Part II: The Foundations of the Current Attack

Disclaimer: The following contains dangerous levels of snark, truth, critical thinking and smart-aleck-nish

So what are teachers responsible for? Well…teaching, of course.

I didn’t ever get around to answering that question when it was posed on a few occasions by a few of the more adamant and outspoken critics of public schools, teachers, unions (a.k.a. the triple threat stealing the futures from our families and their children). So I answer it here: teachers are responsible for teaching.

The subject of my Part I centered on that question and the unwillingness for some education reformer/activists to acknowledge any other influence but teachers in student outcomes (there are other significant influences), or anything other than standardized tests scores as the proper measure of desirable outcomes (there are plenty of other ways to measure a desirable outcome ). In these reformer/activist narratives poverty is no more than an excuse, teacher perverts get protected by their unions, they get paid the big bucks to sit in “rubber rooms” while they wait for well-deserved disciplinary action, and taxpayers want to know things that teachers don’t want them to know…and so on. While much of the propaganda the foot-soldiers of reform come armed with contains kernels of truth, these folks and their talking points are not the real threats. To know what we are really up against, (and that “we” means children/families/communities/schools/the mission of public education and any who take on that mission…) it is essential to look past the minions and behind the curtain to ask:

  1. Where did this recent brand of reform, common standards and accountability begin, who is driving it-and why?
  2. How do people with virtually no experience in the profession become so important, respected, and influential in determining the direction of public education?

Here’s where I do what I love: I will handle these two questions “Last In First Out” (LIFO) style…So, low-seniority easy answer to number 2 first: Well-connected Poindexters, and gobs and gobs of money that leverage policy and power away from the efforts of less wealthy and powerful others- even away from truth and common sense. Like how people with no experience in battle get commissioned to lead real soldiers into real battle.

And now, the more deeply experienced, intuitive and capable answer to the question with seniority (that’s the “First In”, number 1):

The education reform we are seeing currently was conceived and nurtured as described in the answer to number 2: carefully planned and coordinated, built upon an intricate foundation of money, strategy and artifice. Done while schools and teachers battled the economic and social forces existing outside of their classrooms (but brought to school in echoes and ripples that inevitable show up in the learners), the reformers had the advantage of already weakened and discontented victims plus the time to focus on their attack while the target was otherwise occupied. Still, how it was done took considerable resources, the ability to craft an image and a plot line, make a movie, paint a picture…sometimes even sing a song!

Inspired by some examples of song parody I saw recently, I picked up my guitar and went to work:

School Kids (you better take care) Sung to the tune of ‘Sundown’, by Gordon Lightfoot

Coleman never taught but thinks his standards fit

for students in a world that doesn’t give a shit

(Chorus) School kids, you better take care, if they get their way your local schools won’t even be there.

Attacked our public schools and they made a mess

They planned in private rooms things they won’t confess.

(Chorus)School kids, you better take care If they have their way your local schools won’t even be there.

School kids, I think it’s a sin if testing is the only game it’s one you can’t win

It would be kind of cute and funny if we weren’t talking about communities, families, learners (both young and old), schools… but we are. Our nation has been led for too long by people who continue to sacrifice the needs and opportunities of the many in order to empower the few-perpetuating ever-worsening inequity. With this approach being the true “status quo”, and suddenly faced with a post-economic crash crisis, our nation’s leaders in the 2008-2011 range had a choice: 1) work to truly reform our economy and put some accountability and some constraints on those that had been previously unzipped- only to then dangle and “trickle down” all over the lower classes below; or 2) circle the wagons around the tricklers, protect and reward them and find someone else to blame…a scapegoat for the sorry state of our affairs.

Well, scapegoat it was! But first, imagine my excitement in August of 2011, when President Obama spoke these words.

“If everybody took an attitude of shared sacrifice, we could solve our deficit and debt problem next week,” 

I thought “Yeah, Wall Street, the president will be taking some sacrifice from you now! THAT’S the ‘hope and change’ he was talking about!”

But hopes are for dopes, it seems, and the “education reform” tank had already been rolling a few years by the time the president spoke those words. Maybe the sacrifices he was thinking of when he said them was more about children, schools, opportunities for students in our communities, because instead of sacrifice for the obscenely wealthy and politically powerful (continuing to enjoy only the best in education and opportunity), the president preached bonuses for banks “too big to fail” (even though they had already failed) and pushed the sacrifice for others (even though they were continually sacrificing already). Public employees, public schools, pensions, teachers… all those folks needed to work harder, expect less, be more accountable…Especially our schools and our teachers.

So the common core standards appeared and promised to force our failing schools to get all students ready for the promise of all that expensive college and all those high paying careers waiting for them.

If anyone wants to sprinkle a little reality seasoning  on the BS pie we were sold on the “state led/educator led” creation of the new learning standards, you don’t need too many keystrokes beyond the names of David Coleman, Arne Duncan and Bill Gates to see where the money and the plan came from, and then how policy was bent to make it appear as if it was a more grass-roots/state-led effort. The best short-story version goes like this:

  1. Between 2009 to 2011, 45 States adopted Common Core. Not a single State allowed a vote of the people on the standards that would determine the future of their children. Most legislators never even read the Common Core standards.
  2. In July of 2009, Bill Gates says:

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large uniform base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.

