LA Times story puts education establishment on the spot — but is it libel???

August 19, 2010

I almost feel sorry for teachers, being as they are in a profession that is often so much maligned.

While certainly poor teachers who eat up taxpayer dollars do a disservice to their students, inflicting irreparable harm on young minds, stunting their intellectual growth forever, all teachers, most, we hope, are not poor in their abilities.

But there is a lot of mediocrity out there.

Some will tell you it’s the relatively low pay they receive in relation to their required years of education, but that is not much of a defense for individual mediocre teachers. If you already are a teacher and you are mediocre, more pay will not improve you and if you are mediocre, you were when you began. But, hey, most of us just do the best we can at our professions, regardless of however other folks might rate us.

But what brought all this to mind was an article I just read in the LA Times in a series it’s doing on teachers in the LA school district. I’m not sure whether to be proud of the paper for doing a civic duty by exposing the system, calling the school authorities to task for not really measuring teacher performance and just passing them along to quick tenure, or appalled at what seems like a possible case of libel.

The Times has taken it upon itself to do some kind of statistical analysis of teacher performance it calls a value added rating system or something like that. I don’t really care about that gobbledygook, but the idea is that it purports to show how year after year poor teachers get poor results and good teachers get good results, but the district ignores, according to the Times, these facts and basically just does the old Lake Woebegone thing and rates nearly all teachers above average.

The shocking thing to me is that it actually named an individual math teacher and compared him to another named individual math teacher in the same school and said one’s students consistently year after year started out ahead of the game and by the time the year was over were behind whereas the opposite was true in the other teacher’s class.

First I am wondering about the validity of the Times’ analytical methods.

But assuming they are valid, I am wondering about another factor brought out in the story. Most, if not all, the students are Hispanic. The teacher with the better results has an Hispanic surname. The one who lags behind is a Mr., Smith — actually both their full names are given. And that was the shock.

Now, as a former working journalist, I’m usually pretty hard core about naming names when things are in the public domain. And I have pretty much always thought that truth is the best defense against libel.

But taking the last point first, I can only hope for the reporters’ sake that what they have come up with is the truth.

And as far as naming names, that is a service to students and their parents and potential students and parents. And it does put the teachers and school officials on the spot, forcing them to face up to a problem.

The teacher exposed as a poor performer was confronted by the Times and was quoted as responding in what seemed to me with a contrite answer, saying basically he would try to do better. The guy was 63 and had begun teaching in 1996, the article said. Sounds like he made a career change — sometimes things don’t work out as you might have hoped ; oh well, he can retire soon.

I would encourage you to call up the LA Times on line — I can’t do one of those fancy links here but just Google: Who’s teaching LA’s kids, LA Times, Aug. 14. They’re doing an ongoing series of stories, as I understand it.

I found it curious that the good teacher who is described as relating well to his students had the Hispanic name, while the other guy with the Anglo name was described as not doing well in captivating the young minds. I mean that sounds almost like someone is trying to or inadvertently making a case for separate but equal, you know, the old segregated schools.

Then again, maybe the Times is on to something and is putting the entrenched establishment on the spot.

It’s important stuff. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.


I can only hope none of my former teachers read this, but while it is often said that people often have that one teacher who made the positive difference, I can’t recall any. As I said, there is a lot of mediocrity out there. That is not to say that I did not have any competent teachers.

ADD 1:

I just read over some letters to the editor in the LA Times, and some teachers commended the paper for its story(ies), but several others objected, especially to the part where teachers were accused by name as being poor performers. I have to say even though I once worked as a journalist I would object too. What makes the writers at that newspaper qualified to judge teachers or even understand the statistics and material they supposedly uncovered? That does not mean I don’t think they should report about the subject, since there is an ongoing concern over whether our children are getting a proper and effective education, but it seems that the Times has moved into character assassination. One teacher asked in a letter what the Times staffers would think if their own performance was rated in public — noting the fall in the newspaper’s circulation. Another teacher said that there are two kinds of teaching. In one you teach to the test (teachers are now pressured into doing that). In the other, teachers actually try to give their students knowledge about a subject. There is a difference, I think. I, the writer of this blog, have often witnessed in school students who can pass tests but know little and seem to have little critical thinking skills. When I was taking Spanish, I noticed that while some students always aced the written quizzes, they could not compose a Spanish sentence on their own or ad lib dialogue. In math, I was often slow at the mechanics of the whole thing, but I usually knew what was called for in word problems. I will say, however, if you have really learned a subject, you should probably be able to pass standardized tests but also be able to go beyond the testing game.

