Teaching Profession Opinion

The Schools Belong to “Us”

By Deborah Meier — February 05, 2009 4 min read
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This entry has been updated since it was first posted.

Dear Diane,

Yes, our meeting in person is one thing for which I can thank Al Shanker.

But some of the current teacher bashing was, alas, initiated by him. It endeared him to many. There was that streak in him that led him to policies we’ve lived to regret. But I miss some of that fierceness in today’s teachers’ union leaders.

I think the puzzlement you express may be simple: it’s a knee-jerk American (by no means uniquely so) fault to look for scapegoats, not to mention that the notion of solidarity is not always high on our list of virtues. We were late to embrace unions, and they were one of the first targets of the conservative triumph under Reagan. They had a certain cache on the right and left when we were fighting Communism—since the USSR was against independent unions, which exposed the hypocrisy of there being a “worker’s paradise.” But that healthy consensus has disappeared.

One of the reasons we need unions (aside from protecting individual rights) is that we need a counter-lobby to the business lobby since, it’s no surprise, that both business and employee interests are not always the same. And, it’s well to remember that “politics” in a democracy is all about “interests.” That’s not something to hide; the founding “fathers” hardly imagined anything else. A balance of power is hard to come by given the huge gaps in power and money in my beloved land, but the labor movement once produced a more level field, which is desperately needed today.

How did we get into the position of letting “business” become the mentors to educators when it came to accountability? In part, because we had in mind the businessman on the corner, or businesses that produced good quality products, etc., etc.. They had to meet the “bottom line,” which we assumed made them experts on how to stay focused.

There are many things wrong with the analogy. A car is not a person and can be built to the kind of specs that don’t match human specs. But what’s more astounding is that we turned our schools over not to carmakers or the corner drugstore owner, but increasingly to money managers—who produce nothing! The best of the carmakers, in fact, have had a far better history of involving the actual producers in decision-making than schools. See H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Broms’ book—"Profit Beyond Measure"—on Toyota and Scania.

But we live now, at least in the USA, among a power elite that have become experts at manipulating numbers that only they truly understand, assuming they do. It’s an economy increasingly built on exchanging chits, not building/making/inventing products of any sort, the stuff that can improve our lives. The bottom line is fictional—as a result even “they” didn’t quite know what they were doing and thus let it get out of hand. We are all the victims of a huge Ponzi-like scheme that had no real-life bottom line, and we’ve reproduced it now in schools. We rest our decisions on empty data.

Yes, parents and locals were not such experts either. And, especially in urban centers, no one could quite figure out who was responsible as we kept shifting governance from x to y to z. The idea that “just demanding an improved product” (kids) “or else” is a form of innovation is so ludicrous that I keep thinking I’m in Wonderland. That someone like Linda Darling-Hammond was called a proponent of the status quo is surely a sign of a deeply flawed mindset, the Mad Hatter couldn’t have done better.

Of course, we partially turned to Wall Street because, that’s where the money is.

Michael Bloomberg—our mayor—is insulted at the mere idea that anyone should have “oversight” over his control of schools. The nerve of outsiders looking at his data from a thoroughly independent base. That’s the heart of the matter for me. The feeling that the schools belong to “us,” otherwise known as Bloomberg et al. There may be no perfect way for this to translate; every plan has its trade-offs. But the one we’ve fallen into is not a plan for reform at all—just a power play. We know where cooking the books led us on Wall Street, and it’s the same mindset that is now cooking the books in our schools.

The need for a more—what shall I call it—honest? careful?—media is critical under these circumstances. The New York Times Magazine last weekend had a piece, “The Big Fix” by David Leonhardt, in which he gives his fix for schools. His prescription is based on the success story of Geoffrey Canada’s work in Harlem as described in “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough. The book has had good press coverage, but alas Leonhardt apparently didn’t read it. It’s an honest account and notes that Canada dropped his first class of 100 (who by 8th grade had whittled down to 65) because their test scores weren’t good enough. Ignorance is not bliss.

We are, of course, all occasional beneficiaries of similar false rumors. I read in the media one day that my own school, CPESS in East Harlem, had graduated 90 percent of its students—even though at that time we had yet to graduate a single one.


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