Teacher Professor

August 25, 2011

A Flawed Formula

Filed under: Schools — Teacher Professor @ 6:33 pm

Written after too many lectures trying to prepare teachers for a changing world of Education…

A Flawed Formula for Education


An Educated Work Force = Time (in most cases 12 years- in some states 13, and in still others, 14) multiplied by the EFfectiveness of the teacher (as judged by helping children pass the test), multiplied by the established EXpectations (as defined by standards- Common Core or state-specific). 

This is the formula that educational policy task forces, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and most state departments are operating under. The formula that shapes the changes in education.  It’s not a “real” formula, but it’s the one that appears to be the driving force of Education today.

It’s an appealing formula.  There’s logic to it.  If you have good stuff to teach (standards) and you teach it well (Teacher effectiveness) over the length of time that children are in school, students will do well.

It’s an appealing formula- all of the various components are manageable, maneuverable and measurable.

It’s an appealing formula.  And it’s wrong.

A formula is derived when the relationship of one or more changing variables can predict the results of the outcome.  We all know formulas like:

  • The area of a triangle= (Base x Height)/2
  • Distance = Rate x Time

These all look at the relationship between two things  and their impact on a third thing.  Predictable.  Easy. Stable.  But here is the key assumption:

  • Nothing else impacts the outcome

If you drive a steady rate of 50 miles per hour, you will drive 50 miles in one hour, whether or not your tires are bald.  Whether you are in a gas-guzzling Hummer or an electric Tesla does not impact the distance =  rate x time formula.

There is a tremendous flurry in education these days, focusing primarily on two of these factors: Teacher Effectiveness and Standards, although there is also some limited discussion about allowing students to graduate “when ready”.  A Google search of “Teacher Effectiveness” yielded 2.7 million results, ranging from New York to California; from New Mexico to New Hampshire.  There is a great focus on “teacher effectiveness”- which generally translates into test scores.  If students do well, teachers must be effective.  If they don’t do well on the tests, then teachers are ineffective.  And the test scores are related to the content standards.

So there is also a flurry over content standards.  Forty-three states have adopted the Common Core Standards, according to the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.   These standards seek to be consistent across states so that, as in the case of a colleague of mine, her child does not suffer when he moves from Alabama to Massachusetts and encounters higher expectations.

And there is even some talk about changing the time required for graduation.  Georgia’s “Move on When Ready” program states that when students can complete their coursework, and take the test, they can begin dual enrollment.  The time it takes to complete an education can become flexible.

But for this formula to work, nothing else can impact the outcome.  Nothing.  And that’s where there are severe problems with mandating excellence, and requiring achievement.  Because the formula takes two things out of consideration:

  1. The highly diversified abilities and backgrounds, of children in schools, and
  2. The ever-changing landscape and culture of public school education in America.

The Missing ABCs of the formula- Abilities, Backgrounds and Culture

I have taught in both the private and the public school sectors.  I was a highly effective teacher in private school- heck, I might even have the courage to say that I was a GREAT teacher in private school.  I took kids to higher levels of learning.
We had debates that encouraged critical thinking and hands-on projects that encouraged creativity.

And in my private school, I had parents who enforced homework.  I had kids who showed up on time, clean, well-fed and attentive.  I had kids who, although diverse in their world-cultural background, were fairly similar in their economic backgrounds- they all were on the same soccer teams, saw each other at the mall and understood the “rules” of success.  They did not talk back to teachers; they said “I’m sorry”.  And the kid who kept getting into fights?  Well, we told his
parents that they had to look elsewhere- that we couldn’t serve their child appropriately in our setting- which, we couldn’t.  We didn’t keep a psychologist on staff.  We had learning programs for some kids who might be struggling, but certainly if a child was “too low”, we couldn’t serve him either.  We certainly wouldn’t have even accepted the child who couldn’t stay “dry” in her pants at age 6 and we couldn’t provide transportation to the kids who lived across town, even if they did qualify for our scholarships.

Certainly my students weren’t perfect.  I had the student whose mother drank and he was so anxious that any negative feedback would send him into full-blown tears.  I had the kid, whose father was a well-known doctor, who acted out for  attention and got it by having the nanny fired.  I had the insecure darling of a media giant who had her own iPhone at age 7, but never had a friend over.  Even these houses had secrets and anxieties and issues.

But in my private school setting, I could adapt for children’s different learning needs and provide choices in their educational experiences.  I could ask a parent to send me to specialized reading training so that I could help her child even better.  I knew that the parents, the kids and my administration expected success, worked together for success, and got success.  And in my private school, I was given gifts during Teacher Appreciation Week; I was thanked during conferences
for going “above and beyond”.  I was told that I was the reason that parents were willing to pay more money than some of them could really afford- so that their child could get a “good” education.  In the end, I could point to our standardized
tests and show that compared to those “other” kids, my kids were learning at ever-improving levels.  In that school, I could TEACH.  And I had the numbers to “prove” that I was effective.

I have also taught in public schools.  In public schools, we take EVERYONE.  Everyone.  And that means… everyone.

There is a Zero Reject policy in public education.  No child is considered uneducable.  That means that all of those children that my- and other- private schools couldn’t serve?  Public schools take them.

