Good News and Bad News in Wisconsin

Here’s the bad news: Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on teacher’s rights in Wisconsin is no less than the new front in the culture war that’s raging all over America.  Along with the conservative majority’s attempts in Washington to defund and erase anything that sniffs of progressive idealism (i.e. Public Broadcasting, Planned Parenthood, Universal Health Care, and public parks in San Francisco), Walker and other conservatives are attempting to put teachers in their place.

Teachers have long been considered by social conservatives to be a bunch of liberal indoctrinators, infecting impressionable minds with crazy ideas like equality, self-determination, social justice and global responsibility. To some extent, there’s truth in this allegation. At the very core of the calling to teach is the impulse to affect change, to see children as the vessels of our highest understanding and to help them learn about the world they’re inheriting from us.  For many conservatives, this is a threatening truth and with all things that threaten the status quo, they seek to demonize, marginalize and ultimately squash it. See “Multiculturalism in Arizona.”

This is nothing new (I’m getting to the good news).  Socrates, perhaps the architect of best practices in Western Civilization, was convicted and executed by the Greek power structure for failing to “acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.” Galileo was sentenced to life in prison for challenging the conservative church authority in his day and suggesting the crazy idea that the earth moves. In 1950, no fewer than 400 public high school and university teachers were targeted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee for having Communist sympathies.  The FBI’s “Dissemination of Information Policy” saw fit to spread derogatory personal information about these teachers simply because a colleague or administrator mentioned them as possible agitators.

And so here was are again. Teachers, who by-and-large vote Democratic and generally lean left in their social and political attitudes are being cast as the scapegoat for our national crisis.  They are now being portrayed by the right as free loaders with a distorted sense of entitlement.  As Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity phrased it, the “pampered nature of these public employees is finally reined in.”  As a public school teacher I’ve felt a lot of things but I can honestly say that “pampered” has never been one of those. It sounds grim, doesn’t it? So what’s the good news?

Here’s the good news: the Socratic method is still being employed in schools and no one is forced to pray to Zeus anymore.  Galileo was right and we figured out how to reach the moon and beyond. McCarthy was proven to be a drunken ego-maniacal liar and it’s still legal to be a Communist, a Socialist, or an Environmentalist in America, even if your local Congressman doesn’t like the idea. In a nutshell, the power mongers of every generation try to impede the progress of human evolution.  Every attempt fails. This one will too.  That knowledge may not make it easier to accept the short term pain of pay cuts and insults, but it might give us a reason to keep fighting.



“Race to Nowhere:” An Educational Horror Movie

When my wife suggested making a date of seeing “Race to Nowhere,” I was initially reluctant. I knew enough about the film and its subject matter to know that this was not a feel-good flick and that after a day of working in a public school, it wasn’t going to feel like a pat on the back either.  But also knowing about the passion that my wife and I share for raising happy children, I figured the film would give us one more point of reference for making joint decisions for our own kid’s schooling.  I’m proud to say that I was right on all counts.

“Race to Nowhere” is an indictment of our current test-centered, data driven school systems.  It highlights the false promise of quantified academic “achievement” and the horrific toll it takes on children, teachers, and family life. The film is packed with examples of kids struggling through four, five, six hours of homework a night to keep pace with their peers.  It chronicles kids developing eating disorders, quitting sports teams they love, fighting with their parents, learning to cheat effectively, and hating every minute of their so-called learning. The movie interviews once-passionate teachers on the verge of resigning out of frustration and a sense of powerlessness. It was as depressing a movie as I’ve ever seen about education.  Having said that, everyone who has kids or plans to one day have kids should see this movie.

Among the difficult questions posed by the film is the question of how to move away from this disaster toward something more humane, more authentic and, most importantly, more healthy for our children. The fundamental obstacle seems to be our cultural insistence on quantifiable results and concrete proof.  Nothing happens in America without being tested, counted, measured, and replicated to insure its validity.  No one moves forward or backward without a number, a degree, or classification.  But trying to quantify a thing as subjective, multi-faceted, and complex as a child’s cognitive development is like trying to count stars. The very act of quantification dismisses what’s most important: that every child is unique, every intellect grows independently of its peers, and all the various gifts and competencies of children are valuable and important to that child.  To count and value only one way of knowing is to discount and devalue all the others.  We’re not leaving one child behind. We’re inadvertently leaving them all behind.

