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New memoir shines harsh light on U.S. schools: Review and Interview

Ohanian Comment; John Owens left an executive position to become a New York City teacher--in a school located in the poorest Congressional district in the United States. And he didn't do this Teach for America style; he took a year of graduate level teacher prep classes, which included lots of in-depth school observations. Of interest: The school he describes in great detail is a College Board School. The College Board seems to be moving big time into teacher professional development. Here is more evidence of the synchronism between Gates and College Board. Watch out!

The Advisory Session Guides offer easy-to-implement, structured session plans that focus on group facilitation and relationship development.

This is a New York City School in collaboration with the College Board and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation I wonder if Bill and Melinda have read the book.

I posted a piece John Owens wrote about his teaching experience back in 2011. Now I've read his book Confessions of a Bad Teacher. In a shaggy dog kind of comment, Publishers Weekly called it "useful for anyone considering a teaching career." I'd think it would scare the hell out of anybody considering a teaching job --and not just in New York City. The news I've been getting regularly from Albuquerque indicates that the way Owens was treated is not unique to psychopath principals in New York:

bizarre boot camp/educational philosophy seminar/brainwashing session/summer camp with a hyperactive copying machine.

That was for new teachers. There was also a full-staff weekend retreat in--New Jersey, where attendees were treated to grandiose mission statements:

"Our mission is to develop high-achieving students of good character who use academic, technological, and social skills to inspire others, succeed in college, and accede to positions of social power that advance their community and the broader nation."

Owens adds, "If the mission statement was ambitious, the vision statement was an 800-word manifesto that made the island paradise in Thomas More's Utopia seem second best to Ms. P's Latinate.. . . Ms. P was not just an imperial figure, she had a serious case of Crazy Boss syndrome. As someone who has been a boss and been subject to all manner of bosses, I know the problem well. Ms. P was demanding--that's fine. But she was delusional about what could be absorbed and achieved."

Owen supplies lots of specific examples to make his point, and points like this one are what make this book a very good read:

[W]hatever facets of education Ms. P couldn't express as data should would express as a show, a pageant that made it look like these high school students--many of whom I would come to realize had few, if any, of the most basic academic skills--were "scholars". . . .She was the type of boss who believes that the hard part of great ideas is coming up with them. Implementing these great ideas is simply a matter of telling your people to implement them. The results will follow.

One of Owens' Lessons Learned should be engraved on every ed reformer's ____ [expletive deleted]: The data panic hits poor kids hardest.

And then there's the five-column bulletin board rubric. Owen says, "Visit a New York City school, and chances are you will find hallway bulletin boards for every grade level and every subject, all following the template." An inspectorate from the Department of Education checsk up on these things and "inappropriate display of outstanding student achievement could cost a school many valuable rating points."

The trouble is, as Owens shows us throughout the book, students are not served well by this pageantry.

Around the same time John Owens was struggling in this school, the New York City Department of Education Quality Review Report appeared, rating the school "Well Developed" in most categories--but "Outstanding" in providing an environment of mutual trust between all staff and students to support personal and academic development. It also rated "Outstanding" in training, management systems, and structures that support teachers in the use of school data to inform planning and instruction and to track the progress of students.


Tne Quality Review Report does not rate the SWBATs (Students Will Be Able To). . . BUt John Owens does.

All of this [SWBAT] information--in precisely the five-column (not five-row) format--had to be on the board in blue or black ink before any students entered the classroom. A teacher with neat, bold handwriting could fit this material into about six square feet of whiteboard space. And it had to be in large enough type to be visible from anywhere in the room.

And remember: middle and high school teachers in New York change rooms every period.

Owens' deconstruction of the Workshop Model, required instructional approach in New York City schools, is worth the price of the book. And then some. I remember elementary teachers at a Queens College conference telling me, "Kids Will be sitting on the rug at 10:08." Owens sums it up in a word: Choreography. As data-based instruction gains supremacy, Owens foresees a tightening of the reins in how the popular workshop model is employed throughout the rest of the country. There will be more and more choreography. And, he warns, this won't benefit students.

Owens provides colorful descriptions of many of his colleagues and many of his students. These descriptions always get back to the underlying theme of the book: How what teachers do and what kids do relates to the crazy dictates traveling under the name ed reform. He summarizes:

The soft life of a teacher was taking every waking hour and then some. I really was pouring my heart and soul into the lesson plans, the PowerPoints, and the calls and emails to the parents. I really was putting up bulletin boards showing exemplary student work--and even included the appropriate evaluation rubrics....

Clearly John Owens was a much better first- year high school English teacher than I was when I taught at Grover Cleveland High School eons ago. And all he got in return for his effort was a series of "unsatisfactory" ratings from pompous,obnoxious administrators with more than just a few loose screws. I was lucky enough to be helped by a smart, experienced department chair. He came into my class once a week and afterwards offered me a practical tip for reducing chaos. He rated me "C" on my end-of-year evaluation, noting that I acted on suggestions, worked well with kids with special needs, had a good heart, and, given a little time would become an excellent teacher. John Owens demonstrates that he has a good heart--and that it's no longer worth a bent penny to ed deformers. But somewhere in the bowels of the New York City school system, there's a teacher evaluation that says a good heart once mattered. We need to resurrect that tenet. A good heart may not be enough but it sits at the core of good teaching.

by Greg Toppo

A new memoir by a self-described "bad teacher" shines a harsh light on data-driven school reform, concluding that tyranical principals often have too much power and that kids' needs go unmet.