A mere month before, in June of 2009, the National Governors Association (NGA) had announced that 46 states had already committed to the new standards. This seemed unusual because the NGA had just met to discuss how to use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, Race To The Top (RTTT, the Obama administration’s signature education funding program tied to commitment to the new standards) wouldn’t even be announced until July of that year, and the standards themselves would not even be completed until 2010.

Yet the standards were a done deal, Gates was envisioning uniform consumers and an unleashed edu-market, and nearly every state in the union was committed. This is about the time my children began to refuse to take high-stake state tests. There was officially no “opt out” option in NY, and I don’t like wishy-washy “no thanks” for this…just “no”.

But let’s get back to the money behind the mind and more from Gates in October 2011 on how enlightened he suddenly was at how ignorant educators are:

It may surprise you—it was certainly surprising to us—but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

What Gates doesn’t realize is exactly the thing that Coleman, Duncan, Obama (John King, Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee…) don’t as well-or just do not want to admit. You know good teaching and good teachers when you see them, when you are lucky enough to have them, when you see and hear from kids who have or had them. Same goes for bad teachers, but here’s the thing: good for one student might not be for another-same goes for bad. Best practices are the ones needed in the moment, and they might change in the very next moment. Exceptional teachers are capable of reaching a wide variety of student types in the same room at the same time. There are also teachers I have known that make me wonder why they went into teaching. But there is no statistical metric or standardized test that can reliably define the great teaching that happens every day, in every school. “…we are not consistent in what we’re looking for.” is a concerning statement to come from someone whose money and influence drives the teaching profession while being disconnected from the reality that people are not consistent or standard, and a real teacher’s skills and achievement are not cookie-cutter.

Lest anyone believe that these powerful people “reforming” the schools of everyone else’s children don’t really know what is going on in the world…let’s go to an older, wiser and more truthful Bill Gates in a 2014 article titled Yes, robots really are about to take your jobs. The same Bill Gates that lauded the salvation that standards, testing and market forces would bring to public education did an interview acknowledging the eroding opportunities for students…not because of the failures of schools but because of the nature of those same unleashed market forces.

As for what governments should do to prevent social unrest in the wake of mass unemployment, the Microsoft cofounder said that they should basically get on their knees and beg businesses to keep employing humans over algorithms… And it’s not just “low-skilled” workers who will have to worry about automation…The Economist predicted that high-paying jobs such as accountants, real estate sales agents and commercial pilots would all lose their jobs to software within the next 20 years.

I’d say the writing was on the wall regarding this path to opportunity-destruction starting with the presidency of Reagan (apologies to the true patriots reading this while bowing to his portrait in your shrine/safe-room stocked three month’s supply of potable water, canned goods and all the guns you’ll need when the socialists come for them). I am not sure that the efforts and the investments that have made in the name of education reform are intended to do much more than create efficiently stamped out victims of this future.

As we have begun to see, though, “citizens united” means something totally different when it is actually proud citizens united for a good cause and willing to say so-as opposed to wealth hiding behind the anonymity and technicalities of non-profit status in order to sway the political process. Like the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, but with fewer bongos and more soap, the “opt out movement” has sprung up out of the fertile soil of underfunded schools and limited opportunities. Parents are ticked off, and you can sell it as union activism but teachers unions have been woefully complacent and late to the real game. More politics and less activism has been a recipe for weakness and I stopped reading as soon as I saw leadership take credit for activism that was truly born on the streets and in the homes of parents who have had enough.

So how did it ever come to this? Why did we have to tolerate politicians disrespecting us, tech giants and geeks who never taught claiming any credibility to know teaching and how to judge it…what sort of cake walk, shock-and-awe, stay-the course lingo/nonsense was used to sell and win acceptance of a test centered (as opposed to learner-centered) “education reform”? What slogan could you possibly slap on such an approach and then sell to a nation?

Next, Part III: “College and Career Ready”

I will be getting sappy and personal, and throwing down some more song parody as well, as I describe how schools have actually failed us, and why real unions will be more important to us than ever. I’ll try to be less about poo-nuggets and Poindexters, but it’ll be some serious stuff so I’ll have to lighten it here and there.

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Part I: Good lord, when did these fools become the supposed experts?

I have made promises to give warnings and disclaimers, so this will serve as both:

The following contains mild snark, intentionally made-up silly words, unfortunate metaphorical imagery, and somewhat balanced perspective born out of a drive to be more honest than ideological. Reader discretion is advised.

Part I: Good lord, when did these fools become the supposed experts?

So what are teachers responsible for? I’m a teacher, and have been asked that by people who themselves tweet, post, describe, posit and blog regarding what they have learned about teaching through their efforts to travel, talk and write. They visit schools, attend school reform celebrations, talk to some teachers and students, read articles about schools and teaching… Sometimes I’m communicating with those who have had a child in some school somewhere, at some point in time. They may have even gone to school at some point, or served on a school board or even committed to the obligatory two or three-year classroom stint that pads a resume, lends a pinch of street-cred and paves the way to non-profit edu-activism (and the right to banter about teaching and teachers at one of those reform celebrations). I don’t think they really wonder what teachers are responsible for, though-they think they have that one all figured out.

