Blackboard Wars episodes 5 and 6

So the first season of Blackboard Wars has ended and, as I expected, it reached the conclusion it was created to.  Yes, ‘reform’ isn’t easy.  The community resists radical change, even when it is what is best for it.  The early ‘success’ of this school and its teachers validates the idea that all you need to accomplish a ‘turnaround’ is a $1.5 million dollar SIG grant to use, in part, on a charismatic leader and some new teachers who, despite their inexperience, have high expectations for all kids.

In the last episode, we get our first inklings of ‘early success’ at this school.  At one of the board meetings, open to the community, Dr. T says that 63% of their 9th graders have scored above basic on the Read 180 test.  Read 180 is a program which may very well be a good one.  Students take three tests throughout the year and as this is only four months into the school year, we’re not sure if this was how they did on the first or second test.  This is not an ‘official’ state test, but a diagnostic, and since we don’t know what those incoming students’ levels were, it is hard to interpret whether this is good or not.

I don’t see how a school can take much credit for students they have only known for four months, though.  I know that this school has a somewhat unusual demographic because when they started the turnaround, they did not give the school any new 9th graders last year.  So the current 9th graders are generally all first time 9th graders.  As the years progress, however, that won’t be the case in this school and it will be interesting to see how those 9th grade numbers change when they have to deal with the often large numbers of repeating 9th graders.  It is true that they may have some third time ninth graders, but probably not very many.

The second claim we hear from principal Dr. T at the board meeting at the end of the episode.  He says:

Right now our focus at John McDonogh is improving our daily attendance.  Attendance here at John Mac is, um,  roughly between 75 and 80 percent.  Last year’s attendance was 34% (Barr chimes in with “pretty close”) so we’ve already more than doubled attendance.

Finally we get a number and if this were true, it would be quite an accomplishment.  I found the numbers for 2007-2008, 2008-2009, and 2009-2010 on the SIG grant proposal and the attendance rates were 73%, 76%, and 78% respectively.  Whether or not the 2011-2012 number was truly 34% (which I doubt), it really doesn’t matter.  That would be a major outlier caused by the instability caused by the takeover.  The fact is pretty clear that pre-turnaround the attendance was around the same as it is now.  Incidentally, this school now has around 350 kids compared to the 567 it had pre-turnaround according to their SIG application.

The third, and apparently most important, factor is that the kids seem to like the changes.  Though we only hear from two kids, both upperclassmen, it is implied that they speak for all the kids at the school.  I don’t doubt that for some kids the new management has made changes that work for those kids.  Whether this was the only way to improve the school, by getting rid of 75% of the teachers, is something I’m not sure about.  And whether or not this will result in 90% of the students going to college five years from now, as Steve Barr tells a parent is the goal in an earlier episode, well, that remains to be seen.

As far as the message that all a school needs is a competent charismatic leader and a group of young teachers, this is supported by what the show chose to focus on.  We see the rookie teacher, Ms. Cobb, a lot and often her young friends too.  What is not made clear, however, is that the school has mostly veteran teachers at it.  There are just four TFAers there, three first years and one second year.  So if this school does succeed, it will not prove that young inexperienced teachers can do better than old experienced ones.

As far as a competent charismatic leader, yes, I would say that Dr. T is charismatic and can make quite a speech.  But teachers know that those speeches lose their impact after the first few.  In episode 5 he makes a speech to the students about how he wants them to promise that no more of them are going to get shot.  What would be better would be if he had actual strategies for helping these students avoid danger.

I also really question Dr. T’s judgement throughout the show.  In episode 6 there is a learning disabled student who lives in a shelter and who Dr. T has a talk with about his future.  The kid doesn’t have a real sense of how much it might cost to one day get his own apartment and Dr. T makes a big speech about net vs. gross pay and how he’s going to have to pay 20% taxes.  The kid completely zones out on this talk and the kid later is contemplating suicide.  Dr. T’s speech certainly did not help by adding extra pressure to this kid’s life now thinking about paying income tax.

