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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mental Illness -- The Cuphineous Debate

This is a good read and it brings up a very important point. 

While the treatment of those with mental illness is a vital need in our country, the mentally ill account for an infinitesimally small percentage of our gun violence. 

The question is whether we allow our discussion of gun control to be derailed into an equally important but mostly cuphineous discussion of mental illness in order to cut the number of mass-shootings or whether we keep the focus on weaponry in order to reduce the more banal retail violence that kills 8 and injures 30 children each day.

My personal vote, as a father, a teacher, and a citizen is that we deal with both issues but if the goal is to save innocent lives, then we must focus on the core issue, gun control. 

And again, we need to look beyond simply banning new sales of assault weapons and extended clips.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Every Wasted Day Means 38 Wasted Lives

We can't wait.

On Friday we lost twenty children all at once.  In twenty five minutes a collective 1,500 years of future life was lost.  These children left their clothes on the floor Friday morning and their parents will have to pick up knowing that it is the last time that they'll do so.  They left dvds in the DVD player that will shuttle out and surprise their parents weeks from now.  Their breakfast dishes were still in the sink on Friday night and a mother or a father washed them for the last time.   The grief in Newtown is powerful and overwhelming, but we do not have the luxury of time that allows us to  wait until we've properly mourned these deaths before talking about gun control.

The mourning periods between gun assisted mass murders are stacking up on top of each other. They will suffocate us if we wait.

We need to do this now. We need to have already done this because today another 38 children will be shot. 8 of them will die. 30 of them will be scarred for life. They won't get shot all at the same place or all by the same person, but they will be shot. 7 have been shot since I started writing this.

Tomorrow, another 38 children will be shot. Each child's death, each murder, suicide, or accident doesn't just kill the child, it kills the whole family.

We cannot wait any longer.

But the discussion needs to go beyond simple gun control. The discussion needs to be one of societal change, of cultural revolution. We need a Kuhnian shift in thinking in the United States of America.

But gun control is where we have to start because gun control works.

There is a strong correlative argument for the efficacy of stricter gun control laws and articles like this one are useful to point to as we engage with those who will inevitably argue that gun-control is pointless or ineffective.

The article also points out that most gun violence in our country happens to darker, poorer children than those gunned down on Friday.

I teach in Watts where gun violence has taken on all the trappings of the banal. We all see it, hear it, talk about it, sense it, and have codified our ready reactions to imminent threat into the workaday elements of our daily routines. This is true for teachers and for students.

Guns are as much a part of life as cancer.

Gun control will make a real difference with our kind of violence. If guns are harder to get, fewer people would have them. If guns aren't available easily across the line in Nevada and at gun shows, Californians will be safer. Our violence could be greatly reduced by a shift in national gun policy, but our violence is not the violence that worries people.

Our violence in Watts just kills poor people, so hasn't inspired national discussions about stopping it. Instead we have national discussions about making sure that the rest of us are armed so we can shoot poor people, too.

We need gun control. Gun control laws are necessary for the protection of all people. Trigger locks, waiting periods, bans for assault weapons and armor-piercing rounds, the end of open carry, the restricting of concealed carry, are all necessary steps that must be taken if we wish to protect Trayvon Martin, the innocent kid who finds his father's gun, the victim of mistaken identity, the victim of domestic violence, and curtail the impact of street crime. Gun control laws can also mitigate the amount of damage done by future Adam Lanzas, but they won't stop rampage killings.

Gun control will save children, but it will more likely be children like Ulysses Gongora, a former student of mine gunned down while walking his brother to school. Gun control might have kept David, Derek, Darryl, Donald, Isaac, and Justin -- all of whom are students of mine that have been shot in the last five years -- from becoming the walking wounded.

But what happened in Sandy Hook, in Wisconsin, in Aurora, in Portland, in Tuscon, and in every mass shooting in history is different and I think we make a mistake when we collapse the metric and treat them as simple gun violence. They are a type of violence that is made worse by the easy access to guns, but just as with our banal violence in Watts, there is a root cause for this exotic violence, too.

Some of the perpetrators are insane and a return to the pre-Reagan laws regarding mental health commitments would be a step back towards national sanity and public safety.

