I Pity the Fool!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

                                                                                                                                             George Clowes

Connoisseurs of the art of the smackdown will not want to miss the richly deserved spanking George Clowes administers to two representatives of the blob in the letters section of today’s Wall Street Journal.

Two public school teachers had written in to peddle the Myth of Helplessness*, blaming poor public school performance on what they called “inferior raw material,” i.e. low-income minority students.

Clowes pulls no punches. As the great school reformer Mr. T once said, “Allow me to introduce you to my good friend pain!


*If you don’t know what the Myth of Helplessness is, for goodness’ sake move out of your mother’s basement and start hanging out with the cool kids.

(Edited to fix the quote from the teachers. The actual quote is even worse than what I had originally put!)

13 Responses to I Pity the Fool!

  1. Mr. T also said: “Love is a verb… and Verbs show action.”

    I love good smackdown. And I love Clowes — good man. And I hate the myth of helplessness.

    But….do you find his proposed solution — that an INDIVIDUAL 6th grade teacher return the socially-promoted kids to the 5th grade — plausible? Even Rafe Esquith can’t do this.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I don’t think Clowes is suggesting that individual teachers can send kids back to previous grades. Rather, I think he was trying to find a clever way to segue from the teachers’ comment about sending defective products back to their source to the subject of academic standards, specifically his opposition to social promotion. His point is that kids who aren’t ready for 6th grade work should repeat 5th grade; he wasn’t suggesting that under the current system individual teachers have the power to make this happen.

  3. Corey says:

    Why is it cool to blame teachers for all the problems of our schools, exactly? I missed a memo somewhere.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    The blob writes the Journal blaming all the schools’ problems on the lousy kids.

    George Clowes says no, we shouldn’t blame all the problems on the kids.

    I say Clowes did a great job of vindicating common sense.

    Where exactly did we blame all the problems on the teachers?

  5. I agree with Corey that the tone of this post was a bit harsh and may have violated our no snarkiness rule. But at the same time Greg is right that he never blamed teachers for all problems, as Corey accuses him. Greg’s next post on Cajun Choice better represents the tone and style we should strive for.

  6. Corey says:

    In all fairness, my post violated the no-snarkiness rule as well.

    I think it’s fair to say that George’s piece argues that we should blame teachers (we can further discuss this if you disagree), and Greg cheers that on. And besides, referring to teachers as “the blob” isn’t exactly evidence that you respect them.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    Clowes argues that teachers have a responsibility to show results with all types of students, not just the ones who are demographically “superior.” He’s right.

    You said we were blaming teachers for “all the problems.” What we’re mainly doing is opposing the view that “all the problems” can be blamed on inferior children. Yes, we also endorse the view that teachers bear *some* responsibility for educational outcomes. There’s a large body of empirical research backing up that position. But that’s not the same as saying they’re the only ones responsible, such that all problems can be blamed on them.

    I didn’t say that “teachers” are “the blob.” I said that those two particular teachers who wrote to the Journal represented the blob. And I think that’s an accurate description of anyone who says schools can’t teach “inferior” children.

    My mother is a teacher. I respect teachers. What I have a problem with is people who say that it’s OK not to educate “inferior” children.

  8. Corey says:

    Yes, obviously “all” the blame is not placed on the teachers. I wasn’t explicit enough about the sarcasm level of my post when I said that it was something I shouldn’t have written. I apologize for overstating your view, but I stand by my assertion that blaming teachers is not as cool (or productive) as some seem to think it is.

    That said, you and Clowes are just as guilty for overstating what the “blob” wrote as I am for overstating what you wrote. It’s patently unfair to judge somebody based on a couple of sentences in almost all cases. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to point out that some kids start out behind others and that it’s quite difficult to pull them up to the same level of others — and it needs to be possible for somebody to say this without getting attacked for defeatism and laziness.

    Let’s look at the two letters cited by Clowes. The first one, by Molly Wuller, says that if schools were run like businesses that they would return “inferior raw materials.” That sounds quite offensive on face, but there’s really no way to know whether she believes that they should send these kids back or whether she’s simply pointing out the difference between schools and businesses as a way of arguing that the markets that work in business will not work in schools. I don’t know which one is her point, but Clowes wants to believe that it’s the former and berates her for it.

    The second one, by Sara Stevenson, says that some students in her school are so far behind that some don’t even know their birthdates despite being in sixth grade. She ends her letter by saying that “Students from low-income families come to our schools with such a background-knowledge deficit that it’s very difficult for even the teachers to remediate.” Nowhere does she argue that it’s impossible to teach these kids or that she doesn’t try. Clowes, however, takes the school to task for promoting children that don’t know their birthdate and for having teachers incompetent enough not to have taught children their birthdate by sixth grade. What this amounts to is intimidation. If a teacher can’t point out any difficulties about their job without being called incompetent, then what are they supposed to say?

