Teachers: Should We Stand Up?

“Best beginning of a book ever”

That’s what I wrote in the left-hand margin over 20 years ago when I first read these words:

The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.

It’s from the second page of Saul Alinsky’s classic, hard-core progressive activism guide-book, Rules For Radicals (1971).

Before this, at the top of page one, is a quote from the Old Testament Book of Job (7:1): The life of man upon earth is a warfare. I first read this about 5000 years ago.

For a long time I have associated these two ideas, along with a third. This is the “Iron Rule” of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing group founded by Alinsky: Never, never do for others what they can do for themselves.

Then add a little Bob Dylan:

You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch
Flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle
Idiot wind
Blowing through the flowers on your tomb

If you take those four together, there isn’t much I would add to my philosophy or commentary on the current dogmatic spasticity of education reform.

So, class, how do these texts inform our thinking about education reform?

First of all, have you ever seen so many people who thought they were so right about something? Obama. Bill Gates. Michelle Rhee. And on down the line there are many, many high-profile, high-dollar individuals and organizations who have either zero or severely limited classroom experience who are absolutely sure that the low performance of poor kids with rotten home lives in dysfunctional, role-model-free neighborhoods can be fixed if teachers would just do what they are told. They just know it. Which is not to be confused with just really, really wanting it.

The persistent low-performance of this type of student, which remains unchanged after ten years of NCLB, has caused the Certain Ones to redouble their efforts to punish and proscribe when it comes to teachers. It is warfare. And all of the idiot winds are against teachers. “We have to get rid of bad teachers.” That just rolls off the tongue and nobody can disagree with it. Then whoever said it gets to decide what a good teacher is and how to measure it. What comes out on the other end of this decision process is inevitably messy, flawed, and covers up the truth with lies. As long as there is a rubric and a meeting about the rubric, the Certain Ones can safely cloak themselves in false objectivity and wash their hands as careers are destroyed.

And our unions are just silly. They are boxed in. Again, it is the Emotional Blackmail of Education (EBE). An industrial union makes no bones about the fact that it is working to maximize pay, benefits, safety, etc of its members. Government unions can work in much the same way.

The problem with teachers’ unions is that they are obligated to include the talking points of the district bosses in their own mission statements. “We seek to ensure the highest possible academic achievement of all children…blah, blah, blah.” And who gets to decide how to do that? Well, it’s not the union. That would be like if the UAW’s mission statement included something like “and above all we seek to ensure the greatest possible return to shareholders by reducing the labor costs of production.” When teachers unions really want to help teachers in a traditional union sort of way, it’s just too easy to say they are against kids. It’s like taking away somebody’s sword at a sword fight.

All of this unjustified pressure on teachers has led teachers to create illusions of the world we are expected to produce. The passing rate for my school just has to be what it has to be. It has been made clear in meetings that it has to be what it has to be. If all the teachers played it straight and failed everybody who deserved to fail the population of our school would probably double every three years because of the number of people who would be held back. As it stands, one must possess only the purest essence of dipshitery and sloth in order to fail a class at this school. It’s not exactly doing “for others what they can do for themselves”, but it’s close. Real close. It’s giving kids credit (literally) and recognition for something they have not actually done, but it could plausibly be imagined that they had done it if the lighting is just right.

And the most annoying thing is, as always, most really could do it if they would just get up off their asses and give it a go.

You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies

This whole movement, especially the testing, is bad for students and it’s bad for teachers. And it is based in statistcal falsehoods and disingenuousness.

One day you’ll be in the ditch
Flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle
Idiot wind
Blowing through the flowers on your tomb

It seems like it can’t last. The ideas are stupid and harmful. Sooner or later the money has to run out, the data will be irrefutable, or people will just stop becoming teachers. Meanwhile, I’d like to think there is more teachers can do to push back, but I’m not sure.

Mr. Teachbad

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