A bitter pill

Several years ago, I returned to Baltimore for the funeral of one of the kids I coached in basketball. He was stabbed to death in an altercation at a gas station. I almost wrote a piece about my feelings, but never did.

Last week, I learned that a student I taught was found shot to death on the street. I don’t know anything more about what happened. There’s no news story about it. If you know the intro to the track Straight Outta Compton…well, almost 30 years later, not much has changed.

This kid was one of the kids who defined my experience as a teacher. He was funny as hell, complex, brilliant, stubborn, inquisitive, and energetic. In one particularly out-of-control class period, he got carried away and was standing on his desk ring-leading the chaos. Floundering to figure out how to regain some semblance of control, I play-lunged at him, and he quickly scrambled back down, saying something probably like “Mr. Johnson ain’t playing”. I earned a little cred, the wrong way. (Not my proudest moment as a teacher, but I never claimed to have been great at the job.)

He and I didn’t always get along, but we also had moments of the two years I taught him where I think I really reached him. On my last day with the students, I let them write reflections about their time with me, if they wanted to. Each one was almost shockingly introspective and grateful for what I had at least tried to accomplish. But this kid’s was hands-down the most heartfelt. That day may have been the last time I saw him, and I’m presuming our lives diverged significantly from that point.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to get enough information to make it back to pay my respects and just express my support to his family and any of his classmates that would have come. But it’s also a reminder of how marginal I am in that world, where media, justice, economics, and just about everything else are entirely different than in the bourgeois world I inhabit. Premature death is so common in Baltimore that young people talk about how they want to be memorialized on a t-shirt in the same way that I might think about a living will.

When I returned to Baltimore for that last funeral, it hit me in the gut that, in a sense that is almost too literal for comfort, I helicopter in and out out of that world at will. But my former students, that precarious world is their default, and they venture out only with incredible difficulty, as the forces of concentrated poverty constantly pull them back in. The people who stay in teaching in places like Baltimore choose to be permanent residents of that world, and a bridge to other worlds. I’m forever in awe of those who stay in the career.

Public Enemy #1

Capone Chase, who I taught for a year and a half, has been declared Baltimore’s Public Enemy #1. He is wanted for allegedly murdering another young man execution-style on a playground within a couple days of having been released from jail for another crime.

The Capone I taught was a difficult kid, but to imagine him executing a person on a playground is chilling to say the least.

Capone was one of the brightest students I taught, not really in performance, but in raw ability to master new concepts quickly. He attended class only sporadically, yet he passed the High School Assessment for Algebra on his first shot, and by a pretty good margin, as I recall. That’s something a large majority of my students failed to do on their first try, and he did it after transferring to my school mid-year from Patterson, one of the worst schools in the city (where, incidentally, my girlfriend also taught him), and barely doing his classwork.

Capone often came to school visibly seething from something that was under his skin. He had serious issues with authority and handling conflict. He often viewed situations in black and white. He seemed to walk around with a serious victim complex, as though the entire world was constantly trying to oppress him. If he felt like he was singled out, he had a tendency to flip out. I tried hard to teach him that not everybody was out to get him, and that if he let things that annoyed him slide, he’s spend far less time caught up in conflict. But he had a serious tendency to escalate things out of proportion.

That being said, he rarely was disrespectful to me as a teacher. In most cases, he was polite and articulate. The main exceptions were when I needed him to do something he didn’t feel like doing, which would often send him to victim mode, and a tirade of “f’ this, f’ that, why you always picking on me?” Once in that mode, it would typically be very difficult to get him back on an even keel. Over time, he and his best friend at FAST realized they were probably among the “hardest” at the school, and by mid sophomore year, they were too cool to attend much class at all. He quit the basketball team mid-season, after a falling out with Coach Peyton, and after that, he kind of entered a downward spiral of caring less and less about school. I don’t know if I saw him at all in the final quarter of sophomore year.