You can be replaced by a robot, but what’s the point of it all?

July 11, 2010

Someone once suggested to me that the thinking professions could not be replaced by automation or robots.

And now I just read on the New York Times website that experiments are already being run on teaching robots — man am I glad I did not become a teacher — I mean they get no respect.

The article glibly pointed out or suggested that there was no intention of actually replacing all teachers with robots, but maybe for “simple” and “repetitive” tasks, and it suggested they might be good for foreign language instruction.

Since when is foreign language instruction nothing but simple and repetitive? I realize a lot of people think you can simply use a machine to translate things. Anyone who has ever actually tried to use foreign language knows that does not work. A lot of novices think you can simply literally translate things word for word. Even though I know better I tried doing something like that on a German-American blog (I have neglected of late) and boy was I admonished by a native German speaker who implored me to cease and desist.

Now it is true that some lazy or jaded secondary and college instructors might as well be robots, but real teaching for humans is not the realm of robots.

I know there was a story several years ago that computers had been developed that could essentially write a novel. I’m not aware of what became of all that.

I realize, though, that there does not seem to be a limit to technology.

Perhaps we might all be replaced some day.

I sometimes wonder about this ever-advancing technology — I mean will we get to a point where there is really no reason for us to exist?

Of course the idea originally was that with automation we would all have more leisure time.

There’s at least two problems with that. One is that some people actually enjoy their work. Another problem is that under our current system most people (not all) have to be involved in some type of gainful employment to pay for that so-called leisure time.

And with unemployment so high, is this really a good time to be eliminating even more work?


Strangely, before I read that story about the teaching robot, I , always trying to think of something clever to say, was going to ask my brother the lawyer if he ever had a client drop his services in favor of Legal Zoom Dot Com.

P.s. P.s.

And I know I should quit while I’m ahead (or behind) on this subject, but , true story, I once worked in a welding supply/auto body paint store. We mixed a lot of paint, a pint or a quart a time for this one customer. The outside salesman, and head of the paint department, my boss, sold that customer a paint mixing machine. Well he made a sale, but the store lost that customer. But maybe they would have bought a mixing machine from someone else anyway.

P.s. P.s. P.s.

And I really should quit, but one more thing. When I was a little boy I had a friend and he had a talking Robert the Robot toy. One day curiosity got the better of him and he took a hammer and busted that robot open to find out what made him talk. This was the 1950s, pre-computer, pre-digital days. There was a tiny record player inside.

Instability a problem in public education, and a choke in supply could up demand…

April 19, 2010

Every year about this time in California teachers get layoff notices. It’s required by state law that they get these notices if it looks like local school district budgets will not be able to take care of their salaries for the next school year.

Quite often their jobs are saved — not always of course.

Most often it is the newer teachers, lower on the seniority list, who are affected.

Just how we can expect to attract quality teachers in such an unstable environment is beyond me.

I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but one of the major problems in California is the convoluted method of school funding. Some of the money comes from local taxpayers, some from the state and some from the federal government.

Local school districts like to think that they should have some control over their own schools, but when much or most of the funding is from outside sources, that control has to be ceded to those who fund the schools.

State and local regulations require that the local schools do all kinds of things that cost a lot of money, but state and federal funding is not stable from year to year.

Right off the bat I see a way — although it would in reality not work — that school districts could make their funding more stable and not have to put their teaching staffs in a panic once a year. They could forego state and federal funding and depend entirely upon local funding. Then they would have complete control.