One time I was even asked “So what exactly are you as a teacher responsible for?” The “exactly” was thrown in as emphasis in an increasingly frustrated attempt to show that my suggesting other strongly correlated  influences on students’ academic achievement was me avoiding the issue of my own or other teachers’ incompetence and unwillingness to accept responsibility.  This same person went on to press me on “pedagogy”, enjoying the use of one of his new educational-istic words, but having no grasp on what it actually means in practice-when it needs to be present and accounted for in a real teacher’s toolbox. It could be he believed there was one standard approach to poor black students, and if I was unable to name that approach I publicly failed his pedagog-ery litmus test. Meanwhile, I was suggesting that every child is an individual and that part of pedagogy is the ability to flex and change educational strategies as needed and on the spot, based on the educational needs of the individual and not limited by skin color or social status. He was still more interested in swinging the “gotcha” stick than exploring an “each child is an individual” position and the broad brush accusations and no-win question strategy is one utilized by traditional school undermine-ers all the time. It isn’t a strategy they handle well when it is turned back on them, though.

But that’s for later. First: pedagogy.

An understanding of educational theory, approach, methods and practice…All this and more is part of pedagogy. True depth and understanding in these areas (the areas that help strengthen a pedagogical foundation) is reached when you have and are faced with the growing variety and severity of challenges students bring to the classroom on a daily basis. For me, personally, I had a typical liberal-arts path through undergrad, but loaded up on as much psychology as I could. I have always been fascinated by human development and especially how the mind works and how different people learn differently (as well as how behavior and behavior modifications can influence the process).  The well-funded campaign against traditional, democratically run community schools includes a strategy of avoiding and denying any of that messy stuff-at least when it comes to being respectful of the job teachers do.

No fools, though, the school choice being sold is intentionally limited-pedagogically speaking. It operates by filtering more involved parents and compliant students away from challenging mixed-ability classrooms. Homogenized into a setting where surprises, behaviors and distractions can be minimized-student test scores are more likely to increase because they are freed from the mix of challenges in the traditional education setting. I will never say that I don’t appreciate even one child who realizes better outcomes, regardless of the setting that inspires those outcomes, but let’s be honest about “choices” and who is doing the real heavy lifting. Not all students are capable of conforming to the ultra-strict behavior codes imposed in many choice schools, and not all parents wait teary eyed for a chance to be involved in either their child’s academic success, or to be the focus of a carefully directed camera shot in a dramatically scored scene…you know-while they wait for Superman.

Did I just “Guggenheim” that one a little…you know, take an issue and totally dramatize and blow it out of proportion to forward an agenda?

An approach to education born out of that type of planning, investment and careful production is led by those who actually understand a very particular type of pedagogy very well, don’t get me wrong. But you can’t compare carefully engineering your staff and your student body to meet a specific outcome that plays well in the press to that of the job that traditional school teachers do with non-engineered raw materials, restrictive regulations and limited resources. As time has passed, students have come to our nation’s traditional community schools with greater challenges-challenges that can disrupt their lives, their neighborhoods, their classrooms, and their paths forward in life. Promoters of charters and choices, in politics and in the private sector, don’t really care about all that-they simply want to sell a chance to those “Waiting for…” parents to separate their kids from the other ones who bring challenges into their kid’s classroom. Can’t blame them, really, and I have to wonder both how it feels as a parent to have metal detectors at the entrance to your child’s school-and also why reformers haven’t blamed that on teachers and their unions as well. Probably they have, and I missed it. By now some arrogant loud-mouthed clown must have said something along those lines.

Which reminds me: Chris Christie and Steve “Capital Prep” Perry. Like turds floating in the toilet bowl, school and teacher attackers, as well as the stuff they say, can capture your attention and curiosity for a moment. Why does that particular one rise to the top…basically defying its own nature to not just survive attempts to flush it away- but actually thrive and succeed? Others thankfully sink away from view, existing somewhere but not reminding us of the fact so much anymore- other than the stories you start telling three beers into a class reunion: “Hey…remember that time he said…!”

I had a long day of teaching, and have another coming tomorrow. Before I close out this “part one”, let me say part two or three will have some of my most humble admissions and thanks- to acknowledge: 1) the fact that we as a nation are in crisis mode when it comes to preparing children for this world and that 2) people who do anything to help any child at risk of falling through cracks or being left behind deserve to be recognized for it. If you save one child, even only one…you are more of a hero than most dare to or care to be. Even if I place you squarely in my dishonest, opportunistic @$!%# category, and even if you refuse to recognize the level of sacrifice made by others-you have helped. I’m not sure which part and when that mushy stuff will show…I write stream-of-consciousness style and am not a good planner. It’s the journey not the destination, you know.

Next, Part II  The Foundations of the Current Attack