To me, Capone is a poster child for the type of kid who would likely be on a completely different life path had he been raised in normal, non-toxic environment. He clearly came in the door with some deep baggage on a daily basis. Like most of the kids I taught, it was difficult to conceptualize what his out-of-school life must have been like. But I saw it wear him down over time. Poverty almost seems too quaint a word for years of corrosive home life.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where Capone excelled in high school and would be enjoying the summer off between first in second years in college. Not on the run from the law, having allegedly shot a man in the head. In a playground.

End of the journey

This past Saturday, I traveled back to Baltimore for the moment I poured my blood, sweat, and tears to see: the graduation of the first class of Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, better known as FAST.  Being that my students are no longer students, it’s probably safe at last for me to explicitly identify the school where I worked (as if it were ever a big secret).  Given how hard I worked with this day in mind, to have it finally arrive is, hands-down, the proudest moment of my life.  My hat is off completely to my coworkers who worked much longer and harder than I did for this day to come, to all career teachers out there who educate far more young people than I did, and to Errol Duncan, who didn’t get the chance to see his work come to fruition.

We fought some truly epic battles as a staff to try to establish a culture of scholarship and success.  I can’t even describe how hard we worked to get keep our students in uniform, to march them down the hall in quiet, straight lines, to stamp out profanity, to require respectful behavior toward peers and staff, to demand punctuality, to enlist parent support.  We spent countless hours meeting together to strategize how to work with individual students and how to build effective systems.  And that’s not even mentioning academic instruction, let alone the High School Assessment tests the students had to pass to graduate.

By the numbers: from an early roster of mine, it looks like at one point, the original FAST 9th grade class numbered 95 students. The graduation program listed 59 graduating seniors.  Among those were about 48 students I taught, and 36 of those were students on that early roster, whom I taught for two years, some as early as Summer Bridge.  Seven came from my infamous homeroom, Class 901, whom I saw for almost 4 hours a day, every other day, my first year teaching.  Looking at those early rosters, I feel a mix of emotions.  On one hand, for those 7 kids that managed to make it to graduation from my homeroom, I feel nothing but respect.  I know I wasn’t the greatest teacher in the world, and yet, they managed to persevere through my ineptness and abysmal behavior from some of their peers.  Of the whole group of seniors, it looks like a lot are college-bound, a handful with some serious scholarship money.

On the other hand, a lot of names I had high hopes for weren’t in the graduation program.  By my recollection, only one of maybe a dozen English-language learners that I taught made it through.  Many of those kids were the sweetest, most resilient, most respectful children I had the opportunity to interact with.  They had come to America as refugees or immigrants, only to be plunked down into Baltimore City Public Schools.  It’s unpleasantly surprising, because I felt like FAST did a really good job of providing for them.  To be fair, many of them transferred away or moved and may have gone on to graduate somewhere else.  But I know for a fact that two of my most promising immigrant students became pregnant and dropped out.

All things considered, I’m still extremely proud of what my students accomplished, navigating the minefield of adolescence in Baltimore to finish their high school educations.  I never thought graduation day was going to be completely perfect.  How could it be, given the challenges?

June 17, 2008.  That is the date of the first post in this journal, and the beginning of my journey as a teacher, which paralleled that of my students.  From one of my first posts:

The biggest things I plan to internalize are to establish relationships with the students, the other teachers, the administrators, the corps members, and the community, to not succumb to negativity and defeatism, to never waver in setting high expectations for the kids, to be respectful and humble, and to be prepared to work relentlessly.  I’ve got a lot of learning to do these next couple of months.

And this much has been impressed upon me more than anything:  the experience of teaching in inner city Baltimore is going to be extremely tough.  I’d say all of us are somewhat scared to death, and we’d be fools not to be.  But we’re also fired up, and even after a just a couple of days, we’re already starting to band together and dig in.

Wow.  Overwhelmed as I was, that’s actually pretty much spot on.  If nothing else, I did a good job of absorbing the most salient points, because those are things I really did try to keep in mind throughout, even if I wasn’t always successful.  In some sense, it’s hard to believe that four years have passed.  But I’m extremely thankful today that I kept this journal to go back through to relive the experience, and remember what it was like to not know all the things I’d come to learn.  Hopefully there are lessons in here for some future teacher to learn from.  To be fair, there wasn’t much of my blood involved in the experience, but I think the copious sweat and tears more than made up for it.