In episode 5 Dr. T kicks a kid out of school because that kid is likely to be a target for a retaliation for him shooting, and possibly killing, someone who did a ‘drive by’ on his friends house.  In talking to that kid, Dr. T gets ‘real’ cursing in every other sentence.

Later in episode 5 Dr. T makes a speech explaining that he has booted a lot of kids from the school, and why.

I have gotten rid of all the people that I think have created as many problems as I’m going to put up with.  I’m not keeping kids here in this school that are taking learning time away from any of you.  I’m not keeping kids in this school who create a threat of safety to any of you.  We’re investing in you.  I want you guys to step it up.  I need you to start holding each other accountable for what a John Mac Trojan student should be.  I do not go to school with a bunch of thugs.  I do not have idiots in my school.  We can do better.  This is time to get this right.  It’s time to get a different swag on.  I want a John Mac swag, and I’m not talking about being cool. I’m taking about taking those beasts that don’t belong to me, don’t belong in your classroom, take them out of this school.  Take them out of your lives.

The most amusing example of Dr. T’s obliviousness is at the end of episode 5 when a new student comes to register for the school.  Each episode ends with some kind of hopeful moment and as Dr. T has just lost a student, getting a new one who had dropped out and now wants to get a diploma seems like a fitting end.  But the funny part is that this student, in his conference where he is asking Dr. T if he can enroll, is wearing headphones for the entire conversation.  This really shows how inexperienced Dr. T is.  The first thing you say to a kid like that is “You want to be serious about returning to school.  Take off your headphones.”  But Dr. T really doesn’t seem to notice as he is too preoccupied with making a big inspirational speech.  I know that Dr. T was once a superintendent in Virginia.  Maybe he was a good superintendent but when it comes to day to day principal stuff, he doesn’t seem to have a clue.  I suppose someone might say about me pointing this out “Anybody can make a mistake.  Why hold that under a microscope.”  And, yes, people do make mistakes, but considering all the other mistakes he’s making and considering how bizarre of a mistake this is.  It would be like a baseball player hitting the ball and running from home across the pitcher’s mound to second base.  If you don’t notice that a kid is wearing headphones while trying to re-enroll in school after dropping out, well your instincts are completely off and I don’t trust you to make the right decision on much more important things.

In episode six Dr. T really puts another student and a teacher at risk when he leaves a suicidal student alone with a teacher.  A real principal would make sure that there were several security guards in the room with the kid.  Of course it did lead to a dramatic moment when Dr. T, himself, wrestled the kid to the ground to neutralize him.  Like Dr. T’s speeches this makes for good T.V., but bad leadership.

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13 Responses to Blackboard Wars episodes 5 and 6

  1. Midcareer Teacher says:

    Wow, taking off headphones when having a conversation is a basic discipline procedure. What Dr T doesn’t realize is now when teachers ask him to take the headphones off when talking the student will respond, “Dr T didn’t make me!” Of course only experienced teachers understand how something so small is such an enormous management problem.

  2. Cameron says:

    I remember learning just how important very small things were to management. My first year students would try to sharpen pencils while I was talking and would make sure to break the lead numerous times so that the disruption continued as long as possible. Knowing how to deal with minor issues like that really sets the tone. I agree on headphones!

  3. E. Rat says:

    Read 180 is heavily scripted and very expensive; it also requires regular hardware updates since it makes extensive use of computers. The (problematic) federal “What Works” study found it successful.

    Since it is meant for students who are well below grade level, at many schools students are taking a Read 180 class in addition to other ELA classes and therefore missing out on the opportunity to take elective courses. While good reading skill is important, electives – and a broad knowledge base – are too.

