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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Randall K. Dudley, the Norway Rat

I’m a seaplane pilot—Sharp Eyes Raccoon—
Been flying this coast for many a moon—
I’ve seen it snow on the first of June,
Seen blizzards worse than any typhoon,
Seen tides—fifty feet from midnight to noon.
But one thing I ain’t seen and won’t see soon
Is a fuel guard worthy to wear the hat
Of Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

Along the Bay of Fundy shore
Of Nova Scotia, known in lore
For towering tides, and storms galore,
A village is safe from the ocean’s roar
In a cove by which the gray cliffs soar.
It’s St. Gaspard, and there for more
Than twenty years, in a fisherman’s hat,
Worked Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

He stood at his post at the end of the pier,
His beady eyes squinched in a menacing leer,
His yellow incisors bared in a sneer,
The smoke from his pipe like an inky smear.
He never once budged, be it storm or clear,
From guarding the fuel. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

I flew the mail to the Nova Scotians,
Plus vital supplies and sundry notions—
Acorns for squirrels, beaver tooth lotions—
And when they were sick, needing hospital potions
My plane was an ambulance over the ocean.
But the distance was more than I could handle
Without the help of the stalwart Randall.

.

I flew that route on the Bay of Fundy,
Morning and evening, except on Sunday,
In my steadfast, reliable single-prop Skundi.
I’d stop for a lunch of solomon gundy
(The sweet pickled herring, we both liked that)
With Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

The legends were legion about his career:
Once, tides so high, they swamped the pier—
He carried the 55-gallon drums clear.
Once wind-chill so savage it froze off his ear:
He scowled, and he shrugged, then, quite cavalier,
He twiddled his whiskers. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

One midwinter night—a daring raid
By a pair of sea lions, fuel-robbers by trade—
They swam to the depot, each baring a blade,
Where the sign said “Fuel, Aviation Grade.”
But the vigilant guard was unafraid:
He thrashed and he slashed, and the robbers, dismayed,
Dove back in the water. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

Other brigands were feline, they came in a swarm—
House-cats, he scoffed; he knew the form:
They wintered by fireplaces, cuddled and warm.
No bite of the sea-spray, no teeth of the storm:
Protected and pampered, that was the norm.
They looked rather lazy, and very fat,
Compared to the fierce and sinewy rat.

.

He snarled his snarl with yellow fang,
He cocked his knees, but before he sprang,
In a sudden panic, the feline gang
Performed a rapid boomerang.
He puffed on his pipe. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

But the noblest achievement of this guard
Of the fuel on the jetty in St. Gaspard,
I witnessed myself—and it hit me hard.
It left me shaken, forever scarred—
For that was by far his greatest day,
But it was the end of Randall K.

.

On a night cold enough to freeze your gizzard,
From the sea came a pitiless wind that scissored,
And then a swirling, blinding blizzard,
With snow piling higher than the hat of a wizard.
But through it all, demurely sat,
Twiddling his whiskers, the Norway rat.

.

And that very night, in the town of St. Vitus,
In a house on the point, where the Cape Split light is,
An otter came down with appendicitis!
I hooked her up to the hemostat,
Then radioed Randall, the Norway rat:

.

“It’s Sharp Eyes—the Skundi with single prop—
I’m gonna need gas, filled up to the top,
To finish my urgent Fundy hop
And reach the usual hospital stop,
Or else this otter’s tummy will pop!
It’s the storm of the century, can you do that?
Can you tank up my seaplane, you tough old rat?”

.

“You call this a storm?” he said in a growl,
Over crashing waves, and the wind’s howl.
Despite the static, I heard his scowl
As he said, “The weather is somewhat foul.
So move it. I don’t have time to chat.
Over and out,” said the Norway rat.

.

The going was rough—the sea so choppy,
The floats banged the waves, the wings were floppy—
My take-off was inexcusably sloppy,
But airborne in 30 seconds flat,
I flew northeast toward the rat.

.

The lantern swayed in the depot yard
On Randall’s pier at St. Gaspard.
I yanked on the joystick, rolling hard,
And his the surf with an awkward splat
Near Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

His pipe—I don’t know how he lit it—
Had a dull red glow, and I saw that he gritted
His curved yellow fangs, and he snarled as he knitted
His frost-covered brows, and his eyes, they were slitted.
But if he was cold, well he didn’t admit it.
I watched him from the Skundi doorway,
That rat of the species known as Norway.

.

As he filled the tank, I was shocked to see
The jetty jerk like it might break free,
As gale-force winds came savagely,
And breakers surged from a raging sea.
The lightning hinted catastrophe:
The fuel line bent at a sharp degree
Just where the shore-line link was at!
I spun in alarm toward the rat.

.

He slapped the fuselage of the Skundi,
And shoved me out on the Bay of Fundy,
Yelling, “Hey, Sharp Eyes, see you on Monday.
We’ll share a plate of solomon gundy.”
I shouted: “I’ll gladly pay for that,
If I survive tonight, you rat.”

.

I gunned the throttle and gripped the stick,
Though snow came at me, fierce and thick,
And each wave hit with a jarring kick,
And wind seemed to hurtle, double-quick.
But the otter, she still looked deathly sick:
Her eyes were glassy, her speech was muddly,
So I motored away from Mr. Dudley.

.

Accelerating toward the cliff,
I heard that weepy otter sniff.
I said, “Don’t fret, we’ll be up in a jiff.”
But I was beginning to wonder if
We’d get as high as a bedside candle,
Or the hat on the head of the rat named Randall.

.

But then the wind’s direction shifted
To south-southeast, where the current drifted,
And ever so slightly, the aircraft lifted
And made its climb, just where the cliff did.
Now safe, I banked so I could cheer
At the Norway rat who was missing an ear.

.

But then—from out in the North Atlantic,
A tidal surge, so fast and gigantic,
Hit Fundy’s bay—and made me frantic!
I feared for him in the fisherman’s hat,
That tough and unflappable Norway rat.

.

The surge roared up to St. Gaspard
And struck the pier so terribly hard—
The old spruce pilings splintered and jarred—
It twisted and snapped—I looked for the guard—
Was he flung in the air like a helpless gnat?
Or dunked in the surf like a water rat?

.

Then something far worse—the pier, overloaded
With fuel, and its line to the shore corroded—
It sparked when it snapped, which grimly boded—
And then the whole pier and the depot exploded
In a hideous fireball as bright as day . . .
But where was my buddy Randall K.?

.

The pier burned orange, and thick black smoke
Engulfed the cove in a grisly cloak
And spewed on the water, enough to choke
Survivors of the lethal stroke
Of high-octane fuel in metal vats
Ignited close to Norway rats.

.

I wanted to search for my valiant friend,
But that would have meant the certain end
For the otter and me, if I did descend.
A certainty I could comprehend
Was the loss of life and habitat
For Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

The otter screamed, and my duty pressed:
I had no choice but to head to the west
For St. John, New Brunswick, and hospital rest
For my ailing patient, who never guessed
The truth of her rescue, as she convalesced.
The price? I never told her that:
One extremely reliable Norway rat.

.

As I flew, the storm grew less severe—
On landing, the weather was almost clear.
A hedgehog Red Cross volunteer
Took charge of the patient at Hospital Pier.
I sat at the wheel, feeling spent and drear,
And on the altimeter splashed a tear.
Rocked by the waves, now low and flat,
I wept for Randall, the Norway rat.

.

I climbed to the pier and tied up the Skundi,
Then stood and gazed at the mysterious Fundy,
And a voice in my mind said, “See you on Monday,
Go eat that plate of solomon gundy.”
I shrugged, then nodded, “Well, well, that’s that,
Randall K. Dudley, you Norway rat.”