But many of these killers know right from wrong. They know what they're doing -- Dylan Kleibold and Eric Harris knew. The Wisonsin shooter knew. I bet this guy knew, too. Otherwise he wouldn't have killed himself in the end.

Rampage killings are different from our stupidly personal Watts violence because they are not committed in response to an immediate threat, an error, a possibility of personal gain, or in pursuit of the prevention of a loss of prestige or power. These mass shootings are instances of de-indiviudualization where the targets are not targeted for who they are but for what they represent.

They are the product of a deadly combination of fear and entitlement which makes them closely akin to hate crimes except that their targeted minority is humanity.

And just as we understand that the root of hate is fear, we must begin to acknowledge that fear is a root cause here, too.

No, they aren't afraid of their victims. They aren't acting in a perverse self-defense. It's just that people can only be afraid for so long before fear spoils, ferments, and becomes the acid rage that fuels hate.

This isn't news. This was the point of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. We all talked about it a decade ago, but we haven't changed. We were shocked then that Canada had just as many guns as we did, but even with that, the worldwide map of mass-murder still looks like this:

Image Taken from The Rachel Maddow Show

Gun control laws can and will make a difference -- especially in neighborhoods where gun violence doesn't make national news, but until our nation stops treating fear as a virtue, we will continue to support the mindset that leads both to our national arms fetish and our willingness to use those armaments against innocents in order to make a point.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

When Policy Reaches the Street: Antonio Reaches for the Dream

I first noticed the change when a kid named Antonio walked back into our program a month ago. I'd always liked Antonio -- we'd gotten along well.

The kid is nineteen years old, bright, moderately well-skilled, but angry. He plays bass in a psychobilly band and earns his living doing unlicensed tattoos because he's got talent and no papers.

Our program is built for kids like Antonio. We're a second chance alternative program attached to a major comprehensive high school. We're the only place in Watts where a kid can go when they've screwed up or gotten derailed by pregnancy or the penal system, and get back on track to graduate with an actual, honest-to-goodness, college preparatory high school diploma.

I know we're right for him because he's been with us before, a couple of times actually, but each time he's enrolled with us he's dropped again shortly after.

He didn't drop because he couldn't handle the work -- he has the smarts to get his diploma. Antonio lacked the will. We'd talked about it before he dropped last time. He and his family aren't in country legally but he's been here since before his 9th birthday. His English is better than his Spanish but even so he couldn't see the point in doing all the work for a diploma when he couldn't get a real job here anyways.

What he could do is play music, draw (on walls, paper, and people), and hang out until he got arrested and deported, so that was his plan.

Until now.

When I walked over to him he gave me a bro' hug and we stepped into the hallway where I asked him what he was up to. He was nervous, rocking back and forth on his skateboard and looking everywhere but at me.

"I came to get back in school," he says.

I nod. I want him to come back, too, but I'm not going to come out and say it. Not yet. It's a lot of work to enroll and unenroll kids in our program because we have multiple funding mechanisms and multiple outside partnerships for which we are a nexus and each one of them needs to be notified each time we add or subtract a student. Separately,one of the big issues that all programs like ours are judged on is our "transiency rate" which is the educatese term for students who stop showing up. Antonio, in his three times with us, has been reported as three separate drop-outs. Even though I want him back, if he drops again it can hurt us.

"What's going to make it different this time, Antonio?" I ask him.

He shrugs and then turns in a big surly yet graceful circle while shaking his head which lets me know that he's really serious. Eventually he says something but he's turned away from me when he says it so I have to ask him to repeat it.

"I don't wanna get deported."

"Are they threatening you?"

He shakes his head. "Naaah."

And then it clicks. "Obama's thing," I say. "The Dream Act."

He nods. "I gotta get my diploma."

He does. I reenrolled him that afternoon. He's still Antonio -- he's easily frustrated and he has a tendency to be loud and inappropriate but he's also funny and fun. And he's grateful for the chance and for the first time he feels a real reason to finish this stuff so he's even showing up and making some real attempts to follow the rules. I'm proud of him.

And he's not alone. We've had two other kids come by in the last couple of weeks. For the first time in my tenure in Watts we're excusing kids from absences for days they're spending at the immigration office instead of just the clinicas, the County Building, and the courts.