Unfortunately, too many taxpayers I have heard have this attitude: “I no longer have any kids in school so I am not interested in school funding”.

If there is to be public education then it is the responsibility of the public. Most of us (not all) benefited from public education. At the time, we were too young to be paying the taxes that supported it. But then we grew up and it became part of our responsibility.

But of course education costs more these days than it did in the horse and buggy and one-room school house days. Totally local funding would likely not be practical in a lot of areas and then there is always the problem of rich districts being able to afford better schools than poor districts. And that is why we have state and federal funding.

An article I read in the Sacramento Bee today said that along with this instability fewer students in California are enrolling in teacher preparation programs — although that does not seem to be the case at the University of California at Davis, but an official there said students are “nervous”.

Another teacher preparation program official said one good thing in all of this is that more students are going for multiple subject credentials, thus making them more employable.

I also think that maybe what we need here is a true teacher shortage. That might force districts to pay more and offer better working conditions.

And while I am not the one to give career advice (when I look back on my own life), I would say to prospective teachers and even veteran teaches, welcome to the real world where things just don’t seem to stay the same and where, sad to say, supply and demand and the search for talent and specific skills tends to determine employment and salaries in the workforce (I’m talking about the total workforce, not the teaching workforce).

I’m pretty dubious about paying teachers or paying them extra based on performance, because how does one judge a teacher’s performance? Most of the time it seems to be assumed that the number of A grades produced in the class indicates teacher performance. Well that would certainly seem to indicate something, but what? If you have a group of smart pupils they would tend to do well regardless. If the grading is too easy then that would have an effect to.

To me, it seems the effort ought to be put into ensuring teachers have mastered the subjects they are to teach. It is assumed that if someone has gone through a teacher training program that they probably had the interest to want to impart knowledge and that they have learned something about how to do it. And we all know that the truth is some people are just born teachers; they have something that is inside them, something that really cannot be taught.

I’d rather see that teachers be paid well and that poor teachers be culled out before they get into the classroom.

Too often we see poor student performance and blame it on the teachers.

The responsibility for learning is on the student. Unless we have simply hired incompetent teachers, I would suspect the main problem in low student performance has more to do with student attitude and the attitudes of parents and the social surroundings.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think teachers and other school personnel should have to be cheerleaders and self-esteem promoters. There’s too much to learn these days with the explosion of knowledge and technology. We really do not have time for that folderol.

A U.S. school district has to go to the Philippines for math and science teachers…

June 10, 2009
I used to listen to a certain super liberal radio talk show host who got sent off to prison for being a pervert, but that last part is beside the point, the point is that he used to end his show with the phrase: “remember, it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. And that leads me to stray from the point again and wonder if he is doing just that down in the Lompoc home for wayward souls (okay minimum security federal prison), asking for forgiveness — well he was trained as a Catholic priest, so I guess he should know how to do that.
Back to the point: when he was free and still on the air, he explained once what he meant by that little forgiveness tag line. He said that sometimes in a big organization or bureaucracy it is hard to make changes because of the inertia and resistance to change and the just downright built-in slowness of it all. So, if you really want to get something done, it’s far easier to just go ahead and do it and then ask permission later and when you get scolded or into trouble for exceeding your authority or bucking the chain of command you can explain yourself and apologize and ask for forgiveness.
And my real point: that’s just what some school administrators did in a Birmingham, Ala. School district. Without consulting the board they went to the Philippines to recruit math and science teachers because they could find none, as in zero, available in the United States. Gee, maybe that’s why we are so far behind the rest of the world in our math and science instruction, at least through high school.
I note that a story in the Birmingham News (upon which I’m basing this) noted that the starting salary for the recruited Philippine teachers is $36,780 per year (and remember, a school year is less than 12 months). Now I imagine that is a great opportunity to someone from the Philippines where opportunities for teaching and wages are far less. But I would think that would not be a bad opportunity for someone in the United States, either just beginning a career or possibly changing careers or retiring from another one or whatever. I have no idea what the cost of living is in Birmingham.
Probably the relatively low salaries accounts for the dearth in domestic applications for math and science teachers. And I imagine eventually the motivated and ambitious Philippine teachers may outgrow their positions. Maybe the district can then recruit a new batch.
The demand for teachers over the past many decades seems to have gone up and down like a roller coaster. First you read there is a tremendous demand (I guess that was back in the original baby boom) and then you read that teachers can’t get a job, and then the cycle is up again and down again, and the last I heard is that there is a prediction for another jump in demand in the near future. Ironically in some places, such as my home state of California, even though there is a strong need for teachers (well depending upon the locale) the state is running out of money to pay them, and since local districts long ago ceded their authority and power of the purse to the state government (willingly or not), there is not much of an enticement to go into teaching. And though there is a need for qualified teachers, without money there is no way to fill it.
Perhaps the voting-eligible public, the only ones who can do anything about the whole mess, will one day wake up and pay attention and elect people to government who will have their priorities straight.
Something tells me that the so-called emerging nations in the not-to-distant future will have emerged and some enterprising school district official in, say, the Philippines, will solicit teacher applications from the USA — but would there be any qualified applicants?


