Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cautionary lessons for today’s “new educators” from New Jersey’s famed Elizabeth Allen

Elizabeth Allen: A teacher leader for our day, too. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Education Association.

Elizabeth Allen: A teacher leader for our day, too. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Education Association.

Earlier in May, the New Jersey Education Association elected a new president and the state’s schoolteachers observed Teacher Appreciation Week, making this a good time to recall the remarkable woman who was elected, a century ago, to head the NJEA – Elizabeth Almira Allen.

For 40 years, Allen (1854-1919) was a principal in Hoboken, and in 1882, a decade after she began teaching there, she was chosen by her peers to be vice president of their local branch of the NJEA. For the next 35 years, Allen fought valiantly for her fellow teachers – for their professional autonomy, for a reliable pension system, and for them to be evaluated as other professionals were: on the basis of experience and competence.

In reviewing Allen’s career today, one is struck by the similarities between issues schoolteachers faced a century ago and those they face today. But of greater significance to the taxpayers of New Jersey is how counterproductive were practices and regulations imposed upon them back then – most often by leaders of the “new education” movement whose chief experience in the classroom was as students themselves.

Today the state is still paying – both figuratively and otherwise – for the shortsightedness of these men. Alas, misogyny and paternalistic attitudes prevailed as the role of urban teacher developed in cities nationwide as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

Allen’s career was, at its start, representative. It began when she enrolled, at age 13, in what was then the Trenton Normal School (it’s now known as the College of New Jersey). After a few years of secondary education and pedagogical preparation, she had her first classroom, at age 18, in Atlantic City. Two years later, in 1871, she moved to Hoboken.

Not until the Civil War did women moved into the nation’s classrooms in large numbers; a scarcity of male teachers was less the issue than that females could be had for far less money than male teachers: in fact, NJ’s commissioner of education in 1871 noted that a “first-rate” woman could be hired for $500 per year, while a “second-rate” man would demand far more. Further, there was the assumption that these young women would teach for a few years, then marry, and a fresh crop of young ladies would take their place. By 1900, 90 percent of New Jersey’s teachers were female; except for rural areas in the southern part of the state, male teachers in elementary schools were seldom to be found.

Men had moved into district administration, a field that of necessity grew as immigration drove the growth of urban districts. And leading the development of this part of public schooling was another New Jersey native, Nicholas Murray Butler (1862-1947), founding president of Teachers College in New York. Butler was a pompous autocratic who achieved national prominence with condescending pronouncements about the “undemocratic” tendencies of new immigrants and the need to centralize urban education under the leadership of omniscient men like himself – guys with three names and a similar number of college degrees.

Allen, according to her biographer (see note on sources below) tended to use Butler as a foil – as am I. But his fear of women, especially those whose abilities rivaled his own, and of people whose last names ended in vowels (or were, for him, otherwise unpronounceable), blinded him to the realities of the urban classrooms of his day, to the potential of the new Americans whom he did not quite trust, and to the challenges faced by the women (not all of whom were young) who were struggling daily to assimilate children of these immigrants into mainstream American society. And, as it turned out – look at the American economy in 1950 — doing a pretty good job of it.

From 1890 until 1910, Butler led the National Association of Education – then an elitist group of university presidents (in 1902, Butler became president of Columbia) and superintendents of large urban districts. When women like Allen and other strong-minded teachers began muscling their way into the NEA beginning in 1900, Butler and his cronies tried to limit their influence. Allen’s opinion of Butler’s attitudes is most succinctly summed up in a paper called “The Teachers Congress,” published by the New Jersey Education Association in 1900.

Three years earlier, Allen had joined with a group of other New Jersey teachers to begin their campaign for a pension fund similar to that police and other civil servants had – an effort that finally met with some success a dozen years later. But her concern in this article outlining a “teachers parliament” was not material but philosophic. Teachers, she felt, should be organized to address “questions of vital moment” not only to the students but to the taxpayers of the state. She wanted an organization in which teachers could meet (at their own expense) to discuss a “higher pedagogy” that would lift them from the “weary technical grind of the classroom into the healthy, inspiring atmosphere of large educational views” and send them back to the classroom “refreshed and enriched in mind and spirit, a better teacher and a better citizen.”