Alicia, a bubbly and proud teen mom who's hanging in with us because of The Dream. She is married with three children at 19 and she is working two jobs but she's still coming to school because when she's done she'll get both a diploma and a green card which means she can live free.

Bartolo is another one. He dropped out two years ago with only two classes to go because he couldn't see the point but he's back now because now that there's a reason to finish.

And there's probably others who've come back to us for the same reason who simply haven't told us.

Last June when Obama made his executive order a lot of people, including me, thought it was pretty weak tea. There was no path to citizenship and there was no promise that it would extend beyond his seemingly tenuous hold on the presidency. And if there was a message of hope, it didn't seem to be penetrating the hazy bubble of drama and distraction in which most of my students exist.

Most of the time when a national political change is noticed by us down on the educational streets it's because we are handed new commandments with regards to testing or accountability -- most of the rest of it dissipates into the levels of bureaucracy above our heads and I was pretty sure that this would be another example of politically palatable good intentions having little direct effect on the lives of the people for which it was intended.

I was wrong. The message got through and it is making a difference in the lives of people and on behalf of Antonio, Bartolo, Alicia and all of us who work with kids like them everywhere:

Thank you, Mr. President. And maybe in your second term, together we can make it permanent.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Case for Pacifism and Against Self Defense

Recent discussions have reminded me that pacifism is not popular. Being a pacifist or making arguments against violence and aggression is often met with eye-rolling incredulousness, as if believing that violence is destructive even when used in defense of self is naive.

It is not.

My pacifism is far from naive. It is not a theological or even philosophical construction. It is a practical reaction to learning and experience. My pacifism rises from three basic personal truths that, in the face of yet another peaceful protest derailed by the black bandanna crowd whose actions are regularly defended by people I love and in places where they should know better, I want to share.

I am a pacifist, not because I am a stranger to violence and danger, but because I see too much of it.

I live in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles and have since long before it was cool. I teach in Watts and most of my kids have come up on the streets. I have had to take cover from bullets both at home and at work and I know first-hand the power of PTSD. I have seen it in others and I have felt it myself.

There was a shooting a block from school on Friday. One young man, a friend to some of my students and an enemy to some others, was killed. Several of my kids saw it happen and watched three young men bleed out in front of a barbershop. One of them told me today that the shooter had been shot previously by the victim. "If you gonna shoot somebody," she observed, "you gotta shoot to kill or it's just gonna be bad news."

Our attendance was down today because many of our kids were afraid to come to school. Our discipline issues were up this morning because everybody's on edge.

All the violence takes a toll. I've written about it before but I need to say it again: Violence, whether it be at home, on the streets or at school, is the capital distraction for children and unless we can become a society in which violence is rare, we will continue to raise children who live in fear.

Fear is the enemy of progress and nowhere is this more true than at school.

I am a pacifist because I have seen too many good people with righteous causes destroy both themselves and their message through a poorly-timed closed fist.

Cases in point: Occupy Oakland, Seattle WTO, Chicago on Sunday. There are others. Many many others. In each of these, though, a small group of people who wanted to see the cities burn used violence to incite a police force who was more than willing to engage and return the favor. In each case innocent people were beaten by police. In each case, the instigators of the violence got what they wanted but the message of the protesters was lost in the scuffle.

Rightly or wrongly, when these acts of violence on the part of the protesters are not condemned by the community that supports them, the message of the protesters is dismissed because of the violence. We must decide which is more important to us: Our tribalism or our desire for change. If we desire change, then we must not only avoid violence, but condemn it. We must not only condemn violence, we must work to prevent it.

Passive resistance works. It is painful. It is dangerous. It is anti-instinctual, and it does not satisfy the animalistic urge for blood. But it works. The passive resistance shown at UC Davis, in the Indian independence movement, and throughout the civil rights movement in the American South engaged in true passive resistance and became heroes and martyrs for their causes.

They also created change.

When one thinks of this in terms of long-term goals, it is obvious that, unless one is working for the total and complete violent overthrow of the existing order (such as in Syria or Libya), violence, even in self-defense, is a losing strategy.

Discipline, organization, training, dignity, and an understanding that every injury suffered is a blow to the side that delivers it are the true tools of civil disobedience and social upheaval.

I am a pacifist because self-defense and revenge breed only further violence.

