SCHOOL LIVES MATTER: But only in theory!


Part 1—The Washington Post pretends:
The city of Pittsburgh is full of good, decent kids. Mya Alford, a high school student, is one of those good, decent kids.

Alford is a junior at Pittsburgh's historic Westinghouse High School. According to the Washington Post, she wants to go to college and study to become a chemical engineer.

That sounds like a great idea, but the Post says Alford has faced a problem in recent years—a "disadvantage." Nine days ago, Emma Brown described the problem at the start of a lengthy, front-page report you've never seen discussed:
BROWN (12/5/15): Mya Alford dreams of studying chemical engineering in college, but the high school junior is at a disadvantage: Last year, her chemistry teacher at Pittsburgh's Westinghouse Academy quit just weeks after school started, and the class was taught by a substitute who, as Mya put it, "didn't know chemistry."

The year before, there was no permanent biology teacher until December. Students at Westinghouse, a high-poverty school in one of Pittsburgh's roughest neighborhoods, often see a rotating cast of substitutes, Mya said.

"You're looking at test scores," Mya said of the school's low performance on state standardized tests in math, science and reading. "But we didn't have a stable teacher."
As she continues her lengthy report, Brown describes this as a common problem in the nation's low-income urban schools. According to Brown, "it is not uncommon for classrooms to churn with substitutes as teachers leave in large numbers each June, or quit midyear, and principals struggle to fill the positions."

Brown provides some statistics about the teacher shortfall in urban districts. (At present, "Detroit needs 135 teachers—more than 5 percent of its teaching positions.")

She provides occasionally euphemistic explanations of the reasons why teachers leave urban districts—explanations which sometimes border on darkly comical.

(One teacher had to leave a D.C. high school "after she started having anxiety attacks and chest pains that she attributed to job stress." According to Brown, this teacher "was known for her strong relationships with students"—except, apparently, for the students who were throwing objects at her head and otherwise making her "find it difficult to maintain order.")

Decent, impressive kids like Alford can get caught in the waves of confusion. Personally, we were saddened by this passage from Brown's report:
BROWN: Just 27 states require substitutes to be certified teachers, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. The council's database of teacher-related policies in 118 districts—including the 50 largest and the largest in each state—shows that just 61 districts, about half, require subs to have a bachelor's degree. Eleven require no more than a high school diploma or GED, and eight have no policies addressing substitutes' qualifications.

"It's the elephant in the room," said David Sapp, director of education advocacy and legal counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, linking the issue to "persistent chronic failure at certain schools."

The ACLU branch has brought several lawsuits related to public schools' teacher churn and heavy use of substitutes. "There are a narrow set of schools where this happens all the time, and until that gets really unpacked and resolved, there's only so much that can be done to close the achievement gap," Sapp said.
We don't doubt Sapp's good intentions. His lawsuits may have merit.

But can the shortage described in that passage really be the "elephant in the room?" The notion strikes us as utterly silly. It reminds us of a million such massively simplified claims which we've read in mainstream reports over these many long years. And when did it fall to the ACLU to serve as the nation's experts concerning our public schools?

Brown has produced a perfectly reasonable report—a reasonable report which does include a few shortcomings. We'll visit a few of those shortcomings in the course of the week.

That said, nothing will turn on Brown's report, whatever its merits may be. This is the first you've heard of Brown's report since it appeared on the Post's front page. Trust us! This will also be the last you hear of Brown's report.

Ten years from now, some other reporter will write a report about a similar shortage in low-income schools. We'll guess that someone wrote a similar front-page report back in 2005!

Why will Brown's decent report produce no further discussion? Because of a simple, fairly obvious fact—no one actually cares about the schools lives of students like Alford!

The mainstream press doesn't seem to care. It occasionally offers reports like this as a way of pretending.

The liberal world doesn't seem to care. You'll watch Rachel and Chris for years on end without hearing a single word about good decent kids like Alford. We're sorry, but on the corporate level, the Mya Alfords doesn't sell.

What will you hear about instead? Random comments by figures like Justice Scalia. As you know, the liberal world leaped into action last week, shrieking and wailing about one such wayward remark.

In our view, much of our liberal reaction was embarrassing to watch. By way of contrast, the Alfords tend to come and go with barely a word of concern.

Mya Alford's missing teachers v. Justice Scalia's wayward remark! We'll discuss these dueling topics during the course of the week. With respect to one of those topics, you'll see us liberals excitedly denouncing the Very Bad People found Over There in The Other Tribe. With respect to the other topic, you'll see us in our usual stance, ignoring the shortfalls which get dumped on many good decent kids.

At least for today, we'll close on an upbeat note. At the end of Brown's report, she offers a bit of good news.

According to Brown, Alford says that "her school has been transformed under the leadership of Principal LouAnn Zwieryznski, who is in her second year" at Westinghouse.

"We have teachers here," Alford is quoted saying, describing the current state of play at her school. "Every class is a steady teacher. You come in, and it's the same person."

Alford, who is 16, is junior class president this year. In this news report from the New Pittsburgh Courier, you can see a photograph of a good decent kid who's wearing a sweatshirt which says this: "Westinghouse Pride."

What happens to kids like this in their schools? On balance, nobody cares! Or have you seen such topics discussed on the One True Liberal Channel, whose millionaire hosts prefer to laugh and entertain you as they stage back-to-back segments about people who wet their pants after getting extremely drunk?

(For a good time, click here.)

In our view, those segments were a gong-show, the latest insulting disgrace. On the bright side, clowning like that almost surely helps pay some very large bills.

Tomorrow: Heart attacks over Scalia


  1. Only a few Scalia critics seriously addresssed the mismatch theory. Most simply called him a racist. Yet, this debate should take place. If Affirmative Action is doing more harm than good for the people it's supposed to help, then we should do something about that.

    I think Bob nailed it. Defenders of Affirmative Action don't care that much what happens to the individuals who received race-based preferential admissions. They want to see a bunch of black faces on campus. And, they want to take credit for the black faces. That allows them to feel good about themselves and to despise the other tribe.

  2. "And when did it fall to the ACLU to serve as the nation's experts concerning our public schools?"

    And when did anyone say the ACLU was serving as experts concerning our public schools?

    I am not sure, but I think I would put more trust in the ACLU branch bringing suit on this issue for their expertise than I would put in a guy who quit teaching three decades or more ago after entering that profession with no academic training in it.

  3. Expanding on liberals' desire for taking credit: consider their attitude toward Asian-Americans. There was historically enormous prejudice against all Asians. Chinese-Americans were assumed to be servants or running a laundry. Filipinos were servants. Of course, there was even more prejudice against Japanese Americans during WW2.

    Today, Asians out-do caucasians educationally. Are liberal educators happy about that? No. Asians achieved excellent results on their own, without the help of liberals. The success of Asians doesn't serve to boost liberal egos. So, liberal educators discriminate against Asians without a qualm. E.g., see

    1. David, you are missing the word "some" in front of the word Asians.

      You also seem to be unaware that historically there was segregation of Asian students into separate schools. If you think about this a bit more, you will realize that (1) there has never been an attempt to suppress literacy within the Asian-American community, (2) that means parents can help their kids with literacy and math skills and other homework, (3) cultural values emphasized academic success because Chinese and Japanese society was based on a merit-based civil service system with an annual exam, (4) those laundries and other businesses were entrepreneurial, not slavery-based, (5) who says liberals aren't happy about anyone's success, (6) the more "Americanized" and the longer an Asian immigrant family is in the USA the more their academic performance resembles the American norm.

      You seem to be advocating that affirmative action should be based on minority status instead of disadvantage.

    2. Anon 1:24 -- You're right. I did leave out a word, or rather, a phrase. I meant all the references to groups to be "on average."

      I would like to end Affirmative Action. It's an ugly, bigoted, racist, unconstitutional practice. It has led colleges to dumb down their education. It may be doing more harm than good for the group it's supposed to be helping.