Even though I intend to maintain a lifelong engagement with education, I think it’s finally time to close the book on my education journal.  I may continue to add new entries to this journal when something education-related catches my eye, but there likely won’t be much else.  Looking back, teaching is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.  As this journal can attest to, I barely made it through two years.  I am absolutely awed by anybody who makes a career of teaching or school administration.  What I do as an computer/electrical engineer is supposed to be “hard”, but it doesn’t even chart in comparison.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a Volume Two sometime in the future.  Despite a recurring dream (okay, slight nightmare) where I’m sucked back into school as a last-minute permanent sub, I don’t see myself ever actually teaching high school again.   But I definitely plan to coach again.  And maybe, just maybe, I might find myself in higher ed, education policy, or school leadership when I’m done with the corporate world.  It’s certainly not on my 5-year plan, but never say never, right?

My, how they grow up!

About a week ago, I had the pleasure of going back to my old school to see how things were going.  My old students are all seniors now, and the school that I helped found (weird, huh?) is now a full house, with grades 6-12.  I must say, the experience of going back left me with mixed feelings.

First of all, it was really cool seeing the students again and my old coworkers.  My old students are really starting to look like young adults.  They’re working out plans for after graduation. 

Yet, it was frustrating to be see that they’re still lacking a certain something.  I think that “something” is perspective.  I’m worried that most of them are in for a very rude awakening when and if they finally get out of Baltimore.  Many undoubtedly will delay that reality check indefinitely by simply not leaving the city.  That feels a bit patronizing to write, because many of my students deal with reality that I couldn’t have imagined at their age, and probably still can’t.  But reality has many levels, and the one about which they lack perspective is the reality of how a person makes it to middle class career success. 

If they had perspective, they would be feeling a massive sense of urgency.  They would know that the game clock is down to the last few seconds, that it is time to be making some spectacular moves to get ready to compete on the next level.  Instead, I saw students meandering aimlessly during class hours and doing everything but being productive.  Above all, I feel sad to see that we failed to establish a culture in the school that was fundamentally different that the prevailing culture of the school system.  I don’t want to throw salt on my old school, but that’s the reality of it.  We worked our asses off. and we couldn’t do it.  In the year in the half since I left, my coworkers kept carrying the torch and new people came in and hit the ground running.

Speaking of the teachers, morale is about what one would expect at the tail end of the brutal grind that leads up to winter break.  They’re worn out and frustrated with the system and with the countless things that aren’t going as they should.  I got to sit in on a few conversations about how to solve problems that shouldn’t exist.  But it’s Baltimore City, and unless you’ve seen the schools first hand, every assumption you might have about what a school has and how it must work is probably not even close to reality. 

I pitched in a couple of suggestions, but to be brutally honest, I felt a massive sense of relief that tackling these problems is no longer my responsibility.  I feel a little guilty about it, but I’d be remiss for saying it.  There’s an unhealthy level of general absurdity everywhere you look.  Usually, it’s kind of an ephemeral absurdity that plays out in the details, but sometimes you run right into it, perhaps in the form of a half ripped sign saying, “DOOR MUST REMAIN CLOSED AT ALL TIMES”, barely hanging off an unwatched, slightly ajar door to the outside world.

The school itself has seen some changes too.  Millions of dollars had been spent to make some pretty impressive renovations to the building.  So there are some really cool things going on.  Clearly, a lot of people are working to make the place better.  Unlike me, they still have the energy to fight the good fight.

In any case, it was good to be back.  I want nothing for the best for all the students, teachers, and staff.  I’m looking forward to visiting again.  It’s actually quite enjoyable to see everyone, and it’s good to remind myself of what’s really going on, especially now that I am so disengaged from that reality on the ground.