Aeschelus was one of the first to point this out when he wrote the Oresteia about the destructive power of vengeance and its role in the fall of the House of Atreus. Since then, though, we seem to have lost the message.

Regularly in discussions at places like Daily Kos and in daily conversations around the water cooler, people argue vehemently for their right to defend themselves when they are attacked, especially when the attackers are the police.

We tie respect to "holding our own in a fight," and "not taking shit from nobody" even when what that means in the long run is that we are more easily control.

Controlling people who are willing to fight is simple and effective. It is the reason the FBI and other controlling powers in other nations have employed agent provocateurs.

If you are angry and you will fight me, all I have to do is provoke you and you lose because you are aggressive and violent. If, instead, you refuse to raise your fist and instead raise your voice, I must either strike you first or listen to you. Either way, I am disempowered.

And if power is disempowered, change is possible.

The right to defend oneself is hard to argue against, especially since so many people in our society are raised being told that if they are in a fight, they'd better win it or they'll be beat twice.

And what I would do in defense of family, I do not know. Philosophy cannot outmatch love.

But I do know this:

Self defense only leads to self defense. If I use violence to protect myself, then I permit you to use violence to protect yourself. This is the rationale for "Stand Your Ground," and I find it difficult to listen to people who seek justice for Trayvion while simultaneously defending the black-bandanna crowd when they instigate violence against the state.

To advocate for the rights of one group to defend themselves against counter-aggression while denying another group that right is hypocritical.

And to take arms against a government force, whether it be at Ruby Ridge, at Waco, or on the streets of Oakland or Seattle, is self-defeating and stupid.

My students are all very clear on this point and they have plenty of experience with abusive authority to back it up: No interaction with the police is ever made better by talking back or fighting back. A badge number and a cell phone camera go a hell of a lot farther in ensuring justice than a mouth and a brick. Anybody who's actually spent time in neighborhoods where regular and rampant police abuses actually do occur would ever argue otherwise.

Arguing in favor of fighting the police is the stand taken by somebody who has truly nothing to lose or who has never actually been on the wrong side of police power. Or somebody who doesn't plan on being present when it all goes down.

And I truly believe that until we take violence off of our half of the table, we cannot and we will not progress as individuals, as a people, as a nation, or as a world.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tantalus' Reach: Luis Goes to College

If you've been reading my posts for a while, you've probably determined that success, as it is normally defined in education, is a rarity in my program. It is rare, but it does happen and Luis is a success.

Luis is going to college.

He's been asking for help with his FAFSA and EOP. He's been coming to school with his pockets stuffed with forms and envelopes each morning -- he used to carry a backpack, but when his bike got stolen he couldn't make the four-mile walk to school in the dark with a backpack without getting robbed.

So all his forms are folded in squares.

Today he was doing his EOP questionnaire, which asks him to explain his financial situation. He started his answer like this:

We are poor. Not just "don't get to go out to dinner once a week" poor, but "might not get dinner at all" poor. We are poor.

Like everybody else around here, he's poor. The thing that he doesn't put on his form is that he's a recovering crack addict who's been clean now for almost a year. It doesn't make it onto the application because when it asks for extra-curricular activities, he chose to put band and church instead.

But he's college bound now and is an exciting success for all of us who've worked with him over the years. He's applying to California State University schools and will most likely be accepted -- which makes him one of the lucky ones in so many ways.

As a society, we are quick to tell students that they must go to college and it's true -- students who attain a college degree are more likely to be employed, less likely to depend on government assistance, and will have an average lifetime earnings benefit of $1,000,000 over their non-college educated peers.

But it is quickly becoming Tantalus' Fruit.

You see, this year California public high schools will push another 350,000 graduates out of the nest. Luis is in direct competition with 349,999 other students who are all trying to come up with a viable plan for the coming year.

Imagine if the entire population of Minneapolis, Minnesota, had to completely change their lives between June and September.

And most of them, like Luis, are going to try and go to college.

There will be spaces for only the top 35,000 of these students in the University of California system. These ones will have to come up with an average of $30,000 per year to pay for their education, room and board.

There will be spaces for another 56,000 of them in the CSU's -- which make them overcrowded and make it difficult for students to get the classes they need. A four year college career, for many of them, is a thing of the past. But even so, a crowded CSU beats the other alternatives, so these ones will come up with an average of $16,000 to pay for education, room and board.

