Archives for the month of: September, 2014

I’ve been rattled recently by the frequency with which I confront this narrative:

We all know that American schools are failing, and we all know why:  teachers and their unions.  Our test scores show irrefutably that schools are failure factories, and teachers are filthy, tax-sucking monsters who sit on their butts all day while kids’ lives languish.  What we need is to get tough, accept no excuses, starve the public education beast, find a whole different way.  If teachers really cared about kids, they’d be educating them and since they don’t, we need to fire them all and get in good, kind, caring, tough, smart, young people who can do the job.  Crack down on those kids.  Put ’em in uniforms and post their test scores.  Drill, baby, drill!

There is so much wrong with this I don’t know where to begin.

After much consideration, I think the most important thing I have to say is this:  education is growth, not compulsion.  The best teachers do not browbeat their kids to get better test scores, they lead kids (ducere, as in educate, means to lead) to a place of curiosity and skill.  This involves a number of simultaneous shifts:

  • from self-absorption to curiosity, even empathy
  • from comfortable and self-congratulatory ignorance to tolerance of confusion
  • from self-protection to vulnerability
  • from suspicion and closed-mindedness to inquiry and open-mindedness

It’s the difference between kids saying, “I hate poetry,” to saying, “Gee, I wonder what this one says.”  In place of the confidence that the subject matter is stupid and unnecessary, they acquire confidence in themselves as learners.

Think about it:  isn’t this a feature of all the smartest people you know?  They say hmmmm, let me take a look at that.  When you present something they don’t know, they don’t shout you down, but grow quiet and lean in for a closer look.

There may be other ways to accomplish this shift than my way, but what works in my classroom is a constant emphasis on questions, on not knowing, on cultivating attention, on being aware of our desire to close off from new knowledge because not knowing threatens us and instead embracing confusion and looking closely.  To do this, I have to model appreciation for guesses, wrong or otherwise.  They need to know that I will never shame them for taking an intellectual risk.

In other words, I work hard to create a culture of branching out, of divergent thinking.

Now contrast to a “no excuses” charter school, where kids’ test scores are posted on the wall:  shame used to motivate them to get right answers.

It’s a top-down approach.  We know, the tests know, you don’t know, and you must be compelled to know, so get cracking!  Convergent thinking: it’s all about the standards, the test, and fealty to someone you will never know who deemed these facts the ones that will be used to judge you either a winner or a loser.

I believe to my core that this approach, while it may achieve short term results, is anti-intellectual, anti-educational, and in fact toxic to real learning.  It kicks inquiry and curiosity aside– the most important things!– in favor of competitive parroting of pre-determined answers.

The only way to educate a kid for a lifetime, so that s/he grows up to continue learning and growing, while fostering creativity and passion, is through bottom-up means, where the kid grows, slowly and tentatively, into a confident, skilled writer and thinker.

It takes longer, but then you don’t have to be yelling at them all the time.

And I hear from a young man I much admire, whom I’ve not seen for a long time, that he’s been teaching.  Wow!  Fantastic!  Where?  At a charter school– (wait for it.  .  .  ) because that’s where any innovation is going to happen, since we all know that public schools are so strangled by unions that nothing good can happen there.

And here I was, enjoying myself.

So here is what I wrote to him:

I did want to follow up on the whole charter school issue. None of this has anything in the least to do with your finding your voice and presence as a teacher. No one could feel more passion about the transcendent importance and power of a really good teacher in this world than I do. This is the work of my life and I love to do it. If you have heard that calling, and if teaching in a charter for now nurtures that in you, then go for it.


But as to the larger issues, and there are many: specifically because you have this calling, you must research and be sure you know the ground on which you stand.


