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Learning at its Best

Is it Ever About the Students?

Question ?

Is it ever about the students?

No matter where I turn I hear teachers, principals, superintendents, mayors, governors, education secretaries, regents, newspapers, tv networks, radio stations and the President saying it is all about the students – every lesson, every decision every policy is about doing what is best for the students.


Let’s start with the President. You remember him, he’s the guy who promised change but doesn’t seem to have the knowledge, interest, ideas, or power to effect it.

Sure, the Race to the Top looks a little different than No Child Left Behind, mainly because there seems to be more of a willingness to leave some children behind (there’s not enough room at the top for everyone). Still, decisions remain based on misguided ideas about testing, teaching, learning and incentives. For the President it is all about political game playing and not doing anything radical that might interfere with his re-election is 2012.

Instead of a freethinking leader we have a gullible man doing pretty much what his predecessor did and calling it something else.

Barack Obama

Gullible? That’s my take, but a case could be made that the President is deliberately misrepresenting the success of the program he cited in his State of the Union Address for having a 97% graduation rate. It appears that the Bruce Randolph School in Denver didn’t actually prepare those graduates for academic life beyond high school. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times,Diane Ravitch cites Noel Hammatt, a former teacher and instructor at Louisiana State University. He looked at data from the Web site of the Colorado Department of Education and found that while the school did, in fact, have a high graduation rate, ACT scores there were well below the state average, meaning students are not well prepared for college.

A high school diploma should mean that the student receiving it is ready for further education or skilled employment. That would be about the students. Instead, we have a school cooking the books on their graduation rate to make a program look like a success when it isn’t.

Our education secretary, Mr. Duncan, was part of the cabal that cooked the books in Chicago to produce apparent gains in standardized test scores. What gains? Where did they go? Rhee in Washington? Same thing? What gains?

I’m not even going to touch whether the tests measure useful learning; that’s for some other post.

The head of my school district, who also happens to be Mayor of New York City, is also not above cooking the books. He is fast to toot his horn when testing results seem to indicate that his programs are leading to huge jumps in student learning, but he is strangely silent the next year when those apparent gains disappear.

I have NEW YORK - JANUARY 03:  Cathleen Black (R), give Mayor Bloomberg some credit. He has been willing to spend money on education, but he spends that money on data systems and consultants who set up the data systems and then interpret the data for him. The mayor cannot do that himself, probably  because he is busy running the rest of City government single-handed.

Worse, he has utter contempt for students, teachers, parents and all the other stakeholders. That’s clear from his appointment of know-nothing Cathie Black as schools chancellor without, he claims, even considering anyone else, especially someone who actually knows a little bit about the system he or she will be running. That contempt is reinforced daily in the mayor’s comments about parents and the dismissive way parents are treated in setting the policies that affect their children.

Now he wants to spend even more money schools are desperate for to create additional tests to give students, tests explicitly designed – he claims – to assess teacher effectiveness. Even if they do that, which is doubtful, at best, what benefit do students get from these tests? How does taking even more time from their school day to administer these tests, not to mention lessons preparing for these tests, and whatever anxiety the tests might cause them, benefit the kids sitting in that classroom?

Does anyone doubt that if teacher jobs are dependent on student performance on these new tests teachers will spend time prepping the students to perform well on them?

In New York, a board of regents is supposed to oversee all education systems in the state. Despite all his money and power, Mayor Bloomberg could not get his know-nothing chancellor hired without a waiver from them. Of course they gave it. They’re all about the politics, not the students.

FOX News Channel newsroom

The media? They’re not for the students. They exist to sell newspapers, magazines and airtime. Most want to spend as little as possible on gathering the news. That precludes paying reporters to take the time to actually look beyond the press releases, or even ignore the press releases, and do independent, investigative and interpretive reporting. If the media reached its highpoint during and in the wake of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago, we can only hope they are reaching their nadir now and can’t possibly get any worse. See, I’m still an optimist.


I don’t know about anywhere else, but in NYC principals are rewarded financially when the schools they run show improvements in test scores and the use of the data the tests generate to drive teaching. My principal, whom I like and respect, used to ask the tough questions like ‘what do the grades we give really mean?’ and ‘how can we change our practice to focus more on genuine learning and less on test scores?’ He doesn’t ask those questions anymore.

Perhaps this is because he, with the teacher’s agreement, has decided that an additional set of meetings between parents and teachers, that fewer than half the parents come to, is more important than regular staff meetings. The teachers would much rather spend a couple of hours one evening with some parents than a monthly 40 minutes Monday afternoon staff meeting.

Now we come to teachers.

This is a hard one for me. I am a teacher, but when I look at what we do and how we do it, I am forced to admit that we are not focused on students either. Where is the activism against standardized teaching? Where is the activism against the way parents are treated in our system? Where is the activism against the huge amounts of money spent on invalid data and consultants? Where is the activism against test prep and in favor of empowering student learning? Where is the anger? Where is the energy? One would think it is all focused on saving our jobs, but it isn’t.

I do see some teachers giving up a Saturday to attend an EdCamp to engage without compensation in a self-generated process of developing or honing skills, methods and ideas that can lead to better teaching. EdCamps are fantastic, energizing, reaffirming events for very dedicated teachers and the EdCamp movement is growing exponentially. Excellent, but there is a dirty little secret about EdCamps; fewer than half the teachers who enroll to attend actually show up.


