National Public Education

Lessons From Kansas City

The Latin contest had come down to a final series of questions.  Our middle school in Kansas City was tied with the top private school in the region for first place, with the district-wide selective magnet school a distant third.  The best private school student, a very studious-looking young girl in glasses and bangs, was trying to think of the answer.  She probably knew it, since it was not all that difficult, but she was having a hard time coming up with it.  As the seconds ticked away, one of my students, a street kid from the low-income neighborhood around our school, called out in a loud stage whisper, “She doesn’t know it.”  The moderator admonished him that “one more outbreak . . . etc.” but she was already just about in tears.  You could see she wanted to tell him she did know it, but she just couldn’t get it out.  Time was called.  We didn’t know the answer either, but went on to win the contest by one point.

The article in the Kansas City Star the next day said that the principal of the private school had complained that the contest was not fair.  He said something like “they didn’t tell us the questions were going to be so difficult.”  That was golden.  Here we were, one of the lowest-ranked middle schools in the state, managing to answer these questions better than the top academic schools in the metropolitan area.  This got me wondering.  If we could do this, why weren’t the other public schools doing any better?  Was there some other problem?

I had come to Kansas City in the late 1980's to help run this "Latin Grammar School" in a poor section of the city.  Some of the kids actually showed up to school barefoot.  We had eight Latin teachers and I was the department chairman.  That first year did not go well.  None of the kids knew very much about the Romans or why anyone would want to learn this strange language.  The Latin teachers would crowd into my office at the end of each day with one horror story after another.  Progress was slow.  The youngest, the sixth graders, did best, since they would still listen now and then to their teachers, but the eighth graders, knowing well that they would never have to take another day of Latin once they got through this year, were almost impossible.

But we teachers were all young, idealistic, and fully convinced, I think, that anyone could learn Latin if they just kept trying.  After all, we had all had our own doubts about our own ability to learn this language, but had pulled through and finally done it.  No one was ready to give up.

In the end the results were pretty amazing.  The school had started out with a percentile rank on the state tests of general knowledge down in the single digits, but we managed to double these by the second year, and then double them again in the third, putting us within shouting distance of the middle range of schools in the state.  In three years we went from being the worst middle school in the city to the best.

No one claimed, though, that this was simply because we were teaching Latin.  We had, after all, one of the best principals in the city, Juanita Hempstead.  People often say that Latin helps one on standardized tests, but I have never really bought this argument.  When you actually look at the questions on the tests and try to find any that are related to what is in the Latin curriculum, you find a very small correlation, probably less than one percent.  There are simply too many difficult English words, and we learn too few Latin roots, for the two groups to match up.  Yes, we could find five kids who could do well in a Latin contest, but that was because we had so many kids to choose from.  We were a large school.

So it was not just that the kids were learning some Latin.  Rather, I think, it was the fact that we were trying to teach Latin that made the difference.  The fact that we were doing this showed the kids that we thought they could do it; that they could master this difficult and very academic subject if they worked at it.  This gave them a whole new level of confidence in their own ability and so made them much more likely to do well on those state tests.

As anyone knows who has ever sat next to a poorly educated child who is working on one of those standardized tests, they almost always know a lot more than what they are putting down on paper.  If you ask them about the questions they often know quite a bit about them, but have not put this down.  The trouble is that they are not “engaged,” as teachers say, in the process.  They could care less how they do on this waste of time.  They might know some answers, but hardly bother to read the questions.

But what we were telling them in our Latin classes, and showing them through our persistence, was that we thought they were, in fact, the kind of kids who ought to do well on those tests.  They could learn Latin, we were saying, and so probably could do well at any academic task.  That’s what we thought, anyway, and eventually they came to believe it, too.  They began to see the tests as a normal part of their academic lives, not as some outside source of annoyance, and so started to take them seriously.  Then they did better.

Ironically, what made the difference, then, was not that we succeeded in teaching them Latin, but that we were so often failing at this.  That’s what got those scores up.  It was not that they were learning Latin; that did come, but not until later.  At first what mattered was that they were not learning it and we still thought they could.  Then they had concrete proof that we believed in them, in their own natural ability.  That is what changed their view of themselves, and consequently their success on the tests.  All those complaining Latin teachers in my office were actually a sign that we were on the right track.  Who knew?  Just because you are not succeeding does not mean you are not doing the right thing (a thought I have often had occasion to recall as I try to find ways to improve public education in general).

What I had learned, though, was that there was nothing about those children from that poor neighborhood that made it impossible for them to be among the best.  They were not the problem.  They learned these things just as well as anybody, given the time to work through their problems.  And this applied to their general social conditions, as well.  The problem was not their poverty, unemployment, or lack of fathers.  Our kids had all those problems, yet still found ways to succeed.  What did matter were their parents, and their friends, and their previous education, but we knew how to deal with those issues.  That's what teachers do.  There was nothing mysterious about their success.