And the other less lucky or less well-prepared or less well-motivated or less well-situated 265,000 newly minted graduates are going to have to find a job, do nothing, join the military, start at the community colleges or succumb to the syron song of the For-Profit Loan Harvesters.

There are very few jobs.

The military is downsizing.

So most will try and squeeze into one of the 100 community colleges that dot California.

Graduates plan. God Laughs.

Tantalus' Fruit. That's what we're offering because classes are full. Programs are packed to the gills. Here in California, there are nearly 2.5 million students enrolled either full or part time in our 100 community colleges and 41% of them are competing for the bottleneck classes necessary for associates degrees and transfer programs.

The upshot? A two year program is no longer two years. A full course load (necessary for maintaining a subsidized loan) is often impossible to arrange.

Completion rates are dropping.

The For-Profit Loan Harvesters are stepping in to profit off the damage.

And the student loans just keep coming due.

If Luis were the average student, he would need to borrow nearly $70,000 to pay for college if he goes to a CSU -- which I'm hoping he will -- and he will have no money from home and no home to commute from. But he's not normal -- he's Luis and I'm sure he'll find a way to scrape by with much less.

And I am thrilled for him. The next four years will cost him more than his family has earned in the last eight, but Luis is determined and that's enough for me to believe that he's going to make it.

And I don't mention my worries about how much he's going to owe when he's through.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When One of "Those Kids" Goes Back to Jail

Another one of my kids got arrested today. Outgoing, pretty and with a golden smile, she looks like an all-star, but she's one of Those Kids who's have some difficulty with the basics of school: she can't seem to stop talking. Now she's back in jail and that's not going to help her be a better student.

There's a poem, one of those sappy teacher-poems that gets sent around by and for teachers every once in a while, that I think about when things like this happen. It's called "I'm The One," and it's by somebody named Cody Moree. I don't know who Cody is, but I appreciate his poem because it is one of the only ones out there that is bent on reminding us that Those Kids, the knuckleheads in our classrooms, are the ones that need us the most.

And many of my students now are living examples of what happens when Those Kids don't get what they need.

For most of Those Kids, school isn't about learning, or the future, it's about the people and right now. It's about their friends, sure, but it's also about the teachers and the janitors and the security guards and the principal.

Unlike elsewhere in Those Kid's lives, school is one place where the adults have rules (For all the teachers being total scumbags in the news these days, we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of people who work in education are good souls who are trying to make lives better) and kids can trust that, for the most part, the adults will follow them.

For many of Those Kids, these safe adults are their lifeline.

Those Kids come to school looking for teachers and other adults who understand why they are the way they are and who are willing and able to work with them, without judgement and without exasperation, as they learn how to do the things that come easily to other kids. The need to learn how to be a student in class. How to choose against their own impulses.

How not to give up on themselves.

But there aren't all that many teachers who have the time and inclination, or the freedom to do these things.

A couple of years ago, I left my job as a traditional classroom teacher in order to work with Those Kids full time.

I have the time, the freedom, and the inclination.

But I work with older kids and by the time they come to me those kids are no longer kids. More than I can count have already had their first tastes of how the rest of the world deals with somebody who can't sit down, shut up and behave.

About a third of my students are on parole for offenses that range from vandalism and possession to prostitution, weapons violations and robbery. Each one of them was popped for doing something that they should never have done Each one of them is now a criminal. Each one of them is now in the system. Each one of them started out like the kid in "I'm the One." "Those kids" are the cargo on the school to prison pipeline.

Like I said, the Sheriff's department took one of my students today. Right out of class. Everybody got really quiet and looked away. Nobody thinks it's cool. It's not exciting to them. To them, it's simply inevitable.

I've asked many of them why the do things that they know are criminal. The answers have all been variations on a theme:

"Why Not? They're gonna bust me for things whether I've done them or not. It don't matter what I do or don't do, so sometimes I do it.

While in some cases this is simply an excuse and in others it's simply a lie, what lies beneath it are truths:

A system that tells kids to be individuals, but rewards conformity.

A pervasive sense of powerlessness that comes from a lifetime of unexpectedly finding one's self on the wrong side of somebody's rules.