Oddly, that is about the same percentage of teachers who show up at union meetings at my school and about the same percentage of parents who show up for the parent-teacher meetings at my school.

Slightly less than half is what you can believe of what is printed in the newspaper about education and it is about the amount you can believe of what our President promises about education policy.

When I started this essay I was convinced that nothing that happens in education is about the students, but I was wrong.

Slightly less than half of what happens in education is about the students.

Doesn’t that make you feel good?

This is cross posted at my personal blog Education on the Plate

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About Deven Black

I'm a highly curious middle school teacher-librarian for the NYC Department of Education. My other major pleasure is being a husband and the father of a teenager. I've done lots of other things (news reporter, restaurant manager, food writer, etc.) that will show up in my writing from time-to-time. I have strong opinions but I try to keep an open mind. I'm always ready to learn something new.


12 thoughts on “Is it Ever About the Students?

  1. Thank You Deven,
    Your thoughtful comments and breakdown of each area of the hirarchy and systematic approach is not only commendable and admarable, but courageous. Your insightful voice on the COOP is the reason why I contribute and continue to read others on this site. Continue to spread the message and fight against the injustice to our youth and the youth to come.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | June 5, 2011, 12:21 am
  2. Let’s get 50% of teachers on the Coöp and watch what happens. How do we do it?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 6, 2011, 9:47 am
  3. I have a new tag line for education: Kids First, Adult Egos Last. Could be a Co-op t-shirt? What do you all think?

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | June 16, 2011, 3:15 pm
  4. Deven, This is good, strong, outraged stuff. Amen.

    It seems to me a little less than half is about the right formulation for a lot of things in American education: the attention we give to the actual students in classrooms, and their experiences there; the families who can or are willing to be involved in their children’s education; the teachers who are advocating for more powerful kinds of teaching and learning…in fact the sense that the purpose of the enterprise is about learning at all.

    And that’s what kids give us back: a little less than half of their attention, their hearts, their willingness to engage.

    Makes sense, doesn’t it?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 20, 2011, 2:56 pm
    • It makes far too much sense, Kirsten. Perhaps that is why our politicians and policy-makers don’t get it. They keep looking for the bogeyman under the bed and the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, and as long as they pander to illusions nothing beneficial to anyone but themselves and their cronies will happen.

      Posted by Deven Black | June 20, 2011, 4:34 pm
  5. To me, the most insidious facet of the whole “about the students” thing is that the argument itself has been brilliantly staged by the politico-reformers of which you speak. What was once an opinion is now de-facto. Merely bringing up an alternative solution incurs the wrath of “supporters of children” everywhere. Just the other day, I was told by an acquaintance in the business community that I didn’t love kids because of my non-standardized testing, non-union bashing views.

    It reminds me of a John Stewart bit about Fox News. He touts the brilliance of the network because it has been able to turn every ideological disagreement into an attack from “liberal left-wing media types”. Fox’s ability to portray itself as a victim has “rallied the troops” so to speak against any criticism. Thus, any further attacks only provide evidence that the rest of the world is out to get them, only hardening a perspective they seek to share with their audience.

    School reform is far scarier than most policy issues because it is “post-political”. For major mouthpieces and politicians, this is a bi-partisan issues. This means that it doesn’t fit into the common narrative of how this country typically discusses policy issues. This means that whenever politicians are able to reach an agreement on education policy, few non-educators speak up. “It must be a good idea, those two folks are shaking hands in front of that 3rd grader. That lady went to Harvard, she must know school…right?”

    But equally, for this reason alone, it is perfectly realistic to think that the activism you speak to is possible Deven. Teachers, parents, and students can stick up for “what’s right”, and not just for a party line.

    This isn’t a policy conversation that can be sullied by discourse, it is an action. Learning was never theirs for the taking. As a community (students, families, teachers, etc.), we have the expertise in the area. We don’t have to petition to make the change we seek. Instead, let’s just be the change, make it happen, and watch grow. We’re already doing it every day, and our numbers are growing.

    Keep up the good work.

    Posted by mrsenorhill | July 6, 2011, 10:02 pm
  6. Smells like the politicians favorite tagline “We need to think out our grandchildren’s future”. Let’s keep making noise– someone will surely hear it, believe it is beautiful and sell it to the masses. I’m buying!!

    Posted by Lauren | July 7, 2011, 10:20 pm
  7. I often hear this question asked among many teachers “Is it Ever about the students”. The positive is that we are all feeling the same stress from the many requirements of our curriculums as well as the hats we wear as educators This is occurring at all levels. The more we discuss this topic, let’s hope that someone will listen!

    Posted by TOwe | July 24, 2011, 9:06 pm
  8. Let us briefly assume that it really IS all about the students. What could this possibly be true of?

    Envision the public education system as a governing device acting to limit the number of students, based on various socioeconomic and class criteria, who become “qualified” to hold various political, economic, scientific and similar non-laborer positions. Does this explain why policy makers (appear to purposefully) make it difficult for youths to obtain a “good education”?

    Posted by Brent Snavely | August 31, 2011, 10:54 pm


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