Tuesday, August 12, 2014

the other

"Hey, is it true they only have 2 seasons in Canada?” “Yup, 6 months of winter and 6 months of poor snowmobiling.” Americans love mocking Canada. It’s a pleasant American pastime to poke fun at our quirky Canadian parka-wearing neighbors who talk nonstop a-boot hockey, eh? Part of defining yourself and your community comes from defining yourself in opposition to an Other. Some of this is useful and helps us carve out a unique identity, but lately I’ve encountered too many situations in which the Other becomes a target of hatred, and things start to get out of hand. 

I’m lucky to know a talented guy, director Tomer Sinai, who captures some of this sentiment in his film “Baby Steps,” which just had its world premiere at the Chain NYC Film Festival. The protagonist, a man in NYC, struggles with revealing his gay identity at a job interview. The fear of being the Other is so great that ultimately he feels the need to deny what makes him “different” in hopes of winning a job. What Sinai captures so elegantly is the irony of how we worry and focus so much on the small things that divide us, when so many other qualities and experiences bring us together.

Furthermore, Sinai was born and raised in Israel. He has personally witnessed the hatred that has evolved between two communities that at their hearts are not so different. One response to the ongoing conflict in that region has been the call by some activists for a "cultural boycott" of any individual or product originating in Israel. Accordingly, there are activists who would encourage people to boycott Sinai's films, regardless of how valuable they are to liberalism and progressive causes like gay-rights, purely because of his ties to a country whose actions they oppose. When we demonize an entire community like this, it’s easier than acknowledging all of the complexities involved.

We’ve seen this happening with immigration, where people obsess over who “belongs” within our American community and who does not. I still react negatively when people insist that everyone in the United States speak English, and though I hope that everyone has the opportunity to learn it if they wish, it doesn’t stop me from seeing someone as American if they do not. For some, it’s too hard to identify the boundaries of our “American” identity if there are enough differences that we can’t easily distinguish ourselves from the Other. The irony being that within any given community, if there aren’t enough differences, we seek to create them ourselves. And we can’t help but laugh when we see it in action, watching people align themselves within retirement communities (think Seinfeld’s Del Boca Vista) or sports fans fighting to the death over their favorite teams. 

Where does the good-natured competition veer into the malicious? Some of it is clearly historical, making it easy for some countries to be happy neighbors while others become mortal enemies. But what turns a friendly rivalry into a passionate hatred? I’m sure that some of it comes from fear - people fear differences and that can take on vast cultural proportions. But I think a lot of it just comes from people lacking good, solid, positive things in their own lives. It’s generally not the well-off, happily employed people that take the Giants-Dodgers rivalry to violent ends. People who are suffering in some way (emotionally, economically, culturally) are more likely to have existential anger that’s easiest to channel into simple, clear-cut conflict. Which makes a lot of sense and ultimately puts fault in those whose money/religion/politics excludes and oppresses others. Which is why my proposed solution to issues like the Israeli-Palestinian one is to flood a community with resources to defray their anger in the first place, and not give them an easy target for hatred.

Humans naturally align themselves into communities. We give those communities names and have instant pride in them, whether the community is the country of multiple generations of one’s family, the neighborhood you just moved to, or your department within your workplace. Mostly random, mostly artificial, yet very real to all of us. When people have basic freedoms, as simple as food and water or the right to identify as gay, it seems like friendly rivalries are less likely to spiral into international conflicts.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


I love teachers, but I hate tenure. Based on what the teachers’ union will tell you, these feelings are mutually exclusive. I couldn’t disagree more. A teacher myself, I saw too clearly how tenure protected mediocre teachers and antiquated systems at the serious expense of student learning.

I subscribe to the data-supported argument that teacher quality is one of the most important, possibly the absolute most important, measure of student learning. Yet the tenure system prevents teachers from being held accountable for their work. It creates a system in which teachers are measured by seniority rather than data-measured outcomes, and makes it extraordinarily difficult for those data-measured outcomes to exist, let alone be used for evaluative purposes. Notice I use the word data a lot, because that was what we teachers use to measure student achievement, although I’ve been hard-pressed to find similar measures for teacher quality itself.

It’s not about firing teachers in droves, it’s about incentivizing them to never get lazy about student achievement. People like to believe that teachers’ interests are naturally aligned with student achievement, because why else would someone become a teacher? But, just like all humans, they will become complacent if they work within a system that virtually guarantees them continued employment and a sense of boundless security. Teachers who work extraordinarily hard to improve student achievement are treated just the same as ones who don’t, and there is no way to incentivize the ones who don’t while perpetuating the current system. I reiterate - it’s not about firing teachers. It’s the fact that removing the option changes the entire dynamic of the system. By basing job status on seniority, you have taken away the need for any kind of data-driven evaluations of teachers.

