Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Tis the Season for Curmie Contenders

Curmie contenders tend to fall into categories. There are the censorious asshats who shut down high school (usually) productions of plays and musicals that any normal person would consider utterly inoffensive; there are the buffoons who decide that a six-year-old kid who touches a classmate’ butt on the playground is guilty of a sex crime or that when a (black) basketball player flashes the signal for a 3-point shot, it’s really a gang sign; there are the teachers who condone or even perpetrate outrageously dangerous or demeaning behavior; there are the administrators who sell out any pedagogical integrity for a little filthy lucre; there are the stupid rules, stupidly enforced, so that disarming an armed and potentially violent classmate is grounds for suspension… You know the catalog as well as I do, Gentle Reader.

Alan Barron
Today’s category is a familiar one, entitled Punishing Teachers for Being Good at Their Jobs. Well, sort of. (See below.) We have two examples. Our first story, from June, comes from Michigan, where Monroe Middle School teacher Alan Barron was suspended (officially, placed on administrative leave, a distinction without a difference) for a fortnight for showing a 30-second video of a blackface performance in the context of a section on stereotyping. He was barred not only from the classroom, but also from other school events, such as an annual dinner honoring retirees (he retired at the end of the 2013-14 academic year after 36 years of service).

Or at least that’s what Mr. Barron’s lawyer says. It’s also what parents of students in the 8th-grade class say: that, in the words of Monroe News reporter Ray Kisonas, Assistant Principal Melissa Provo, who had sat in on the class, “thought the lesson plan was offensive and racist.” It wasn’t, of course, in the opinion of anyone but the Ms. Provo, who apparently doesn’t believe in teaching history the way it actually happened. Well, that’s not quite true: all the higher-ups covered for her, although it’s up for grabs whether any of them actually believed in her case.

Needless to say, when, inevitably in the light of a decision so transparently stupid, the fecal matter interfaced the whirling rotors, everyone in the administration ran for cover.
The district, through spokesman Bobb Vergiels, would not acknowledge that Mr. Barron was suspended and only stated that he is “on leave.”

“Mr. Barron has been on leave for about a week while we look into a reported situation in his classroom,” a statement read.
Subsequently, Superintendent Dr. Barry Martin, who is either a prevaricator of epic proportions or the only person in town dumber than Ms. Provo, blamed the brouhaha on “incorrect information,” disingenuously pretending that what the entire community rose up to condemn in the administrative/board action was “a perception that the district was opposed to a teacher providing students with information about the history of racial issues in this country. This simply is not true and is a misinterpretation of the concern.”

In plain terms, Martin vainly tries to shift the blame by doing exactly what he accuses students, parents, and the blogosphere of doing: misinterpreting the concern. No one that I can see ever suggested that the school was censoring discussion of racial issues; they were objecting to the unwarranted suppression of a veteran teacher’s ability to employ what he perceived to be the best available classroom strategies to cover important information.

What really happened, of course, was that an Assistant Principal who was born about the time Mr. Barron started teaching felt compelled to sit in on a class of a man who was retiring in a few weeks. Curmie would love to believe she was looking to improve her own classroom skills. Curmie, however, is not a moron, and is pretty certain she had heard what the day’s subject matter was, and was looking to strut her PC credentials and her “authority.” The board then supposedly needed two weeks to “fully consider what happened in the classroom.”

Well, I can tell you that in two seconds: an assistant principal with the mental capacity of a head of wilted lettuce decided that an obviously perfectly reasonable lesson was something sinister, and the Principal, Superintendent, and School Board all lacked the moral integrity or the intellectual courage to tell her to STFU. Both the local community and the networld responded as sane people would, and here we are.

Martin’s crocodile tears that “a highly respected and loved teacher, and one who has done much for his students and the community, has had to endure a public airing of what should have ended through a district discussion” may be the most hypocritical twaddle of the year. That highly respected and loved teacher wouldn’t have had to endure a single fucking thing if you weren’t so goddamned incompetent, you pusillanimous little shit.


As I was saying… eventually, someone either came to their senses or decided that this particular little escapade wasn’t worth the universal and indeed national opprobrium it was generating. But calling off the proverbial dogs came too little, too late. The chances the administration at Monroe will get a Curmie nomination: quite good.

Vuola Coyle
And so we move on to our other story, this one from July in New York State. According to Voula Coyle, a former 4th grade teacher at Rhame Avenue School in East Rockaway, she was pulled from the classroom because of how her students do on standardized tests. But here’s a switch: she says she was fired (actually, re-assigned to non-classroom duties) because her charges did too well, thereby allegedly hurting the school’s funding because students therefore showed insufficient progress in the fifth grade. According to her, teachers had been advised “not to be optimal, but to be adequate. That underlying message of mediocrity was promoted.”

Got that?

The more perspicacious among you will at this point have an eyebrow raised in skepticism, and you’re right. There’s more to this story than meets the eye. Ms. Coyle, it turns out, had been charged with helping her students on the standardized tests that reformsters and educationists (but few actual educators) so admire. (Curmie is, if anything, more cynical now than when he wrote about the topic here, here, here, and here, for example.) But, and as they say in the burlesque circuit, it’s a big but, a state-appointed arbiter found those allegations “not credible.” Curmie reminds you, Gentle Reader, that he is no lawyer, but it does seem that “not credible” really qualifies as a step more emphatic an acquittal than “insufficient evidence” or similar language. Moreover, whereas Coyle had received “highly effective” (the highest available) ratings for two consecutive years, her replacement in the classroom mustered only “developing” (translation: “terrible”). Something is clearly afoot.

Yet even after (or perhaps specifically because) Coyle was exonerated from wrong-doing, the school gave her a sort of half-clerical/half-professional job writing lesson guides. [Curmie admits that making $115K for that job doesn’t sound so bad, since he makes barely over half that as a full professor, but also acknowledges that the cost of living is probably a little higher in a posh Long Island town than in East Texas.]

A good share of this kerfuffle can be directed attributed to the fetishization of standardized testing. Certainly I have seen a precipitous and still continuing drop in real college-readiness in my undergraduate students over the 14 years I’ve been in my current job. Their test scores remain essentially the same, but their critical thinking, research, and argumentative skills have plummeted. Obviously, there are exceptions, but far too high a percentage of current students want to be told precisely what they need to regurgitate on the test, and aren’t interested in anything else. Such students have always existed, of course, but never before have they been so thick on the ground.

I had a student in my office the other day who summed it up pretty well. The topic was the fact that over a quarter of my senior-level Theatre History class had their grades withheld because of significant but pretty clearly unintentional citation errors. He said that he had never been taught what I’d learned in 7th grade: not then, not in high school, not in a pair of freshman composition courses in college. He and his peers had never learned how to write and document a paper, how to construct an argument, how to engage with existing scholarship without simply parroting it. “We’re from the No Child Left Behind generation,” he said. “We know how to take multiple-choice tests.”

Yes, we should take into account the irrational desire to quantify everything, whether such enumeration means anything or not (the best basketball team is the one with the tallest guys; the best candidate is the one who can raise the most money; the best school is the one that scores the highest on bullshit testing mechanisms). And East Rockaway schools certainly quaffed that Kool-Aid with gusto.

John Hildebrand of Newsday reports, for example, that:
The arbitrator, in her ruling, noted that fourth-graders took more than 60 practice tests from January 2012 through April 2012, virtually a daily routine. The arbitrator also noted that the elementary school's principal had endorsed the practice sessions.
Newsflash: what you learn from practice tests is how to take tests, not subject matter. Even if those practice tests are only an hour long, that’s over two full weeks of teaching and learning time spent on… well, bullshit. There’s some horrible teaching going on at that school, perpetrated by Ms. Coyle and presumably many others under the cheerleading of a principal (unnamed in the news reports I’ve seen, but presumably Erik C. Walter) more interested in funding than in education. So describing Ms. Coyle as an innocent victim is a bit of a stretch. Demanding that her students endure all that testing instead of, you know, learning something is not the quintessence of educational excellence. But she was just doing what she was told. Except that she wasn’t. Sort of.

This is the pedagogical equivalent of what Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall calls an “ethics train wreck.” Assigning blame is difficult, but there’s plenty of it to go around. Whereas the inciting incident, if I might borrow a term from dramatic theory, was legislation in which Ms. Coyle’s allegations can even cross the line into plausibility, it’s pretty clear that the administration of the Rhame Avenue school and the entirety of the East Rockaway system value a whole lot of things more than they value their students’ educations. They are therefore in Curmie contention.

No comments: