Education Funding Opinion

Oprah: Do You Have the Courage to Listen to Teachers?

By Anthony Cody — September 30, 2010 6 min read
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My post last week, OprahPaganda, responding to Oprah’s Monday show promoting Waiting for Superman, was widely read, and sparked a lively discussion.

Valerie Pientka, a National Board certified teacher who read my post, shared with me a letter she wrote to one of Oprah’s producers. I think she has some valuable insights.

I saw the (Oprah) show and was extremely disappointed. There was no teacher voice. Yes a few seconds of tapings from teachers, but there was no opportunity to hear what a teacher has to say about any topic within education, what a teacher thinks, what is the reality of the classroom, of the student’s lives. We heard a lot from men, but all the female teachers were positioned as a backdrop, which perfectly mirrors the way this profession works. The vast majority of teachers are female, yet hold precious few positions of power, due to a basic lack of respect for children and for the profession.

There are two competing goals in education today. For teachers, who look into the eyes of their students each and every day, the goal is to help that student reach his or her potential, to build capacity within each child so that he or she may develop their God-given gift, no matter what that gift may be. Children who reach their capacity become productive citizens in our country. However, because of the top down, business model approach, (the same business model that brought us as a country to our knees in 2008) currently utilized in this profession, children are looked upon as human capital. The evidence for this is the overwhelming use of standardized test scores. Arne Duncan says it himself, “We have to educate our way to a better economy.” What about a better democracy or society, of which a better economy is also an outcome? The economy can not be *the* goal, as there will never be a ‘good enough’ economy. Teachers do not see children as future widgets for the economy but as inquisitive, passionate beings with many, many gifts that are not reflected by a test score.

It is important to note, that there are much better methods of evaluating the learning that goes on in a classroom in a modality that better matches students learning style, called performance measures. These measures are utilized by many of the successful countries to which we compare ourselves, which by the way also have cradle to grave social services, but they are cost prohibitive according to the ‘experts’ and are not part of the conversation. The ugly underbelly of the testing frenzy in education is the unregulated explosion of big business into education via tests and other measurement methods that are imposed upon our children by myopic, economy obsessed non-classroom practitioners.

School year 2010-2011 will impose 17 standardized tests upon struggling high school students in the Chicago Public Schools. There is no rationale on the planet that should support such a decision. Eight out of ten Chicago Public School students live at or below the poverty level. Do you really think more testing will somehow overcome poverty and the resulting neglect? Do you really think that a level playing field for these students is the goal? Are the students in urban areas just not as bright as those of suburban areas as test scores indicate, or are vast financial inequities also reflected in these scores? Did any of your guests address that issue?

A joint report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, National Action Network, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., National Council for Educating Black Children, National Urban League, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Schott Foundation for Public Education have published a position paper against Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top because of the inherent inequities in education that are not addressed in this reform. If you took the time to really speak to a teacher, poverty and the resulting inequities would undoubtedly have been a focus of the conversation.

Your own guest, Emily, illustrates this point. As a young lady who knows she does not perform well on standardized tests, she wants entrance into a charter school that does not have the ludicrous standardized testing constraints that are imposed upon public schools. The not for profit charter school movement could be a very positive influence on the current landscape of education, simply because they do not have to adhere to the same inane constraints found in public education. However, we as a country will never pony up the capital or the political will to dispense with these constraints and create a ‘charter mentality’ for public education. I had hoped that we had learned that lesson when we dismantled the mental health facilities that housed our mentally ill in the 70’s. Although this institution too was in desperate need of an overhaul, our mentally ill have become our homeless and our imprisoned. If we are unwilling to address the financial disparities of students lives and schools we continue to risk a similar outcome for our neediest children.

If you have the courage to listen closely to teachers, read teacher blogs, or speak to education experts, rather than business experts, you will find this belief emanating from their souls, which is the place from which a real teacher operates. Important learning does not occur outside of important relationships. This is exactly what Geoffrey Canada, your guest, knew and ultimately created in the Harlem Children’s Zone. He knows that unless a holistic approach, one that encompasses all areas of a child’s life, is implemented, learning will not occur. The SEED charter school movement is another example. Students must leave the reality of their lives behind from Monday through Friday and attend a boarding school, in order to learn.

The resentment of teachers is palpable. It is we who must witness yet one more reform that we know not to be in the best interest of our students. We resent our profession being taken over by people such as Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee who have had little to no experience in a classroom, yet utilize practices that penalize rather than empower. We resent an infusion of massive resources that are changing the nature of educational research with the goal of matching the motives of for-profit charter schools. We resent the teacher bashing that has been ongoing for the past two decades and has recently gained a vicious momentum. We resent the attack upon the labor unions, as it is yet one more attempt to diminish America’s middle class. We resent being the only voice for the next generation of children who are depending upon us, and yet we ourselves have no voice. We resent having to participate in a top down, economy focused ‘solution’ rather than in a bottom up, child centered solution that values our children as gifts of the future. We resent having reforms and initiatives imposed upon us without any avenue for discussion of what is working and what is not working. We resent the fact that so much energy and effort is aimed at destroying what sadly, is for many children, the safest place in their lives, their neighborhood school. We resent any solution other than raising our way to higher quality in our schools by professionalizing teaching. And finally, we resent watching one of our favorite hometown gals, Oprah, become yet one more notch on the belt of a vicious plan to destroy the last vestige of American democracy, our public schools.

If you are ever interested in a REAL discussion on education I offer the following EDUCATION experts: Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Anthony Cody, among many others who really understand education as it is their life vocation.

Valerie Pientka is a 34 year veteran public school teacher and will be retiring at the end of the school year. She is Nationally Board Certified, EAYA Art, and will find out in November if she passed the recertification process. She is in the final stages of writing her dissertation, and will graduate with an Ed.D in Curriculum and Instruction in May.

What do you think? Do you feel this reflects your views as a teacher or parent?

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