After more than 30 years as a writer, editor and publishing executive, John Owens left a high-paying job as senior vice president and editorial director of Hachette Filipacchi Media to "give back" to the U.S. public schools he'd attended as a kid. He landed a teaching job at a high school in the Bronx -- he calls it "Latinate High School" -- that was a model of school reform, but what he found was reform "gone terribly wrong."

Owens lasted only about five months, but in the process he began writing about his experience. The result is a closely observed, often hilarious and profane new memoir, Confessions Of A Bad Teacher (Sourcebooks, $13.99). USA TODAY education writer Greg Toppo spoke with Owens recently:

Q: You call yourself a "bad" teacher. When did this idea first occur to you?

A: I was a bad teacher because I was a teacher. Today, "bad teacher" and "teacher" have become almost interchangeable. Listen to billionaire "visionaries" such as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, as well as "experts" such as Michelle Rhee. The problem with our schools is bad teachers. Almost immediately, I realized that I was destined to be a bad teacher because many of my eight- and ninth-graders had learning problems, and I couldn't fix them in the 46 minutes I had them each day. Many of my students had behavior problems, and I couldn't fix those problems either. And I wasn't very good at masking these problems, so my "scholars" didn't look like they were learning when they weren't learning. I also couldn't keep them from getting excited and boisterous when they were learning.

Q: You recount how, in many ways, your principal was the cause of your woes, yet in most schools this person would be considered a model principal. What went wrong in your case?

A: Today's version of "school reform" puts a huge amount of power in the principal's hands. Too much, and too easily abused. My principal was considered a model of school leadership because she had high "expectations" that the teachers and the kids had to meet, and if they didn't, the teacher must be doing something wrong. Never mind that she didn't provide us with any sort of backup or help. As she saw it -- and this is very common today -- her job was to come up with "goals," and our job was to achieve them, no questions asked. She demanded that these kids -- most of them poor and many from troubled backgrounds, including homelessness -- be silent, contemplative "scholars," sort of like the South Bronx version of Harry Potter. The trouble was, all of us teachers had kids who needed special education services because of their behavior and learning problems. We had kids for whom English was a very distant second language. I had a student in my ninth-grade writing class who didn't speak a word of English. And I had a kid in my eighth-grade English class who couldn't read. How do you get the "results" that are required? Well, you either lower the bar to the point where almost everyone can clear it, or you make up the results.

Q: One of the most long-standing discussions in education has always been whether we're spending enough money on education. How did the money discussion play out in your classroom? What did it look like?

A: America has become so obsessed with test scores and other data that we believe we should focus only on academic subjects and "cut the fat." That's made so many schools just test-prep factories that are nothing like the public schools most of us attended. Like a lot of schools, my school had no art program, no recess and our music department consisted of a boom box and bunch of drums and gourds covered with beads, kept in a basement closet next to the teachers' restroom. We didn't have a school library. The only way to get one was to receive a grant from a private foundation. We have gotten to the point where we rely on charity to fund what most of us would consider the essentials of public education. That signals a far bigger problem than any test scores.

Q: You say our system mistakes scientific measurement for data. What's the difference and why does it matter?

A: Originally, the idea of "school reform" was to use scientific research to find out what really works and what really makes a difference in schools. But, of course, real research takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. So instead, America is being fed "data" -- test scores, graduation rates, passing rates and all kinds of stuff that sounds impressive but is often bogus or meaningless. It's certainly not scientific information. It has gotten to the point where our schools measure everything. And much of it is just kooky. In my school, we had to input more than 2,000 data points a week. Not just for attendance, homework, class participation and such, but also whether the students exhibited "unity of being" and "reflective living." With so much data and so much of it subjective, it's easy to prove anything, good or bad. Read the data one way, and it says a kid who never comes to class should pass. Or twist the data another way, and it is easy to prove that a teacher is incompetent. We have let spreadsheets hijack American education. [emphasis added>


In today's public schools it's easy to break the rules. There are, after all, so many rules. Choose a noun, any noun, and chances are there's a rule that goes along with it. At Latinate, the principal, Ms. P, left no rules to chance, publishing them in a constantly updated cascade of photocopied decrees that came from the Department of Education as well as her own "Amazing!" leadership.

Typical of Ms. P's rules was the rubric (set of standards) for the hallway bulletin boards that teachers decorated. Here is an excerpt:

The celebration of student achievements is a highly valued practice at Latinate. Each teacher is assigned a hallway bulletin board on a monthly or bimonthly basis. Mounting of exhibits starts on the 15th of each month, and final inspections are done by the assistant principal on the 17th of each month. Assessment rubrics for bulletin boards are found in Appendix B.

Appendix B pointed out, with a five-column rubric, the very specific requirements for "celebrating student achievement."

"Your performance on the bulletin board will be part of your professional evaluation," the assistant principal reminded us.

In other words, the path to an Unsatisfactory rating is paved with bulletin boards that display student work but do not explicitly present the New York State Learning Standard that the students were addressing with their work. Also, the grading of the student work must not be just letters (A, B, C, and so on) and certainly not just words (such as "Great," "Lovely," and "Terrific"). The grades must be expressed as specific numeric values based on a rubric for that assignment. Oh, boy.

While Ms. P set out the rules in legalistic language that was an inevitable "Gotcha!" for any teacher she was eager to build a case against, the exacting standards of the bulletin board extend -- and are followed -- throughout the New York City public school system. Visit a New York City school, and chances are you will find hallway bulletin boards for every grade level and every subject, all following the template.

— Greg Toppo and John Owens with Ohanian review
USA Today & Confessions of a Bad Teacher





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