Cast Iron Skillet

A blog about teaching, English, and teaching English

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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.

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Greatness and Mediocrity

I would like to add on to what Peter Greene wrote in a wonderful post on his Curmudgucation blog a couple months back, the “Myth of the Hero Teacher.

The successful district is not one with a hero teacher in every classroom. That’s a comic book. And in any case, even great teachers have bad days, bad months, bad years. If a hero teacher is the primary caretaker for an elderly parent with a long, slow decline, their heroism might be redirected. Getting divorced, having a child with cancer, suffering from depression can diminish greatness. A teacher might be great with some students but not others. Some teachers start out great, but burn out. Some teachers take a long time to become great.

If you have a school system in which students can only learn from the superhero teacher, what you have is a failing school system. You probably also have an unstable, unsafe community overwhelmed by the enormous societal problems in this country.

A great school district isn’t one with a great teacher in every room. A great school district is one in which mediocre students can learn from mediocre teachers. The great students will soar, the great teachers will inspire, but in a successful district, education will happen for pretty much everybody.

This does not in any way mean we should strive for mediocrity. Of course we should hire the very best people we can. And of course we should invest heavily in helping each teacher be the very best that they can be. And of course we should fire or counsel out the people who have no business being in the classroom. But even if you do all these things well, if your school district does not exist in a comic book or a movie, you will still end up with a range of teacher quality.

Education is a systemic endeavor, a community endeavor, a societal endeavor. The classroom is located within this context. It does not exist in some Marvel universe outside of the world and its problems.

The myth of the hero teacher is both a weapon and a smokescreen. It’s a handy club with which to beat teachers, and a distraction while reformers go about their real agenda: undermining school systems, weakening communities, and ignoring societal problems.

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Fear the Level Playing Field

It’s common knowledge that high school girls are outperforming boys, and that college enrollment is now close to 60 percent female. It is now easier for boys to get into most colleges than girls, as admissions offices strive to avoid hitting this 60%, what some call the “tipping point.” The debate over this ironic form of “affirmative action” has been curiously soft-spoken, but it has had one wonderful side-effect: it has exposed as a sham a traditional argument against affirmative action—that a person who is admitted due to their minority status will always feel that they don’t belong, that they were given an undeserved pass.

No one has used this argument to oppose this new almost-universal bias against women. Colleges quietly tilt the playing field and never, ever, ever worry that men will suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

Because the same people who used that argument have now forsaken it, we can see it as the shabby circular reasoning it always was. The argument might be paraphrased: just as these males shouldn’t feel inferior because they’re not inferior, those minorities should have felt inferior because they were inferior. It’s merely the members of a privileged group projecting their feelings of superiority onto perceived interlopers. George W. Bush himself embraced this argument—even though it was refuted by his own experience, when, as a “legacy,” he was comfortable being admitted to Yale over more qualified men and women.

The evaporation of this specious argument is an ironic delight. But there’s a much more important item absent from the debate about the decline in boys’ performance: the most obvious explanation. This explanation is not notable for its certainty—it may not be the true root cause. But, because it is so blindingly obvious, it should be the first hypothesis that we consider.

To use the level playing field analogy, let’s imagine a controlled experiment. In the past, the field was tilted: men were playing downhill, women uphill. Men were winning. Now the field is level. Women are winning. If nothing else has changed, it’s a matter of basic deduction: women are smarter.

Pundits have bent over backwards to find that something else that has changed. Personally, my first bet would be video games (which seem to me to be vacuum cleaners for gray matter), but this line runs into a powerful lobby and rarely gets far. It’s easier to attack education, which, we are told, favors girls—who are better at sitting and thinking. And don’t forget: most teachers are women. Yet this argument overlooks the fact that boys were doing fine in the same educational system in the past. And recent years have brought more “boy-friendly” strategies and more male teachers—with little effect.