  4. Perhaps what this also shows is that the folks making this show are more than a little clueless about the implications of a lot of small and not-so-small things. If, as I suspect, this is a big propaganda effort, it would not be surprising if deform experts were as at sea about those headphones as they are about most educational issues. Perhaps they thing the headphones make the student more “real,” and so view them as an important prop, not recognizing the message they send to anyone with a reasonable amount of school experience or . . . common sense.

  5. gkm001 says:

    So the principal “gets rid of” all the “idiots” and “thugs” — who, if they don’t want to run afoul of truancy laws, must go and enroll somewhere else. Some other school must find a way to engage and teach the thugs while not allowing them to threaten other students’ safety. When that other school fails to do so, it will be considered a failing school, while John McDonogh will have successfully turned things around by disavowing all responsibility for the “beasts” who “don’t belong” in spite of having enrolled there.

    If every school could simply shoo away its most difficult and disruptive students, every school could be a “turnaround.” But what would become of the kids?

    • Shannon says:


      • Shannon says:

        What I’d like to know is what happens to “one day, EVERY child…?” They didn’t specify only the easy ones, or the ones who want to be there, or the ones who don’t act like thugs. They said, “EVERY” child, but they base school models on those that “kick out” problem children. This does not equate to seeking an education for every child out there…

  6. Jack says:

    Corporate reformers constantly claim “there are charter schools that have decided they can get equally good results with inexpensive

    You should add to that sentence, “with the
    easiest-to-educate students.” Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking about “cherry-picking” or “creaming”.

    (and for the record, even with those charter schools with the easiest-to-educate students still rarely outscore the district schools… here in L.A., that is.)

    Case-in-point: AUDUBON MIDDLE SCHOOL

    Dr. DeWayne Davis, the principal at LAUSD’s Audubon Middle school, wrote Dr. Diane Ravitch a letter which Diane Ravitch posted on her site. In this letter, Dr. Davis condemned the “midyear dump” of students from the nearby charter schools. Every year, just after winter break, there are about 147 or so kids that have left those charter schools— either kicked out or “counseled out”. I can’t recall the exact figures, but he said about 142 of those are FBB (Far Below Basic)—kids who score low because of being innately “slower”, non-cooperative, “Special Ed”, newcomers to the country who are brand new to English, those students just plain not willing to work hard, from distressed home lives, foster care, homeless, etc.

    Davis tells about the great difficulties that teachers have in their efforts to absorb these charter cast-off’s into their classes. For the next month or two—or for even the remainder of the school year—teachers and the pre-existing students report varying states of chaos as a result of the nearby charter schools engaging in this despicable “midyear dump”.

    Of course, think of the effect this has on Audubon’s scores—they go DOWN—and on the nearby charter schools—they go UP.

    I heard from a teacher that the pro-charter School Board members came down on Dr. Davis like a ton of bricks for “airing dirty laundry” to Dr. Ravitch.

    Here’s the quote that got likely him into trouble:


    “It is ridiculous that they (charter operators) can pick and choose kids and pretend that they are raising scores when, in fact, they are just purging nonperforming students at an alarming rate. That is how they are raising their scores, not by improving the performance of students.

    “Such a large number of FBB students will handicap the growth that the Audubon staff initiated this year, and further, will negatively impact the school’s overall scores as we continue to receive a recurring tide of low-performing students.”

    One teacher activist explained this phenomenon with the following analogy:

    “It’s like you have two oncology (cancer treatment) practices:

    Oncology Practice A


    Oncology Practice B.

    “Oncology Practice A only accepts patients with Stage 1 cancers, carefully screening out those with Stages 2, 3, or 4 cancers. They send the latter down the street to Oncology Practice B. If one of the latter happens to sneak by this screening process—or whose cancer advances to Stage 2 or higher—they likewise are immediately referred down the street to Oncology Practice B.

    “Meanwhile, Oncology Practice B, by law, MUST ACCEPT ALL PATIENTS who show up in their waiting room, and are banned from doing what Oncology Practice A is doing—again, being selective at the outset to only accept the Stage 1 cancer patients, and doing a later screening out to maintain that their patients are exclusively Stage 1.

