School & District Management Opinion

A Shot in the Arm for Teachers

By Deborah Meier — March 11, 2010 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m back from a trip to Indiana and Ohio. You’ve brought the teachers and administrators I met great joy and hope. They asked me to say thanks. The level of fear out there in the field is enormous. Of course, many of your critics will be delighted to hear this. They see security as the enemy of progress—and test scores. The more fearful teachers are, the harder it’s assumed they will work to keep their jobs, and the more kids will learn.

They assumed you were very brave to be so forthright. I told them that, whether I agreed or disagreed with you, forthrightness was always your style. Breaking with past allies is never easy. But in the midst of it all YOU reminded ME that we had little to lose if we antagonized those in power.

Democracy itself is never an easy path to take. But we cannot nourish what we don’t practice, so the fearfulness of teachers (which is actually an old trait which unionization did not cure—it just meant teachers relied on the union to be outspoken) is enemy No. 1 of serious school reform—and democracy. What we’re engaged in now is “de-form"—an intensification of the old factory-style ideal with the advantages of modern technology. (In some states, teachers get their daily lesson plan by way of the computer which they must check each morning.)

In the Indiana school I visited, the principal was powerless to prevent her teaching staff from following the absurd “pacing guides” in every academic subject. (There are only two: language arts and math.) They must literally be on the same page regardless of whether their students do or don’t understand what they’re being taught. Enforcement involves both regular “formative” assessment tests and “coaches,” who are obliged to act like spies for the central administration. The staff’s respect for their principal and each other remains high, but it is wavering as they face her powerlessness to preserve innovative practices that the school was built upon or protect the staff when they do what they believe in.

What some miss, however, is that you didn’t “convert” or “betray,” but rested your critique on what have always been your core convictions. Your critics are often wrong about your having taken a U-turn. As one who has been trying to persuade you for several decades, I don’t think anyone has been able to change your principles, your convictions. But as an historian, not a school teacher, I have always argued that some of your advice and viewpoint were not consistent with an insider “teacher view.” You always, however, were on the side of serious intellectual engagement in the “Big Ideas” and critical skills needed to sustain a modern complex democracy. You were always on the side of public education as the foundation of democracy. You were always of the view that teachers, like other employees, had not merely a right, but an obligation to organize collectively into a union to protect (1) their own interests and (2) those of the students they taught, above all those least able to exert direct power on The System. One cannot do the latter if one hasn’t achieved the former. That’s why we instituted civil service protections long before teachers’ unions. The naiveté of assuming that the Mayor or the Billionaires Club can be counted on to do either is hard to believe. In fact, the self-serving interests of the latter are far more to be suspect than those of teachers, or parents, or students—the actual living constituents of public education.

As author and scholar Yong Zhao says, true reform is not about “catching up” to our competitors, but “leading” the way toward an education for democracy—by inventing practices that rest on thoughtfulness and ingenuity—qualities upon which America was built. I think that’s a formulation we might agree on, Diane. We disagree on how much of the turn-of-the-19th-Century curriculum and pedagogy has to be abandoned in the 21st Century, or how much of what’s important falls into the category of a core set of information, and how much is better thought of as “habits of mind.” We disagree on the influence that Dewey and other progressive educators had on 20th Century public schools, above all urban schools. You think a lot, while I think it barely touched most students, especially those whose test scores we are most concerned with. We both, finally, agree that a more equitable society would go a long way toward making schools more effective, but that, in the meantime, there’s a lot schools can do all on their own.

We are both amazed that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his DOE hirelings in NYC have no investment in making ordinary public schools work, but see themselves as the spokesman and publicists for the future—charter schools. The Joel Klein/Eva Moskowitz email exchange covered in the New York Daily News (and elsewhere) presented an ugly reminder of whether Chancellor Joel Klein of “our schools” in New York belongs to “us,” or is in cahoots to undermine public schools vs. privatized (and subsidized) charters.

The line between public and private has been eroding for half a century (or more). That the ASCD, one of the best financed professional development organizations in the nation, is now “sponsored” by CTB/McGraw Hill stunned me. As does the fact that so many high school teams and playing fields are sponsored by private, for-profit institutions and that schools help sell junk food (and share in the profits) seems increasingly a ho-hum issue.

The new “empowerment” slogans coming out of every major city are in direct contradiction with reality. I quote from Notebook NEWSFLASH, a free email bulletin published by the Philadelphia school system: “The Promise Academies, Ackerman said, will have an education model based largely on what the District is already doing in more than 100 Empowerment Schools, with the highly prescriptive Corrective Reading and Corrective Math programs anchoring the remedial approach.”

Simple, ordinary honesty or unbelievable carelessness is exposed daily—yet the NYC press remains solidly uninfluenced by it. Schools that are closed as “failing schools” got “A"s on their last “Report Cards”! In fact, it turns out that the 19 schools slated to close next fall (to be replaced either by charters or small “academies”) were mistakenly listed. Most were not, even by the DOE’s criteria, failing at all. Has that changed the DOE’s mind? No. Off with their heads anyway.

You’ve given us a shot in the arm, Diane.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.