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Killers, Swindlers, and My Brother David

I. An Honorable Profession

My younger brother, David, started out his law career at the Legal Aid Society, and he defended killers, robbers, and people so desperate that they could never have had defense if it weren’t for people like him, my brother. He used to tell me stories of walking into prison cells with giant, terrifying-looking men, the guard locking him in alone with them as he took in their stories and prepared their defenses.

Later on, he worked with detectives to uncover and bust some of the cruelest, slimiest, underhanded Ponzi-scheming swindlers in the State of Texas, serving warrants and entering the homes of people who would clean out your grandmother’s life savings for speed boats or condos in Corpus Christie without a second thought. Real wolves.

He retired a couple of years ago, had some recovery time after a terrifying open-heart surgery, and then it was time to do something restorative. He registered as a substitute teacher for the Austin City public schools. We were all charmed and amused and impressed. Where does he come up with these ideas? 

Grauer 7th grade students Mikaelah, Jessica, and Camille on a field trip to the Museum of Man in Balboa Park - November 26, 2019

David is a great storyteller and poet, and wicked funny, and we began hearing endearing, sometimes concerning, and sometimes hysterical narratives about kindergarteners and very young children, many of them intellectually, emotionally or physically challenged whom he met in his classes as he read them stories, handed out worksheets and attempted to outwit them in their antics. It was touching, and occasionally a little concerning—he had no experience in classroom management, and things got messy from time to time. Luckily, David turned those times into stories that were sometimes hysterical or creepy: “Had a student compulsively picked nose then ate it. Also paced. As a sub no action taken.”

He started in the local, neighborhood elementary schools. Over time, the district seemed to be reaching deeper to find qualified subs, assigning him some older students, and David started getting in deeper, too: 

“Worked a high school today with 3800 students. Got lost twice.” “I told the class about Dani’s [my daughter’s] dear friend Carson who went out to Cal Poly and died from a massive alcohol overdose at a fraternity event.” [1]

Recently they assigned David to a 5th grade class in a large, consolidated urban school. He walked into an extremely diverse class: diverse learning styles, diverse ethnicities, and diverse behaviors. He had no idea about how to get their attention and they had no interest in giving it, except maybe negatively. At one point, five kids just got up and left, and luckily a school official saw them in the mix of the swirling, forbidding hallways and got them back to class. To his face, two girls in the front row mimicked and mocked his gestures and efforts as he gradually abandoned any hope of teaching or presiding. Two kids got into an open fist fight in the middle of the classroom. This all went on for over three and a half long, long hours as he tried to gain some kind of foothold over the class, growing desperate, anxious and overwhelmed.

Teaching is of course an historically honorable profession, but teachers are getting harder to find it as teaching changes into a bureaucratic job held in larger and larger institutions, where their work and profession is evaluated by increasingly centralized and narrow norms. I said to David, “Hard as this all sounds, you can’t completely blame those kids. Many are bussed out of their home communities like foreigners and warehoused into forbidding, cultureless places most of them would never choose to go—the backs of buses, hallway mazes, paved schoolyards with roving bands. They are put in chairs for hours every day regardless of their inclinations or needs, listening to old people direct traffic. School is mandatory for them, like incarceration.” 

He quite agreed. In those classes, the idea that learning is a personal thing that you can build upon or relate to in terms of your life outside of school or your family values is not all that realistic and often not even an afterthought. For the elite student, the programs of large, well-funded schools can offer a wide array of experience with some talented teachers and amazing facilities. On the other hand, in many overcrowded and underfunded large schools, it’s not that way at all. Many people cannot or do not even imagine large consolidated schools as fundamentally places of deep connection, safe space, liberation, or long-range aspiration for students, much less great places to spend your professional career—for all their slogans and mascots, those schools and their teachers are evaluated almost completely on a few data points like standardized test scores, or attendance. When I am ruler, I will break these schools down back into community schools or schools within schools that can feel like places of more connection.

Grauer students Ethan, Kellen, Jaden, and Adrien visiting a Sikh Gurdwara with their World Religions class - November 21, 2019

II. Measuring What Matters

Last August, 2019, Voice of San Diego ran an article entitled, “The San Diego Schools Where Students Feel Least Safe.” [2]  The safety data they produced resulted in a list of schools that were ranked by their safety as perceived by their students.  

Since I study school size, my first thoughts in examining the list were:

    “Isn’t this also a list of how big schools are?” 

My decade of small schools research had revealed to me a couple critical things that are almost completely, 100%, abjectly ignored:

• Year after year, small schools are consolidated into larger, more bureaucratic, supposedly more efficient “consolidated” schools.

• Year after year, I keep finding in research that small schools not only are safer, but that they feel safer to students and teachers. 

My research associate, Dr. Tricia Valeski, found, when studying the Voice of San Diego list of unsafe schools:  “There is a moderate negative correlation between school size and feelings of safety (r(26) = -.39, p = .04). Furthermore, 7 of the 8 schools where children report feeling the most safe have enrollments below 406. Among students who feel the least safe, 6 of the 8 lowest scoring schools have enrollments over 1000.” Our larger schools don’t feel safe to kids.

I was able to verify the truth of this finding on a larger scale by scanning data from Ed Data, Educational Data Partnership (which tracks suspensions, expulsion, defiance instances, violence, etc.). [3]  It seems like the county and state offices of education will never bother to run correlations between safety and school size—but why?

Tony Wagner, the well-known Harvard education expert gives us some clues, “The pressure on short term results tends to drive questioning out of the equation.” Big questions are heating up below the surface as discontent foments. 

A right question might be: Are bigger schools really doing what we ask of them? Why do we assume they are more efficient? Is there an economy of scale in education? Or how about: Why do around 50% of the people who work for large schools never teach students—do we need this much bureaucracy?  

And, better: What should we be measuring in determining the quality of schools? Because if we measured safety and drop-out rates, we’d stop creating large, consolidated schools.

And still better: Why can’t a highly intelligent professional who wants to help have a happy and productive experience in a school classroom? Because people like that, including those who have teaching degrees, are not having such an experience. Teachers are leaving our field in droves—and many more are not even considering the field. [4]

The age of big schools led us into an age of small questions. Schools and teachers are measured and ranked in terms things that mean relatively little to many students. US News famously ranks schools and has relied heavily upon test scores. This has always been a major source of consternation for me, knowing the negative impact this narrow approach has always had on teachers and students. But in their new 2019 list of “Best High Schools”, in what could be a major breakthrough, for the first time, they are using a more comprehensive approach in identifying what they mean by “best”.  This year they are ranking on multiple disparate measures as opposed to showing readers only proportions taking/passing standardized exams. Changing the rankings will help all of us who are trying to alter the way we develop schools. Groups like the California Office for Reforming Education and the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment have started to make changes in the way school quality is evaluated.

My guess is that, once schools begin incorporating more humane ways of measuring their own and their students’ success, the pressure to keep making schools larger and larger, and to keep consolidating small schools into large ones, will abate. Large, forbidding, unsafe schools may collapse like old empires. All this can start by measuring what matters.

Grauer students from all grades performing a song together at the school's Founder's Day & Grandfriends Luncheon event - November 22, 2019

III. What Teachers Do Every Day

Back in the 1800s, the early free public schools had well below 400 students. Eventually, in the early 1900s, that all gave way to the factory model of schooling with standardized curriculum. This model is what we still have, even though the skills society calls for are radically different today than when the model was developed. This is the model that a substitute teacher walks into today as the ranks of teachers decline along with the whole profession.

The most recent data available show that on average 10 percent of public school teachers reported being threatened with injury and 6 percent reported being physically attacked by a student during the 2011–12 school year. [5]

I called up my brother David, but his story was not endearing or wicked funny this time. “I actually think I had a minor stroke. I’m just home resting now. I’m not feeling well at all. I know it will take a week or so to recuperate before I can take on anything else, I just have to rest. I’m going to write the principal and superintendent and tell them how unethical it is to send someone unprepared into a setting like this.” And yet, they herd millions of innocent children onto buses and send them into these settings every day and all my brother saw was how they adapt.

“At the end of the school day,” said my brother, prosecutor of killers, world class swindlers, and strongmen, “I went out to the bus stop and saw a few of the regular teachers, and I told them how amazed and appreciative I am of what they do every day, how much it takes.”

 

[1] Carson Starkey’s parents lost their son to hazing. Now, saving others is their life’s work., The Tribune, November 26, 2018.

[2] The San Diego Schools Where Students Feel Least Safe, Voice of San Diego, August 29, 2019. 

[3] School Profile Data for Point Loma High School, Educational Data Partnership.

[4] Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It, Learning Policy Institute, August 2017.

[5] How Safe Are Our Schools?, American Institutes for Research, October 6, 2014.


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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Dr. Grauer speaking to the students about the importance of having a balanced life at The Grauer School's weekly assembly - December 3, 2019

Grauer 7th grade students Mikaelah, Jessica, and Camille on a field trip to the Museum of Man in Balboa Park - November 26, 2019

Grauer students from all grades performing a song together at the school's Founder's Day & Grandfriends Luncheon event - November 22, 2019

Grauer students Ethan, Kellen, Jaden, and Adrien visiting a Sikh Gurdwara with their World Religions class - November 21, 2019

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