 86 percent of our students failed, we would assume there was something wrong with the test. But this percentage is a political, not educational decision.

In any case, the data makes us look bad. Or does it? It all depends on how you chew it. For example, our African-American and Economically Disadvantaged (ED) kids, the ones on the lower tier of our gap, scored better than the white kids in Cleveland and in several other Ohio districts. Where’s your gap now, ODE? Our ED kids performed vastly better than the same demographic groups—regardless of race—around the state and around the country. Might that be a sign of something we’re doing right?

The problem is that no matter how well the lower tier of our gap performs, it’s being compared to a group whose numbers are severely distorted by our very top-performing kids. The district rightly boasts about our graduates who are Presidential Scholars, National Merit Semi-Finalists, Ivy Leaguers, etc. etc. But the exceptional number of these exceptional students is proof not that we’re great educators, but that we have a freakish concentration of freakishly smart kids. According to “Measuring What Matters,” we are the 17th most educated community in the nation. That puts us squarely in freak territory: the top tenth of the top one percent of the 40,000 American cities and towns. We have many kids who come from families in which not only both parents have advanced degrees, but all four grandparents went to college. Most of these kids are going to be good students. Many will be superstars. And when you throw high income into the mix, the superstars are issued capes and wrist web-shooters and bullet-deflecting bracelets.

We do a tremendous disservice to our students—in any disaggregated group—when we compare them to these outliers. If we want to construe any meaningful lessons from the data, we ought to toss out these off-the-chart scores before we do any calculations.

We often hear something like this: “We can close the achievement gap, because we are Shaker.” I would put it the other way around: We can’t close the achievement gap, because we are Shaker—a community with extreme inequalities in income and family educational background. Certainly we should work on narrowing the gap. Certainly we must bust our butts every day to narrow the gap. But if we think we can erase it, we’re chasing unicorns.

The gap was not caused by schools; schools can’t make it go away. For one thing, the kids arrive—whether first grade, kindergarten or pre-school—with an achievement gap already firmly in place, already gaping wide. We can create programs for the disadvantaged kids, we can work relentlessly on pulling them upward, but the gap may not budge. This is because the advantages don’t stop pouring in for the advantaged kids: nightly book readings, educational toys, museum memberships, tutors, psychologists, painting lessons, pottery classes, iPads, cameras, chemistry sets, horses, hockey teams, telescopes, cello camps, complete sets of Harry Potter. The parents not only understand the homework, they have the time to help with it—and also with the dioramas, book-binding, mousetrap-powered cars, baking soda volcanoes. As they get older, the disadvantaged kids get more and more opportunities in Shaker. I’m proud of all the programs that our district sponsors to help these kids. The energy and money we put into these problems are exemplary. But advantaged kids also get wonderful opportunities in school. And on the weekend they go to Shakespeare plays; when there’s a day off they shadow their parents at the Cleveland Clinic; for spring break they go scuba diving in Costa Rica; over the summer they tour the museums of Europe.

Our achievement gap not only doesn’t close over the 12 years of schooling, it grows slightly wider. And here we make another serious mistake when we interpret the data. We assume that, if we were a truly equitable district, the data would show it by having a gap that decreased, or at worst, held steady. But this assumes that learning is a straight, upward-slanting line, a steady accumulation of knowledge and skills. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain educates itself: not by inputting information, but by loading software. Growth is exponential. The more you learn, the better you get at learning. You learn faster; you retain more; your brain makes new connections and quantum leaps. Our achievement gap widens only slightly over the school years in Shaker, and this is a genuine achievement.

It appears that our district has begun to supplant the term “achievement gap” with “opportunity gap.” I haven’t heard the rationale for this decision, but it seems to me that we are reaching for whips with which to flagellate ourselves. “Opportunity gap” implies that the fault lies squarely with us: for surely we control what opportunities we give our students. But it is our society that has an opportunity gap. And this colossal injustice manifests itself in schools as an achievement gap.

What the data shows us is that, in our little community, we’re doing a damn good job at battling an epic problem—a problem as wide as the nation and as deep as the most hidden and poorly understood mechanisms of the human mind. A problem as old as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Before that, the data is kinda murky.

I am certainly not advocating complacency. I’m not saying we should stop trying to close the gap. We should strive with every fiber of our teaching souls to reach and engage and inspire the kids on the lower tier of our gap. The obstacles in front of them are a monstrous injustice.

But when we hold ourselves to the impossible benchmarks of the ODE, when we hold up illusions as our standards, we not only set ourselves up for failure and recriminations, but we do a real disservice to the kids we want to help. For some of these kids are truly brilliant, some of them are pushing themselves to the limit, day in and day out, some of them are walking miracles. And are we telling them that no matter how hard they work, no matter how high they achieve, it’s not enough?

The failing state report card has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the district, and some urgent communication to parents. But—can I tell you a secret? This is one hell of a good school system. We know it; most of the community knows it. Personally, I’m proud to be a Shaker teacher. I’m humbled by the work of my colleagues. The only message we need to send regarding the news from Columbus is to the ODE itself: take your report card and shove it where the data don’t shine.

There. I feel better already. And now I need to get back to work.

Chris Cotton,
SHHS English Teacher
SHTA Member


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The Lawfetchers

Here’s how ALEC works: A small group of wealthy, powerful men meet in secret and write a law that would bring lots of money to them and their friends. Then they fly a bunch of state legislators to a big shindig, wine and dine them, put them in a fancy hotel, wow them with speakers such as Milton Friedman and Dick Cheney. Then they share the laws with the legislators, who maybe tweak them a bit and then take them home and introduce them as their own. There must be a word for this. It’s not “representative,” and it’s not “democracy.” It might be “lobbying,” but ALEC’s lawyers evade this definition to slip through a loophole in anti-corruption laws. Anyway, “lobbying” is too weak a word. I’d say ALEC is more of an outsourcing of the most basic function of government. Our elected politicians aren’t lawmakers, they’re lawfetchers.


