Friday, December 5, 2008


You can't say this any better.

From Gary Imhoff


Practice Makes Imperfect

Dear Practitioners:

I’m reluctant to disagree with Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s national education reporter, because his years of experience have given him a deep knowledge of his field. But on Monday he wrote an article that I have to challenge, “New DC Principal, Hand-Picked Team Make Early Gains,” This article is yet another link in the Post’s chain of articles prompted by Michelle Rhee’s national public relations campaign.
This public relations blitz explains why Rhee’s school “reform” remains popular with those who are untouched by it, though it is viewed with deep skepticism by the teachers, students, and parents whom it affects. Mathews’ article praises the work of the principal whom Rhee hand-picked as a shining example for Mathews to interview, Brian Betts at “Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson,” as the combined schools are clumsily called.

I’m sure that Betts is as enthusiastic and energetic as Mathews describes him. In addition,
Betts was given the opportunity that Rhee wants to give all her principals, to replace almost all of the teachers at his school with new hires. In the most telling paragraphs of the article, Mathews quotes what Betts thinks was the key question in his interviews with prospective teachers: “‘Shaw and Garnet-Patterson have proficiency rates in both math and reading in the low 20 percents. To what do you attribute this poor performance and what do you plan to do or do differently next year to improve test scores and student achievement?’ A young teacher from New Jersey named Meredith Leonard was hired after saying: ‘Every kid can learn, and we all say that, but what is missing is the last part of the sentence: every kid can learn given the motivation, given the supports, given the expectations. I will be motivating my kids, I will be giving my kids the support and I will be expecting them to do it.’ Many more applicants, including experienced teachers, blamed the bad test scores on undereducated parents and impoverished homes and suggested that those social ailments would be hard to cure. They weren’t hired.”

In one way, Betts’ and Rhee’s emphasis may be right. Teachers aren’t social workers who can solve their students’ home and social problems. That’s not their job. They should concentrate on what they can accomplish in their classrooms. They also should have the attitude that teaching their students is not hopeless.
In another, more important way, Betts and Rhee are very wrong. Teachers can make all the difference for some students, but it is naive and foolish to think that they can be the most important factor in the education of most of their students. Meredith Leonard is simply wrong in thinking that the motivation she provides will be the most important thing determining the performance of her students; she’s setting herself up for disappointment, disillusion, and an ultimate fall. Betts rejected the teachers who correctly recognized that most students are much more influenced by the attitudes of their parents and peers, and that if their parents and peers do not value, or are even scornful of, education, that will be more important to them than any single teacher’s enthusiasm and energy. Betts chose to hire the teachers who gave the answer politically and ideologically approved by Rhee, not the right answer.

Washington Post shares Rhee’s faith that the path to improvement is to get rid of older, experienced workers in favor of younger, inexperienced ones, assuming that the new workers will have an initial burst of energy and enthusiasm that will make up for their lack of background and knowledge. Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book Outliers, argues “that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice,” and that “researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours,” It’s a commonsense notion, long ago distilled into three words: “practice makes perfect.”

Rhee rejects it; she thinks teachers are best at the beginning of their careers, and that practice at teaching makes them imperfect. Similarly, over the past few years the Post has used repeated worker buyouts to rid its newsroom of many of its best writers and editors, those with years of experience and depth of knowledge in their fields. As readers of the newspaper, we’ve seen how well that is working out. As one of the rare survivors, Mathews should know it better than we do. Now the Post is urging the same road to perdition on DC’s school system.


  1. If a prospective teacher believes that the teacher cannot be the most important determinant of student outcomes, just what is the job of a teacher? If you don't think you can make a big difference for students academically, even despite the many challenges they face, why would you want to be a teacher? Rhee, Betts, and the many teachers and schools who show the impact of teachers and school leaders who do believe they are responsible for results are correct. I would never hire a teacher who believed he/she cannot change outcomes (or, indeed, is not responsible for doing so).

    You misrepresent what Rhee and her allies want. The ideal is, of course, a teacher who both has experience AND accepts full accountability for student outcomes. However, among teachers who only fit one of these criteria, one who doesn't yet have experience but takes responsibility for student achievement is better every time. It's not just "energy and enthusiasm" that will make the difference -- it's the teaching expertise that will be gained quickly whenever someone directs his/her energy and enthusiasm toward increasing student achievement no matter what the challenges.

  2. Question:
    If Michelle Rhee believes so strongly that the single greatest factor in student achievement is a teacher, why did she leave the classroom after just two years?

  3. Your statement is am insult to those of us who put our blood and guts into teaching for decades.

    "If a prospective teacher believes that the teacher cannot be the most important determinant of student outcomes, just what is the job of a teacher?"

    You've got to be joking. You don't know what the job of a teacher is? You don't think those of us who did the job for 30 years didn't teach? and to the best of our ability? You don't think many of us visited homes and held kids and went to too many funerals to count?

    Your comment indicates a fundamental misundersanding of what it is to teach in the poorest communities in this country and see the kids deprived of so many things that are taken for granted. Does that understanding keep us from doing a good job? You are breathing ideological fumes.

