Blaming the teachers can’t overcome problems of poverty in educational achievement

May 24, 2011

We got the scores from the state yesterday, for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).  Most of my students are juniors, so this is a big deal.  If they pass these tests, in mathematics, science, English language arts and social studies.

Preliminary results gave me a 100% pass rate with 41% commended, out of  134 students whose scores counted (don’t ask about those formulae).  Considering that our students’ poverty rate, as measured by school lunches, is well north of 85%, that’s good.

It doesn’t mean all these kids are ready for the Ivy League, though.

I know the preliminary results err somewhere.  I can find two students in special education categories who did not muster the scores I had hoped, and to me, it looks like they may need to retake.  Two failures wouldn’t be bad, either.  I’ll let the state and our administrators fight that out.

So, I’ve done an okay job of teaching our kids bubble guessing.   That’ what the TAKS test does, focus teaching on bubble guessing.  Are we getting these kids ready for life and college?  I have more doubts.  The TAKS curriculum is limited, and shallow.  Dallas District has two other tests, but again the curriculum tested is limited and shallow.

Each year I discover most students don’t remember what they studied of Paul Revere, and almost none know the famous Longfellow poem about him.  They don’t know about Joyce Kilmer, either his poem or the sacrifice of his life.

Reading political cartoons proves difficult for many students, because they don’t understand the symbolism, sometimes of easy stuff like, “who does the Statue of  Liberty represent?” or “why is that guy dressed in a star-spangled coat, striped pants and striped top hat?”

They don’t know about Route 66.  They don’t know the National Parks.  They don’t know Broadway, nor Stephen Foster.  They are convinced Utah has some big river that led the Mormons to settle there, “on or near a waterway,” instead of the real reasons the Mormons settled there, for religious freedom in a desert.

Despite their remarkable test achievements, their teachers are all on the chopping block this year.  The Texas Lege still quibbles over whether to lay off 10,000 or 100,000 teachers over the summer.  We leave the academic year knowing only that the legislature as a collective hates teachers and teaching and schools, and they probably don’t like the students much, either, but they can’t say that because they want the students’ parents’ votes.

Jonathan at JD 2718 sent me a note a couple of weeks ago alerting me to a story in the online Texas Tribune, by Reeve Hamilton.  Hamilton interviewed Dr. Michael Marder, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin who in his spare times runs UT’s UTeach Program, which encourages the best students in science and math to consider teaching elementary and secondary classes.  Marder has a strong case to make that it’s not the teacher’s fault when students in some schools do not measure up to the standards promulgated by the state tests, inadequate and inappropriate as those standards are.

(Personal note:  Reeve Hamilton is a very good reporter who often does great work on otherwise mundane issues; he’s also the son of a woman I met in graduate school at the University of Arizona, the first woman who ever gave me a highly contingent proposal of marriage, which as you see we did not carry out — probably much to the benefit of all of us, with Reeve doing such great work, and all our kids being basically sane and sound.  I smiled when Jonathan said such good things about Reeve’s work, and the subject of the story.  Nice to hear unasked-for compliments about people you know and like.)

Marder knows numbers.  Marder got the statistics on schools and their preparation of students for college, as well as we can get those numbers without an expensive and expansive study.

Michael Marder’s numbers show that it’s not the teachers’ fault that so many students are not ready for college, and not learning the stuff we think they should know.

Texas Tribune said:

In the popular 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee said, “But even in the toughest of neighborhoods and circumstances, children excel when the right adults are doing the right things for them.”

After looking at the data, Marder has yet to be convinced that any teaching solution has been found that can overcome the detrimental effects of poverty on a large scale — and that we may be looking for solutions in the wrong place.

Hamilton’s interview of Marder takes up three YouTube segments — you should watch all three.

Marder indicts those who blame teachers first, with the data.  By implication, he also indicts the state legislatures who appear bent on continuing the daily flogging of teachers until teacher morale improves.

In Part I of the interview with Hamilton, Marder shows the statistics that demonstrate poverty of the student is a greater influence on student achievement than the teacher:


Texas standards for social studies — where to find them

March 11, 2010

Texas Tribune quickly establishes itself as a Really Useful journal on Texas politics, especially with features like this summary of the proposed Texas social studies standards, with comments on changes and the history of the changes.

For example, explaining an insulting cut of Texas and African American heroes, Texas Tribune explains:

Tuskegee Airman Commander dumped: Board member McLeroy made the motion to pull Oveta Culp Hobby and Benjamin O. Davis from this standard. Hobby — a Houston newspaper publisher, the director the federal health department in the 1950s, and the wife of Texas Governor William P. Hobby — shows up elsewhere, in the 7th grade curriculum. Davis, however, does not. Davis was the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force and the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in the World War II. The board did insert a phrase on the “contributions of the Tuskegee Airman” in the next section.

Straightforward explanation.  If it raises your ire, it’s not because the writing is inflammatory, but because the facts are so clearly presented.

Tip of the old scrub brush to the Texas Freedom Network and their e-mail alerts.


Texas Tribune and Texas State Board of Education

January 5, 2010

Have you found Texas Tribune yet?  It’s a new, on-line newspaper, and generally it’s terrific.

See their collection of stories already about the State Board of Education. The collection can substitute for at least one cup of coffee to get your blood flowing in the morning.


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