But leading male educators of her day, led by Butler, had a different conception of what teachers needed in the way of preparation and supervision. He was, Allen argued, advocating a “new education” which would establish a “privileged class” of supervisors that would be “tremendously expensive” to taxpayers, centralize and “remove the public school system from the control of the people,” and degrade the teachers. The teachers congress that Allen proposed would be one in which these dedicated and poorly compensated women could discuss what they were doing and how. But such discussion was not only discouraged, it was banned outright by some administrators.

Butler and others were enamored of the emerging “factory system” of organizing the teachers’ work and of “close supervision,” which would regulate what they were teaching and how. Allen and other teacher leaders, such as Chicago’s Ella Flagg Young (1845-1918), argued that this would treat teachers like “workers on a treadmill” and instill in them fear of their supervisors. (Butler, by the way, was so afraid of Young that he resigned from his leadership posts at the NEA when she was elected its president in 1910 – and then had his henchmen endeavor to discredit her leadership.)

Another of the new educators’ priorities was an evaluation system which would be a prerequisite for promotion or advancement in salary. These examinations, Allen argued, would take “time, energy, and enthusiasm” away from pupils. Exams would not make good teachers of poor ones, and further, they were not required of lawyers or school superintendents or university presidents – most of whom, not incidentally, were male.

Allen advocated, instead, for more stringent requirements for entry into teacher education programs, something other leading female educators such as Young argued for as well. They also advocated for the teachers congresses and real professional organizations for teachers such as those other professions were establishing at the same time. Allen also urged the NJEA to more carefully monitor state legislation that would be injurious to teachers and principals (many of whom were also women).

Alas, male fears of Allen’s prescriptions became part of how teachers were selected, prepared, and provided with professional development. Except that the NJEA became more proactive in monitoring legislation – for which the organization is roundly criticized today – none of Allen’s ideas were institutionalized. Instead, universities relegated teacher-education programs to the status of “cash cows” to fund more prestigious programs. Teachers did get promotion and tenure, but as a leading education historian has argued, it was a “corrupt bargain.” In return, the teachers were forced to remove themselves from the policy arena – hence, they retreated behind closed classroom doors and did the best they could with the limited professional autonomy they did have. Until Albert Shanker revitalized teachers’ professional organizations in the 1970s, teachers’ voices were seldom sought – or heeded – when education policy was made. Butler’s “new education” was like organizing the legal system without consulting lawyers.

How I wish today’s education “reformers” (or deformers as their opponents would say) – men like Bill Gates and Eli Broad – would learn a few humbling lessons from the counterproductive actions of men like Butler. So might Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s current commissioner of education, and several big city mayors in New Jersey and elsewhere. Whatever the shortcomings of urban schools today, further demeaning classroom teachers does not address the problems. It’s time to heed the lessons of Allen and Young, women who knew that they were talking about.

A note on sources. The most complete recent biography of Elizabeth Allen is an article by Margaret Smith Crocco, “The Price of an Activist Life,” in Pedagogies of Resistance (Teachers College Press, 1999). The article referred to above, “The Teachers Congress,” was published by the New Jersey Education Association on December 28, 1900. The era and the personalities – including that of Nicholas Murray Butler – were covered in my Ph.D. dissertation, “Ella Flagg Young’s Educational Legacy: Theory and Practice in Chicago’s Schools, 1862-1917” (UIC, 2005).  The most recent biography of Butler is Nicholas Miraculous by Michael Rosenthal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006); that of Shanker is Tough Liberal by Richard Kahlenberg (Columbia University Press, 2010).

A Kismet — or lack thereof

So, I went to find a previous post this morning — and discovered that some demon had destroyed them all. Alas, I had neglected to acquire an anti-spam program quickly enough — or so I learned from a nice young man at GoDaddy. They were gone —  poof! — though I still have versions in MS Word, so all is not lost.

And, interestingly, the anti-spam program is called Akismet, Arabic for fate. Or, It is written. Or not, as it happens.

However, my plan this morning to post a tribute to Elizabeth Allen, a noted New Jersey teacher of a century ago — someone whose comments on teachers and the pressures they face from people who know little about the work — will have to wait for another day.

The great disconnect: is anyone responsible for achievement?

A full agenda would be an understated description of Trenton’s board of education meeting on April 22. It was the last meeting to be presided over by the widely admired Toby Sanders, whose three-year appointment to the board was not renewed by the city’s mayor. Hence, there were many tributes to him.  The music and dance performances that have now become regular features of board meetings included an exciting presentation by a group called TEDI, some high school students were given an award from a national organization for its video about career preparation, and an individual high school student was lauded for being a scholar-athlete who will be representing the district in a national conference next month.

The meeting began with the board’s acceptance of the superintendent’s recommendations – 30-odd pages providing details of promotions, terminations, contracts proposed, field trips and the like, a regular part of every meeting (and the reason why boards of education exist). But there was a hitch – the state’s controversial commissioner of education had, at the last minute, requested that two recommendations for promotions be removed from the agenda. Opposed to this interference, Sanders asked whether the board could decide not to remove these recommendations (for a new principal) and then the commissioner could do as he wished – as the state provides 85 percent of Trenton’s funding and claims that three fourths of its schools are failing for low-performance, the commissioner has considerable latitude in district decision-making.

The leaders of the Trenton Education Association audibly applauded this move, but as members of the board discussed the issue, a decision was apparently made to stand its ground on other issues. The commissioner’s preference was heeded.

Then it was time for public participation – always a lively part of Trenton’s board meetings, a celebration of democratic freedom of speech and the community’s sense of involvement with the schools. First up was a man who appears often at board and city council meetings to remind his fellow citizens of their obligations and of real problems facing the community: poor academic skills, too much violence, too little good nutrition. Then I spoke, with a plea that district teachers consider adopting on their own more structured methods for discipline and instruction, points I had recently made in published commentaries and in this blog.  Teachers and administrators at Trenton’s schools may object to interference from the state, but it isn’t going to go away until they manage to improve academic performance. A chill seemed to have filled the room at the end of my remarks.

After another commendation and a complaint, the vocal and forceful leader of the Trenton Education Association, stepped to the podium, with harsh comments about the supposed “turn-around expert” the state named to oversee Trenton’s  effort to improve its schools’ performance. Last spring, with considerable fanfare, the New Jersey Department of Education established eight Regional Achievement Centers to oversee instruction and leadership at schools performing in the bottom five percent on statewide achievement tests.  And it named to head these RACs as they are called, “distinguished educators” from around the country.

The TEA president has a valid point – I’d expected that the mane who heads Trenton’s RAC would appear at board meetings and similar functions to try to get a sense of the community and to make news about his plans. But other than a quick appearance at a board meeting in September, he’s kept an exceedingly low profile considering his responsibilities.

However, according to the TEA  president, he has begun to show up in the schools; he was apparently behind the commissioner’s request regarding the promotions. Also, he and some of his staff have been visiting schools to evaluate teachers – but, per the TEA, those doing so have no credentials for the work. Most recently, the RAC head has told teachers that they must all follow a certain form of lesson plan – something the TEA said is ridiculous: how can teachers with responsibility for six subjects each day, also find time to fill out complex lesson plans? She’s right; it’s absurd.

The TEA’s feisty grievance officer came up next and directly addressed the state’s monitor, a stone-faced woman who is the commissioner’s representative at board meetings. Why, the TEA official asked, would the state appoint to the post of turn-around chief, someone as unqualified for the work as the one sent to Trenton? He was, she claimed, “non-renewed” after two years as a school principal in Delaware – which is tantamount to being fired, she said. “Why would the state department of education send leftovers to Trenton?” she asked. A valid question, indeed.

As TEA officials have noted, their numerous requests to meet with the RAC head have been ignored: “Someone forgot to tell [him] what collaboration is,” she said. With only two years heading another school, “What gives him the expertise to lead districts like Trenton?” Also a valid question. She closed her comments by saying: “We have to do what we are trying to do, which is to educate the children of Trenton.”

Her point is as valid as her questions – but the state’s point is equally valid: Trenton’s students perform way below those of other communities and its high school graduation rate is roughly 50 percent. Trenton’s teachers may be trying to educate the children of Trenton, but they are not succeeding in their efforts.

Then it was time for the superintendent to make his remarks; as usual, he is both a cheerleader for district accomplishments and occasionally a prod about its challenges. But, alas, the longer he has been in his post, the more the former seems to have superseded the latter. Part of this is inevitable – he knows he cannot accomplish anything without wide support, but the inspiring personal story that brought him in Trenton and his great aims for collaboration and accomplishment a year ago when he was hired, have been tending to fall into a pattern of making excuses. Recent newspaper stories have pointed that the district recently hired as assistant superintendent a woman who had participated in a test-result altering scheme in Philadelphia and that a special education program at a district high school was a farce. The superintendent’s published comments about both were classic bureaucratic avoidance of the real issues at hand.

His commented noted the district’s new website and commended the meeting’s “celebration of positive things.” “Tonight is an example that public schools are not a failure, our schools can perform well,” he said. “We have achievement issues,” he continued,” but the way to solve them is not to attack [us] . . . blaming the teachers or the parents or the school board is not the solution.”

And he ended his comments by saying: “We cannot allow [other] people to dictate to us what our schools need,” a comment that seemed aimed not only at the state and its representative sitting not far from him, but possibly at the three critics (including myself?) who had also spoken at the meeting.

The state Department of Education, I would agree, has contributed little to improving Trenton’s schools, and it seems to have appointed officials of questionable qualifications to oversee the “turnaround” efforts it has imposed on the district. But if neither the teachers nor the parents are to blame for the schools’ shortcomings – as the superintendent claimed – who is?


Trenton’s role in addressing threats to American public education

On April 22, the last Trenton Board of Education meeting to be presided over by outgoing board president Toby Sanders, I made a brief statement during the public participation part of the meeting. Motivating my comments was an ongoing concern about what Trenton graduates do not know when they start taking courses at the local community college where I teach. Despite my regard for district leadership and considerable sympathy with the pressure teachers are under, something is missing in the preparation district schools are able to provide for their students. Further, the academic deficiencies revealed by these students’ performance on statewide tests are being used as an excuse to dismantle American public education. Less its introductory remarks, my comments appear below.

 . .  . Despite all the good work I have seen in this room, I am very concerned about public education here in Trenton and in many other communities nationwide. The public school, free and open to all, is one of America’s gifts to the world, and it is the basis for our middle-class democracy. I realize that many Americans have been deprived of this right, or provided it only grudgingly, and I know that many of the problems Trenton’s schools face today are a heritage of that deprivation.

But that does not absolve us of responsibility for doing better, as Rev. Sanders would repeatedly remind us.

Over the past two decades or so, we as a nation have seen our public education system assaulted by those who seem more interested in redirecting into private pockets the vast amounts of money states and municipalities invest in public education. The rationale for this disservice is the poor academic performance of schools in cities like Trenton. Closing the achievement gap, meeting the global challenge, whatever, are all, to my mind, distractions from less honorable motives.

But that does not mean that all is well in Trenton’s schools. As a teacher at a local college I note with great sorrow what your graduates do not know; they do not have the knowledge base that they need for success in the workplace or for discharging their duties as citizens.

Too many students cannot write a simple sentence, cannot conjugate a verb, do not know the difference between a preposition and a possessive. They cannot fill in a map of the United States or put the Emancipation Proclamation in the right decade. According to my math-teaching colleagues, they cannot line up numbers on the decimal point or add fractions with different denominators.

This is a tragedy – and it bodes ill for the future of American democracy. Many of these educational deficiencies are common to graduates of other Mercer County high schools; less common are behavioral barriers to success in school. And I do not believe we can effectively address the former without addressing the latter first.

As some of you know, I have recently written about what is widely known as the KIPP method and a local charter school that employs it. And this school been getting far better academic results from many of the same students as the regular district schools have. And, though I recognize that this is a contentious point, these results are not just the outcome of “skimming” the best students.

The KIPP methods work; I have been using some of them in my college classes. Students are paying more attention and doing better on quizzes. So, I am appearing here today to urge Trenton’s regular district teachers to try using them as well.

Trenton, along with other urban districts in New Jersey, wants to get the state off your back. But until the academic performance of your students improve, that isn’t going to happen. And I worry that if you cannot take up this challenge more effectively, we will continue to witness the decline of American public education. And this, too, would be a tragedy. Thank you.