    “Well, lo and behold, as things play out, the ‘data’ shows that Oncology Practice A has much higher cure rates and higher remissions, while Oncology Practice B has a greater percentage of patients who are relapsing, having to undergo multiple surgeries, enduring extra rounds of chemotherapy, etc., and of course, dying.

    “Proponents of Oncology Practice A then claim, ‘Look at all that’s wrong with all Oncology Practice B. Their patients are suffering, not being cured, and even dying. And then look at how wonderfully we’re doing here over at Oncology Practice A.’ “

  7. Jack says:

    Also, regarding the claim of the superiority of “inexperienced teachers and Charter Schools do better”, you can expand the ABOVE analogy to say:

    “And guess what? Oncology Practice A’s doctors are a lot cheaper, too—and cost the taxpayers less— because they never went to one of those expensive so-called “medical schools” (or they dropped out halfway through). After all, medical school grads have to be paid so much more, even when we know they’re not that all that great, as determined by the ‘data’. (Think the NCTQ’s non-peer-reviewed “studies.)

    “Instead, these unlicensed, (or alternatively-licensed) care-providers at Oncology Practice A merely went to an ‘alternative certification’ medical program (think Teach or America er… “Doctors for America”).

    “Sure, it’s just a short 5-week ‘crash course’, but look at how their data/results/patient outcomes outdo that of those expensive Oncology Practice B doctors, with all their high-falutin’ but ineffective…

    ” ‘M.D. degrees’,

    ” ‘four-year residency programs’,

    ” ‘internships at the Harvard Medical School.

    ” ‘attending-ships at the Mayo Clinic’, etc.

    “Don’t you see? This just proves how useless all that
    expensive extra higher education and training that Oncology Practice B physicians get is, and what a waste of money it is for taxpayers to pay them for it.”

    (Again, I’m referring the NCTQ’s ‘studies’–which they adamantly refuse to submit to any peer-review process—proving that university teacher training is “worthless”

  8. Educator says:

    You might like this video from this reporter. Yes, one might think he’s being too paranoid and being a “conspiracy” theorist. But, it makes you think.

  9. Shannon says:

    I have gotten rid of all the people that I think have created as many problems as I’m going to put up with. I’m not keeping kids here in this school that are taking learning time away from any of you. I’m not keeping kids in this school who create a threat of safety to any of you. We’re investing in you. I want you guys to step it up. I need you to start holding each other accountable for what a John Mac Trojan student should be. I do not go to school with a bunch of thugs. I do not have idiots in my school. We can do better. This is time to get this right. It’s time to get a different swag on. I want a John Mac swag, and I’m not talking about being cool. I’m taking about taking those beasts that don’t belong to me, don’t belong in your classroom, take them out of this school. Take them out of your lives.

    WOW. Once again, I’m speechless. Beasts? Really?!?

  10. Jack says:

    “WOW. Once again, I’m speechless. Beasts? Really?!?”

    Yeah, really!!! I used to be speechless as well, but not anymore.

    Yes, he actually referred to students at his school as “beasts”, and used their “beast-like” status as rationale for throwing them out… and back to the traditional public schools nearby… those school with unionized teacher…. those schools he brags that he is putting to shame.

    That’s what you call a “mask drop”. With the mask off, and his guard down, we see and hear exactly how their sick minds operate.

    The corporate reform charter school leaders and charter chain CEO’s lie, lie, lie…. “We have same exact acceptance and expulsion policy as the regular public schools, and we still out perform



    Lie…. to infinity.

  11. janderson says:

    So, lots of thought on this blog and in these comments about how the charter school and Dr. T are clueless…yet nothing about other solutions. Just complaints. What would you do instead that hasn’t already been tried to turn this school (and the many like it) around and include every child? I have been in public education working with at-risk students for over 15 years, and would love to hear ideas rather than complaints.

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