A workable solution (Part 3 of 3)

The final spot where I’ve got to disagree with Principal Vanderhoek from my previous entry is where he says that there’s no magic bullet.  Humbly, I do believe there is a magic bullet, and it’s not that complicated.  It’s called social investment.   This hypothetical money should be spent primarily on increasing classroom staff in low-income schools.  Here are my other suggestions:

  • Reinvent the teacher role.  I have several suggestions for this:
    • Double the number of teachers and halve their courseloads
    • Separate the teacher role into its components — classroom manager, academic specialist, administrative assistant — and put multiple adults in each classroom.  Some roles could be shared between classrooms.
    • Elite teachers should be allowed to assume multiple roles, and they should be compensated accordingly.
  • Bring back tracking, but do it in a flexible way.  If a kid is not being successful in the large classroom environment, they often begin to derail the education of every other kid in the classroom.  Poor behaviors begin to eat away at the classroom culture, and before you know it, you start seeing behavioral issues spread, like a virus.  Nip that in the bud.
    • Take the struggling children out of that environment and get them the intensive academic and/or behavioral help they need.  This is where the investment comes in.  We need to pour resources into the most challenged students.  Aim to get them back on the mainstream track, and use small settings, extended school days, and year-round schooling to make it happen.  Some will make it back to the mainstream, and others won’t, but either way, if this is done correctly, we will have made a substantial difference in life outcome for the most difficult students.
    • Meanwhile, positive classroom culture becomes much easier to establish and maintain in the mainstream environment.  I believe that the impact on student achievement in the mainstream environment will be immediate and dramatic.
  • Get rid of social promotion.  We have so many children that are behind their “correct” grade level.  Stop pretending that they’re going to magically catch up.  Teach them from where they are, in cohorts of kids at the same age/grade combination–sadly, there are more than enough behind-grade-level children to make this practical.  It might take a few more years for some children to graduate, but when they do, they’ll be a lot better educated.  This applies to the kids from point #2, who are out of the mainstream.  These are the biggest drop-out and delinquency risks, and we will do a much better job retaining them in the schools if we are actually meeting their needs.  The traditional age/grade correspondence is antiquated and unimaginative, and there’s no good reason not to replace it with something that actually meets childrens’ needs.

The only problem is that I don’t believe the average American cares about solving the problem.  As I’ve said before, people abstractly care about closing the achievement gap, but for the most part, it’s out of sight, out of mind.  People need to understand that it does matter to every American.  And it’s not just about social justice, it’s also about the pocketbook.  The issue is that the failings of education are costly to our country, no matter what. Right now we’re pouring money into combating the effects of poverty through band-aid programs (TFA isn’t free), police, jails, and welfare. If we can pour the money into fixing one generation of children, we can make a substantial dent in the cycle of poverty, and it’s going to pay off in the long-run in future reductions to those other costs.  To me, it’s a no-brainer.

I guess the real question is:  in today’s Taxed-Enough-Already environment, can we muster the will to invest in our nation’s future,  or are we just going wait around to let the free market work it out?

An experiment in teacher compensation (Part 2 of 3)

A friend of mine recently sent me a video on a revolutionary charter school called The Equity Project (TEP), located in NYC:


The summary of the video is:

Katie Couric reports on an experimental New York City charter school founded on the idea of hiring the best teachers by paying them $125,000, while denying them tenure.

Let me first of all say that I think 60 minutes did a phenomenal job with the story.  They covered it from every angle, and they left it open for the viewer to decide whether the radical ideas of the founder/principal, Zeke Vanderhoek, are a promising way forward in education. Notably, TEP is not based on the idea of paying based on performance.  However, it is similar to the concept of merit pay in that it’s based on the idea that the prospect of greater teacher pay will boost student achievement.

One of the difficult things about new ideas in education is that it takes years to be able to truly evaluate whether it’s working.  So, I don’t hold it against TEP that their scores came out below average.  However, the totality of the video definitely brings up some concerns.

In the video, Vanderhoek said, “We’re trying to build a school where every teacher is a great teacher.”

Well, there’s no doubt about it, offering $125k is going to attract elite teachers, and that will probably eventually make TEP  a good school, but that’s not the issue, because we need many good schools, not just one.  The issue is that there aren’t enough elite teachers, and I don’t see what TEP is doing to create more of this precious resource.  All they’re doing is consuming, by pulling great teachers from other schools.  Their solution cannot possibly scale up; if every school offered the same deal, then we’d be in pretty much the same boat we’re in today.

