Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Talking amongst ourselves

Michelle Rhee's resignation sparked comment on the AP listserve I belong to.  I'm told there are 6,000 of us on the list.
One teacher objected to the tone of the comments about the resignation.
I responded and that has prompted an extended conversation.  An important one I think for several reasons. First, that the group is quite impassioned.
Second, that the argument that some teachers are bad and must be fired is effective in turning us against each other.  Part of the plan, I fear.
Since others may not wish to be publicly blogged, I offer only my responses in this post and others to follow:


After being chastised for speaking too harshly:

I have to say that I respectfully disagree with the tone of the "debate" on education reform in this nation which has conveniently NOT invited educators to the table for much of the discussion (outside of Randi Weingarten, who seems to be present at most forums only to provide the necessary live stand-in for those intractable teachers' unions.)

 Having said that, I feel that my tone has not really been forceful enough, though I am doing what I can.  

Though some may feel that Michelle Rhee's two years in the classroom is all the experience you need in order to make sweeping reforms, I do not. 

Rhee admitted that she taped her students' mouths shut and was alarmed when their lips bled after pulling the tape off.  She also went on a field trip with second graders without taking along emergency contact information.  She only became concerned when she could not find the home of one of her students - who was too young to provide the information.  But, when you are teaching those children, I guess it is OK to experiment on them.  

And that, I really feel, is the attitude that pervades her "get tough" reforms.

By all measures, teaching is a complicated affair and takes at least three years to gain confidence with the curriculum, manage student learning, and function within the sometimes paradoxical systems in which we find ourselves.  
Michelle Rhee feels she can fire 241 teachers and put another 735 on notice, as she did this summer, because she does not value the time it takes to create a teacher who can get more out of students than good scores. After all, Teach for America gets GREAT scores, and they don't need to have any more than a six-week training program. 
(And new teachers are cheap, cheap, cheap.)

I have taught since 1978.  A Nation at Risk was published in 1983.  That document recommended what Finland has done: put your money into developing your human resources.  Create a strong profession.  
It wasn't done.  
Since that time the most successful teachers in America have been educating themselves on best practices, for the most part, with their own time and money, and risking careers through insubordination if they skirt the current testing climate in order to see real achievement for their students.  We are simultaneously sold the insidious argument that : "You didn't get into the profession for the money...." so that apparently any abuse of teacher time, energy, or financial resources is just part of that missionary zeal we are supposed to accept.

And NOW we want to blame the teachers?  Ha.  Kind of like blaming the wife who is being beaten nightly by her husband.

If you want to know what Michelle Rhee and her cronies have in mind, investigate how a KIPP school is run:  no accumulated sick days, no personal days, teachers are shamed when score targets aren't hit, teachers are chastised for taking sick days, school hours extend from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (and that's in front of students), no guaranteed contracts, no pension, etc.  Children who do not live up to standards are shamed (must turn their shirts inside out and are ostracized from the group), test scores - those bubble-in kind, not the critical thinking kind - are the measure of all success.  (KIPP founders are former Teach for America corps members--just like Rhee--and proudly model their disciplinary code on most prisons.)

What happens?  A friend who works in one in North Carolina says the turnover is 59%.....a year!  But that's OK if you don't think teachers need any experience, or if you don't feel its important that students need any consistency in their lives.  If you can get 22 year olds to burn out in less than two years, then you know you are plowing them under.  (No matter - more where they came from.)

I have three grown children and two grandchildren.  I would no more send my children to a KIPP school than I would leave them abandoned on the street corner.  Any yet, this kind of treatment is OK for "other people's children."  It's also OK to ask small children to sit through lotteries knowing that if you lose, you (they say) are doomed to a life of failure.  

Children are not being considered in this current debate.

The plan is to end teaching as we know it - and turn public schools into a place for "those other kids."  See New Orleans for the model.

And it just might work because I will find some other place for my grandchildren if they have to go to a school which has standardized testing in every grade, beginning in kindergarten. 
This is the last part of the Rhee plan, yet to be implemented. 
 
Of course those yearly tests are intended to measure teacher effectiveness (you gotta have a test) and has nothing to do with what is good for kids.  It's important to be able to identify who needs to be fired, even if it means five-year-olds are subjected to standardized tests.  
If you've been in a school where getting better scores is vital (AYP and all that) then you know that those tests breed more tests just to make sure that the kids can pass THE test.  

It makes much more sense to spend your money on developing and implementing tests than in developing a strong teaching force. (Hiring more teachers? Reducing time in front of kids for collaboration?  Insisting on a Master's Degree?  Screening pre-service teachers for a disposition to teach - so you don't end up with adults who think its OK to tape everybody's mouth shut? Making it competitive to get into a teaching program? Guaranteeing a job in a safe, clean, well-supplied workplace?  Naw.  Just buy a bunch of tests.)

Make no mistake, the argument is being posited that WE are the reasons our students do not achieve: not crushing poverty (even the Promise Neighborhoods have been unable to overcome the weight of poverty), not the fact that this nation has shown little interest in seeing that children are well cared for prior to starting school (how many of you have discovered how hard it is to get reliable child care for YOUR children while you teach other people's children?), not the fact that we have been asked to do more and more while we get training on the fly (or not), not the fact that more and more of us are being pushed out of the middle class while we work harder and harder so that the top 1% can control 42% of the wealth (as of December 2009).

Speak up. They are coming for you next.