Public schools take the child with severe intellectual and developmental delays who needs help in learning toileting skills, but has a hilarious sense of humor and laughs at all jokes.  Public schools take the child with autism who throws tantrums and chairs.  Public schools take the child who needs a psychologist so that he can learn how to handle frustration and anger.  It can’t provide the psychologist, but it does take the child.  Public schools take the children who are
gifted at very young ages and because there are no books at home- because there is no cultural appreciation for learning- they channel their abilities into leadership- of gangs instead of corporations.  Public schools take everyone.

Public schools take the children who did not choose their parents well.  In my public school classrooms, I had the child who was going home at age 9 to take care of his younger siblings because his mother was too strung out on drugs to be home, much less cook dinner.   I had the child whose parents were so beaten down by the system that they didn’t bother showing up at school because they knew that the teachers were going to make comments about how uneducated they were and how poorly their child was doing as a result.  I had the child whose mother told me that it was my job to teach her child how to read and how to act so that he can get a job, because if she did, she would mess it up.  She didn’t have the confidence or the ability to help herself, and she was terrified to mess up another generation.  Or at least that’s how I interpreted “You gots to do it.  I fu3#$ed up myself- I don’ wanna f@$k him up, too.”  She knew the language of her streets, but not the formal language that I used.  I didn’t know her street language, either.  We both learned a lot that year.

I ‘m not talking about the “tyranny of low expectations” from  special education or any system that recognizes the challenges children face.  I mean simply that my job was harder when the other parts of the educational system weren’t working together.  When kids are carrying burdens that are the stuff of my worst nightmares, it is harder to teach them.

I was a good teacher in a public school.  I could get some discussions going.  I could provide creative, interesting ways to connect children to content.  But when a child is hungry, or a child is tired from playing video games all night, or a
child is afraid of adults, it is very, very difficult to take them to “higher levels of learning”.  My test scores were not fabulous.

It’s typical for teachers to blame parents and for parents to blame the “schools”.  Most polls find that “schools” in general are terrible, but “my school” is going a pretty good job.  When parents know their schools, and teachers know their parents, we can understand each other and we can appreciate the burdens we carry.  But when we look at schools and parents we don’t know, it is easy to make judgements.  And test score cut offs.

As a public school teacher, I can’t force parents to do “their job”- I can only teach the child I have in front of me.  “Good parents” are a bonus to a public school teacher, not a requirement of the job.  I don’t get to wring my hands and say “If only”, or “they should”.  I have to teach them all.

And it’s not just the kids or the communities- it can be the culture of education itself.  When schools are paid for by property taxes, the system is set up to reward wealthy communities and to punish poorer ones.  When Congress mandates that states follow the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but only pays 7% of the total cost, states must scramble to fill in the rest.  When we know that special needs are often related to poverty, we cannot be surprised when schools in high-poverty areas are low performing.

It’s racism/classism/what every “ism” you want to call it, to hold a bar in such a way that children only from certain backgrounds are successful.  When 5% of whites are dropping out of school, almost double that with 9% of African-Americans, and a shocking 18% of Hispanics are dropping out of high school, society tends to tell the low income and minority students to “try harder” by raising expectations.  If 20% of our white, middle-class students were leaving, we would change the system.  The system is designed to help those who are already successful, and to denigrate those who struggle.

Teachers are quitting by the droves.  50% quit within 5 years.  50%.  They spend a year longer than they went to college to get the degree.  And why are they quitting?  Not because they’re “ineffective”, but because the pay isn’t considered worth the hassle.  Because they’re not given mentoring opportunities.  Because it’s hard.  Because those sacrifices of your family time, your own income for snacks to feed the children, and your creativity are not appreciated or recognized by a general public who says “Don’t complain- you get a Summer vacation!” and then connects your paycheck to test scores over which you have limited control.   When essays like this are considered whining and I should get over it.

And by creating this “bar” that we’re “raising”, it’s clear that we’re not Finland– who has highly educated, well-paid teachers, a high number of immigrants, and very strong scores on international tests.  Because Finland, who has little poverty, a strong health care system, and a culture of collaboration- Finland’s “formula” looks something like this:

  • Whatever it takes

As a teacher, I was delighted if I had children in front of me who came into school well-rested, well-fed, and respectful of me and the job I needed to do.  It made my job easier if I could start a classroom off at point A and wind up at point Z by the end of the school year.  I can still do an amazing job and teach the child if those things aren’t there.  But if I am to teach my students from vastly different abilities and background to understand math and science and to be able to read and understand our history and to think critically , I have to trust that the grownups around education can do the same thing.

Our formula is flawed.


  1. This is a well written article! Submit it for publication as is. Well done!

    Comment by Wendy — August 25, 2011 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

    • I WANT to- but WHERE? I was hoping that someone, somewhere would pick this up…

      Comment by profmother — August 25, 2011 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  2. Try Ed leadership or the Kappan. It is a great article

    Comment by Christy — August 25, 2011 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  3. Seriously, this needs to be published somewhere else! Absolutely positively true!

    Comment by kim mccafferty — August 26, 2011 @ 6:01 am | Reply

  4. wonderful article. did you write it for the wall street journal or the new york times? because that is were it needs to be….

    Comment by zola — August 26, 2011 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  5. if the newspaper will print it in letters to the editor…


    Comment by zola — August 26, 2011 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

  6. I submitted it to the Kappan blog today… we shall see! Thanks for the positive feedback!

    Comment by profmother — August 26, 2011 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  7. I, too, am impressed and plan to share this.

    Comment by Barbara — September 4, 2011 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

  8. Glad to have found you! Look forward to reading more.

    Comment by Dr. Polly — February 1, 2012 @ 10:10 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: