NBC’s Education Nation confirmed their list of panelists for the upcoming education summit – none of whom are teachers and all of whom seem to take snaps from the same ed reform playbook. All except for the lone Randi Weingarten. She will play the role of Dissenting Voice in an ed reform narrative that is being ballyhooed across the nation. (Except where it’s not.)
It was important for event organizers to give Randi a place on the panel. The basic ed reform thesis, chronicled in the upcoming “Waiting for Superman,” begins with the idea that the school system & schools are broken, and that unionized teachers are where the faulty rubber meets the road. The trouble is, if the powers-that-be were to directly cast teachers as Lex Luthor their plan might backfire.
Who’s willing to place the failure of the American Education System on little old Mrs. Newton, teaching 2nd grade to generations of tots that loved her? No-one, really. That won’t sell well or bring in votes.
Enter unions stage left. Randi, as president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been a vocal critic of NCLB, RTTT, & the Fire-(Teachers)-At-Will squad of trigger happy reformers. As a teacher representative, she’s become the de facto Lightning Rod in the plot line that pits unions (as antagonists) against the great teachers the ed reformers (as protagonists) would deliver if only meddling teacher advocates would step aside.
For the NBC organizers, she needs to be a panelist in order to give the Gates’ League the whipping boy (girl) it requires.
The story goes like this: the unions enable bands of bad teachers who are directly responsible for inhibiting student achievement. All the while the benevolent market forces of goodness & quality do their darnedest to right this wrong through superhero feats of privatizing, hiring & firing, and incentivizing teaching to the tests.
We are asked to buy into this plot-line and then jump to reformers’ same conclusions. Effectively, we are asked to leap these tall buildings, each in a single bound of reasoning:
- If we weigh the cattle more often, they’ll get fatter.
- Non-union teachers teach better.
- Charter schools = silver bullet against poverty & lack of parent involvement.
- Merit pay will be enough improve teacher “performance”. (A recent Vanderbilt study concludes otherwise.)
These unproven assumptions need more than super breath to blow me over. I’m just not convinced that these measures will lead to more professional educators & greater access to quality learning environments for all students.
The Bottom Line Variable
But what if they are wrong?
What if the fear mongering and hyperbolized “broken” metaphors that the media outlets have bought-into & hyped are the machinations of private stakes and bottom lines, rather than deep insights into poverty, parenting, teaching & learning? (That’s not to say there are not deeply rooted problems that need transforming. But “broken”?! That seems a slap in the face to the thousands who work in our nation’s schools.)
On his site, How the University Works, Marc Bousquet brings this point to light:
I’d like to see a few more of us start to question the objectivity of The New York Times and Washington Post, both corporations with increasingly large hopes that profits from their education ventures will prop up sagging journalism revenues. The Post, which owns Kaplan and shocked readers by blatantly pushing Kaplan’s legislative agenda in print and in person is already an education corporation that owns a newspaper as a sideline.
What is curious is that even Fox & Friends has discovered what the Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Post knew a long time ago: The Obama/Duncan algorithm for improving our nations’ schools has a hidden variable — profitability.
Non-union teachers + prepackaged curricula + (test x test x test) = Corporate Bling Package
Standardizing content across the country simplifies what all teachers teach, making it easier to . . .
Increase class size and save moola on teachers (especially the union-free teachers in charter schools who get paid less & have fewer benefits), which frees up money for . . .
Buying curricula in bulk from major textbook companies (which are more profitable to produce in larger numbers) which will necessitate. . .
Buying tests designed specifically for those prepackaged curricula, which will be justified because it will help prepare students for . . .
Super-sized multiple-choice assessments to determine if teachers are teaching, which will . . .
Earn testing companies stacks of benjamins for administrating & scoring those tests, and has the added benefit of . . .
Determining which teachers should be fired, so newer, cheaper teachers can be hired, and more curricula can be bought to raise scores.
The private sector’s opportunity to profit handsomely from this brand of standardization has stockholders salivating & lobbyists scheming. The Chamber of Commerce, at the behest of former FL governor Jeb Bush (whose younger brother, Neil, profits from NCLB & RTTT), has become a testifying standard anywhere education reform is on the legislative docket.
It all makes me wonder if ed reform is being driven by Superman, or Lex Luthor.
What if we are asking the wrong questions?
What if the propagandized central conflict, Unions vs. Good Teaching, isn’t the central conflict after all? What if it is just a sub-plot? What if the problem is much more complex than that?
What if the central argument, “Pay great teachers for student achievement and great teachers will flock to the classroom” doesn’t hold water? What if the actual teachers we want teaching and shaping our youth are not the ones attracted by promises of pay for performance?
What if wooing and keeping great teachers requires a different sort of honey altogether?
Unfortunately, no-one is asking what it takes to attract (and retain) the truly innovative educators who can provide the transformative learning experiences that transcend race, gender, and socio-economic status. It seems assumed that bonuses, based on centralized high-stakes tests, will be enough.
In a tweet-versation with RiShawn Biddle (@DropoutNation), a prolific education journalist (and ed reform advocate with a passionate interest in parent involvement & reducing dropout rates), I asked if the current slate of reforms was likely to narrow the curriculum and decrease educator autonomy. He replied that it would, that it was necessary. This made me wonder what it would take to attract and keep the best and the brightest (the most ambitious and well educated among us) to the field of teaching. So I asked him his thoughts on the matter.
They need more than a paycheck. They need an environment which allows them to utilize their skills in new and creative ways. In essence, they need autonomy and the flexibility to work in a professional atmosphere where they have latitude.
And therein lies our paradox. We want/need the best and the brightest to embrace teaching as a profession, but our brand of ed reform vinegar (high stakes testing, value added firing, & standardized everything) is a hook without a worm. It doesn’t attract and/or keep the very candidates we need flocking to our schools.
Superman & the Justice League
We seem to hope that by testing the kryptonite out of students Superman will arrive. However, him being faster than a speeding bullet doesn’t make him a silver bullet. We’ll need more than Superman if we aim to make meaningful, relevant, and lasting changes to our national school system.
We’ll need the entire Justice League in order to effectively address the central conundrums of transforming our schools into learning environments of equality where students are engaged, enabled, and empowered.
Our villains are many:
- Lack of parent involvement
- Untenable dropout rates
- Too few high achievers in the field of teaching
- Overly specific centralized learning goals
- Undervalued teaching profession
- Inaccurate measures of teacher effectiveness
- Overuse of high stakes assessments as a cure all
To tackle these villains, we must recruit & engage every one of the Justice League heroes, many of whom are dedicated teachers who’ve been asked to stay quiet and do as they’re told for far too long.
The Justice League is supposed to be a collection of people banded together in mutual cooperation.
Too bad they’ve been left off of Superman’s panel.
Thanks a lot, Man of Steel. If you had really wanted to, you could’ve gotten a teacher on the panel. I’m sure of it.