      Bad as AA is, it may have been necessary temporarily in order to change American attitudes towards blacks. But, it's horrendous as a permanent institution. As someone said, "If yuou want to end discrimination, stop discriminating."

    3. Dave the Guitar PlayerDecember 15, 2015 at 12:56 PM

      Affirmative action is not about discrimination. It is an attempt to bring a class of Americans who have been deliberately kept from participating in the American culture a chance to catch up. A lot of damage has been done to the African American community, and not by you or I. But as Americans it would seem that you and I would want to help our fellow Americans do better and climb out of the hole our nation put them in. Instead, your response is "well discrimination is over, good luck!"

  4. These sorts of problems affect all kinds of schools, not just urban ones and not just minority kids with high aspirations. It is an ongoing problem related to the neglect of education and the disparagement of teaching as a profession, complicated by changing mores about discipline in the classroom.

    I attended an urban school and was first misclassified as lowest track when I had previously been in gifted classes. My parents were uninvolved in my education and never noticed the mistake. I assumed that the previous assignment had been wrong and then been "corrected," which is what kids with low self esteem do.

    Then we moved to a suburb. To their credit, they noticed and re-corrected the mistaken tracking placement but I still had the same kind of difficulties as Wya. I took one class where the 20-something teacher was terrorized by the football team members into not teaching anything. The principal gave her permission to sit at her desk doing nothing for the entire semester. Not even an attempt to teach. I had a history teacher who didn't know history but thought she did and was very punitive about my questions, openly hostile and verbally abusive to me during class. I had a math teacher who gave me a C (because I never did homework), then changed my grade to A when I won the district math contest, all without any reference to my actual test scores. I had a principal who called me into his office and told me that he couldn't teach to suit me because he had to teach at a level appropriate to the rest of the students. This came out of a clear blue sky, since I had made no complaints and asked for nothing from him or my teachers.

    When I applied to college, I applied to only two schools. One was a public university which accepted me because I was a national merit scholar. The other rejected me, saying that because my school was new and an unknown quantity, they didn't know how to evaluate my transcript. In retrospect, I think that might have been their way of saying they doubted I had learned anything in my suburban school.

    The problems in our schools are a handy scapegoat for the struggles of individual students. Test scores (SAT, ACT) and supposed to give a student from a poor school a chance to show ability. They function that way for white students and for gifted minority students, but not for hard-working but less than brilliant black kids. With the help of a good school, those kids would succeed, just as their white peers do, but they don't get that chance when their schools suck.

    If schools need better teachers, they need to compete with the STEM disciplines for them, train them in something other than pedagogical philosophy and the newest education fads, and support them in the classroom until they learn to manage and control a group of unmotivated teens. Parents need to support the teachers instead of blaming them when their kids do poorly.

    I agree with this article that test scores mean nothing when schools are not properly staffed, but the kinds of material these kids are missing isn't what is on the standardized tests. They boil content down to core topics that should be available at a wide variety of schools. If an adult cannot teach that content, he or she doesn't belong in any classroom teaching any subject. A competent teacher should be able to read and understand a college level textbook at home and stay ahead of high school kids that way. A teacher who cannot do that is doubly unqualified.

    With all due respect to Mya, she isn't qualified to assess whether he teacher knows chemistry or not. High school kids something think a teacher doesn't know the subject when that teacher presents material in a way unfamiliar to them, different than a previous teacher. They are quick to judge, but that doesn't make them right.

    1. So Mya is not qualified to assess whether her teacher knows chemistry. But you are qualified to know you "had a history teacher who didn't know history but thought she did".

      Not only that, you were privy to decision about not to teach made between a young teacher and your principal.

      You're quite special.

    2. When a teacher calls you a communist for asking a question about an event described in a history book, you don't have to be "special" to question her competence.

    3. You are quick to judge Mya, but that doesn't make you right.

  5. Nice column and reader discussion of a rarely mentioned topic. This is why I read The Daily Howler just about daily...

  6. "On balance, nobody cares!"

    Proof being found in the comment box.