  4. The job of a teacher is to ensure academic achievement of all students.

  5. The woman had a cup of coffee in the classroom and then left. If she was so passionate, so successful and so committed to teaching and students, why did she leave? Even her claims of success in that classroom are open to question, since she and her supporters refuse to provide the data to support her claims of success.

    The Michelle Rhees of the world care little about the well-being of minority and impoverished children. If they did, they would'nt be making their absurd claims that "The children can't wait" to have failing schools improved and fixed, and must therefore have their career teachers replaced by affluent missionaries who will helicopter in for a couple of years, polish their resumes, and then go off to a lifetime of impressing their friends with their commitment to the "underprivileged."

    Can't wait? What about the years leading up to their entry into the public schools? What about the infant and maternal death rates- highest in the industrialized world - in the communities from which these children come? What about the inadequate neonatal care? Their low birth weights? Their underemployed and undereducated parents, often incarcerated? Don't tell us the children can't wait when their lives have been little but a futile wait for justice and resources.

    The Michelle rhees of the world have been groomed and placed in their positions of power to:
    1. Exert absolute managerial control over the clasroom, as they have in virtually every other workplace. The obsession with quantifiable data is part of that, since if you control the information you control the work.
    2. Socialize the overwhelming majority of youngsters in the US to a future life of overwork( see longer school day and year), stress (see pressure and stigmatization regarding test-taking), tedium (see endless test prep) and remote surveillance (see massive data bases used to make policy decisions regarding schools, teachers an students, and reportedly even used in planning future prison construction).

    Just as the debate over the auto industry is a covert discussion about the existence of the UAW and industral unions, so too the debate about Michelle Rhee and the WTU is a debate about the voice of teachers in the clasroom, the continuation of teaching as a profession and career, and the model and purpose of education in general. Should she win, the floogates will open, and we'll all be carried away.

  6. They are heartless, callous, and soulless. The children are pawns in their game of so called "education" for monetary gain, but theirs and their friends' only. The children are considered last in all decisions from the bottom up; this year, it is worse than ever. There is a slide downward, in this formerly consumerist economy, from middle class to poverty but during the presidential campaign there was great concern about whether or not Obama wore his flag pin and its significance. We are so manipulated and bamboozled (not you of course) that America has lost its way. I find it heinous that my friend had his literature anthology wrenched away from him after using it about 20 years. He was made to teach using some kind of "independent reading" from Columbia University, complete with student packets, whatever those are. Those in power are engaged in social engineering, a massive dumbing down so fewer people are exposed to fewer ideas. Journalism is now for sale, and only money is respected in this country. A part of me is so cynical that real change can occur, but hope does still exist if a new leadership can take a much more humane position in terms of the needs of the people.

  7. I continue to believe that it is possible that just plain talking and writing will accomplish no good in this country anymore.

    That said, I also believe the opposite propostion: I believe it is just possible that talking and writing WILL help to effect massive change in this country.

    We are in the grip of a downward plunge into an iron-fisted authoritarian state in which those who are able to will steal nearly everything from others. Those who brutalize and oppress other human beings and other life forms and other entities in this solar system will ensure for the provision of just so much material and mental resource for the hordes as will allow the masses to serve these monsters.

    It has always been thus for many billions of human beings. For some of us, this is the first time this pillage and oppression has reached the level it has here today.

    What is hopeful, however, is the growing realization of increasing numbers of people that they are being increasingly victimized, that they are being hurt more and more each day.

    What is hopeful is that more and more people seem to be willing to recognize their desperate plight, speak out about it and make demands.


  8. I have yet to meet, or read any commentary by, a "Skinner-type" who has been a classroom teacher for more than a few years.

    People with that mentality seem to leave the classroom about the time that the Truth is starting to dawn on them.

    Sometimes they leave it before that point because their two-year commitment has come to an end. Then they slink off and wash the challenges of those "nasty" children off their hands, feeling superior as they proceed into law school, educational-reform management, or administration.

    It's too bad the usual TFA-type commitment for baby teachers isn't seven years because great insights would be gained. Of course, the organizationa probably know that few of those somewhat arrogant, but disillusioned, youngsters would be able to hack it.

  9. Teach For America activists say poor schools and bad teachers cause the achievement gap not bad habits or inequality.

    Discounting the notion of individual responsibility, they want us to give TFA alumni top jobs in our urban schools, and to transfer kids from neighborhood schools to the charters they operate, so they can eliminate job security for teachers and eradicate any influence we have over school-district policies.

    The idea that teachers are opponents rather than advocates of education is a new one in our country. It derives from the time when Ms. Wendy Kopp first started TFA and decided, from her Princeton perch and without a day in the classroom, that inexperienced teachers were inherently better than experienced ones.

    Ms. Kopp's circle in Washington D.C., Houston, New York and elsewhere are launching an anti-American Ivy League class war on the very same teachers who serve our nation's toughest schools.


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