Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Teacher, Teacher, I Declare...

After I posted Preying on Human Misery on May 3, which was critical of the way the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation often  unwittingly supports the labeling of acting-out kids as having brain disorders, one of the people associated with the organization wrote me an angry e-mail.  It took note of the question I had posed, "Why would any parent want their child to be labeled with a brian disorder?"   I was told in no uncertain terms that no parent would ever want this, just as no parent wants their child to be labeled with a life threatening illness. 

In my e-mail reply, I said: "Of course many parents resist the drugs, thank goodness, but other parents we see everyday in our clinics demand both the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the drugs, and when told their children do not need drugs, they go elsewhere.  Are you aware of this?  It’s also happening all over the country.  Your statement that there are no parents who want their children to be diagnosed with a brain disorder is demonstrably incorrect.  And I am not even including the parents who coach their children to act certain ways in order to get what are known as 'crazy checks' from the government." 

Parents who insist that their children are diseased in this manner, often with the backing of a mental health professional, tend to want to blame all of their family's problems on everything and anything but themselves. 

We are seeing another example in schools, in which today's parents may blame "bad teachers" for all of the academic and disciplinary failings of their children.  Stories abound about how teachers, when they send home notes describing problematic behavior in one of their students, are met with irate parents who defend their child, verbally attack the teacher, and are willing to complain about the teacher's "outrageous prejudice" against their darling child to the school principal or even to the district superintendent.  Several commentators have pointed out that, in the good old days, such a child would be punished at school and then later again at home.  The parents believed the teacher's side of the story, and never became so damn defensive.

Frighteningly,  the theme of never holding parents to account for their children's behavior has been picked up by politicians of both political parties, as they attempt to "fix" our "broken down" educational system.  In the case of politicians, however, there may be a second motive behind just catering to the prejudices of the electorate.  One must wonder if the "blame the teacher" movement is designed to destroy public schools.  This issue was covered nicely in a recent op-ed column by Bill Maxwell (

"No Child Left Behind, for all intents and purposes, is a blueprint for blaming teachers and making the privatization of our public schools more palatable by offering charter schools as the panacea.  Now President Barack Obama has succumbed to the Blame the Teacher Syndrome with his Race to the Top program. A mainstay of the program is improving public education by rewarding or punishing teachers when their schools do or do not close the so-called achievement gap...'Whenever data is generated by any credible source, the correlation between poverty and educational achievement is so strong it is impossible for any unbiased individual to ignore,' writes Jack Random of, an online newsletter. 'When schools are ranked according to quality, those on the top of the list are invariably wealthy and predominantly white while those at the bottom are invariably poor with high proportions of minorities.'"

The politicians' idea is that teachers might actually lose their jobs if their classes' performance on standardized tests does not improve - as if teachers are magically in control of just how motivated to learn the students assigned to them are.  Aside from the lack of wisdom of using standardized tests (which lead to "teaching to the test," a lack of emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills, as well as outright cheating in order to compete), this idea clearly turns teachers into scapegoats.   While there are no doubt incompetent teachers, I highly doubt that they are concentrated in the poorest performing schools.  For that to be true, it would have to have been planned that way. 

Well, come to think of it, maybe it has been planned that way to some degree. The most inexperienced teachers are often sent to work in the most difficult districts, especially in an economic environment in which thousands of teachers have been laid off nationwide - usually with the most senior teachers having, well, seniority. The experienced teachers not only get to keep their jobs, they often have had a chance to land the best school assignments. 

When you combine that process with the way schools are funded using local property taxes, so the schools in the poorest districts have often had the fewest resources, you can see why some minorities get paranoid that the government is conspiring to "keep them in their place."

I propose that we test the proposition that teachers are to blame for the poor performance of their students on standardized tests.  After one year, we should have the schools with the lowest and highest test averages trade faculties.  That way, after a second year, we can see if the supposedly "better" teachers did much better with what are probably the most difficult students, and if the test scores of the students of the supposedly "bad" teachers declined significantly.  Anyone wanna bet on the outcome?