Plus, how many people out there can make a career out of teaching with no administrative staff support?  As the lady said at the end, that school is like the Olympics of teaching.  It’s unreasonable to expect that we can staff every low-income school with career teachers, willing to work 90 hour weeks in bare-bones facilities with no support staff.  That money is going to bring a few more people into the classroom who otherwise would have pursued other opportunities, but it’s not going to keep them there for the long-haul.

The principal in that video fired two of his fifteen teachers after year one.  That’s more than 10% of his superstar staff, hand-selected from that giant bin applications they showed.  And he seems proud of it.  Where he sees success, I see a massive red flag.  If he can’t staff properly when he’s the only public school offering $125k, how in the world is it supposed to work if every other school was doing the same thing?


When it comes to the question of tenure, I completely agree with Vanderhoek in that people shouldn’t be guaranteed a teaching job for life once they get a couple years in.  That’s absurd.  But equally absurd is the idea that there should be no safeguards to employment at all.  His school doesn’t have contracts, so although he waited till the end of the year to make his cuts, he could have done it at any moment.  Do we really want our schools to operate like the NFL, where a team is allowed to sever your employment at any minute, for any reason?  What is missing is a sense of partnership: where is the assurance that a school will work with a teacher to get them performing at a high level?  He also seems unwilling to apply his same standard of perfection to himself.

Maybe the issue is not that we have school systems that are chock full of lazy people who aren’t cut out for the job.  I would posit that we have school systems full of perfectly normal population of human beings, ranging from capable to brilliant, most of whom aren’t cut out for a job that is absurdly challenging.

Unlike Joel Klein, quoted in the video, I’m not worried about figuring out how to get non-superstar teachers out the door.  I’m worried about how to give people jobs that are well matched to their capabilities.  The problem is that the profession is structured as a one-size-fits-all job.  Whether you’re a TFA teacher fresh out of your five weeks of training or a 3o-year veteran with a proven track record, your responsibilities are substantially the same.  That makes no sense.  Rather than waiting for one million superhuman teachers to materialize, I say we need to start looking ways to make the education work for the human capital we actually have.

A critique of merit pay (Part 1 of 3)

This entry is part one of a three-part series of somewhat-related entries I’ve written on education reform.

Merit pay is one of the big topics in education today.  The basic premise of the idea is as follows:

  1. Teachers should get paid based on performance.  It makes no sense that superstar teachers should get paid the same amount as struggling teachers.  We should incentive great performance.
  2. Teachers will teach better if they know there is financial incentive.
  3. With merit pay, higher performing individuals will be retained, and a better talent pool will be attracted.
  4. In this new environment, people will be competing to do what’s best for the children, both inside of schools and between schools, and the children will be the primary beneficiaries.

In regards to point #1, I believe that good performance should be rewarded, don’t get me wrong.  However, although the rest of the rationale seems completely logical at first glance, it leaves out important considerations.  How do you evaluate performance?  It’s one of those things where most people say, “I don’t know, but I know it when I see it”.

In education, evaluating performance is particularly difficult, both for schools and teachers.  Every school gets dealt a completely unique hand, demographically speaking.  How do you take that into account when evaluating a school?  What is the incentive to work at a more challenging school, when you know that you are far more likely to inherit and encounter unquantifiable challenges that make achieving at a high level more difficult?  What you really want is to get your best teachers to the most challenging situations, but what you don’t want is a “musical chairs” situation, where everyone is running around chasing the money from school to school.

Point #2 is premised on the idea that teachers decide how much to work based on compensation.  This may be true for some, but I know I didn’t enter the teaching profession to make money.  I had other higher-paying options, but I chose to teach because I thought it was an important thing to do.  I believe that most teachers teach primarily because they want to make a positive impact on children.  In fact, they prove it when they bring supplies to school, which they pay for out of their own paycheck.  In this way, teaching is quite different from high-stakes merit-pay occupations, such as law, sales, banking, and pro sports, where money is the primary reward.