For one thing, there is no doubt that every charter, successful or not, bleeds support for a local public school. It’s a zero sum game. They get their money from us. Furthermore, they are under no obligation to stay in business—should it stop being profitable, they can close, as public schools cannot (until they aren’t supported by taxes anymore, and so far politics and charters are the only means through which that can happen—and those two things are prongs on the same wicked fork). And when a charter has closed the neighborhood school, and when the charter itself closes because it’s not profitable to try to flog poor kids through the mandatory exams, where are the kids to go?


In addition, while receiving taxpayer money, charters are under no obligation to teach anything that you and I would recognize as true. Many charters use the money to create religious-based curricula, including creationism, Bible study, you name it. Also, they can reject kids and force them out through attrition. It’s no good to say you have a 100% graduation rate when your graduating class is a third the size it was when they were in eighth grade—but they do say that. And they get away with it, because nobody has the power to hold them responsible, since by design they are exempt from public scrutiny.


Furthermore, no widespread study of charters has been able to prove that they do better on average than public schools. Look this up if you don’t believe me. I encourage you not to believe me. Just go check. Right now there have been studies in Chicago, New Orleans, and Detroit—all cities that went whole hog for charters—and the results are sobering. In fact, there is more segregation by race in cities where charters are the majority. So charters segregate more and educate less: not a recipe for success.


I mentioned to you that nobody is getting a yacht out of public school. Eva Moskowitz, the leader of Success Academies with offices on the same street as your mother’s apartment (this is unheard of in public school, even the wealthiest) makes over $500,000 year. Is this an appropriate use of taxpayer money? Every time you see an ad for a charter school, think to yourself: that’s tax money used to raise someone else’s bottom line. Is that right? If hedge fund managers wanted to perform altruism, they could adopt a public school in a poor neighborhood. They are not starting all these charters out of pureness of heart. They want to make money: taxpayer money– and kill public school in the process.


And now to your true point: charters allow you to teach with heart, but teachers’ unions prohibit or inhibit passion. I invite you to test this hypothesis. The fact that you don’t know public schools firsthand simply means you need to hie yourself to some pronto. I didn’t know public schools either, until I began to teach in one. If you’re going to hold and propound this opinion, you owe it to all of us who work so, so hard in public education to verify it. Do I strike you as a person who would teach to a test? Who would parrot insipid, bloodless talking points? Who would ever, on any level, ever, to any degree shortchange my students from giving them every drop of inspiration I can muster? So right there you have one atom of anecdotal evidence that some public schools welcome good teachers and help them do their best work. Come to see me. Visit my classroom. Get to know my school. Or some other highly successful public school—and there are thousands of brilliant examples.


As to the teachers’ unions: one of the most stunning pieces of public propaganda has been to blame teachers and their ability to organize for fair wages, decent working conditions, and due process for all the ills of modern society. It’s like blaming doctors for a cholera epidemic. They were the ones treating the patients! Surely they should have stopped the contamination of the water supply! In fact, maybe they even contaminated the water themselves, just to poison everyone and make more money!?!??? Kids traumatized by poverty do not come to school ready to learn. You would not succeed immediately and easily with such kids. Neither would I. Neither would Arne Duncan, who has never taught a class in a public school, nor Bill Gates, ditto, nor any of the hedge fund managers, ditto ditto ditto—and all of them send their kids to private schools. So what do they know of what we do?


True, we teachers have been unable to close the achievement gap between black and white students and between poor and rich students. This is not an easy thing to do. In fact, nobody has ever done it on a large scale. Finland, which cleans our clock on the NAEP exams (unless you disaggregate by state, in which case Massachusetts cleans Finland’s clock), has a 3% poverty rate. Ours is 23% and that is a national disgrace. So we continue to starve kids of prenatal care, infant health care, preschools, books, living wages for their parents, safety on the street, food, a place to play. . . and when they come to school and they are anxious, basically suffering from PTSD and the teacher must begin by comforting each and every one in a classroom of 40 or more, it’s the teacher’s (or union’s) fault that kid can’t learn?


But apart from poverty, don’t teachers’ unions protect bad, ineffective teachers from being fired? In my district, no (here I went into some facts that pertain to districts I know well, which for reasons of professionalism I do not choose to post publicly).


Unions are being blamed for all sorts of ills on which they have no effect. Nobody is willing to say out loud that teachers like me, absent unions, would be the first ones fired. I’ve been there a while and I’m expensive—and worth it. This is the spurious genius of Teach for America. Get a hold of really smart, passionate, wonderful young people, fail to train them to any real degree, throw them in the classroom and teach them to sneer at everything their experienced colleagues have learned, and then encourage them to leave the profession and become “consultants” or “experts” or possibly the secretary of education (although, as I said above, he has even less experience than this) before they start costing real money. Pay people with master’s degrees like waitresses. What a great way to save taxpayer money so Eva can have an office on Wall Street.


Where would I be without my union? I’d be making maybe $40,000 per year or out of a job. Every time the local government changed hands, all the registered other party teachers could be fired. Teaching could become a political favor. Or we would go back to the days when almost all teachers were well educated women with successful husbands. Ask your mother: that’s who taught us. It is a sexist system.


I’m not even going to try to touch upon the link between “reformers’”, charter schools, gentrification, and their real estate investments. It’s too foul to be believed, albeit true.


None of this is to say that everyone in charter schools is a craven profiteer. Far from it. That’s the worst part: the pirates are preying on people like you for cover. Many folks in charters want to teach kids and they’ve been persuaded that public school is distasteful, déclassé, polluted by union thugs (notice the class overtones in all of this). Teachers who belong to unions are icky. They could wind up in a landfill like Jimmy Hoffa. The true teachers in charters want to do what I do and they have been brainwashed to believe that this can never happen in a public school. So Eva can have her swanky office and maybe, one day, a yacht? (I’m not making up the yacht. There was a charter profiteer in Florida who had a yacht named Fishin’4Schools. I saw it with my own eyeballs).


Okay. So what are the implications for you? SO glad you asked!

  • Read Diane Ravitch’s blog and books. Diane’s story is particularly compelling. She was an architect of No Child Left Behind, the worst piece of educational legislation in our nation’s history. She has come to think better of it.
  • Come to visit me and/or other teachers in successful public schools.
  • Nurture your passion! The world will always desperately need good teachers.
  • Keep your mind wide open. Learn all you can, doubt all you hear (including everything I have said. Trust, but verify).


What is at stake here is (sorry to go apocalyptic on you) nothing less than democracy itself. The charter/voucher/“choice” movement is in part a profiteering impulse and in part a feudal power grab by the Waltons, the Kochs, and their ilk. Again, I encourage your skepticism on this. Just do the research.


I think far too highly of you and the exalted work I do, and I am far too thrilled by the prospect of your having been called to do this work. . . in short, I love you and teaching too much to withhold this shocking information from you. I think the world of you, and I look forward to your taking up arms in our fight for kids’ right to a good education in every neighborhood in the nation.






P.S. you might enjoy the portrait of Bel Kaufman, who wrote Up the Down Staircase in 1965, in this weeks The New Yorker.   One relevant excerpt:


. . . the alliance against teachers remains intact, and, if anything, it has grown stronger.  Today, the élites are not only foundations but also hedge-fund philanthropists and politicians from both parties. Teachers’ unions are routinely portrayed not as legitimate stakeholders but as nefarious special interests. The mass firing of teachers—whether in Central Falls, Rhode Island, or by Michelle Rhee during her reign as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.—are widely hailed as an overdue cleansing of the Augean stables. Hurricane Katrina provided a convenient excuse for getting rid of virtually the entire teaching and administrative staff of New Orleans’s public schools.

The antipathy toward teachers is often expressed through extolling the exceptional ones. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant books and films and TV shows about Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins. In the current moment, it means valorizing Teach For America participants, who commit only two years to the job. And it means, as in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believing that charter schools are the answer precisely because they aren’t in the devious hands of teachers’ unions and career educators.





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