If I pull a Steve Poizner…

I heard a fascinating story today about Steve Poizner, his teaching stint and subsequent book, on my favorite radio show, This America Life. Before you continue reading, I urge you to go listen (it’s the first act of the show). It will be a half hour well spent, I promise.

. . . . . . . . . . . (30 minute break while you go listen to the show) . . . . . . . . . . .

OK, in case you didn’t go listen <a href=”insert guilt trip here”>, here’s a brief summary. Steve Poizner, high tech entrepreneur, hella-millionaire, conservative candidate for California governor this year, taught a U.S. Government class for one semester at Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose in 2002. His book, “Mount Pleasant: My Journey From Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School,” published this year, has met with some resistance from those who say he has mischaracterized the school and its neighborhood as a “rough-and-tumble.”

Let me first say clearly that I have not read Steve Poizner’s book, but I will try to rectify that soon. Whether Steve Poizner intentionally inflated facts to sensationalize his book is not clear–he does sound very genuine during his interview with Ira Glass. My initial reaction is that (1) it’s a case of confirmation bias, and (2) it’s very tempting to bend facts for more dramatic story telling.

Confirmation bias is the tendency that people (including me) have to assimilate evidence that confirms what they already believe, even if that evidence is inconsistent, from a source with poor authority, or just plain false. Steve Poizner argues in favor of charter schools in this book and he co-founded the California Charter Schools Association in 2003 (just after his teaching stint), so it seems to me that he would naturally favor evidence suggesting that our public schools are failing and irreparable, since that is one of the tenets of the charter school movement.

But whether Steve Poizner intentionally cherry-picked statistics and exaggerated to sensationalize or not, I can really relate to that temptation to sensationalize while writing this blog. The vast majority of you reading this blog do not know where I’m teaching and I’ve often felt tempted to bend the facts, or at least dwell on the negative aspects of my school, so as to make for more drama. If I am guilty of “pulling a Steve Poizner,” I hope you, my friends, will call me on it. At least you can rest assured that I am neither a millionaire, nor am I going to run for governor anytime soon.

Here’s what I found most disturbing about Ira Glass’s story:

“[Glass speaking]…the conclusion Poizner comes to–again and again during these scenes–isn’t that he’s doing anything wrong or has anything to learn as a teacher. Instead, he blames the kids. They’re tough, they’re unmotivated, they lack ambition, they’re wired differently.”

Hmmm…  If that’s true, that’s a bad thing. It’s a teacher’s job to try to motivate students, and teachers (dare I say, even politicians) must be life-long learners. I’m a first-year high-school teacher and I run up against my failings as a new teacher every day. I could do a much better job caring about students, designing lessons and materials that will motivate them, being patient with them. After one year of teaching, I have a better idea of what it is to teach high school mathematics in Los Angeles, but there is still so much more I need to learn about teaching.

. . . . .

Final shout-out: Many thanks to DM for a helpful chat about confirmation bias!

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