  1. The question you posed to the CABF lady was why would someone want this label? The question I would pose is why would someone "accept" this label. We can probably all agree that nobody would "want" this label, but then when you are handed this label, why would somebody accept it, given that there is plenty of information out there if someone is willing to investigate that refutes the idea that there is something deficient about the brain. Then there is the question, why would you "believe" this label, again given that there is so much information that contradicts the diseased brain model of mental illness. Why would you join a club like CABF that tells you it is all so hopeless? My only guess is that it lets the parents off the hook from ever doing a little self-examination. The CABF letter writer described herself as "as very good mother." That immediately raises a red flag with me because it is something that she wants to believe about herself. By saying this, she has built a wall around herself and will not be inclined to be self-reflective. She feels threatened. She also mentions that her children were initially anxious, which is why she took them to the psychiatrist in the first place. Huge hint that had family dynamics been worked on at that time, the outcome today might have been different. There is a book that came out earlier this year called "After Her Brain Broke" by a mother who has drunk the kool-aid, which is indicated by the title. What I really objected to about the book was how unwilling the mother was to admit that anything was less than perfect in the family, and how ready she was to subject her daughter to countless drugs. She refused to believe in another possibility, another way, even when it was raised. So, while most people wouldn't "want" it, many people "accept" it and refuse to "believe" in a more positive scenario. Sorry for the long-winded e-mail, but the teacher thing also rings a bell. It seemed like many of my neighbors claimed they were the type of parents who put the teachers first like it was in the old days, but they always took their child's side, complained about the teachers in front of their children, and schemed to get special treatment for their children.

  2. Rossa -

    Many people eagerly accept the "label" as you say, but there are bunch of folks who are actively seeking it. It's easy to find these days.

  3. I'm not sure that blaming parents makes any *more* sense than blaming teachers/schools. For one thing, IQ is pretty strongly heritable.

    Surely the school environment is somewhat more malleable than either the child's aptitude or the parental behavior?

  4. You have mentioned "crazy checks" frequently. You singled out Alabama as being notorious for this. What benefit do the parents get from this. Is there some kind of financial incentive? I have noticed that parents don't seem to mind having their child labelled ADD or ADHD, or verbal processing deficit, or whatever, because it gets their child special treatment (extra time on tests), but what's the incentive with bipolar?

  5. Rossa,

    It was Arkansas, actually, which is right next door to Memphis where I am so I had heard that the state was a "crazy checks" hotbed. I'm guessing it's a national phenomenon, but I don't know if it goes by different names elsewhere.

    Yes, there is a considerable finacial incentive.

    In this welfare scam, the parents coach their kids to act really hyper to get them on Social Security Disability. It is apparently extremely easy to fool psychiatrists who don't ask too many questions. The parents then collect the money.

    There is also a huge spike in adults who are misdiagnosed as bipolar getting on Social Security Disability with their psychiatrist's assistance, and they are not really disabled to the degree that they are supposed to be in order to qualify for SSI.

    Your hard earned tax dollars at work!

  6. Rossa and David,

    I am in total agreement with all that you both expressed. It is a painful reality that I must continue to examine myself and my parenting. It is also a blessing. As parents, we have the biggest impact on our children, whether this is perceived by them in a positive or negative way, and to what degree, has everything to do with this.

    I am a survivor and so are my sons. It astounds me the level of ignorance so many parents have about the very issues Dr. Allen wrote about in this article. I must have skipped reality the day these folks determined that a public education meant reading every day, doing homework every day, actively participating in this process was no longer necessary. And now they are wondering why and conclude it has nothing to do with their own actions?

    I did not believe it when I was told that a diagnosis of what was then called, manic depression; I did not believe it when my son was diagnosed with "early onset schizophrenia."

    What truly disturbs me is what these shifts in our society mean. Fundamentally, it means that people are not only abdicating responsibility for interpersonal relationships, but now they have a profession whose unethical practitioners encourage them to medicate, don't investigate. A determinant factor is obviously going to be this the primary relationship children experience with their parents. It is where the hard wiring takes place in the interpersonal relationship with our children.

    The poor teachers are experiencing the effects of parental apathy, and are being educated by the same media machine the parents are. Which is why I keep hearing stories and finding in print cases where schools are insisting that children be medicated.

    It is sad indeed when the outcome is not always what is portrayed by advocacy groups. I have yet to see a NAMI video done by a survivor who was gravely harmed, elevated to hero status. Or a warning about the very real risks inherent in giving their child pharmaceutical speed!

  7. Rossa,

    As one who has greatly struggled with learning disabilities which can include a verbal processing deficit before I ever touched a crumb of psych meds, I can assure you that students with LD getting extra time in school is not special treatment.

    If someone with visible disabilities was getting this accommodation, you wouldn't call it special treatment. Why are invisible disabilities treated differently?

    I don't disagree that some parents seek this diagnosis for their kids for the wrong reason. But to imply that LD isn't legitimate when correctly diagnosed, is simply unfair.

    Speaking of SSI, another possibility for the huge increases is that due to the lack of services for adults with learning disabilities, autism, and other related invisible disabilities is that parents don't see other options. So out of fear that their kids won't have any financial resources, they feel that something is better than nothing even though SSI is quite low.

    Sadly, in this era of state budget cuts, I don't see this changing.