It’s more likely that the decline (if there is one) is not in educators’ sensitivities but in boys’ self-discipline. This is a fascinating question, but enormously complicated, with a web of intermingling culprits (parents? popular music? atrocious diets? ADHD epidemics?). Such a nebula of causes is pretty much unfathomable, and certainly does not condense into saleable books and programs—the stuff of which careers in punditry are made. Far easier to attack something smaller and more subject to control: education. And conveniently, this plays into the talking points of those who have led the vilification of teachers in recent years, and also those political demagogues and business interests intent on dismantling public education.

Why do we shy away from the most obvious explanation of the data? As a man, I see no cause to take offense at such a suggestion. I’m smarter than many millions of men and women, and many millions of men and women are smarter than me. What does it matter that there’s a few million more women in the latter category? Or that, statistically, women are one or two or three percent more intelligent? In a world of seven billion people, such percentages are irrelevant.

Personally, I’m far from convinced that an innate intelligence difference is a significant cause of the problem. What is significant is our willful ignorance of the most likely explanation. If we allow our fear to blind us to the obvious, then how can we possibly look at the problem honestly? And what are the real motives behind our accusations and proposals?

A more likely culprit for boys’ decline, in my opinion, is a potent resentment caused by the loss of power and status, a sense of denied birthright that some boys and men feel nowadays: a thwarted entitlement; a haunting sense that we aren’t important anymore, and may not even be necessary. It’s an existential paranoia. Such feelings often run deep and hidden, and have great destructive power. Witness fanatical Muslim terrorists yearning for a return of some medieval caliphate, or our homegrown zealots fantasizing about the “next American century.” Lost power is a humiliation. It hurts.

My hunch may be way off. And there are probably dozens, if not hundreds of overlapping and intermingling causes. But I don’t think action needs to be so complicated. Maybe that too is blindingly obvious. If we can overcome tribalism, and begin to think of ourselves as part of one tribe of seven billion, we’d go a long way toward solving this and other problems. No gender, creed, race, or nationality produces inherently superior or inferior humans.

I remember, some years ago, being thunderstruck one day when I saw an advertising billboard featuring Joe Camel. He leaned on a sports car with a sexy woman in the background. I knew that I was part of the target audience: a male. Yet it amazed me. The advertisers were expecting me to identify with a camel, because it was male, rather than a human, because it was female. They were expecting my gender identity to trump my species identity! And it worked, of course it worked. Advertisers know how I think.

This knee-jerk response, splitting the world into male and female, sensing a tribal rift, this is the real problem. It’s not something that can be overcome easily or quickly, but it is something we can work on, something that we can face honestly.

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The Lawfetchers II

This year in Ohio, teachers and administrators across the state are pulling our hair out dealing with the latest abomination from the lawfetchers in Columbus: it’s 57,000 words of new government regulations known as House Bill 555. Its two sponsors are ALEC members. Six of its seven co-sponsors are ALEC members. It’s not an Ohio law. It’s an ALEC law.

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In case you had any doubts …

In case you had any doubts that one of the purposes of the Common Core is to de-professionalize teachers, to make them mere purveyors of standardized curriculum … here is Bill Gates writing in the Feb. 11, 2014 USA Today. He claims to be debunking the “myth” that the Common Core “will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.”

These are standards, just like the ones schools have always had; they are not a curriculum. They are a blueprint of what students need to know, but they have nothing to say about how teachers teach that information. It’s still up to local educators to select the curriculum.

In fact, the standards will give teachers more choices. When every state had its own standards, innovators making new educational software or cutting-edge lesson plans had to make many versions to reach all students. Now, consistent standards will allow more competition and innovation to help teachers do their best work.

So this is how it will work. Local educators (not teachers) will have the freedom to select curriculum. The real creative people, the innovators, will work for Microsoft and Pearson and provide the cutting-edge lesson plans. Teachers, of course, won’t need to be professionals, won’t need to be in the business for a career, won’t need to be doing a job they love in order to help kids and maybe even help the world just a little bit, and certainly won’t need to be paid middle-class salaries. In the brave new world of the Common Core, teachers (that poor little backward tribe) will finally be able to follow simple instructions, to read a standardized script aligned with a standardized test. And this, they will be so relieved to finally understand, is their best work.

You can find the entire Gates article here: