Off With Their Heads?

Fifth-grade teacher Rigoberto Ruelas committed suicide in Los Angeles in September.

The California teacher was found dead in a ravine after the Los Angeles Times released a database that ranked teachers by name. Mr. Ruelas, whom colleagues said was “so dedicated that he spent much of his personal time outside school working with students,” was listed as “less effective than average” based on how his students did on standardized tests.

Less effective than average.

My party-wall neighbor just had the plumber in. Earnie Alexander had to dig a tunnel under the house to repair a broken sewer pipe. I’m hoping that Earnie is more effective than average. Otherwise my feet are likely to get wet. And stinky.

Less effective than average.

Our friend Tom “Parle-vous” Parlett is a nuclear engineer who worked (note the past tense) for one of the few remaining Fortune 500 manufacturers of power plants. A few years ago, looking for a way to reduce payroll, his employer implemented forced ranking. The intense yearly evaluations identified Parle-vous as “less effective than average.” That bottom 10 percent set him up for a buyout which he took.

I don’t like forced ranking because it decimates morale. But the first half of the equation, the intense yearly evaluations to measure achievement, tells us whether or not we are doing out jobs. (Parle-vous is now the top performer in a different organization.)

We don’t have a big pot of money to offer [teachers] to sign off on performance contracts, Monroe County School Board Chair John Dick told Anne O’Bannon this morning on the Morning Mix. Means there will be no way to tell if we are doing our jobs in the Keys.

Less effective than average.

A Broward County history teacher wrote to the Miami Herald ombudsman about the suicide. “Ruelas will not be the only teacher casualty if … attacks [in the news media] continue,” that teacher wrote. “…You will see that the coverage has been overwhelmingly pro ‘reform,’ with teachers getting much criticism. There has been very little defense of teachers.”


A teacher commits suicide because it suddenly became public that he maybe wasn’t as good at what he did as his press kit said he was.

Toyota advertises that, nationwide, 80% of all their cars sold in the last 12 years are still on the road (of course that means that about 19,000,000 cars have been abandoned, crushed, or sunk in lakes around Chicago). Nationwide, 7,000 students drop out every day and only about 70 percent of students graduate from high school with a regular high school diploma (of course that means 16,800,000 of today’s students will end up on the dole). Nationwide, Toyota’s recall troubles over gas pedals and other sudden acceleration glitches standing at at least 5.3 million vehicles across much of their product line (of course, that means 85 percent of recent Toyotas with probably won’t kill their passengers but 15 percent could).

Less effective than average.

Congress very nearly demanded Akio Toyoda commit hara-kiri.

Teachers demanded raises.

Let Them Eat Dirt

Want to know everything that is wrong with schools today?

Kids aren’t allowed to eat dirt.

About a century ago in news biz terms, on the Fifth of May of this year, Miguel Rodriguez, an assistant school principal at Live Oak High School in Santa Clara, CA, punished five sophomores for wearing the American flag on their t-shirts. He deemed their shirts conspicuously “incendiary” mostly because other students were wearing the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag that day.


A lot longer ago than the Santa Clara wardrobe malfunction, the assistant principal of our local high school did the same thing to our daughter. We had taken our kids on their first trip to Key West shortly after we bought this house in South Puffin. The Half Shell Raw Bar is one of the favorite tourist stops there. It inhabits a building that was once a Key West shrimp packing building in the historic seaport.

The Half Shell sells t-shirts.

You know the story. “Our ‘rents went on vacation and all I got was this stupid shirt.”

[Image] Number One daughter really liked her shirt with its nubile, bikini-clad waitress, platter of oysters, and slogan. Particularly the slogan.

Naturally, her Assistant Principal went after that shirt with tar and bonfire. Number One daughter wasn’t even allowed to turn it inside out. That insidious, salacious message was still there, still capable of corrupting those innocent 1980s high schoolers. She had to call home, get a ride home, and change clothes. The school banned her from classes until she did.


The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, is not, as Assistant Principal Rodriguez and many other people apparently think, Mexico’s Independence Day. South of the Border, Independence Day is September 16. Here’s the history: Mexico was a debtor nation when, in 1861, then-Mexican President Benito Juarez stopped paying the interest on the loans. France held a lot of the notes, so they sent in their debt collectors in the form of the French army to force payment of this debt. The regional holiday of Puebla commemorates the victory of the Mexican militia over the French army at The Battle of Puebla in 1862.

So Live Oak High School wanted to punish five kids for not celebrating a battle over a loan default.

Never occurred to Assistant Principal Rodriguez (a professional educator) that the right principle would have been to let the kids duke it out, send them to separate corners, and use the whole experience as a teaching moment, eh?

Back to kids eating dirt.

The United States maintains a fiction that we want well educated kids. We bandy about buzz words like “experiential learning,” “critical thinking,” and “expanding horizons” while we isolate the kids from the ebb and flow of playground confrontation, intelligent decision making, or anything that might impact their self esteem. And gawd help us if we expose them to germs.

Ofttimes kids learn better when we let them be kids. That includes having the odd playground discussion over political values and eating a bit of dirt in the playground along the way.

A Perfect Ten(ure)?


Tenure /TEN-yur/ n. The status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis without periodic contract renewals or threat of dismissal.

My grandfather, a full professor (Chemistry) at Temple, had tenure. My cousin, a full Professor (Wildlife Ecology) at Perdue, has tenure. My 12th grade English teacher, the one who made me memorize John Donne’s birthday, has tenure. OK, she’s dead, now, but she still has her teaching position.

Vermont and Florida are at-will employment states. Under American law, the legal doctrine simply means the employer can fire your furry butt “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all,” and the employee can quit, strike, or take a permanent sabbatical with no liability. There are a couple of caveats. Tenure, an employment contract, or a collective bargaining agreement all govern the employment relationship and negate at-will laws. According to, “Virtually all states are employment at-will states.”

Teachers unions love tenure.

I taught in Vermont Colleges for a number of years. I have never sought nor held tenure.

There’s no real point to teacher tenure, especially in primary or secondary schools. These schools aren’t universities where professors like my grandfather and cousin create controversy through groundbreaking research and publication. School teachers teach. They need the same level of protection against bombasts, crying parents, and incompetent bosses that any professional needs. And not a penny more.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) supports California Senate Bill 955. That bill proposes to give school administrators the ability to assign or fire teachers based on their effectiveness and to clean up the firing process itself. No longer will bad teachers get the free ride.

The legislation was quickly blasted by the California Teachers Association and by my friend Lido (“Lee”) Bruhl who thinks it a mere ploy to fire all the senior (translation: “expensive”) teachers. “I do not think a teacher should get sacked just because they’re higher up the pay scale,” he said, “and I don’t think there’s enough difference between how teachers teach for that to be much of a factor.”

Lee was born on another planet. They may not have schools there.

Public school teachers across this country receive step raises every year. Year in, year out, a teacher who does nothing but show up for work most of the 179 days in the average U.S. school year gets a raise. Exactly the same raise as the teacher who works overtime every day, brings work home on nights and weekends, attends conferences, takes extra courses, and (just as an oh, by the way) happens to have classrooms full of happy, productive students who actually learn stuff.

A Los Angeles Unified School District task force has delivered recommendations about teacher effectiveness. It’s a major push toward removing outrageous obstacles to firing bad teachers and creating a robust evaluation system for teachers.

Imagine that. Judging a teacher’s worth by his or her performance on the job. Now there is an unusual concept.

“‘Worth’ is not always easy to judge, Dick, outside of the fantasies of right-wing ‘thinkers’ like you,” Lee said.

Another planet. With neither creativity nor original thought, it is difficult to design a system that measures how well teachers teach. After all, having successful students ought not be part of the equation, now, should it? The creators of the standardized tests we all took for college and graduate-school admissions, academics to a person, all claim their tests are not “objective.” The employee ranking systems now popular with B-School grads uniformly lead to disaster in employee morale and performance. After all, it is possible to have a department full of chowder heads. Do you want to grade them on a curve? Or you could be part of a department of superstars. Do you want to end up on the bottom of that curve?

This ain’t rocket science. The appraisal criteria for a teacher:

  • must be objective;
  • must be based on an analysis of actual job requirements;
  • must be based on individual behaviors (performance) rather than personality;
  • must relate to classroom actions, not what the school board or state is doing,
  • must be measurable;
  • and must be within the control of the teacher.

This ain’t rocket science. Principal communicates the job requirements to the teacher. Teacher sets measurable goals. Principal and teacher meet every now and then to measure performance against the goals.

On the other hand, my next notion may be heresy. If we look at objective measures like today’s test scores, Lee might be right. There may not be enough difference between teachers for classroom performance to be much of a factor.

January 21, 1572

I Am Not an Educator (or When Academia Trumped Teaching)

I am not an educator. I am, however, a pretty good teacher. I know this for a number of reasons. My grandfather taught chemistry at Temple for about a million years. He was not an educator either but he was a tenured professor. My cousin teaches biology at Perdue. I taught computer apps and technology at Vermont colleges. My students learned the material I taught and learned how to expand on it. I got pretty good grades, too.

I am not an educator. I didn’t vote for one to be superintendent of schools either.

So, what’s the difference between a teacher and an educator?

Educators talk about “graduation rates” and “resources” and “administrative needs” and “professional leadership.” Teachers simply make sure every student learns.

An Educator should make the system work.
Teacher does make the student work.

I didn’t vote for the incumbent Superintendent of Schools here in the Keys because he advertised proudly that he had raised graduation rates “to 84%.” The Monroe County schools make up a “State of Florida A Rated School District.” In a state where a quarter of the kids drop out of high school, that statistic means more kids stay the course here. Unfortunately, it also means he still isn’t teaching 410.5 kids what they need to know and that’s just wrong. (As of 11/3/08, all Florida Keys public schools have a total of 2,566 students enrolled in grades 9, 10, 11, and 12.) I want to know what to do with the half a kid.

Our kids aren’t learning. Everybody knows it. And everybody points fingers. It’s the parents’ fault. No, it’s because the kids don’t eat breakfast. No, it’s because of television/Internet/cell phones. No, it’s because kids don’t get enough sleep.

