Education Nation, Oprah and ‘the bigger picture’

Cranky Blogger Warning:  Like Chris Lehmann, the last few weeks of teacher and school bashing by the likes of NBC, Bill Gates and Oprah have left me exhausted and angry.  That means the emotion in this post is stronger than usual. 

Who knows if I’ll feel the same way two weeks from now, but I sure feel better today.

 

Memo

To:  NBC, Education Nation, Oprah, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and Bill Gates

From: A classroom teacher.

CC: Anyone who will listen—which is likely to be a short list.

Date: September 25, 2010

RE: Your Stranglehold on American Education

______________________________________________

The defining moment in my 17-year teaching career—a moment I’ve never chosen to write about because it was so hurtful—took place in the conference room of an ineffective principal who had decided to reprimand me.

While there were lots of tense moments between us, the tipping point came when she’d hired extra gym teachers to get the numbers in our PE classes down to a more manageable size.  The result:  I was trying to teach 36-38 kids—dozens with special education needs—in my language arts classes.

I pushed back.  She got pissed.  I was written up.

In the course of our meeting, I asked for the logic behind placing 38 kids in my language arts classroom when there were only 18-20 in most of our gym classes.  Her response:

“Bill, you’re just a teacher.  You don’t see the bigger picture.  If you need more desks, let me know.”

I vowed, then and there, to NEVER let her accusation that I couldn’t possibly understand the ‘bigger picture’ because I’m ‘just a classroom teacher’—an accusation that you seem to share, considering your very public choices to leave teachers out of the important conversations you’ve started on education—to be true.

I promised myself that I’d study damn near everything there was to know about education beyond the classroom.

And I have.

Here’s a list of just a few of my experiences:

  • I studied the impact that teacher working conditions have on student learning, first with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) and then with the New Teacher Center.
  • In the course of that project, I worked with CTQ to research and develop a series of action steps that teachers, principals, policymakers, and community leaders could take to improve school leadership and professional development.
  • I’ve moderated conversations between our state’s National Board Certified Teachers on the kinds of incentives that would attract teachers to high needs schools.
  • I’ve co-authored a policy document with Barnett Berry—CTQ founder—on the challenges of recruiting teachers to high needs schools.
  • I’ve spoken on Capitol Hill alongside Linda Darling-Hammond on the challenges of recruiting teachers to high needs schools.
  • As a part of a team of teachers assembled by CTQ, I’ve studied the issue of redesigning professional compensation for teachers, learning from the likes of Eric Hanushek and Brad Jupp.
  • I coauthored a policy document with that team of teachers offering best strategies built from research and our knowledge of schools for redesigning teacher compensation.

Convinced that I’m credible yet?

Remember—I haven’t even mentioned my classroom accomplishments.  I’ve been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, I’ve written two books—one on restructuring schools as professional learning communities and one on teaching for tomorrow—and I’ve presented at the state and national level dozens of times.

Oh yeah, and remember that I AM still ‘just a teacher.’

That means I can translate the learning I’m doing about ‘the bigger picture’ back to my school and my classroom, something that NONE of your ‘educational experts’—including that guy from Netflix—can do.

In the course of all of this work, I’ve learned a ton of lessons about your beloved “bigger picture.”

They include:

Publicly humiliating schools and teachers serving high needs communities is failed policy:  While I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve purposely avoided working in schools of poverty because of the never-ending criticism they receive in the press and the never-ending pressure they’re under as a result of ignorant state and federal policies.

That means you should be ashamed of your efforts to encourage and promote people and/or programs that believe public ridicule is an effective reform strategy because you’re only driving good teachers away from the students who need them the most.

Tying individual teachers to test scores is failed policy:  I’ve spent the better part of my teaching career in the reading and writing classroom—a logical choice considering that I’m a published writer, don’t you think?

But those years—particularly since y’all decided that tying teachers to test scores made sense—have left me bitter and angry at my colleagues in untested subjects who don’t equally share the burden of your coercive accountability efforts.

They’ve also forced me to question and to walk away from practices that I know are responsible in an effort to make sure that my students’ test scores ‘make the grade.’

Heck, I’ve even left the tested subjects this year, choosing to teach science for the simple reason is that it isn’t tested.

That means you should be ashamed of your efforts to put test scores first in your work to reform America’s schools.  Doing so has not only dumbed down the instruction that our students are receiving, it’s chasing good teachers from the classrooms that you seem to value the most.

Using compensation as a cudgel is failed policy:  Like most of the people drawn to our nation’s classrooms, I’ve never been too motivated by money.  Instead, I’m drawn to the classroom out of a commitment to serve.

And while I think I should be paid a professional wage for the professional work that I do, the cockamamie merit pay programs that you continually promote turn my stomach.

You see, the best work that I’ve ever done has been when I reflect with a team of colleagues who are equally passionate about improving their practice.  That collaboration enriches me and exposes me to ideas that I may have never considered on my own.

That means you should be ashamed of your efforts to pit teachers against one another in some sort of sick competition to be compensated fairly.

Not only are such plans cop outs—giving you the chance to ignore the larger issue that our nation doesn’t compensate ANY teachers fairly—they serve as a disincentive to the kind of collective investigation necessary for spreading effective practices across buildings and communities.

Do you REALLY think I’m going to share what I know with those I’m competing against for your pot of performance cash?

Mostly what I’ve learned, though, is that ‘bigger pictures’ are really nothing more than tools used by those in power to exclude those perceived as weak from important conversations.

You don’t want me involved in your television programming or the most important panels of your national summits because you know that I’d strip the thin varnish off of the truth that you’ve been hiding for almost a decade:

Educational reforms never work in America because they’re not designed by practicing educators.

Instead, you’re content to patronize the American schoolteacher.  You’ll celebrate the mythology well enough—praising the matronly, apple-wielding women who you learned from—and then ignore the reality that your unwillingness to believe that we might just know something about how to save our schools has destroyed any chance that our schools will be saved.

Where does that leave us?

You’ll keep blowing smoke up each other’s skirts—over power lunches in important places like DC, Chicago and New York, mind you—about how brilliant you are while overlooking the fact that NOTHING YOU’VE DONE HAS WORKED.

I’ll keep hating you for it.

And our kids will keep falling farther behind.