The ubiquitous sense of injustice that comes from seeing rules being applied unevenly and not in your favor.

And an ever-present sense that, really, I Don't Matter.

And when these are truths, even simply truths of perception, Those Kids begin to feel:

"Why Not? They're gonna bust me for things whether I've done them or not. It don't matter what I do or don't do, so sometimes I do it.

And so it begins.

It starts with trips to the office, but if there's not the right teacher involved, it seems to end too often in handcuffs.

"I'm The One" by Cody Moree

This is a poem that circulated a while ago. I've been thinking about it recently because it relates to another issue I'm going to be writing about and thought I'd reshare it.


Have you ever stopped and asked yourself
Just what you're working for?
Some might say fame and some say fortune,
But I hope there is something more.
You see, I'm the one you see at school,
And I'm not like the other kids.
I don't always say the right things
Even though I wish I did.
I am the one that's always late-
The one who can't stand still in line.
And I know it's me you're talking about
When you say you're losing your mind.
I can't help you win awards
Or become staff member of the year.
I can't help you do anything,
At least that's what I hear.
You see, I'll never make straight "A"s,
A "C" is about the best I can do.
But I might turn my life around
If someone were proud of me too.

If you work in the principal's office,
You see me almost every day.
Yeah, I'm the one always in trouble
And always in the way.
I'm not real pretty, I'm not real smart;
I don't fit in with the crowd.
I'm a little too angry, a little too slow,
And sometimes a little too loud.

I know you all get tired of me,
And you wish I would go away.
And you know that doesn't shock me now,
Because that's what my parents say.
So even though I have nothing to offer,
I need to ask you something now.
Would you please come back to school tomorrow
And put up with me somehow?
'Cause if you don't, no one will;
You may be my last shot.
And I know it's way too much to ask,
But I need someone to give me all they've got.

I'll tell you right now I won't remember
The things that are in the book.
But I promise I will never forget
The extra effort that you took.
If you'll just love me in spite of myself,
I might just make it through.
And I know there are others who can do so much more,
But all I have is you.

So if someone ever asks you why you work so hard,
Why you do all that you've done.
If you ever have a reason to be in education,
Look at me, I'M THE ONE.

By Cody Moree

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ernesto is Dead and It Matters to Me

Yesterday, I was driving home from school and listening to Marketplace when a piece from their series, "My Life is True," aired. It was from a man named Leo Webb and this is what he said:

... I just got back from Iraq...

... I got 17 confirmed kills. I didn't see their faces. I only saw them through a scope and blew their brains out. I didn't meet them, or ask how many kids they had. When you kill somebody, you kill their family too. It all goes downhill.

That part about when you kill somebody, you kill their family, too, yeah, I kept thinking about that.

One year ago today, a man I never met was gunned down outside a liquor store in East Hollywood. It was 8:34 PM and Ernesto was alone when he walked out to the parking lot where he was confronted by one or more assailants. And then he was dead.

When we first moved to Los Angeles, we lived just blocks from where Ernesto died, but I didn't know him. He was born, grew up, became a father to his son Joshua, and died without my knowledge.

I have no memory of what I was doing one year ago today. It was a Monday night and I imagine I had just finished reading my daughter a bed-time story and, at the moment Ernesto died, I was probably watching her sleep and loving her quietly.

I suspect that if news of his death had reached me before today, I wouldn't have cared much. Even if I'd heard about it yesterday after listening to Leo Webb, I wouldn't have understood. Just another young man pulled under by a rogue wave in Ocean Los Angeles.

But I would have been wrong.

Ernesto had a sister. She was six years younger than he and he wanted her to be everything he wasn't. She was going to graduate high school. She was going to stay on the straight path. She was his baby sister and he loved her very much.

He took good care of her. He watched out for her at home and on the streets. He gave her love and support and advice and he regularly reminded her, both in words and in looks, that she was someone special to him. She loved him, too. Very much.

And then he was killed.

When she came to us a month ago, a small girl, rising barely over five feet tall who wore her hair short and had bleached it down to an orange-gold which brought out her startlingly hazel eyes, she was a bit of a cipher. We don't get good students very often and when we do, it's because something bad has happened. But this girl laughed easily and well. She seemed happy and at ease with where she was and what she was doing. She made friends quickly and was quick to help others. She seemed fine.