As for point #3, say what you will about Teach For America, but there’s no question that they have proved that elite college graduates can be attracted to teaching without offering buckets of money.  In fact, TFA rejects about 6 out of 7 applicants.  People are beating down the door to get into teaching.  Granted, not all of them want to be lifelong teachers, but many of them are open to that possibility.  I can only speak to my own motivations for entering the teaching profession, but I know I speak on behalf of many other teachers I know when I say that the vast majority of us left inner-city teaching not because lack of money, but because of frustration and burnout.  I don’t know a single person who cited money as a driving force for leaving the classroom.

Would more money help recruitment?  Yes, but there are other ways to effectively recruit.  Would money help retention?  To an extent, but I don’t think it would make a noticeable dent in then 5-year retention rate.  Not to mention, teaching already does not provide very good career earnings numbers.  If merit pay is simply about shifting the same pool of money toward the highest-performing teachers, the result is going to be that solid teachers currently at the median will see a dramatic decrease in career earnings, and many are simply going to jump ship, rather than actually sticking around to hone their craft, trying to break into the money.

To me, point #4 is where the merit pay logic really falls through.  In a truly great school, everybody works together.  There’s not such thing as “my classroom”, there is only “our school”.  People pitch in where they’re needed.  It’s a communal atmosphere.  If you give each school a pool of money based on its performance, and distribute that money to the teachers based on their performance, I think you destroy any sense of common purpose.  You’re going to see far more cheating, fudging, and backstabbing on every level, and far less sharing and cooperation.  Suddenly, everything becomes about “what’s in it for me”, and “what’s best for the children” becomes an afterthought.  Those brilliant lesson plans you used to give to new teachers become your precious golden eggs.

Merit pay is not a bad thing per se.  Unquestionably, at the most hypothetical level, it’s more fair toward teachers, but what is our ultimate goal?  Is it fairness toward teachers or  I think there are many reasons to believe that it could actually have a detrimental effect on overall student achievement.  One thing is for certain, if implemented, it needs to be done in an extremely careful and conscientious manner.

Building Work Ethic in Students

Things have been quite busy with grad school lately, but I do keep up with what’s going on in education.  I just don’t have much time to write a whole lot about it.  One of my old professors, who feeds me a lot of good info, sent me an interesting article:

For Students Raised on iPods, Lessons in Bridge

My reaction:

Interestingly enough, for my basketball players, it took the experience of losing their first game 66-12 to before they would even listen to the head coach and myself.  They finally realized that they couldn’t do it alone.  From that point forward, they were much easier to coach.  And especially so when we started experiencing a mix of success and failure.  They could see how harder work led to better game-time performance.

I really believe that one of the keys to low-income education is activities, whether they be basketball, bridge, or something else.  I saw major improvements in work ethic inside and outside of the classroom in the basketball players I coached and taught.  It made me conclude that most people probably learn to connect hard work to success through sports, hobbies, and other activities.  Video games may be helpful to an extent, but they don’t teach kids the apprenticeship role that would most transferable to the classroom.  Kids need to learn to teamwork and the value of learning from people who have experience.  The students I taught that had outside activities were noticeably more disciplined and self-motivated.

Unfortunately, when basketball season ended, the old behaviors came back.  To me, this just says that one season of basketball isn’t enough to change deeply ingrained habits.  From this, I conclude that students really need overlapping activities, year-round, to constantly reinforce the hard-work/success connection.

For schoolwork, that connection just isn’t immediate enough for kids.  You don’t win or lose based on your math skills until you find out what colleges you got into.  By then, it’s way too late.

The Challenges of Working With Children With Serious Issues

That title is a mouthful, but I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it.  There was a sad and thought-provoking story published in the Baltimore Sun about a child with behavioral issues who died in Baltimore last week.  It raises questions about–as the title of this post states–the challenges of working with children with serious issues.  The story is about the aids and the bus driver whose jobs are in limbo, but I felt a definite connection with my own experiences teaching, and the difficulty of preventing challenging students from taking actions that harm themselves.  The original story is here:

Questions raised as family prepares to lay student to rest

My reaction:

The issue of trying to control multiple students with severe behavioral and/or emotional issues is very fundamental to what is challenging about urban education, and it’s something that doesn’t get enough press.  The mere act of discussing the fact that kids from low-income settings tend to have a higher incidence of these sorts of issues brings up feelings of classism and racism.  Yet, the truth of the matter is these issues have a huge impact on a teacher’s ability to do their job.  I’m going to get politically incorrect now and get into my thoughts on this hot-button issue.