I strongly support the concept of enticing career changers and retirees from what I call the real world to be teachers. They of course should have to get some kind of certification but that certification should be based primarily on the need for standards in the mastery of the subjects they would teach. The entrenched education establishment seems to have put an over emphasis on teaching methodology over actual ontent, kind of like putting style over substance.




Tweet this! The only tweet I need is that from the little birdies…

April 21, 2009

We have all this instant communication and yet the world often seems lonely.

Maybe that’s why so many seem to have to be in instant communication or I should say constant communication with someone else via laptops, cell phones, and those other hand-held devices of which I know little about. And it is not just talking but also this texting thing where I’m told they use crazy abbreviations to throw their instant messages back and forth.

While I often look with wonder and even disdain upon these people seemingly talking to themselves (they’re really on the cell phone via those small ear pieces (blue tooth technology?), I have caught myself doing the same thing.

I’ve been walking each day on a path near our home. The fist time I walked this wonderful trip through nature I was disappointed to see that while so many others enjoyed it too, many of them were chatting on cell phones all the way. I mean what’s the point in getting out into the quiet (minus the chirping of birds) and peaceful solitude of the natural surroundings if you have to be electronically hooked and engaged with the rest of the world?

(And don’t get me going on this new “Twitter” thing where the short messages are called “tweets”.  The only tweet I want to hear is from the little birdies, not the squawking of humans. And yes I realize Twitter is texting, not voice. I was just complaining in metaphor.)

But then on another walk I felt myself compelled to call a former co-worker, a trucker, and ask what he was doing. I’ve done this more than once, I must confess. But I vow to not do it anymore (my fingers may be crossed behind my back). I feel guilty of poor behavior. Certainly it is the right of others to do as they please (I guess), but maybe I can just appreciate nature.

I was already thinking about writing of the addiction so many have to constant communication and then just before I sat down to blog this on my laptop I read a piece by Howard Rheingold in the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. He teaches a college class and he noticed that while he speaks few of his students actually look at him. Sometimes he actually asks everyone to turn their cell phones and laptops off. Once he pulled out his camera and shot a video of the class not watching him. Later he projected the video on a screen in front of the class. He looked out and many of the students were watching the video, but not on the projector screen in front of the class but on their own laptops.

You can see the blog he wrote about his at:

He indicated that some of them are doing other things as well, multitasking as it were.

And maybe this lack of attention span explains the ignorance of society. So many people, young ones especially, do not have a clue about the world around them despite their constant communication. The problem may be what that they are actually communicating about and the fact they are more focused on themselves than the world around them. I’m just surmising here.

There is a strange contradiction. I often hear young people, even little children, on television and they sound so mature and so articulate. And yet I have come to the conclusion that many are just parroting the media they are connected to, but do not and will not fully comprehend who they are and what their relationship is to the past and present and future. Many of them are more concerned about maintaining their own stage role. Maybe Shakespear had a point when he said life is but a play and we are all actors upon a stage.”

