Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Teachers Can't Have a Seat at the Table

This month has been declared New Conversation Month by reformsters. Teachers are being offered (in vaguely non-specific ways) some sort of seats at various tables. Unfortunately, this largesse underlines just how much teachers have not been included in conversations about public education. Every step of the way, every part of the discussion, teachers have not been included.

I got to wondering-- why not? I mean, there are only so many possible explanations. Knowing why teacher voices have not been pursued or included would tell us something about reformster attitudes about teachers and illuminate the relationships at the heart of how public education works in this country.

So let's consider the possible reasons that teachers are not, and have not been, at the infamous table. What are the reformsters thinking?

Teachers would sidetrack the process.

If we're going to get things done, we must begin with the end in mind. The conversation is not, for instance, whether charters would be a good solution or how to make charters a good solution. We're talking tactics and strategy, not inquiry and philosophy. So it's not "How could charters most effectively enhance education in a community" but "We know we want to get charters into this area. How do we make that happen?" Ditto for high stakes tests, Common Core, data mining, tenure stripping, teacher evaluations and evaluation-driven (aka less) pay.

Teachers might want to question those premises, try to open up for discussion things we just don't need to discuss.

Teachers lack our shared vision.

We need people who see the same things, who share the same vision for remaking Amerucan public education. Teachers by and large lack that vision and would detract from the focused unity we need to do What Must Be Done. We certainly don't need to waste time and energy arguing about what must be done or why it must be done. Teachers are way too attached to traditional models; it's almost as if they think traditional public education in this country actually works instead of recognizing that our premise of total educational failure is Totally Truthy. Proof shmoof. If they won't get on the bus with us, leave 'em behind.

In a proper society, one does not bargain with the help.

It was a sad day when the Captains of Industry and Commerce were forced to start dealing with unions. Yuck! The proper order of things is that the People in Charge determine the best action to take, and then the employees do as they're told. Bill Gates does not have to sit down and talk corporate policy with the Microsoft janitorial staff, General Patton did not consult with privates about military strategy, and the People In Charge of Education should not have to sit down and talk with teachers. It's true that teacher's unions sometimes become such a nuisance that they have to be listened to, but we're working on that.

Teachers are beneath us.

Arne Duncan plays basketball with the Reformster-in-Chief. The corporate titans of reformsterdom hobnob with the rich and famous. The hedge fund operators of reformsterdom deal with heads of state and juggle millions of dollars. We reformsters are big, important, rich, powerful people. Why the heck would we want to sit down with a bunch of women who make thirty-five grand a year and who manage milk money for a roomful of seven-year-olds?

Look, these policy decisions have to be made at very high levels. Teachers just don't belong there. After all, they're just... teachers.

We aren't friends with any teachers.

We like to work with people we know and like and trust. We don't know any teachers. It nothing personal. There isn't anybody at the table whom we don't already know and like and trust. Don't call them cronies. They're just people who Are On The Same Page.

Teachers suck.

Teachers have totally screwed up American education. Some huge percentage of them are grossly incompetent (and as soon as we tweak up the right evaluation process, we'll chase them out). They don't know a thing about how to educate children, and a huge percentage of them don't even want to. They just want to hand out worksheets and sit on their big fat tenure-enhanced butts. Everything that's wrong about public education is their fault. We're cleaning up their mess. Have them help us? No, thank you-- they've done enough already.

Okay, maybe they don't suck. But they lack expertise.

Teachers don't have expertise in dealing with educational theory and policy. They're just teachers. They sit around and run off worksheet copies and drill students in math facts and make sure that kids line up for recess. They help teenagers put up crepe paper for school dances. Teachers simply don't know enough about education to be involved in education policy discussions.

Okay, maybe they have some educational expertise, but this isn't about education.

This isn't about education. It's about how things really get done, and that comes down to politics, power, and money. Teachers don't know anything about how those work. Just sit out in the hall, honey, while the big boys take care of business.

Teachers will try to protect their careers at the cost of our goals.

Our goals include redefining teaching as a job that people only do for a couple of years, for middling pay with no retirement benefits. To make school finance more "nimble" and to provide better ROI, we need to transform teaching from a lifetime profession into a short time job. It would also be great if we could neuter their damn union. There's a ton of money tied up in education, and we want it, and some of that money is tied up in personnel costs. We need to get money away from the schools in general and the teachers in particular, and in our experience, nobody likes having money taken away (lord knows, we don't). We expect that a lot of teachers and a lot of union people will object to this, and we don't want to listen to their damn whining all the time.

Teachers will harsh our buzz.

It is just such a huge bummer when you think up a cool idea for how schools should work and teachers chime in with "That's a stupid idea that will never work blah blah facts blah blah blah research" or "Yes, that's a good idea which is why we've been doing it for the past twenty years." How can we enjoy feeling like great thought-leaders and education revolutionaries when people keep interrupting with that shit?

We totally included teachers.

We searched all over for teachers who agreed with everything we have to say and were totally willing to go along with us every step of the way. We have included those teachers. Well, at least, we've allowed those teachers to be spokespersons for us. They've been great and have given us no trouble at all. What else did you want?

You didn't get your invitation? Hmm. It must have gotten lost in the mail.

We totally meant to invite you guys. Did you check your spam filters? Our secretary must have messed up. Man, we wondered why you weren't here.

Are there any other possible explanations? In particular, are there any that don't smell of disrespect or disregard for public school teachers? I'm stumped. Maybe We knew you were busy with Real Important Stuff and we didn't want to bother you is a possibility, but I don't think I've ever read anything that would suggest it.

No, to really have a new conversation, there's a message that reformsters are somehow going to have to get out. It would go something like this:

You know what? We made a mistake. We now realize that teachers are deeply committed to educating our country's children, and as America's leading education professionals, they need to be not just part of this conversation, but leading it. After a few years of trying to reshape public education, we realize we need to change our stance. So we are here to listen to you, teachers. How can we help you achieve the best results for our public school students?

To their credit, some reformsters have picked up on pieces of that. But we're not there yet.


  1. As a Canadian from British Columbia, I was interested in the similarities between our experiences. Our struggles are so much alike. Thanks for the humorous look at a serious subject.

  2. This is a victim's view. It is time to stop re-describing the problem, move on and BUILD OUR OWN TABLE. Create a teacher described teacher owned profession

  3. Mary –
    You are half right. It is long past time for the development of a teacher owned and teacher driven process in reforming education. However, your dismissive tone and unsupported claim that this article expresses "a victim's new" is first, incorrect and second, unlikely to help move towards what one assumes you would want: that is a teacher driven process.

    How is it the analysis of teachers' current status in the process of school reform is "a victim's view?" Some teachers have made themselves into victims. Some teachers do indeed suffer and whine as a result of their own unwillingness or inability to engage in a solution.

    But, ironically, this blog and this particular article seem to point towards an effort to understand where we are. Seems to me this would be the beginning of what many people need in order to make a teacher owned profession.

    How do we help those who do not understand the nature of the problem without analysis? How do we help them to understand the nature of the problem without explaining it? If that sounds like a "victim's view" perhaps it is because teachers really are and have been ignored and without a place in the process.

    Based on a career's worth of experience, we will only be able to move towards where we both want to be by teaching. That is what this article does.