So, with tenure potentially gone, what will change? Note that it isn’t “keep good teachers” and “fire bad teachers.” First of all, calling teachers good or bad is absurd, and secondly, the notion that the thing to do with struggling teachers is just to fire them is equally absurd. There are actually data-supported teaching practices that improve student outcomes, by treating teachers more like other professionals in terms of employment status, I believe that they will feel more motivated to stay on their game. I know fearmongers expect a firing squad of evil administrators to descend, but based on what I’ve seen, the “evil” of these administrators is sometimes forced by the system and status quo itself (forcing administrators to make long-term hiring decisions in an artificially short-term timeframe).

All of this forces us to ask, how do we actually measure teacher effectiveness? And here I embrace the necessary evil that is Standardized Testing. Another thing you won’t hear a teacher say very often: I love testing. But here it is. I LOVE TESTING. I think the state tests are great. I think they are a perfect example of a necessary versus sufficient condition. In order to know if your students are learning at a high level, it isn’t sufficient to know just their test scores. Test scores are a test of basic skills. To me, those basic skills are necessary. If my child can’t pass a standardized test of these basic skills, I am concerned. If none of their classmates can either, I’m angry. Because I know that kids in advantaged communities all over the country are doing it with no problem, and that disadvantaged kids with great teachers are too.

People say “don’t make me teach to the test.” I say, “PLEASE teach to the test!” The test is a basic skills test. Your students should have those basic skills. “Teaching to the test” doesn’t mean silent classrooms full of kids writing in workbooks - I’m willing to stake my reputation on the belief that the disadvantaged students who perform best are the ones with the most engaging teachers who make that learning motivating. That’s not to say I think the tests are perfect or even great - I think there are definite flaws. But, I know that if the majority of children in a given classroom are failing it, year after year, that is a huge red flag. I know that I don’t want my child in that class, or that teacher guaranteed a job. Even if they claim that my child is learning so many things that can’t be measured by the test, that may be true, but if my child can’t answer reading comprehension questions on grade level or perform basic math problems, what are you teaching my kid? There are many teachers of disadvantaged kids who give them these basic, testable skills year after year. I say, ask them how they’re doing it, and make everyone else do it that way. Enough excuses.

Teachers are amazing. They affect more things about our society than I can begin to imagine. But they are not victims. They don’t deserve a certain salary or a certain job security program just because we love them so much. No one is required to be a teacher, but if you choose to be one, I say, don’t play the martyr and hide behind a vow of poverty. Take pride in the importance of your work by casting aside the established safety nets, and be willing to prove yourself year after year.

Issues I wish I had time to address further:
- Will eliminating tenure fix everything? No. I’m arguing for a first major change to the status quo that would hopefully shift dynamics and accountability in such a way as to break the old patterns that have failed many students.
- The Equity Project. My favorite social experiment is the charter school in New York where a principal has taken the budget for the school and put the vast majority into high teacher salaries of $125k a year. They don’t have much money for supplies or support staff, so the teachers have additional responsibilities, and they are employed at-will. It’s new so there’s not much data yet, but I like the sound of it.
- The teachers union in general. Teachers as victims, teachers as martyrs who have already had to give up too much. I disagree with this tactic by the union, in pitting teachers and administrators against each other, and making it seem like administrators somehow have it in for teachers.
- Idea of asking teachers to trade tenure for higher pay. There are districts that have made this offer, and I’d like to see data on how it’s working out.
- Fear that admin will run amok. There is always the possibility that administrators would in fact start mass firings. I doubt this only because there isn’t a limitless supply of teachers, new teachers require investment, and I don’t think that admin will meet student learning standards by parading in dozens of new teachers at every school (been there, seen it fail).
- Establishing metrics for teacher quality. Huge problem. Testing, imperfect though it is, is the only metric I’ve yet seen that gives some sense of groups of students learning basic skills. Obviously there’s a lot more to measure than that.
- Comparing test scores. A lot of people think that measuring by test scores is just a simple act of comparing all classrooms - so obviously advantaged communities will do better. Obviously good comparisons would involve looking at teachers’ ability to improve student scores over time, comparing only teachers who have similar student populations.
- Promotions. I would love to see a quality measure, rather than a seniority chart, that would give teachers the ability to be promoted to different levels based on performance (ex. Probationary Teacher, Master Teacher, etc)