But she's not fine. She's Ernesto's family and it was murdered, too.

She's barely holding it together and I only found it out because I happened to notice today, on the anniversary of her brother's murder, that things were different. A year ago she lost her anchor and her compass and she's with us because, on her own, she breezed onto the rocks, failing classes and missing school.

She came to us because she wants to right herself, but it's harder than she imagined. At seventeen, being your own rock and compass is a heavy and complicated load, but she's trying hard.

She even came to school today and I have rarely been prouder of such a simple accomplishment.

On my way home I said a small prayer for Ernesto and then another one for his sister. And then I said a prayer of thanks to Leo Webb, even though he's not dead, for speaking so clearly about so many things that are wrong with death.

I thought about saying a prayer for all the other families who's names are on the LA Homicide Report, but it felt like too much to do on my own.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Educational Moneyball: Why Value-Added Analysis Will Fail

My students are all on the far side of screwing up in school and if you ask them what went wrong in their education, their answer is almost always a variation on a theme. Somewhere along the line, they each ran into the teacher who wrecked education for them. The teacher that called them an animal or the teacher who was never there, or the teacher who told them that they were stupid or (more common than you would think, even in South Los Angeles) the teacher who told them that they weren't going to succeed anyways because they were poor and black or poor and brown or poor and from a Spanish-speaking home.

A bad teacher most likely won't destroy the life of a student who isn't already riding wildly along the rim of disaster, but a shocking number of kids are doing just that and a bad teacher can push them right over the edge.

And all of us in the profession know that a single good teacher is rarely enough to pull them back.

Everybody agrees that teachers matter. Teacher's unions say that teachers matter. Experts say that teachers matter. Students say that teachers matter. Parents say that teachers matter. Left, right and center all acknowledge the fact that bad teachers do damage and people agree that good teachers can change lives.

But the question remains, how do we legitimately judge teacher efficacy?

A few days ago, a wide-ranging longitudinal study on the long-term effects of teacher quality was released by the thinking people of Harvard University. This study makes the claim that a single effective teacher in 4th grade can increase a student's lifetime earnings by 1.5% and a single ineffective teacher can result in damage equivalent to missing 40% of a school year. The study used the value added metrics first popularized by the Los Angeles Times and then partially adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District to determine teacher quality.

Essentially, value-added is a statistical model that incorporates year-by-year gains for individual students on standardized tests and then regulates for factors such as race, economic station, transiency, English-language fluency, previous schools, and gender. It is only useful for longitudinally tested subjects which currently are only math and English. It is an effective measure of testing improvement for students in 3rd through 11th grade if one believes that the only valuable measure of success is student improvement in math and English testing.

And the truth is that it does, indeed, help show that some teachers are more effective than others. It is the educational equivalent of Sabermetrics and now we have a generation of scholastic Billy Beanes who think that they've found a solution.

But much like Beane's Oakland A's, value-added is not the tool that is going to win the last game of the season.

Math and English scores may be the on-base-percentage of the teaching world, but there is much more to both both baseball and teaching than simple numbers because in both cases the numbers are overwhelmed by the simply unquantifiable human element.

A value-added analysis will not show which teachers were able to get their students to think and a value-added analysis will not reveal which students were inspired. A value-added analysis is not applicable for those who choose to work with untestable children in special education or alternative settings and a value-added analysis cannot touch subjects such as social studies, art, business, or the sciences.

Oh, and value-added analysis relies on standardized tests that most people agree are deeply flawed.

A reliance solely on value-added analysis, as is the case with the Harvard study, ignores the fact that education is a group effort. Just as sabermetrics cannot assess team chemistry, value-added cannot parse the influence of other teachers who have helped improve the literacy and numeracy of the tested teacher's students. Value-added analysis assumes that education happens in a vacuum and that no other person is meddling in the minds of students. But my students are learning from a half-dozen other teachers at the same time they are learning from me and my efficacy is as much a reflection of their efforts as it is of my own.

This is why value-added cannot be the winning formula in education.

But we still need to be able to determine which teachers are effective. We all agree. I have my own thoughts on this (please read -- I think my "1% for Teachers" plan is a real solution), but right now I am much more concerned that some of our greatest thinkers are already satisfied that they've found an answer in the value-added analysis.