Manifesto from the Trenches, Not the Perch

(This is a response to a manifesto written by many school superintendents, including Michelle Rhee of Washington, DC, that appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, October 10, 2010.)

No, school superintendents. President Obama has it wrong to say that the single most important factor determining whether a student succeeds is not skin color, zip code, or parents’ income. In fact, one who sends their kids to Sidwell Friends and has gone and taught at prestigious and private universities is in no position whatsoever to cast aside these enormous factors in determining the success of our children. His elitism goes beyond the pale as it is used as a basis to further engage in teacher-bashing.

Implicit in this manifesto was an attack on teachers’ unions, being a major stumbling block against ridding our schools of bad teachers. A basic duty of a union is to protect the worker from unfair labor practices and to see that a fair process is at work in the firing of a bad teacher. Teachers have seen over and over again that they are often targeted by principals who are petty, vindictive, not one of their ‘pets’, and are inefficient in carrying out their own duties, and with little or no feedback from those he or she supervises. There is often very little professional collegiality between principal and teacher. The relationship is often not collaborative but combative. As a result, it is often very difficult to find good principals from the ranks of teachers and many now do not come from public school education but the field of business.

Mr. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, does not understand the philosophy or history of public education and it’s a shame that superintendents fall in line with his thinking. Schools are not a place to produce successful students. Schools are places where successful education and learning take place. Lucy and Ethel might have been held accountable for how many chocolate candies they could wrap but teachers do not see their job as wrapping up their students for the job market beyond high school.

Income matters. Funding for schools matters. Open enrollment matters.

Students come with an enormous set of issues that impact their ability to learn. Can they count on a steady diet of healthy food all the way up to the end of the month when food stamps have been exhausted? Are they secure in their own home every night, especially in light of the epidemic of home foreclosures and homelessness? Do they have parents at home supervising their behavior? Or, are the parents delinquent in their duties or working like dogs on the night shift just to be able to keep a roof over their heads?

Are the English Language Learners getting enough academic training before taking high stakes tests or is there a plan to simply push them out into night school or GED programs, and thus, no longer count for lower scores? Are parents savvy enough to advocate for their children for that lottery slot for that charter school that more likely than not will not be any better performing than their own neighborhood school? Elementary school teachers do see the students for the whole day, but are they to be held accountable for what does or doesn’t go on in the home? What about high school teachers? At best, they might see them for only one period a day.

The manifesto claims that business in America wouldn’t survive if it didn’t make personnel decisions based on performance. It is an absolutely correct statement. But why apply it to education? What is the basis for evaluating a teacher? Offering merit pay to the ‘exceptional’ teacher and a pink slip to another should never be dependent on how their students perform, based on present criteria. Is a high school teacher who keeps a particular student in class through fantastic teaching of music and mentoring more or less an asset to a school? Should a mediocre math teacher of that same student get the credit because that student was motivated to stay in school and did fairly well in the High School Assessment? Perhaps the music teacher was able to show the connection between math and music. But it is the math teacher whose job performance is based on that student’s test result.

Counselors, including mental health personnel, ought to be working with students to prevent suicide or gang involvement. The former, however, is inundated with schedule changes from Day 1. For every student that succeeds in staying in school and staying alive, the English teacher gets credit or not for his or her performance. The student as a person is apparently irrelevant. What’s clearly missing in the business model approach to education is the professional collaboration that is essential for ‘producing’ a high quality student.

The superintendents’ manifesto made some obvious claims. Yes, of course you need the best technology available and a restructuring of class time. That costs money. My county, like so many, has issued furloughs for most employees this year. Our schools’ computers are no longer under warranty. Paper is doled out. Outside teacher-training and workshops have been all but eliminated. This is occurring all over. School districts are considering 4 days a week to save money or shutting down in May. How can we improve the quality of our teachers when we have so few resources?

Much of the problem of funding is political. Clearly, our nation’s leaders’ priorities are on endless wars of aggression and corporate bailouts. Our president cheers when a city shuts down its schools. Our pundits wage verbal war on our teachers and blockbuster movies like “Waiting for Superman” provide the proverbial billy clubs that are wielded by corporate thugs who see big dollars in testing.

What is a teacher’s job? Is it our job to train widget producers (or chocolate candy wrappers) or is it to produce creative-thinking, problem-solving young adults that would excel in business as well as the arts? All the performance tests that are being promoted and actually in use do virtually nothing to expand or highlight the creative side of the student. Art is not even tested; nor music, physical education, foreign languages, etc. In the state of Maryland, for the High School Assessments, writing has been eliminated altogether. Is it that the costs of grading them too high or too many of the wealthier communities not passing at the high levels expected? Except for algebra which requires calculations, all tests are random bubble sheets. The odds of bubbling in “This school sucks” resulting in a high school diploma is probably as high as blind bubbling which could have the same result. Sorry, but my field is not math or probability.

Success in education is not always quantitative and assigned a dollar figure. Being an educator used to have meaning. It used to be an honorable profession. Mr. Duncan and his cohorts have ruined it for us. An old episode of The Twilight Zone was about putting an old, venerated professor out to pasture. He didn’t know what he made of his life and was ready to shoot himself. But he saw the images of his former students who did remarkable, as well as mundane, achievements in life who remembered his passion for the arts and the classics. This shook him out of his malaise and he saw what his value truly was and was ready to pass the baton to a younger group of educators.

Are teachers being asked to pass the baton or are we just simply expendable?

Myles Hoenig is a teacher activist in Maryland. He can be reached at: myles.hoenig@gmail.com. Read other articles by Myles.

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  1. hayate said on October 13th, 2010 at 8:48pm #

    The problem with american schooling is it has way more than its quota of rubbish. From administration to teachers. Back when I was is school, the majority of the teachers were garbage. ALL of the administration were garbage. Public schools in the usa are not designed to teach, they are indoctrination “boot camps”. Much more closely resembling military training facilities than centres of learning.

    In some ways it is not as bad now, the “dinosaurs” are dying off, and being replaced by their victims, who are less inclined to be as authoritarian. But at the same time, a new freakshow has entered the picture in the form of the recent fascist swing in the usa – mostly being engineered by zionists, naturally.

    The problem is not teachers vs administration so much as fascism vs everything else. The fascists (zio and regular) need to be culled from the system. Entirely.