How much do teachers work?

I teach high school English. I love my subject, and I love kids. My job is difficult and demanding, sometimes stressful. I’m far from perfect, and in the complex, ever-changing art of my profession, there are plenty of things I could do better. But there is one area in which I know I’m beyond reproach. I’m a hard worker.

Some people think that teachers have it easy. They think we work only nine months of the year, and part-time at that. So let’s see. How much do teachers work? I don’t know anything about national averages, but I can tell you about me.

During the school year, I very rarely put in a week of less than 60 hours. I’d like to use that number, because I’m completely confident that it’s an underestimation. My wife would say that my true average is much higher. I’m usually in the building for over 10 hours, and I rarely take a break at lunch. I have work at home maybe two or three, occasionally four nights a week. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a few hours. I get the bulk of my essay grading done over the weekend. And it takes many hours of sustained mental effort to grade a set of essays well. There’s no multitasking. You have to think hard.

My district’s academic year is 39 weeks, but a couple of those are only half-weeks, like Thanksgiving. So that means 37 weeks of 60 hours each, or 2220 hours, plus two weeks of 30. I feel safe using these numbers because I am certain that the reality is considerably higher. Over the three weeks of Christmas Break and Spring Break, I usually have a fair bit of grading, around 10 hours a week, for a total of 30 hours. This year, on Christmas Break, I had around 160 essays to grade. In the summer, we’ll say it’s a year I don’t go to a week-long teacher workshop. I do no schoolwork for two weeks, and then for the other seven weeks I work about 5-10 hours a week.  This summer, one of my many projects was to make props for the plays we read aloud in class. And I had meetings and work sessions with colleagues. So that’s at least 50 more hours. Then the week before school is full of preparation and meetings, a full 40-hour week—or more, if the lawfetchers in Columbus have been especially fecund. That makes a total of 2400 hours per year.

If you have the standard American workweek of 40 hours, and if you only get two weeks off out of the 52, then you put in 40 times 50, or 2000 hours. You’re 400 hours behind this teacher. Are there lazy teachers? Of course there are. There are lazy people in all professions. There are even some lawmakers lazy enough to let lobbyists make laws for them. But if there are any lazy teachers in this building, I haven’t met them yet. I’m proud to work in this school. The faculty and administrators and staff are nothing short of phenomenal. I’m amazed by what they do. I’m honored to be one of them.

I’m proud to be a teacher. I really like it when I meet people and I can answer the inevitable question, “What do you do?” by saying: “I’m a teacher.” I think that’s a really cool thing to be able to say.

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Yes, ALEC is Nonpartisan

ALEC calls itself nonpartisan. Some people question this, and point to the fact that over 99% of their members belong to the same party. But I think “nonpartisan” is quite right. To be partisan, you have to believe in a set of political principles. And on every major issue, ALEC is all over the political map, sometimes favoring progressive principles, sometimes conservative. Sometimes they’re libertarians, sometimes they’re champions of the welfare state.  Like some Democrats, they crave enormous and ever-growing public spending. They lie on their backs with their mouths open under the great federal spigot and only pause when they have to laugh.

ALEC is vehemently opposed to many core Republican principles. They will fight to the death against states’ rights: they think every state’s policy should be set by a small, secret committee of bureaucrats (them).

What about other issues, say, immigration? Well, if their companies can build the fence and provide the private border security, then they’re all about keeping the illegal immigrants out. But more commonly, as in the notorious Arizona law they wrote, ALEC wants to let the illegals in so that they can be arrested and put into the private prisons built by the taxpayer and operated, at a tidy profit, by ALEC members. Prisons for profit are an ALEC staple. In fact, their privatization strategy is pretty much the same for prisons and for schools: they get government money for each inmate or student; they supply the inmates or students with as little as they can get away with; they pay the guards or teachers as close to minimum wage as possible; they pocket the change. And the change, in both cases, runs into the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Two things America produces in great quantity are children and prisoners.

Republicans claim to be all in favor of small business. ALEC eats three small businesses over easy every morning. There are no ALEC members who run small businesses. The annual dues are 25 grand!

Most Republican state legislators are opposed to Affirmative Action which might help poor and downtrodden students attend state universities. But luckily for these principled politicians, ALEC is all for Affirmative Action. A portion of their corporate fees is set aside for what they actually call “scholarships” for poor and downtrodden state lawfetchers to attend the conferences.

ALEC adores government regulations. They write thousands of pages of the stuff every year. They are a factory for red tape.

Mitt Romney mocked Obama for his statement: “You didn’t build that.” And Republicans claim to be on the side of the people who build things, the people who do the real work that keeps the economy moving. ALEC is not interested in building. They’re into destroying and mooching. They are attempting to dismantle American public education, a huge and mostly successful institution that took a hundred and fifty years to build. And they mooch. The reason they target state houses is that they want public money. The for-profit universities want more government-sponsored loans that students will never be able to pay back, the online education providers want more local funding for their teacherless schools, the for-profit schools want more vouchers for wealthy families. ALEC doesn’t build anything, and they have nothing but contempt for the suckers who do.

And ALEC certainly isn’t Tea Party, though they like to direct the populist rage toward teachers. Tea Partiers froth at the mouth at the thought of any redistribution of wealth. ALEC is all about redistribution of wealth: from the taxpayers, from the workers, from the urban poor, from the country rednecks, from the suburban middle class, from the 99% … to them.