    I (like you) have little stomach for excuses from people about why kids can’t learn, but saying that some kids are harder to teach is fundamentally different from saying that some kids can’t learn. Under the current accountability system (and, no, I’m not implying that you believe this is fair — I’m just using it as an example) two teachers could start out with groups of kids that averaged a score of 70 and 30 on a standardized test with a cut-off of 75. Teacher A could inch her kids up to 75 and be declared a success while Teacher B could miraculously pull her kids up to 60 and be declared a failure — simply because they started out with different kids. In this sense, pointing out that different schools and teachers start out with different kids is far from a whiny excuse — it’s completely justified.

    Anyway, the point is that just as you never said that teachers should receive “all” of the blame, neither one of these teachers said that they “can’t” teach the children in their schools. Clowe’s characterizations of them, and your support of these characterizations, is not only unfair but might be entirely off-base. For all we know, these are the two hardest-working teachers in the country. And yet, based on a few sentences, you’ve decided that they are the “blob” that’s killing our schools and that they deserve a good spanking.

  9. plum grenville says:

    Yes, we can attempt to eliminate the achievement gap between middle and upperclass and poor kids by demanding that all teachers display stellar competence and saintly dedication. I don’t think that’s likely to work since I’m not aware of any other profession which has managed to elicit perfection from all its members. Or we could try reducing the income gap.

    I’m sure that good teaching is better than bad teaching for all kids. Good teaching MAY be able to reduce the achievement gap (evidence please), but I see no reason to believe that even superb teaching can eliminate it altogether. The problem is that while you’re remediating the poor kids, the middleclass kids are not staying put. A poor kid would have to drastically outperform the middleclass kids just to catch up. Is a poor kid, who has serious ongoing educational disadvantages – uneducated parents, unstable living situation, no quiet place to study, etc. – going to be able to advance two or three grade levels in a subject (or all subjects) in the same time that a middleclass kid can advance one grade level? Not likely, regardless of effort or quality of teaching.

    Blaming teachers is a lot more palatable to a lot of people than blaming our economic system.

  10. Greg Forster says:

    Corey, I think your summary of Wuller and Stevenson’s letters adequately captures what Clowes and I found so appalling about them. They were not just saying that disadvantaged kids are harder to teach. If that were all they were saying, I would have agreed with them. I say the same thing regularly in my own research, and I frequently have to correct other school reformers who deny it; it’s a little amusing to see a position that I’ve worked so hard to defend thrown back at me as though I opposed it. Wuller and Stevenson were making excuses for a system that doesn’t do what we know it’s capable of doing for these kids (see our chapter on this subject in the Education Myths book for an overview of the large body of empirical evidence on this). I’ll let the reader judge whether Clowes and I were fair, but when a person says, in effect, “If these kids were bricks, I’d return them to the factory,” I think it’s appropriate to express a certain amount of angry indignation, and to take pleasure in seeing that sort of attitude get called out for what it is. I don’t regret a word.

  11. Corey says:

    I’m disappointed that you chose to interpret my summaries the way that you wanted to instead of actually reading them. Much the way you have chosen to interpret the letters the way that you want to.

    There is absolutely no way that you can be sure the teachers are arguing that it’s impossible to educate these kids. I gave examples of why in my previous comment, so I’m not going to re-hash that.

    I choose to consider whether the first letter was sarcastic or wishful and whether the second was pointed or despairing in thinking through their ramifications — rather than simply lumping them in with a group I despise and condemning them.

    I choose to think through what these two teachers, and others, are saying before using loaded phrases like “making excuses.”

    I choose to try and find solutions for problems rather than simply placing blame.

    I wish you’d made the same choices.

  12. Hobart Milton says:

    Corey – just wait until someone comes out with the book called Educational Experts Who Overuse the Term Myth. Following Greene and Forster’s example, anyone criticizing the Chicago Cubs would be fostering the “Myth of Helplessness.” The ivory-towered educantists again resort to fitting facts to their theory rather than finding a good theory to fit the facts.

  13. Bob Sacamanto says:

    Corey Says:
    April 23, 2008 at 9:50 am
    Why is it cool to blame teachers for all the problems of our schools, exactly? I missed a memo somewhere.

    Corey the liberal is right, it can’t be the teachers fault, it’s those crappy chairs they use in classrooms!

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