Why then, weren't the schools in general doing better?  It wasn't rocket science.  None of us had any background in educational theory.  We just set the goals high and kept at them.  One ought to be able to do that in all the schools.

That's when I first started to think that there may be something else going wrong in the way we are educating our children.  Some deeper, structural problem that was impeding the success that we ought to be having.  Something like the problems we have with our state-run decentralized school system.

Peter Dodington

April 8, 2017








A Review of “The Battle for Room 314″

Ed Boland has written a good book about the trials and tribulations of a new teacher in the New York City Schools.  He tells a good story, with engaging anecdotes about the many interesting and problematic children he meets in his classroom.  He's honest, hardworking, and clearly cares about the kids.  And, by the end of the year, he gets it; he knows what to do: be consistent, plan thoroughly, set up routines that work and keep at them, find mentors, ask questions.  The fact that he probably knew all along that he would write this book must have helped him teach, since it forced him to watch the kids carefully, (since he was going to write about them) and this is the key to good teaching. (That might actually be good advice to a young teacher: pretend you are going to write a book about each one of the children in your class.)

Where I, another ex-NYC teacher, differ from Mr Boland, though, is where he talks about what we should do about these school problems.  He has a lot of good ideas: that we should do something about integration, and teacher training, and the out-of-school challenges of the students (such as their medical needs) and the level of funding for schools in poor areas, and the overall level of poverty, but leaves it at that, the naming of the problems.  This is not enough; it leaves the door open to the kind of despair and sadness that so many have about these problems.  At a minimum, we need to figure out which of these areas we should focus on; which have the best chance of succeeding and so improving the schools.

Using that rubric, we should probably toss out the first issue he mentions, integration. Of course it is a problem, and could be worked on through bussing or other ways to zone the schools, but you have to admit that the time is not ripe for this.  Too many people remember the problems we had when we worked on this issue the last time around.  It is simply not going to happen in the near future.

The next is funding.  I agree, this is one of the crucial needs for the public schools -- more attention to how they are funded.  The problem I have with Mr. Boland's view is that he talks mostly about the need to "equalize" funding between the rich and poor.  Wouldn't it be more logical simply to work on getting more funding? Everyone talks about the need to make the funding more equal, but is this the way any other business would go about fixing this problem?  Would Mr Boland himself ever say that the problem in his fund-raising business is that the donors are not equal?  Is this really an issue?  Don't we simply want more funding for the low-end schools, and need better ways of getting this?  Trying to get equality seems to me to raise all sorts of problems that we don't really need to raise.  Just get more money.

I also agree that teacher training needs to be improved, and that the key would be to tie it more directly, as he says,  to "real-world scenarios about how to teach and manage kids."  But wouldn't this then have to be arranged by the school districts themselves, or the states, since it would involve actual in-school activities?  But have they ever shown any interest in this?  Do they even keep track of which teachers are doing well and which aren't, and why?  That is the first problem to be solved if you want better teacher training; why don't the people in charge, at the district and state level, seem to care about it?  And, as readers of this blog know, I think this is because the outcomes from public education, good and bad, leave the district and the state, and so do not provide a benefit to these organizations, or at least only a partial benefit, and that means they have little incentive to improve the schools, or the teacher training that would lead to this. That problem does have a solution, a national one.

It is interesting that Mr. Boland says that a Harvard education professor helped him write this last chapter.  But he has already said that our schools of education are "an industry of mediocrity."  He would have done better to ponder these issues on his own. He, himself, has had the experience in the classroom; he is the one closest to the problems, and so most able to see them clearly.  With that knowledge he is more qualified to figure these issues out.

The most disappointing aspect of this book are the last paragraphs, where Mr Boland suggests that the best solution to our school problems would be to "end poverty."  Isn't this what ever young teacher comes up with, usually sometime around Christmas of their first year, when they realize that everything would be great if these kids were more middle class?  And don't most teachers eventually realize that education, hello, is one of the best ways to accomplish this, so he might as well get to work and do that, and stop worrying about something he has no control over?

And besides, let him look around his own classroom, and think about the relationship between wealth and academic success.  Is it really that strong?  Aren't there all sorts of bad rich kids and good poor ones? The worst kid I ever taught was one of the richest; he didn't even notice I was in the classroom.  I know there is data that shows this link, but does it really show that money is the main difference?  Isn't it more that a stable family and loving parents makes the difference, and that these people tend also to do better in their jobs, so end up being better off than those without these qualities?  Are we going to fix, then, that parent problem?  Not quickly.  The best we, as teachers, can do is teach well and create a new generation of loving parents.  That would work.

Peter Dodington

March 4, 2017