The Problem? Teachers! The Solution? Anything but Teachers!

This morning I enjoyed an engaging discussion regarding schools, students and teaching.  The discussion was prompted by televised (and somewhat predictable) “Town Halls” on MSNBC.  I have to give them props – they are the only news channel focusing energy on a discussion about education in America through their Education Nation effort.  But the best part of the discussion wasn’t on the television, it was the social engagement made possible through Twitter.  Teachers and others watching first the Student Town Hall and then the Teacher Town Hall all tweeted their thoughts and concerns as part of a really important conversation.

I’ve been a high school classroom teacher for the better part of a decade – it was my second career and I came to it later than many teachers.  Currently, I am one of those many thousands of teachers who lost their positions in budget cuts that have swept the country during this Great Recession.  This week I had my first experience substituting in my old school.  The teaching part, being in the classroom with the students, was energizing and wonderful (it never fails to inspire me to be in a classroom).  But the general experience in the school wasn’t a pleasant experience.  It was probably mostly my ego, but it didn’t feel good to have gone from a veteran teacher, VP of my union local, initiator and trainer for our peer mediation program, to an anonymous person in the halls that people didn’t recognize — or if they did, couldn’t place me (because, gee, I’ve been gone a full year now).  I didn’t know any of the kids in the halls and I felt extremely displaced.  There is a special energy and identity that goes with being a teacher – your home is as much in those halls as it is in your own kitchen.  The phrase “my kids” extends beyond your own children to the hundreds of young people you have spent time with, nurtured and loved through their education experience.  Some of my “kids” are now graduated from college and are my friends and colleagues.  It was hard to be in the halls without those connections.

It is a unique profession where the professionals are disrespected by their elected representatives, misunderstood (and often castigated) by the public, often ignored and unsupported by their administrators and institutions, and expected to work 80-100 hours a week for ten months of pay a year –that doesn’t even reach the lower end of the professional pay scale for people with similar education and experience.  It is a unique profession where the attempt to organize and speak as a unit on behalf of the conditions their students have to learn in, the lack of protections in the work place, the uncompensated hours of work, and the lack of support in aid of each new “reform” that comes down the pike, translates to them being “union thugs” and “moochers” on society.
It is a unique profession where the professionals see their counterparts in other countries given the same status as doctors and lawyers and banking professionals, but here see their value reduced to inconvenient roadblocks to the privatization and profiteering of education.

I probably sound a bit cynical.  Being a public school teacher can do that to you.  But having taught in the biggest (most overcrowded), highest poverty school in my state AND a brief stint in one of the most privileged schools, it is clear that there is still no structural political will to actually support equity in public schooling.  And that’s what frustrates me about the kinds of conversations that took place today on MSNBC.  Inevitably, the new trend in school “reform” is to root out the bad teachers and raise standards through high stakes testing (in my state this consists of high pressured exams that are required to get a high school diploma and funding for schools).  The latter “reform” is now seen as a tool to take care of the first problem: by evaluating teachers based on their students’ scores, this seems to policy makers an easy metric by which to cleanse the public school system of educators who aren’t performing.

But here are just a few questions that popped into my mind during this discussion about which I still hear no real conversation (mostly from a high school perspective):

  • What provisions can be made to provide consistent and effective professional training to make sure that teachers continue to improve in their field?  How can evaluations support teachers rather than intimidate and get rid of them?
  • How are high school teachers realistically meant to bring students up to expected levels for graduation while most districts still enact social promotion for middle school (based on the last era of “reform”)?  Students enter high school having failed every class for two years, never learned important skills, gained knowledge, nor understand the value of their own education – not to mention how to read and do math.
  • How does the expectation that teachers will stay in constant contact with parents, and use their out of school hours to pursue those contacts, account for high school teachers with 200+ students and student work to manage?
  • How will using testing as part of teacher evaluations work for teachers who teach subjects not tested?  What is a fair and equitable way to manage this issue?
  • How are evaluations meant to improve if administrators aren’t consistently engaging with teachers and students in the classroom beyond once or twice a year pro-forma observations that give no real feedback?
  • How do we train our teachers, administrators and policy makers to understand the systemic impact of poverty so that true reform takes into account the pervasive inequalities that are simply overlooked by testing mandates?
  • Why are ELL and special needs children included in the testing mandates for schools — is there not a way that reform could include effective mainstreaming without putting the pressure of high stakes testing on the most vulnerable students?
  • How do more national mandates jive with keeping funding at state levels? There is no equitable way to fund education mandates if left to the states.  Funding ranges from $16,000 per student spent in NY down to $6000 per student in Utah.  With continued falling revenue in states because of income tax lowering due to unemployment, how will the pressure to add more mandates be funded?

I have more questions than this, obviously, but these are just basic ones I still have yet to hear in a national conversation about how to help our schools.

But nothing about the schools can be solved until we solve the underlying social question the country faces in this election: are we a society that cares for each other and the general welfare or are we just the haves and have-nots and that’s the way it will stay?  Are we a society willing to contribute to the equity of opportunity and result in order to benefit the whole?  Are we a society that cares more about investment in our future than indulging our need for instant gratification? This is a question about our civic society and what we believe we are capable of.

I will never forget going to see Al Gore speak after the release of his second book, Our Choice.  The reality, he said, was that people switching light bulbs won’t solve the problem.  Until our government has the will to implement true change and FUND it, we will not stop the onset of global climate change and all the dangers it will bring.  The same is true of education in America.

I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Jonathan Kozol a few years ago.  He told the story of testifying before the Education Committee in the Senate.  At one point, Senator Kennedy interrupted him and said, “Mr. Kozol, it sounds like you just want Congress to throw money at schools.”  Kozol responded, “Well, yes.  That’s exactly what I want.”

We can blame the teachers until there are no more quality teachers left to provide a free and universal education in this country.  But until there is a political will to actually care about and provide for our schools, then nothing can truly change. That political will is pushed into place by the civic pressure of citizens.  Unfortunately those citizens are now caught in the false debate between whether teachers are mooching off society or people should be given vouchers to abandon their local schools.  We can do better.






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