Sunday, December 15, 2013

What's the Big Deal?

As much as I've churned words here and elsewhere, as strongly as I feel that American public schools are facing an unprecedented fight for their institutional lives, I have a confession to make-- tomorrow morning I'm going to get up and go to work at a school where things aren't bad at all.

I read-- oh, how I read-- about the scripting in New York and the slashing of staffs in Philly and Chicago and the bizarro demands being made of teachers across the country in the name of Reformy Stuff. I'm less than two hours away from Pittsburgh, where TFA bodies have been hired to come fill positions while graduates of my school who pursued a teaching career would very much like jobs. So I am aware of how bad it is getting out there.

And admittedly, I don't teach at Shangri-La High School (although now that I think of it, that would be a school where nobody ever got older, so I might well have the same students forever, so perhaps Shangri-La High School is not such a Shangri-La). We have felt the budget pressure from the state capital, and we've been living under the same test-or-else mandate as everyone else.

But nobody has tried to strap me into a pedagogical straightjacket. Our curriculum is loose and I have the kind of teaching freedom that teachers always used to have. I work with good people. I have a good boss. We get to try new things because we think they might be worth trying. We get to throw out is ideas that don't do so well.

We've started aligning things, and it's a process that looks a lot like alignment under NCLB-- it's not so much about changing what we do as it is about adjusting the paperwork.

Like many teachers and principals around the country, my colleagues looked at the CCSS and said, "Well, yeah. We already do most of this."

Every time I read a story that casually mentions how a school has been changed by CCSS ("Yes, back before the core we did strict rote memorization by banging students' heads against rocks, but with CCSS we use thinking and stuff") I want to cry. What exactly did some of these people think we were doing? Did they imagine a nation of Miss Grundys, sitting in a dull daze behind our teacher desk? Yes, there I was in a stupor, just picking up my teacher's manual and dropping it on my desk, over and over, hoping some edumacation would fall out or something. Lawdy lawdy thank you Chee-sus that CCSS came along and showed me how to DO MY JOB because in thirty-five years I had never once figured it out!!

No, I've been doing my job, and while I'm not any sort of superteacher, I think I do okay. So all the parts of CCSS that don't seem entirely stupid, at least at first glance-- I've been doing those, and so have my colleagues. So CCSS didn't motivate us to change anything major, except of course all the alignment paperwork that bureaucrats up the food chain want to see.

We are far from the front lines of battle. TFA's don't want to come here, nor do charters. Not yet. We're too small. There's not enough money to be made. That's bad news for us, because as the state funnels more money to the privates, it will funnel away from us (it's already happening to the tune of hefty six figures with the cyber-schools).

But when I update my colleagues on the mess that is CCSS et al, they often wonder what the big deal is. Here, far from the worst of it, CCSS looks like just another round of rewriting the paperwork. Heck, as recently as six or seven months ago, that's kind of what I thought. So I suspect that a large number of our teaching brethren are at that same "what's the big deal" place. Far from war, and rumors of war, it doesn't seem so bad. So what is the answer to "What's the big deal?"

Here are some thoughts to answer our not-yet-alarmed colleagues without launching into full ranting edu-wonk mode:

1) The ice is thin. See these horror stories from other school districts? About the only thing between us and that is an administrator or two who is holding off the worst of the reformy mess.

2) The retroactoive devaluing of teachers. In some districts, CCSS is like a foreman who shows up after a building is half-constructed and starts yelling at the workers to stop shirking. Then he takes credit for all the work that was done before he arrived. It's just bad for everybody when the narrative is that we never did a damned thing until CCSS lit a fire under us.

3) Alluded to above. As corporate dismantling and privatization of education advances, more and more money will be redirected away from us. Those of us in rural areas are in long term danger because we are such a small customer base. Imagine if the USPS went under and there were nothing but UPS and FedEX to deliver packages-- isolated areas would either be charged huge fees or simply be without service, because there's no money to be made driving an envelope ten miles back Bob's Road.

4) Available materials. Don't like the crappy new materials with COMMON CORE stamped all over them? Too bad. If the tide doesn't turn, that's all that will be out there.

5) They're teaching nothing but this baloney in teacher schools. Ed colleges are starting to turn out students whose professional expectation is that they'll show up, unpack a program, deliver the content, go home. If you've met, mentored, or co-operating teachered any of this bold new generation, you know how little you want to work next door to them -- for the 1-4 years that they're going to last in a classroom. We already know about people who leave the profession because of low pay, lack of autonomy, and high crazy pressure. Mark my words-- we're about to see the rise of teachers who leave the profession because nobody told them it would involve actual work.

6) Professional mobility. We're you thinking you'd go teach in New York after a few years here at our school? You'd better look again at what's going on there.

I know that there are a zillion other reasons for teachers to be upset, angry, actively cranky, or otherwise inflamed about the current state of education. But for people far from the front, people who haven't noticed more than a distant rumbling and some odd complaints on Faux News, people who aren't really feeling the heat personally, it is going to take a few to come up to speed.

It's up to you to help them. Screaming until your flecks of spittle are on their glasses won't get it. Explaining is good. (Mansplaining is not.) Offer links to pertinent and informative articles. Keep the rhetoric to minimum (nobody is coming to put teachers in gas chambers). Be smart about knowing who your allies, and be smart about being sand in the machine for the rest.


  1. Peter I want your voice heard on a forum that I am a member of. Are you a member of the Badass Teachers Association? (BATS) it is a closed group that you need to be invited to join-check out the site / , if it is something that you would like to be involved with we can figure it out.

  2. I'm on the BAT facebook page, and many of these pieces have been posted there. But anybody is free to link to this blog anywhere. It's the magic of the interwebs.