Didya ever think it might maybe be the “educators” themselves?

Have you followed the trends in your school district? All of the techniques tried and discarded to improve test scores? Buzz words, all of them. Edu-speak designed not to improve teaching but to make education seem more professional. Professional? At the end of his term as president of Yale Kingman Brewster said, “Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.” He may have been talking to British managers but academia should have listened.

I have lived through Critical Thinking, Emergent Literacy, No Child Left, Portfolio Assessment, and Whole Language. I watched in awe as my cousin learned that 3 plus 5 equals purple. I have taught in a college that believes in neither tests nor grades (I gave both anyway). I learned about Discovery Learning, Lifelong Learning, and Mastery Learning.

Don’t get me wrong. Parents do need to read to their kids and to set boundaries. Kids do need nutrition and sleep. Kids do watch too much television. And so on.

Kids need teachers who teach.

Put up your hand if you had one. You know whom I mean, the life-changing teacher who inspired you. The teacher you visited when you went back to your school. The teacher you talk about at cocktail parties.

Want a superintendent who will fix your schools? Vote for the one who will fire all the educators and hire some teachers.

Of course if that many kids do drop out of your school, they can become garbologists instead of ordinary trashmen. God knows we need more trashmen.

A couple of interesting links:

Eduspeak: Learning the Lingo
Choosing a School

America’s Best Colleges?

“It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem,” Malcolm S. Forbes said a few years ago.

Hana R. Alberts, Michael Noer and David M. Ewalt, writing for Forbes Magazine, have published “an alternative” to the quality report that U.S. News & World Report has long issued about American higher education.

It is not the best ranking system I have seen.

Darn it. It could have been.

Malcolm S. Forbes died young, about 18 years ago. As an interesting (to me) aside, he was born on my grandfather’s birthday, August 19, but the same year my parents were born. As far as I know, my family and his had nothing else in common although I did read his magazine. Mr. Forbes published Forbes Magazine which his father founded and his son now runs.

He was graduated from Princeton University, active in politics and community, and strong-willed about his magazine which he grew large.

Despite the shallowness of the college report, I suspect the aphorism rags to rags in three generations will not apply to the Capitalist Tool Forbeses.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s big idea seems worthwhile at first glance. Ranking the profs, career success, costs, graduation rates, and student recognition are all pretty good tests. Too bad their methodology fell apart at the starting gate. The group of mostly college students at CCAP gathered data from 7 million student evaluations of courses and instructors in a non-scientific, online, “inmates rating the asylum” poll site. That’s a quarter of the grade. Another quarter comes from Who’s Who listings. I have a Who’s Who listing along with a few million other Americans, so I’m pretty sure that’s not a great qualifier. Maybe they should use Wikipedia listings.

I find it interesting that Cal Tech is ahead of Harvard and that my mom’s alma mater, Swarthmore, is well ahead of Yale. Not to mention the fact that Dartmouth offers free tuition but is way down on the list.

OTOH, ya gotta ask yourself How does one really choose a school? I ended up at Stevens Institute of Technology almost by accident. I looked for schools that had belly button design. Webb didn’t accept me. Stevens did. Forbes ranked them number as either 127 or 565. Stevens is a Top-10 engineering school.

I taught in Vermont Colleges for several years. I even survived student rankings. With that caveat, I never thought that students should be allowed to design a curriculum even when I was a student and I have always believed that student ranking of teachers is too much Entertainment Tonight and too little NASA Tech Briefs.

Come on. Students go to school for one of four reasons: get out of the draft, get out of the house, get out of having to work for a living, OR TO LEARN SOMETHING. I can accept a student’s appraisal of courses or teachers after, say, long enough in the workplace to apply what was learned in school and to judge whether it helped her or hurt him.

Let me pose that as a question: Who do you want removing your appendix? The surgeon who has done it a few hundred times or the pre-med student who has read Appendectomies for Dummies?

At least Forbes recognized that “the sort of student who will thrive at Williams might drown at Caltech, to say nothing of West Point.”

That said, Forbes also believes that “these rankings reflect, in a very real way, the quality and cost of an undergraduate education at a wide range of American colleges and universities. And when families have to make a decision with a six-figure price tag and lifelong impact, we think they deserve all the information they can get.”

Pfui. I reckon that when families have to make that six-figure decision, they deserve better information than this. Here are the top 10 questions I would want answered plus a couple of extras:

Personal Questions
• Does the curriculum match what I need to learn?
• Do the instructors teach in a way that matches my learning style?
• Is the program rigor too much (or too little) for me?
• Does campus life help or hinder my growth?
• Will I find help from other alums in my chosen field?

Statistical Questions
• How much will it actually cost, net?
• What kind of job will I get upon graduation?
• Does my education stick me in a single track or can I branch out into whatever interests me as I grow?
• How much do employers and peers respect my school?
• How many freshmen wash out? How many graduate

Then, much lower on the list, come two questions CCAP asked:
• How many Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Genius Grants has the faculty accrued?
• How many Rhodes and Fulbright scholars come from the undergrad program?