The Emotional Appeal for Blaming the Teachers

Despite challenges facing public education today, teachers are not solely to blame.

From the Daily Kos:

 I was disheartened to hear Chris Hayes on C-SPAN say that the educational “reform” movement is “winning the argument.” That’s not to say they’re winning on any factual level, Hayes meant that in terms of public debate, anything short of blaming the teachers means supporting the status quo.

It’s worth noting that this scapegoat has resonance for a reason, there’s an emotional appeal for blaming the teachers.

The Poverty Problem

The US education system isn’t broken, it’s being disrupted by poverty. As the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test shows the United States ranked in the low 20s but at the same time it has some of the highest child poverty in the industrialized world.

When the effects of child poverty are factored in, the US actually outperforms every other country in the world. That is, all things being equal, we still have the best education in the world: an area with 10% child poverty in the US will, on average, do better than an area with 10% child poverty in Finland.

While the struggle with being poor has an obvious effect on learning, it also has effects for funding. Schools that have a higher poverty rate will have lower funding for the schools because of a lower tax base.

Indeed, these problems have been expanded by education policy and increases in poverty following the recession.

Bad Teachers

This leaves a problem, if it’s objectively shown to be poverty then why is there an effort at demonizing teachers, or rather, why assume people would believe its the teachers that are the problem? It’s the dominant position, everyone from Fox News to Jonathan Alter thinks its the teachers fault. So, agendas aside, why even push the story?

The answer lies in the anecdotal and emotional experience of people. Lets face it, you’ve had a bad teacher in your life. The problem is that one bad teacher is out of dozens of good (or at least adequate) teachers. Thus it’s wrong to assume that someones personal experience accounts for a national epidemic.

Unfortunate the media does just that, it takes a personal experiences and turns it into a national problem. . . .

This is an excerpt from an article published Sunday on the Daily Kos headlined, “The Emotional Appeal for Blaming the Teachers.”  Click here to read the entire article.

Teaching in Black and White: Thoughts on Race and Education Reform

Notebook blogger Samuel Reed and I go toe-to-toe on issues of race and education reform.  

Yesterday, public school teacher Samuel Reed (who wrote a very insightful review of my book The Village Proposal) published a blog post on the Notebook headlined, “Education reform sparring match with Christopher Paslay.”  Although the two of us have corresponded via email over the past several years, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Sam in person at a recent teacher leadership event; it was there that Sam pursued his idea of having an honest and friendly education reform “sparring match” between the two of us. 

Here is an excerpt of Sam’s post covering our discussion:  

I finally had a face-to-face chat with Christopher Paslay at an end-of-the-school-year celebration with the Teacher Leadership Professional Learning Community (PLC). We agreed to put some padded gloves on and have a sparring match on education reform.

Samuel Reed: Chris, in your response to my review of your book, The Village Proposal, you state, “To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.” Why should people care about education reform?

Christopher Paslay: Schools and education do not exist in a vacuum.

Everyone is part of schools and education — teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members, business leaders, clergy, lawmakers, etc. Yet somehow our society seems to think schools are cut off from all this, that they are some free-floating entity that operates independent of all these factors.

Politicians talk of “broken schools,” as if they aren’t the ones writing the policy.

Parents speak of “low achievement,” as if they have nothing to do to with helping their children complete assignments and practice new skills.

Community leaders speak out against “school violence,” as if the drugs and crime in their own neighborhoods do not carry over to their schools.

The fact is, everyone is part of schools and education, which is why everyone should care; schools stem from communities, not the other way around.

Reed: I received many comments offline responding to our discourse about social justice. Some folks are not buying that we should strive for a color-blind society. What’s wrong with confronting the impact race and class issues have on teaching and learning? . . .

Click here to read our discussion in its entirety.

Thanks for reading.

Christopher Paslay

Lego Party

by Christopher Paslay

The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility.  The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September.  (Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

It wasn’t until the first week of October, 1995, that I got a call to substitute.  The phone rang at six o’ clock in the morning, and the woman in charge of dispatching assignments on the other end of the line told me that an elementary school needed a sub for one of their 3rd grade special education classes. 

