Monday, December 31, 2007

A new World Book Blogger's Encyclopedia of debunked pundit blather: Today's letter is W.

No, not that Dubya, although much can be done with him!

Today's honoree is nationally syndicated disinformation disseminator Walter Williams. I am writing in response to his
Academic Slums article published 12-19-07 at

Since our public schools are so often portrayed as evil dens of secular humanism, and as brainwashing centers by various ideologues, including Williams, it seems fair and appropriate to me that I should preface at least some posts with Bible verses. While I have no idea what Dr. Williams' spiritual beliefs are, when it comes to his attributing the alleged "failure" of public schools to incompetent teachers, it seems to me that the following verse is applicable, regardless of one's religious persuasion:

Matthew 23:24 "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

Our nation's public schools are increasingly inundated with hurting children - children of poverty, children who are abused and/or neglected, angry children with behavior problems, children who are hungry and malnourished, children who live amid violence, children born to parents who are drug/alcohol addicted, children without adequate healthcare or housing, children whose sense of self-worth is at rock bottom in a corporate-controlled world of materialism and superficial values, where appearances, performance and silly comparisons reign supreme.

Waves of children are entering kindergarten who, developmentally-speaking, are only two- and three-year-olds. And in the name of so-called failing public schools, these babies are being pushed mercilessly to perform at the same level and rate as their more advantaged peers.

And you, Sir Williams, fret over international test score comparisons.

And simplistically equate students' standardized test scores with the quality of teaching and learning.

And feign outrage that achievement gaps exist between disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers. Duh.

I would say when it comes to our nation's concern and priorities for children, we are indeed straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

Williams attributes what he calls our apparently mediocre results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to "the quality of the people teaching our children". When it comes to the many factors that impact student achievement, it is my view that Dr. Williams is again straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, which is not to diminish the importance of teacher quality. Here is an excerpt from his article:

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems
seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people
teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have
the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an
education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school
admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either
graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university.
As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest
academic respect. Were we serious about eforts to improve public education, one
of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.

I'm a teacher Dr. Williams, and I don't mind disussing this 'delicate' problem at all, thank you. First, I think you and other ideologues who love to disparage us place far too much credence in international test score comparisons and standardized test performance in general but that's another topic.

Before actually addressing the disinformation about teachers in your latest piece, let me (a mere teacher) say a few things to you since you deem yourself qualified to judge our quality. First, I do agree with the contention that the quality of a classroom teacher is the number one IN SCHOOL factor affecting academic achievement. Therefore, I do not want to diminish the importance of teacher quality. It's critical. However, when it comes to factors impacting academic achievement, especially the achievement of disadvantaged children, we know that factors outside the classroom over which educators have no control dwarf what takes place in the classroom.

And let us put the whole situation in some context, shall we? The United States, the richest nation on earth, has the highest rate of childhood poverty among all the wealthy nations. And under the corporate-serving, compassionate conservatism of market worship, which wrongly and arrogantly assumes (without proof) that anything private is superior to anything public, we know that the gap between the haves and the have nots is growing and that the middle class is shrinking. We know that poverty alone, with its many deprivations, has an enormous impact on childhood development -cognitively, socially, and behaviorally. The strong link between poverty and poor academic achievement remains the strongest, most consistent finding in the realm of educational research.

And we who teach really do not need another study proving this because we witness the impact of poverty and a whole host of societal ills every day, firsthand, as we work with these children. Nevertheless, if you are intereseted in the latest such study, Mr. Williams, please go
here. This study was buried in the Parenting section of the New York Times. Had it shown that the greatest factor impacting low academic performance among disadvantaged children was the quality of the teacher, you can bet your britches it would've been front page news. All over the country.

But on with putting things in perspective. As societal problems and complexities have increased, as the inequities among our nation's children have increased, this nation's leadership has very conveniently dumped a rising and unrealistic tide of expectations on our nation's public schools while politicians and critics like yourself simultaneously point your fingers and cry "FAILING!"


Quite frankly, our nation's teachers and schools are overwhelmed with the needs and expectations thrust upon us. And we are so freaking busy being ACCOUNTABLE that we hardly have any time for meaningful interaction with these children you're so concerned about. Looking good on paper doesn't mean squat if we don't have time for those kids.

Accountability indeed.

For a list of some of the added expectations placed on the backs of public educators over the years, take a look
here. It's longer than the number of sheets on a roll of Charmin. The rest of the nation is basically off the hook of course. And I have not even mentioned the challeneges presented by our being the most diverse nation on earth have I? Nor the impact on our schools of years of unfettered immigration, which has provided a steady stream of cheap labor for our corporations to exploit.

Why don't any of you self-annointed education experts who are so concerned about test scores demand that our policymakers do something about the fact that there are likely many thousands of urban poor children being poisoined by lead paint in old housing projects? Lead poisoning not only has a major impact on cognitive development, it also causes aggressive and violent behavior. Some will doubt the significance and magnitude of the problem, but at the very least it should be vigoriously investigated don't you think? How about a little RIGOR on that front? Please go
here for a real eye opener Dr. Williams.

Suppose only a handful of children were being poisoned, sir? Aren't they worth ameliorating the problem? After all, how can all of our public schools reach that glorious, well-intended aim of 100% proficiency (on standardized tests) if one single child is being poisoined by lead? I say we should demand NCLP - No Child Lead Poisoned.

But I've digressed. Time to depart from these moral priorities and simply address the disinformation you've dissemminated about the quality of our nation's teachers. As researcher Gerald Bracey notes,

It is true that those who say they are going to major in educatio have lower
scores than most (but not all) other intended majors. But, for Williams'
statement to be even close to true, two things must hold and they do not---1).
all those who say they are going to major in education do and 2). no one who
says they are ot going to major in education become teachers. But, in fact, most
who become teachers major in something other than education.

Bracey also noted a study by the U. S. Depjartment of Education a few years back which found that teachers headed for middle school and high school classrooms had college GPAs as high as other majors and SATs as high as other majors.

Dr. Williams, due to information gleaned from a listserv to which I belong, I'm aware that Bracey sent you an email wherein he suggested that you actually read the research on teacher competence. He sent you a link to this
study, first published online 12/14/07. You in turn asked him to check out SAT scores by major at; LSAT scores by major at; and GRE scores by major at

He did. And he noted with amazement that all three tables that you sent him prove your statement that education majors have the lowest test scores is wrong.

It is wrong whether you're dealing with the SAT, the LSAT or the GRE. What would
Freud say?

More importantly, he noted that you missed his major point: most people who become teachers do not major in education.

And none of this, Dr. Williams, even addresses the simplistic and unwarranted credence being placed in standardized test scores to judge the quality of teaching, learning, and human potential for making positive and meaningful contributions to society.

Personally, I think you need a lesson in humility. Your article smacks not only of elitism and arrogance, but ignorance as well. Yes, we do need competent teachers. Obviously, teachers should be highly competent and knowledgable about the subjects they teach.

Beyond that, however, you completely overlook that it is precisely those qualities which cannot be measured by tests which separate competent teachers from truly great ones. And in the long run, when it comes to making a meaningful difference in the life of a student, I'd daresay those immeasurable qualities are far more to be prized.

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