Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dancing into the Apocalypse

I'm writing this now so that I can read it to myself when the first day of school rolls around. Sometimes you have to be your own motivational speaker at the start of the new year.

Why the World of Public Education Has Never Been Worse, and Why I'm Excited To Be a Teacher Anyway

How Bad Is It?

It is almost breathtaking to step back and try to take in the wide array of forces lined up against the great traditions of American public education.

State legislatures and courts are re-writing the rules of employment to end the idea of lifetime teachers, and an entire organization has been set up to replace them with an endlessly cycle of barely-trained temps.

Data miners are rewriting the entire structure and purpose of schools to focus on gathering data from students rather than actually educating them, treating them as simply future marketing targets.

A far-reaching network of rich and powerful men is working to take the public education system as we know it and simply make it go away, to be replaced by a system that is focused on generating profit rather than educating children.

Teachers have been vilified and attacked. Our professional skills have been questioned, our dedication has been questioned, and we have been accused of dereliction and failure so often that now even our friends take it as a given that "American schools are failing."

One of the richest, most powerful men on the planet has focused his fortune and his clout on recreating the education system to suit his own personal ideas about how it should work and what it should do. He's been joined in this by other wealthy, powerful men who see the democratic process as an obstruction to be swept away.

We have been strong-armed into adopting new standards and the programs that come with them. These are one-size-fits-all standards that nobody really understands, that nobody can justify, and that are now the shoddy shaky foundation of the new status quo.

And in many regions, our "educational leaders" are also part of the reformster movement. The very people on the state and local level who are charged with preserving and supporting public education are, themselves, fighting against it.

All education is now slave to standardized testing. We live in a bizarro world where we pretend that test results tell us everything from whether a seven year old is college material to whether teachers (and the colleges at which they studied) are any good. The future of teachers, schools, and students themselves, ride on these tests that, when all is said and done, measure nothing except the students' ability to take these tests.

The President of the United States of America agrees with most of the forces lined up against public education. At his best, he has simply stood by while public education has come under attack; at his worst, he and his administration have actively implemented policies to break down our public education traditions.

It is true, as some folks like to say, that public education has been tossed about by the winds of one edu-fad or another. Anyone who has worked for more than ten years can rattle off a list of Next Big Things that have come and gone while teachers closed their doors and kept working.

But this is different. This is worse. This wind comes with more political power, more widespread support, and more power to do real damage than anything before. If these people achieve all their goals, what's left will be a system that looks nothing like the American public education system, and teaching as a career will be done.

So Why Am I Not Bailing Out?

First of all, none of what I'm saying here is meant as criticism of people who have left the profession. You can't do what you can't do, and when you reach your limit, you have to make the choice you have to make. Not all of us have the same kind of strength, and we do not all face the same level of challenge. I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say why I still think it's worth the fight.

There has never been a tougher time for public education, and that means there has never been a time when teachers have been needed more.

Education is can't run on autopilot any more. I don't mean it shouldn't (though that has always been true), but that anything resembling an autopilot or inertia or just a gravitation in the right direction has been busted, shattered. Public education will take its direction from the people who fight to get their hands on the steering wheel. Teachers need to be in that fight.

Someone has to look out for the students. Someone has to put the students' interests first, and despite the number of people who want to make that claim, only teachers are actually doing it. The number of ridiculous,  time-wasting, pointless, damaging, destructive policies that are actually making it down to the students themselves is greater than ever before. Somebody has to be there to help them deal with it, help them stand up to it, and most of all, help them get actual educations in spite of it.

I don't want to over-dramatize our role as teachers, but this is what professionals do. Police, lawyers, doctors, fire fighters-- they all go toward people in trouble. They run toward people who need help. That's what teachers do-- and teachers go toward the people who are too young and powerless to stand up for themselves. And for professionals, the greater the trouble, the greater the need.

The fact that public education is under attack just means that our students, our communities, need us more than ever.

Is There Hope?

Yes. Yes, there is.

The new high stakes test-driven corporate status quo runs on money, and money is not infinite. Particularly when resistance picks up and the ROI isn't looking so great. The big bold reformster programs all have one thing in common-- they have not produced any sort of success. Well, two things-- they also all required a big boost of money and "advocacy groups" to even happen in the first place.

The reformsters are not going to win, but neither are we going to simply set the clock back to twenty years ago. Our education system, our schools are going to be different, changed. And we will deal with that, too.

The reformsters are tourists, folks just passing through for a trip that will last no longer than their interest. They'll cash in their chips and move on to the next game. But we'll still be here, still meeting the challenges that students bring us. They've committed to education for as long as it holds their attention and rewards them; we've committed for as long as we can still do the work. They think they can sprint ahead to easy victory; we understand that this is a marathon.

I don't care if this is a passing storm or the apocalypse. I choose not to meet it huddled and hoping that I'll somehow be spared. And while we keep defaulting to battle metaphors, I'd rather not get into the habit of viewing every other human as an enemy that I have to combat with force of arms. I learned years ago that you don't wait for everything to be okay to do your dance and sing your song; you keep dancing and singing, and that's how everything gets closer to okay.

We can do this. We will do this. And our students will be better for it.


  1. Deformers as carpetbaggers - should we get a SS teacher for that, or can you write it? This is xlnt.

  2. I'm sticking with the students who can't afford anything but public education for as long as I can. I work with great folks and certainly can understand the need to get out but I'm in.

  3. This. All of this. It's why I'm planning to return to the classroom as soon as I can get the medical clearance to do so (am currently out on disability, likely for at least two years while recovering from the last few of my eleven years of teaching in a very hostile environment).

  4. The US has abandoned the once cherished idea that quality elementary and secondary education are merit goods that should be provided to everyone regardless of their ability to pay. We have now allowed profiteers free run over education at all levels: from crooked elementary charter schools to corrupt for-profit colleges. I won't try to parcel out the blame for this here, but it's not just on the reformers.

    We've enabled what no reactionary could have hoped for in his or her wildest dreams. I hope people appreciate the irony that in roughly the same amount of time it took to move from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to Brown (1954), we've gone right back again.