Although I had a degree in secondary English and was trained to teach high school, I accepted the assignment with a positive attitude.  I drove through the predominantly African American neighborhood to the school, parked my car on a side street, and found my way to the main office.  I was greeted by the secretary with a smile, given my roster, and told to proceed to the third floor of the building. 

When I got to the room, a staff member—a special education teacher who was on her prep and covering the class—met me at the door. 

“They’re all yours,” she said, and left.

The class was made up of only eight students.  They were all boys, all third graders, and all special education.  They were sitting quietly at their desks, drawing on loose leaf paper.  When I arrived, though, my presence stirred things up a bit. 

“Who are you?” a boy asked.

“I’m Mr. Paslay,” I told him, and then explained to the class that I’d be their teacher for the day. 

“Where’s Ms. Riable?” another asked.

“She’s not here today,” I said, and tried to keep things positive and friendly. 

Ms. Riable had left a lesson plan on her desk and she’d written several assignments on the board.  I was supposed to have the students take out their math workbooks and complete a basic arithmetic lesson.  I instructed them to do this and they cooperated for about five minutes, but soon they started getting up out of their seats and walking around the room.  I asked them nicely to sit down, but they weren’t responding. 

“Guys, come on,” I said patiently.  “You have to stay in your seats.” 

I changed activities, giving them coloring books and crayons, hoping this would keep them occupied.  It did for five minutes, the same as before, but then the same thing happened: they left their seats and started walking around.

I sat down at Ms. Riable’s desk and figured I’d let it go for a while.  I’d let them stroll around the room and use up some energy; they didn’t seem to be hurting anyone.  But as I scanned through the rest of Ms. Riable’s lessons to see what else I could do with them, the screaming started.  I looked up and saw that one boy had tackled another to the floor and that they were now wrestling.         

“Guys!” I shouted.  The boy that got tackled started crying.  Not knowing what to do, I picked up the emergency telephone on the wall, the one that went to the main office.  When the secretary answered, I explained the situation.  She said she’d send somebody up to help me out.  A few moments later, one of the special education teachers from across the hall came in and told the students to behave themselves.  They sat back down in their seats. 

This routine continued for the rest of the morning.  I’d do my best to get the students interested in something from Ms. Riable’s lessons, they’d get distracted and leave their seats, and I’d have to pick up the phone and threaten to call the office to settle things down; after I called the office twice, they stopped answering the phone. 

At lunchtime, another teacher came and took the students to the recess yard and I got an hour break.  After lunch, I took a shot at reading the class a story.  To my satisfaction, I pulled it off.  I read them Clifford the Big Red Dog.  They sat Indian style around me in the front of the room, completely silent, listening intently. 

Just then, the teacher who took the students to lunch an hour before popped in to see how I was doing.  “Oh, you’re so good with them,” she cooed, and walked away smiling.

When the story was over they wanted more.  I was tired of reading, and asked them what else they liked to do.

“Legos!” one boy shouted.  He took me to the book case in the corner where there was a container filled with them.

“You guys are allowed to play with these?” I asked the boy.

He said that they were, that Ms. Riable let them play with them on Fridays if they were good all week and got their work done.  It was only Monday, but what the heck, I figured I’d let them play with some Legos.  It might keep them occupied for the last hour of the day. 

When they took their seats, I gave out the Legos.  They played with them . . . for a while.  After ten minutes however, they started throwing them around the room.  Lego pieces went zipping through the air like exploding fireworks.  I shouted for them to stop, but in the end I had to go around, student by student, and take the pieces away and put them back into the big white bucket. 

I spent the last 15 minutes of the day cleaning up the room.  I found Legos pieces everywhere.  I shut the classroom windows as I cleaned, afraid that if I didn’t, one of the kids would literally jump out the window while my back was turned and fall three stories to his death.

When the bell rang I was told to take the students out back into the recess yard so their parents could pick them up.  On the way out into the yard, one of my students suddenly jumped on another boy’s back and threw him to the ground.  The boy on the bottom bumped his head on the concrete and started crying at the top of his lungs.  The mother of the crying boy came up to me, picked him up off the ground, brushed him off, and told him to settle down.  She proceeded to wipe the snots coming from his nose.

I explained what happened, but she didn’t seem too upset; it was par for the course.  I apologized and she left.

I went back inside to the main office so I could return the roster and sign out.  There, the secretary said to me, “Thank you so much.  Will we see you tomorrow, then?  Ms. Riable will probably be out for a while, maybe six weeks, and we need a long term sub.”

“I don’t know,” I said. 

The secretary seemed confused.  “Well, you have a job here for the next four weeks, if you want it.”

I told her I’d have to think about it, which was a lie.  I knew I’d never be coming back to that school.  In fact, at that very moment, I was sure I’d never teach another day in my life. 

It would be 23 months before I set foot in another classroom.

Release Date Set for ‘The Village Proposal’

The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility, a book on school reform written by Philadelphia School District teacher Christopher Paslay, will be officially released by Rowman & Littlefield Education on September 28, 2011

To preorder a copy, please click here.

The Village Proposal is based on the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Part education commentary, part memoir, the book analyzes the theme of shared responsibility in public schools and evaluates the importance of sound teacher instruction; the effectiveness of America’s teacher colleges; the need for strong school leaders and supports; the need for strong parental and community involvement; the effectiveness of multiculturalism and social justice in closing the achievement gap; the relevancy of education policy; the impact of private business and politics on schools; and how the media and technology are influencing education.

 About the Author

Christopher Paslay teaches high school English in the Philadelphia School District where he’s worked since 1997. He’s a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where his articles on education and school reform often appear.

School reform’s alphabet

“Two words, both 14 letters long and beginning with the letter A, have become quite trendy in the world of public education. The first is accountability, and the second is accommodations.”


This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “School reform’s alphabet”.  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.


Thanks for reading.


–Christopher Paslay


Improving education starts with improving classroom management


by Christopher Paslay


When it comes to education reform in America, we know what’s in fashion: The need for a comprehensive data system to track student achievement; the need to adopt international benchmark standards to improve assessments; the need to implement performance pay for teachers to raise their overall quality.


We’ve also heard about the importance of good instructional strategies and “rigorous” curriculum. 


However, little has been said about classroom management.  Without an orderly classroom, instructional strategies and curriculum don’t make much difference; you have to crawl before you can walk. 


Recently I was perusing the September 2003 issue of Educational Leadership and found an interesting article on Classroom management.     


Titled “The Key to Classroom Management,” the article was organized around several research studies, all of which support the importance of classroom management and show that it is perhaps the biggest factor in student achievement.  The article was also about the dynamics of classroom management, and shed light on why some teachers have highly organized classrooms while others struggle to keep order and control. 


The article broke classroom management into three categories.  The first was setting Appropriate Levels of Dominance.   “In contrast to the more negative connotation of the term dominance as forceful control or command over others,” the authors stated, “dominance is defined as the teacher’s ability to provide clear purpose and strong guidance regarding both academics and student behavior.” 


In order to bring about this appropriate dominance, teachers must establish clear expectations and consequences, which can be done by reinforcing acceptable behavior and providing consequences for unacceptable behavior.  Teachers must also establish clear learning goals, which can be achieved through the use of rubrics and charts that state lesson objectives.  Finally, teachers must exhibit assertive behavior—they must use firm body language and tone of voice, and persist until students respond with acceptable behavior. 


Next, the article talked about Appropriate Levels of Cooperation.  The authors defined cooperation as “a concern for the needs and opinions of others”.  Teachers can achieve this by providing flexible learning goals (allowing students to help set learning objectives), by taking a personal interest in their students (talking informally with students before or after class about their interests), and by using equitable and positive classroom behaviors (making eye contact and calling all students by name).      


Finally, the idea of establishing an Awareness of High-Needs Students was mentioned.  According to the authors, 12-22 percent of all students in school suffer from mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders, and relatively few receive mental health services.  So teachers need to be aware of the special needs of their students, so they can interact with them appropriately. 


In closing, the article provided the following advice: Don’t leave relationships to chance.  The relationship between a teacher and his or her students is essential in providing a solid foundation for classroom management.  Because studies prove that classroom management is important to student achievement, student-teacher relationships should not be left to chance; they should not be dictated by the personalities of those involved. 


Improving education starts with improving classroom management.  It was refreshing to come across this article in Educational Leadership—to read about practical strategies that can have a significant impact on student achievement.