If severe emotional/behavioral issues are prominent enough and go unchecked by the management systems a school has in place, they start to affect the entire climate of the school and the behavior of students that don’t even have the same sorts of issues.  Actions and behaviors that should seem really out of place become commonplace and you start seeing a lot of copy-cat behavior.  I’ve experienced situations as a teacher where a class that seems out of control returns to order with the removal of a single student.  Once, a girl I taught actually remarked, “there goes our ring-leader”.

The fact is, classroom teachers not equipped to deal with some of the issues that the children can bring in the door.  Public education with low-income populations can work, but there needs to be an understanding that the needs of the students as a whole are greater and consequently, there need to be more resources allocated.  Children with emotional/behavioral issues that cause disruption to the general ed setting need very small settings and interventions, and they can be gradually be integrated into larger settings as their issues are resolved.  In most cases, they can and should probably be integrated with general ed students, as long as the group size is kept very small.  And obviously, they need the highest quality teachers.

Just imagine how much Baltimore City life could be changed if the most difficult students could be effectively educated?  It can be done, but not without the resources.  The question is, do we have the fortitude to make the necessary investment?

We’ve Got It All Figured Out

According to some dude from the root, the answer to inner city education has been right under our noses for several decades, and it’s a technique known as direct instruction.  Check out the original article here:

We Know How To Teach Black Kids

My thoughts:

In my teacher prep classes, I was taught that kids have different
learning styles, hence they need to be able to learn and engage the
material using different modalities. We were given countless ways to
structure learning activities in ways that were supposed to be engaging
and multifaceted. Yet, I had my greatest success as a teacher when I
cut out the frills, and relied on direct instruction–basically a very
structured, stripped down form of teaching. That’s not to say that I
stopped using multiple learning modalities, but I cut out a lot of stuff
that I thought was actually distracting from my teaching objectives. In
DI, at its most basic, there’s not a whole lot of discourse or
open-ended assignments.

I taught a lot of kids who were between -7 to +1 years of grade level,
yet they were all lumped in the same high-school level math class.
Eventually, I saw some big successes with some kids that had come in
with severe deficits. I had a girl who didn’t know how to multiply and
a girl who had immigrated from rural El Salvador, not speaking a lick of
English, factorizing monomials and understanding complicated
terminology. I was able to facilitate this by very meticulously
breaking down my objective into very finely differentiated component
skills, down to the most basic level, assuming zero prior knowledge. I
spent as little time as possible lecturing on necessary information and
terminology, then we started doing problems as a class, then they worked
independently. For the kids who could do things in bigger chunks, they
could work ahead, and I had extension assignments for them to work on.

But DI isn’t the magic bullet, though. Despite my success stories of
the kids I was able to strongly motivate, across ability levels, I don’t
think I was successful as a teacher overall. No matter how finely you
break down the skills you’re teaching, it doesn’t help the kid who has
75% attendance, let alone the kid who has 30%. It also doesn’t help the
kid who, at a basic level, is not invested in learning and doing the
work. And if your school doesn’t have a strong framework for
discipline, a handful of uncooperative students can torpedo the whole
proecess. These are just a couple examples of what can go wrong. Of
course there are strategies for addressing these types of issues, but my
basic point is that DI is not the end-all, be-all. Also, although I
think it is great for teaching fundamental skills, I think DI needs to
be augmented with critical thinking and problem solving tasks, once the
fundamentals are mastered.

For one reason or another, DI is not well respected by many. My
principal always used to say that if he came by your classroom and the
teacher was driving the instruction, something was going wrong. There’s
this dream of student-centric, Montessori-esque learning that every
principal wants to achieve, and I can’t count how many
“needs-improvement” comments I received for my rigid teaching style.
But for me, it was what worked (relatively), so I stuck with it.