The movie offers no easy solutions, but arrives at the conclusion that it’s going to take bold and courageous steps by parents, teachers and administrators to break the cycle of dependence and move toward a process-based model as opposed to a product.  Parents need to educate themselves about the limited usefulness of homework and then work closely with teachers and PTOs to influence policy.  Teachers must resist the pressure to fall in line with district mandates that make AP scores and standardized test results the first and often only priority. They need to return to the practices and instincts that made them want to become teachers in the first place. Administrators and politicians need to let go of the myth that they’ve invested so much time and energy trying to validate: The myth that we can count all the stars and use statistics to prove that they’re shining.

If there was any encouraging aspect of the evening, it’s that 500 or more parents and teachers packed the auditorium to see this film.  Parents and teachers are beginning to assert themselves and seeing that the responsibility for our kids learning lies with them, and not with the school board.  Each individual in the community is a stakeholder in our public institutions and the administrators we elect and hire are accountable to us.  We have a right to be insistent, a right to be apply pressure, and when our voices fall on deaf ears, we have a right to dismiss those to whom we entrust our children.

And it all starts with you showing up for a meeting.

The Precarious Position of the Public School Teacher

Here’s a fact: In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a compulsory education law, requiring that every child be enrolled in school.  By 1918, every state had such a law, making public schools and public school teachers very necessary.

Here’s another: The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was first administered in 1926. It was designed to assess college preparedness in high school students, but was based largely on the Army Alpha and Beta Intelligence Test, which measured basic intelligence in military recruits during World War I.

Now here’s an opinion:

Public School teachers in America, and particularly here in my own state of Virginia, have recently been placed in the most precarious of positions. On the one hand, everyone seems to agrees that teachers are essential to the development of both the individual and the society; that the continued strength of our democracy depends on an educated populace; and that teaching is among the most “noble professions” on earth. On the other hand, evidence indicates that teachers are no longer trusted to define or determine what “education” looks like. From the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2005 to our current President’s “Race to the Top” initiative, politicians and school administrators have taken more and more control and autonomy from teachers in the classroom and replaced it with prescriptive notions of what children really need to be considered “highly educated.” The end result, naturally, is a watered down curriculum being administered by disempowered teachers to disconnected children and a downward spiral that all the well-intended tinkering of punitive laws and higher expectations cannot fix.  In a nutshell, both public school teachers and students have come to realize that they are little more than statistical notions for people who make a great living from creating statistical notions.  No one below the level of division administration has any real power and therefore, no one is truly invested and no one is really learning anything. To paraphrase most of our disconnected and disillusioned students, “this sucks.”

Over the past ten years teachers have been repeatedly told that they are now accountable for their student’s progress, as if they weren’t accountable all along.  Was there ever a time in our history when teachers weren’t held responsible for the success and failures of their students? If so, how did America become the standard barer for public education in the early 20th Century, the model from which every modernizing nation took note?  Was it an accident? The very suggestion that our education system is lagging as a result of teachers not being held accountable was enough of an insult to send the first wave of good teachers into the private sector. The ensuing efforts to compile skewed data to support that heinous allegation is driving away many others. The ones who have stayed do so simply because they still believe they can make a difference and that eventually this onslaught against the integrity of those who choose to teach will end. I hope that some day their optimism is rewarded.

Being a public school teacher over the past decade or so has become something like being on the popular reality show, “Survivor.” On that show, individuals are placed in hostile and unfamiliar environments, given tasks of increasing difficulty, and, when unable to complete them, are voted out of the game by the other contestants.  The game in the classroom goes something like this:

“Welcome, contestants. Here’s a room full of kids from disparate backgrounds, some are highly literate and well-adjusted, some come to us already stunted in their development through circumstances beyond our control.  Your task is to prepare all of them for a productive and satisfying life, developing their skills to make them good citizens, patriotic consumers, and informed participants in democracy. But wait, there’s a catch! All of your students must pass this battery of tests compiled by our producers, or YOU lose.  Wait, there’s more. The tests cover every subject, span four thousand years of human history, include specific factual content as well as skills, and are subject to revision EVERY YEAR.  The stakes are high, the pressures enormous. But if you succeed, you get to keep your job.”

Amazingly, the vast majority of teachers succeed.  Every year.  Pass rates of 90% or higher are not uncommon for schools in the county where I live.  Yeah us! We get to keep teaching. And the reward for our great work is astonishing.  Last year, teachers in Albemarle County were granted larger class sizes, more time teaching with less time for planning, cuts in stipends for extra-curricular coaching and sponsorship, another year of suspended pay raises, and a brand new schedule for high school teachers that a good bulk of research suggests make teaching and learning more difficult. On to the next round of our game.