And maybe I just take things too seriously.

As I contemplate all this, I recall that back in those old days before personal computers and cell phones, when I was banging out stories on a manual typewriter in a newsroom, sometimes we would get to talking among ourselves about not much of anything and the editor, who often took part, would have to remind us that there was work to do. We were supposed to be the lucky ones with an interesting job, not sorting widgets on a conveyor belt.

But many of us do like to talk.


And maybe those quizzes they do among young people where they do not know where Canada and Mexico are and probably do not care are just skewed unscientific samples. I mean with all of this communication the word surely must have gotten out.

High school and college too long; elementary learning pace too slow…

April 7, 2009

I don’t really know what goes on in high schools these days and I don’t think I really want to.

And to be honest, it probably is no worse than when I was in high school (‘63-‘67).

And maybe that is the point I want to address.

It needs to improve.

In fact, I think we need to revamp our whole system or format.

For one thing, I think the standard four years of high school is too long. And perhaps even the standard four years of college is a tad long too.

There is too much repetition. The first two years of college are often basically a repeat of high school – something like everything you should have learned in high school but didn’t.

Now I should note right here I am not addressing the problems of gifted and/or motivated kids. These folks often forge ahead despite the best efforts of parents and teachers and fellow lame brained students to get in their way.

No, I’m talking about everyone else.

While I know my attitude differs from the long prevailing thought that young people need infinite freedom and time to make up their minds about life, I really am convinced that a lot of our social problems and unemployment problems (Wall Street excess economic disasters perhaps notwithstanding) could be alleviated if people did make up their minds sooner about what they want to do when they grow up. You can change your mind if you change your mind or if things don’t work out a lot easier than you can come up with something after procrastinating well into adulthood and finding yourself in the unemployment line with little to no marketable skills.

I am going by the California model of education since I am intimately familiar with that. I went from kindergarten through four years of college in the state’s public system. Also, I covered schools as a beat for more than one California newspaper. And I spent one fun (not really) month serving as a substitute teacher in one large urban school district in the state. I know what goes on in the state’s schools (a lot of administrative stuff, a lot of disciplinary problems, not so much teaching and learning). I have not been in the schools for more than a decade, but from what I read and hear, things appear status quo.

Starting in elementary school, we need to up the quality of teaching and promote learning at a faster pace. Year-round classes would probably help in that they alleviate the problem of long vacations in which pupils forget and then have to start over on the old material when school resumes.

And maybe even in the lower grades individual teachers can’t be expected to handle all subjects together. Just like I’ve heard lawyers joke, “I went to law school because they promised there’d be no math,” maybe some otherwise adept and knowledgeable teachers need help in some subjects.

This could also apply to all subjects, to include English and social studies, but I would imagine, though, that in the lower grades the biggest demand for single subject teachers would be in the area of math and science.

By the time a student reaches high school, he or she should be able to have a good handle on what general career goals are practical. Those who plan to go into careers where academics is stressed need to be allowed to follow that path and not be held back by those who seem to have no use for wider knowledge.

Those who think they would be better off at what we have called vocational training should be allowed to do so and should be provided the most up-to-date facilities and training. And this is where real-world help could be used. The problem has been that career educators, through no real fault of their own, because they have lived in the sheltered environment, have little concept for what goes on in the outside world of work.

Probably high school does not need to be more than three years, whether the vocational or academic track is followed.

And I do not for a second suggest that those who follow the vocational route should be short-changed on academics. In this modern world people need to be more highly educated. But the emphasis for them would still be more directly related to hands-on work.

Now all of this might seem a kind of stifling and a straight jacket approach, but I think there could be room for some flexibility. I am only presenting a general concept. But there has to be more structure than there is in the conventional U.S. approach, because even in good economic times employers complain there is a lack of skilled labor for both the trades and upper scale work. That’s why we import labor from say Mexico and India (that and the fact employers can get cheaper labor, but that is another subject).