Education Opinion

Sleeping With the Enemy

By Nancy Flanagan — August 03, 2012 3 min read
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Like most political-junkie Americans, I sometimes wonder how James Carville and Mary Matalin stay married and--presumably--live together harmoniously. Carville says the secret is surrender, capitulation and retreat. His wife replies that this is a typical liberal response--she credits “faith, family and good wine” for their happily functional home.

This actually might be the bifurcated model of school reform today: The reformy crowd has faith that their policies will eventually transform education (even though evidence isn’t actually bearing this out at the moment); in the meantime they huddle with their reform family and congratulate themselves by living well, starting charters and writing grants for their non-profits. Many garden-variety public school teachers and school leaders, on the other hand, have espoused surrender, capitulation and retreat.

Some educators have moved to full-blown collaboration and fraternization with the reformy army: Young teachers who see oppressive test-based accountability and stripping teachers of their professional autonomy as business as usual. Weary veteran educators who see scripts and test prep as just another tick-tock of the pendulum, yet another day wasted in being “professionally developed.” And The Chosen: a handful of outstanding teachers who are taking money from reformy initiatives, congratulating themselves on being clever enough to cash in on their talents.

Over at Diane Ravitch’s blog, the question is “Why Are Teachers Silent?” Eighty-odd comments at last count, and not one of them is saying “Hey, I really like the current reforms! Maybe we should give them a try!”

Instead, it’s a maelstrom of pent-up resentment over being forced to do what’s wrong for kids, and being afraid of losing gainful employment by speaking out. There are little bursts of resistance, but mostly it’s a pretty beaten-down crowd, looking for someone to blame, and sharing some truly disheartening stories. Surrender and capitulation, mouths to feed, the mortgage due. What are you going to do?

So--is there a middle ground, a compromise between embracing federal/corporate reforms and pointing out that American public education has its flaws but serves many kids well? Is it a middle ground worth seeking or treading?

Worth considering: Compromise is often nothing more than lack of moral conviction, going along to get along, especially when the stakes are high.

I just got an e-mail from a teacher I respect enormously, someone I’ve fought bitter MI policy battles with. A man who sat on my front porch before it had rails--live dangerously!--and bemoaned thick-headed policy-making in our state with me (policies we now know were generated by ALEC, not well-meaning-but-clueless conservative legislators). He’s at the Microsoft U.S. Forum this week with his teaching partner, competing for a chance to present at a Global Forum in Athens, Greece. He feels more than a little conflicted about all this. But what an opportunity, eh? All expenses paid.

Here’s what I feel conflicted about: Bill Gates getting backpats for collecting teachers’ hard work and creativity. Bill Gates “rewarding” excellent teachers, creaming them off the great (and necessary) pool of millions of teachers, to showcase the lessons and reforms he chooses. Bill Gates promising our best educators perks, money and recognition, things in short supply among teachers.

In my mind, those innovative ideas and teaching prowess belong to public education, to kids in Detroit and Grosse Pointe alike, wherever that proficiency was honed. In my mind, Bill Gates is buying off excellence developed on the public dime, making teachers an offer they can’t refuse. In exchange, they’re buying into Gatesian philosophy: Test scores tell us what we need to know. Class size doesn’t really matter. Anything--including love, dedication and commitment--can be purchased or incented.

We know who wins in this scenario.

The bigger question is who loses when our best teachers start marketing their practice. Does one dynamic lesson plan or curriculum fit all? Who can afford to buy this top-shelf innovation--who will benefit most? When teachers become entrepreneurs is their core mission altered?

Just asking.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.