Interview with D.A. Russell, Author of Lifting the Curtain: the Disgrace We Call Urban High School Education

Thursday, September 18, 2014
School is a whole different experience these days. Some of the changes are good—no more paddle behind the principal’s desk—but some changes may not be so good. Today we’re talking to Don Russell, author of Lifting the Curtain: the disgrace we call urban high school education.

About Don Russell:

D.A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools used as an example in Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his master’s degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent.

Russell has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in his view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world.


Interview by Robyn Chausse

WOW: Don, I’ve heard that school is a different world now. I thought it would be good for all of us to get a glimpse “behind the curtain” into a child’s everyday experience.

One line I’ve heard from you really struck me: “Parents would not recognize school, compared to what they saw twenty years ago; in fact, it’s changed dramatically in the past five to ten years.” Why is it so different?

Don: That’s a great question to start with. The hardest challenge I found, while trying to get people to see what’s really hurting our children’s education, is that it’s very hard to believe that the system is in that much trouble. Almost none of these conditions existed to any extent back in the 90s.

Dramatic changes have occurred, both inside and outside the school over the last 10 years that strongly influenced the educational environment our children face. The external societal factors are a topic for another time, but look back just 10 years ago, and Columbine was thought to be a once-in-a-century horror. Bullying laws, peanut and latex allergies, and a host of societal issues had just started to be part of our consciousness. Yet every one of these, despite being “outside” the school building, impacted our children’s school life. As a father and teacher, one of the saddest things I see is his children who never seem to have the time to be children anymore.

Inside the schools everything changed. We have lockdown drills; children wear IDs and are under close supervision and security. Standardized testing dominates the curricula; many of the elective courses we parents enjoyed no longer exist because the time periods are used to prepare children to pass the state test. We have a host of assemblies on bullying, allergies, sex education, LGBT issues, etc., plus all the things that take teachers out of the class for half days, standardized tests, developing common core curricula, restraint training, etc…--all great things in and of themselves, but all now combining to take weeks out of the available classroom time. In both the survey and hundreds of interviews I did with teachers over a three-year period, teachers felt that nearly half the children’s classroom time now is spent in non-teaching duties mandated by career DOE (Department of Education) bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, pressure to pass and graduate all students is so intense that the education in every urban high school has been dumbed down to ensure the school is not put under state sanctions. The bulk of the curricula is centered only on what is expected to be seen on the state standardized tests. More than half the children in a standard urban high school education class are on IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), and almost every IEP written in the last two years includes the motivation-destroying accommodation of unlimited retakes for any failed test, and the motivation-sapping accommodation that the student “... gets an A for doing 50% of the work expected of the rest of the class.”

Children are so much smarter than the educational system allows. They get it. Long before they get to high school they figure out the game. The system doesn’t expect them to do well, and will pass them regardless of effort. It’s no surprise that the average urban high school student today averages less homework in an entire week than his parents did in one night--a total of 1.5 hours. Our system actively undermines motivation and effort.

WOW: Wow, that’s a lot of information in one answer! What impact, if any, have all these policies had on our children’s arts and cultural studies?

Don: You’ve hit upon yet another unintended consequence that shortchanges our children. In almost every school I researched, the children had one or two classes each term dedicated to helping pass standardized testing--often one for both English and for Math. Many schools are starting to look at adding more such “test preparation” classes for bio, chemistry, and history as those topics become part of standardized testing.

So do the math--who loses when 2-3 of a day’s classes are tied up with remedial training? A typical school has just 5-6 classes per day. If two (and soon to be more than two) are for additional Math and English training to help with passing standardized tests, where is there room for electives anymore? Where is there a space for creative writing? For law? For small business issues? For psychology? For that matter, where is there a slot for band, art, home economics, study hall, or carpentry?

WOW: What about touching? Thankfully the paddles are gone, but you mentioned in your book that the rules for teachers are so strict now that teachers can not comfort a child or break up a fight. Can you enlighten us on this?

Don: The fear of litigation, and even worse the “inappropriate touching label” (more on that in a minute) is so powerful that teachers now must, by mandate, avoid any form of touching at all. We cannot comfort a sobbing child with an arm around his/her shoulder, we cannot stop a fight if it means we make any physical contact before blood is actually flowing, and we can never return a hug from a child.

The over-reacting mandates force teachers to appear as uncaring and aloof. I wonder if any parent realizes how bad that looks to a child who is hurting and sees a teacher appear not even interested. I wonder what parents would think, while rightly and strongly guarding their children, if a teacher is told to stand aside and let a fight continue, and never step in “…until there are signs of serious injuries.”

That approach is mandated--the topic an annual ½ day out-of-class refresher course in “restraint training” for all teachers; the whole focus is on avoiding lawsuits for “inappropriate touching” rather than focus on the well-being of our children. One of the most callous and heartless things I have ever heard came from the speaker in one of those meetings, “…for your own protection, if there is no blood showing, wait,” and “…a child never is a danger to themselves by punching a wall or throwing a chair across the room.” And in addition to lawsuits, a label of “inappropriate touching” is a stigma that will instantly destroy an innocent teacher’s reputation forever.

When I surveyed hundreds of students, it was ironic that “teachers” were both the best thing about school, and the worst. When I followed up with dozens in post-survey interviews, the “best” teachers turned out to be the ones seen as caring and passionate about the kids--despite the system. We need to change this part of the system with “limited liability protection” for teachers who “touch” a child only in the context of stopping fights, or comforting a distressed child. It is one of the strongest recommendations in my book--not to protect the teachers, but to let the teachers protect and care for the children.

WOW: Thank you so much for joining us today, Don, and for sharing so much information!

What Do You Think? Have schools changed for the worse? Should there be equal time for The Arts? Are there enough rules or too many? We want to hear you…so please leave your comments.

Don’t Miss It: Margo Dill’s Review of Lifting the Curtain and Book Giveaway Here!

Visit Don Russell’s blog and FaceBook page to join in discussions, view illustrations from his book, and enter even more giveaways!


Margo Dill said...

I didn't cover this in my review but I completely agree that ARTS need to stay in the school. This is often the reason why you can keep kids in school and trying hard--because they can't wait to get to art or be in the musical or go to band. It's sad, but thank goodness there are people like Don who are bringing up these issues and starting conversations!

Robyn Chausse said...

I agree, Margo. Not only do the "fun" activities keep kids in school, I feel that creative thought is just as important as logical thought...or even more so. Creativity teaches thinking outside the box and problem solving skills. Art builds self-esteem. And "creative" classes go well with with the required classes, especially math and chemistry.

Don R said...

I was really glad when Robyn asked that question. It was a HUGE oversight to not have that as one of the three major problems listed in the book under "Systematic Failure #1: unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation. It will be a major addition in the next edition.

The loss of so many electives is painful to watch for the students. They miss out on some of the most important parts of the school I enjoyed back in the day (the mid 1800's for me). Today, with the complex changes in society, those electives are even more important than in their parents day -- to give them a perspective on today's world.

Thank you WoW and Robyn for asking that important question!

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