Here’s one last fact mixed with an opinion:

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2005 was crafted as a revision of 1965’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This earlier legislation was passed as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” securing Federal funding for poverty stricken districts and minority students. ESEA lead to programs like Title 1 and the movement toward bilingual education.  What we in public education have been working against since 2005 is the systematic un-doing of that progressive movement in education.  While on its theoretical surface NCLB is an effort to promote equal access to education for all Americans, it is in practice a wedge between those who take up the work of public education and those who are still unwilling to pay for it.  By creating a complex and costly structure that paints teachers as the reason for our failure, it undermines the nobility of the profession. By creating a uniform vision of what education looks like, it guarantees that some will be deemed unsuccessful and justifies the vilification of teachers. And the most damaging aspect is that it objectifies the very children that we seek to further humanize, making them a product of some meat grinder that churns out diplomas and consumers. It’s shameful and sad and a death knell to true and meaningful education.

In Conclusion:

The problem is complex, but the solution seems quite simple.  Local administrators of public education need to shake off the shackles of federally mandated benchmarks and requirements.  The cost does not justify the reward. We have to find a way to redirect the energy and money spent on administering this ridiculous battery of arbitrary tests and fighting the negative consequences of submitting to this game. We need instead to spend these resources developing and retaining teachers who are innovative, compassionate, highly trained and accountable to their communities rather than to Washington accountants. If we did, we’d change the environment, the rules of the game, the culture, and most likely the end product for all of our kids and all of our teachers.  That would take some real audacity, audacity of the type that not even President Obama possesses, and nobody so far has proved to have that kind of courage. Until someone does, we’ll continue to watch our best teachers either leave or stay and be handcuffed.  We’ll see no real progress in our public schools and higher and higher enrollments in private schools by the dwindling number of families who can afford them.  If I were cynical, I might add that perhaps that is the end goal.  Yeah us. We win.

Is There Really Any Point to This?

O.K. I give up.  I’ve been resisting this urge to create a blog for a long time under the heavy sense that it’s a kind of linguistic narcissism, an extremely egotistical belief that I have anything to say of enough value that someone else would be interested in reading it.  But I can’t deny the pull.  It’s akin to the urge that I feel to scream at my radio when I listen to conservative talk shows (which I only do to make sure that my convictions are strong enough to stand the blunt trauma of slobbering neophytes telling me that my desire to be generous is going to destroy all that America stands for).  I, like so many other people I know, want to open the window and scream my beliefs or, as Walt Whitman put it,  to “sound my barbaric yalp from the rooftops of the world.”  Though I have to confess to an ulterior motive.

I used to keep a journal when I was a kid.  I think it ran fairly continuously from my 11th grade year of high school (that would have been 1982) to the first or second year of my present marriage (that would have been roughly 1996).  I learned a lot through that process.  Chiefly, I learned that I hadn’t changed much in those fourteen years, but I also gained a good deal of insight into myself and the world that surrounds me.  I’ve stopped journaling since then, probably because of all the time I spend on the computer.  So, as a remedy, I’ll now endeavor to journal again, though more publicly and on the computer.  I’m not so egotistical to think that anyone will ever actually read this.  In fact, I’ll likely get bored with the idea within a few weeks and stop writing altogether.  But for now, I’ll try to sit down here and post some observations for what life looks like mid-stream.

In the middle of my life, from the middle of the road, in the middle of a dizzying number and variety of projects and pastimes, I’ll share what I see, what I think, and what I hope to see in later half of this journey.  It could be fun, but probably not for anyone but me.

This is Me

"Middle-aged Version" This is me.  It’s always good to be able to put a face with a name (or at least a pseudonym) so here it is. This is the shell, the mold, the pinata filled with flavorless candy.  Please swing the stick gently.

This man in this picture used to have hair, but he started shaving his head the second he realized that it was falling out.  A master of his own destiny. I CHOOSE to be bald, damn it!

This man wears glasses but hates it.  He’s too cheap for lazer surgery and too impatient to wear contacts everyday.  Picture this man with a pair of old-school-high-school-gym-teacher frames from the 1950s and you’ll be up to speed.

This man took this picture of himself because he was told he needed a head shot for an audition that same day (after 12 years of retirement from acting) and his wife, who majored in photography at art school, wasn’t home to take it for him.

The man in this picture is growing increasingly uncomfortable with how old he is starting to look. He never really thought it would bother him, the whole aging thing.  But now here it is and every gray whisker in the beard is another reminder to him that his best days may be behind him.  It doesn’t depress him necessarily, but takes scrapes a little icing of the big sweet cake of everyday.