Assessment Opinion

Kelly Flynn: Teachers Hold the Key. They Always Have.

By Anthony Cody — January 11, 2012 6 min read
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Guest post by Kelly Flynn.

I’m intrigued by the topic of Anthony Cody’s two recent blog entries, “Are Critics of Corporate Education ‘Reform’ Winning the Online Debate?” and “Lopsided Debate Over Education Reform Reveals a Broken System.”

We may be winning the online battle, but so far, we’re losing the war.

After teaching high school for almost 20 years I left the classroom to write a weekly newspaper column about education for The Flint Journal in Flint, Michigan. Because the column was published in a mainstream newspaper, I was able to inform and educate the general public about the reality of life in the classroom, and then show them -- using humor and anecdotes -- exactly why a particular piece of legislation would not work.

I began writing about the dangers of NCLB and the dismantling of the public school system in 2002. I wrote about the greed and power of textbook companies and their political allies, about the insult hurled at educators when George W. Bush accused us of bigotry, the absurdity of Bill Gates being hailed as an education expert, and about dozens of contrived “think tank” studies that painted an unflattering and untrue portrait of public education.

Every time I was asked to speak publicly, whether to a community group or teachers, I discussed the politics of education and the corporate takeover of pubic schools.

But I repeatedly met the same perplexing sentiments when I spoke to teachers: “Oh, I’m just not political” and “We’re so glad you’re speaking up for us.” While teachers were emphatically grateful for the work I was doing on their behalf, they just as emphatically believed that it was not their work to do.

And that hasn’t changed.

After Oprah Winfrey airedtwo wildly one-sided shows abouteducation in the fall of 2010, I raced to her website, expecting teachers to be outraged. They weren’t. Given the fact that there are over 3 million teachers in this country, and given the size of Oprah Winfrey’s audience, the number of comments was pitiful.

Why is that?

No one wants to say it because no one wants to harangue teachers any more than they have been. I feel the same way.

But the problem lies with teachers. For too long they have let the education debate happen around them. Even when they came to understand the destructiveness of NCLB, they grumbled in the teacher’s lounge, but did not take action.

In 2004 I watched talented veteran teachers jump through one hoop after another to become “highly qualified” under NCLB, while the inexperienced Teach for America corps expanded its reach across the country.

Why didn’t public school teachers howl from the rooftops about the injustice of that?

Those of us who have taught, know why. First, teaching is tremendously time-consuming, and physically and emotionally grueling. Teachers have little time or energy left for advocacy.

And second, most teachers are afraid to “get in trouble” with building administrators, parents, or the public. They believe that speaking up will eventually come back to haunt them.

So they intentionally bury their heads in the sand. Three months after Oprah Winfrey heralded Michelle Rhee, an aggressive, anti-union corporate reformer, as a hero, I attended a holiday party with several of my former teaching colleagues. Over the course of the evening I asked each of them what they thought of Michelle Rhee’s brand of reform. Not a single person knew who she was.

At another gathering a few months later, while talking with a parent about schools, I mentioned the disastrous effect NCLB had on public education. The parent was shocked. As succinctly as possible, I explained to her why NCLB failed both teachers and students. This educated woman was completely and utterly astonished that legislators would pass education policy that teachers did not like. Shaking her head in genuine bafflement, she said, “But that doesn’t make sense. Why would the government mandate education policy that teachers don’t approve of?”

Her naiveté was breathtaking.

And, unfortunately, it reflects the collective wisdom of much of the general public when it comes to education issues. We forget that much of the public actually reads very little, let alone seeks out education blogs to read about policy.

I was once taken to task for a column I wrote by a spokesperson for Margaret Spellings and consider it still to be one of the highlights of my writing career. But here’s the thing: Margaret Spellings would not have bothered with me if I had not been writing for a mainstream newspaper, and thus had the potential to shape the views of the general public.

So if critics of corporatized education are winning the online debate, it is because we are preaching to the choir. We’re talking to ourselves. I doubt that Bill Gates reads education blogs while having his morning coffee. Corporate reformers don’t need to muck about in the blog arena when they own politicians and control the media.

And the fact is, the corporate reformers are winning. Dozens of state legislators are boldly pursuing legislation that will dismantle public education. The online debate is but a gnat, mildly bothersome, but ultimately easy to swat away.

But all is not lost.

The solution to the corporate takeover of the public school system lies with teachers. It always has. By not speaking up they send the message that they approve of corporate reform. For far too long they have allowed the debate to go on without them.

Silence implies acceptance.

Teachers who are afraid to speak up must remember: they have right on their side. They know what learners need to flourish in the classroom. Test prep and drill does not foster true learning. Teachers may not have the nerve to stick up for themselves, but they are rabid defenders of students.

Letters to legislators, letters to mainstream publications, social networks, blog comments, informational pickets, grade-ins--teachers’ voices must be collective, constant, and insistent. And as a staff they must insist that building principals join them and support them in this work.

So while I am often impatient with teachers’ passivity, I have great faith in them, too. My teaching colleagues are the most amazingly talented, organized, principled people you’d ever want to meet, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that when they put their minds to it, they will start a revolution.

After seven years and hundreds of opportunities to educate the general public, my education column became a casualty of the tanking newspaper industry in 2009. No longer do subscribers open their Sunday paper to the opinion page and read an ordinary teacher’s take on life in the classroom right alongside the opinions of Cal Thomas, Clarence Page, Ellen Goodman, and Thomas Friedman.

And that’s a shame. But it’s not the end of the world. If Barack Obama can use social networking to win a presidency, we can likewise harness that power to beat back the corporate-reformers.

I believe in the power of the online community. But the problem is what it has always been - too few voices, speaking much too quietly.

It’s time for every teacher in this country, from the tiniest island in Hawaii to the shores of Eastport, Maine, to muster their courage and combine their voices in one long, loud, ferocious rebel yell, and turn the tide on this thing.

It won’t happen without them.

What do you think of this challenge? Are you using your teacher voice?

Kelly Flynn is the author ofKids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill: A Peek Inside the Walls of America’s Public Schools(second edition to be released later this year with a foreword by Nancy Carlsson-Paige). For seven years she wrote aweekly newspaper column about education that appeared on the op-ed page of The Flint Journal every Sunday. She taught English and journalism in a suburban-turning-urban high school in Flint, Michigan for almost 20 years.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.