If we’ve learned nothing else from the 2016 Presidential election, we should now understand how talented and creative Americans are at insults, put-downs, spinning truth, ridicule, threats, disseminating falsehoods, false equivalencies, and hyperbolic negativism. And understand—especially those of you who might assume I’ll be directing this sermon primarily to one side of the political spectrum—this was one, if the only, area where bipartisanship was always on display. Trump, Clinton, Obama, Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, Coastal Residents, Middle-American Folks, City Dwellers, and Rural Denizens would be just a few of the many groups targeted for attack; whether it be ridicule, ad hominem fallacies, name-calling, mocking meme, or flat out fabrications, all groups got their share of abuse. And I haven’t even brought up race, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender. I know that historians can find many examples of political campaigns which descended to similar depths from our past, but I find that pretty small consolation. Am I really supposed to feel better about our political/social environment because it’s no worse than how it was during the Lincoln vs. Douglas campaign of 1860, a time in America when it was still legal for people to own other human beings? Somehow, I can’t take much solace in that; shouldn’t we be making at least as much progress in political dialogue as we have on slavery? I mean, think how abhorrent it is now to accept the reality of slave owners. Yet, we should be fine with our current nastiness since it’s probably no worse than pre-Civil War America, some 150 years ago. Surely we can aspire to better than that.
And that’s what’s been bugging me lately: How can we ever move forward from the various positions we’ve staked out when we continually reinforce our defenses with hatred for and viciousness toward those with whom we disagree? Consider these two memes from our most recent election: “Hillary Clinton 2016 because what America needs is a vindictive old rich lady with a penchant for lying, alcohol problems, a philandering husband, and a tangled heap of corpses behind her;” and this one about Trump: “I’m not racist; I just hate non-whites, liberals, immigrants, gays, foreigners, the mentally challenged, and those Muslims.” Of course there are many others, and we won’t digress over whose insults are closest to reality when we have so many important issues which require our ability to come together to find the most reasonable solution with which the majority of us can live. No, that standard—“most reasonable solution”—does not lend itself to the hyperbole of one group graphically describing the horrors of altering their position one iota while the other is stereotyping as stupid/moronic/traitorous/ignorant anyone who disagrees with anything they’ve proposed. Reaching a mutually acceptable compromise is at the heart of “the art of the deal,” as those who have ever negotiated with others who fundamentally disagreed with their positions can tell you.
I represented a few hundred teachers several times in contract negotiations with school board members, administrators, and labor lawyers. (No, it wasn’t just me; we had a team of teachers for all sessions and even an Illinois Education Association full-time Uni-Serv Director for two of the nine contracts I bargained.) And I was never completely satisfied with the contracts we finally agreed upon, just as those on the other side of the table never felt like they got 100% of what they wanted either. But that wasn’t anyone’s ultimate expectation from the outset. Whenever you begin discussions about things which involve money, decision-making power, and/or working conditions; you can be sure those who have the most power will consider status quo a fine way to continue, while huge concessions will be sought by those who see current conditions/resources as unfairly administered/distributed. How close to each side’s goal the final deal seems determines how good they feel about it. But, an experienced negotiator can tell you that if one side is seen to have won a significant advantage over the other, you can be certain the next time the two groups sit down to bargain, the “losing” side will be determined to earn some face back for the previous poorly perceived outcome.
So there is a certain gamesmanship, basic vocabulary, and etiquette to how you speak about agreements and the other side before you start, during the process, and especially once a settlement has been reached: Gloating or complaining are seen as poor form; you had plenty of time to do that in private when you were insisting that your proposals for how things should be changed were superior and necessary when compared to the foolish rantings of the other side. But once you’ve presented your case as best you can and lectured on how incredibly awful the world would be should the other side’s alternative reality come to fruition, you then move to the second phase of negotiations—what’s it really gonna take to get this done? In the final stage, when you’ve compromised to reach a tentative agreement, you then praise both the deal and your counterparts for helping everyone come to that “most reasonable solution” possible.
Of course that’s not how either side really sees it; we’re not talking about a perfect, ideal system in which no hypocrisy exists: You can be sure that my team and I had plenty of nasty things to say about the other side (only among ourselves)—petty, personal, mean things which helped us to process the gall of having to accept less than we felt we should. My guess is that my name inspired more than a few colorful descriptions by my opponents who had to put up with my brilliant oration during some of our lengthy sessions. But if the overall goal is to create something all can live with, when the war is over and a pact has been agreed to, you move on; you shelve all your personal baggage from dealing with other human beings with whom you disagreed for several months. And your praise for their work need not be totally hypocritical or untrue despite the heat of previous battles: They had to sit through the same sessions you did, and labored honestly (assuming they did) for what they thought was best. You might not like some of their tactics—not to mention personal quirks, vocal mannerisms, wardrobe choices, or attitudes—but for the sake of progress, you stow all the meaningless, subjective issues in order to move forward.
But that’s certainly not what’s currently happening. Every turn of events is trumpeted as earth-shattering and leads to condemnations from those rooting for failure and lies from those on whom the events reflect poorly. From Russia to climate change to health care to gun background checks to Medicare cuts to Republican Senators secretly crafting legislation to foreign relations to travel bans to fake news to our current flavor of the week (with the Trump administration, that seems more like “crisis of the second”), we all scramble to line up dutifully in our outrage or rationalization based on which view we support. It’s no longer the case that everyone admits there’s a problem and then cooperates to figure out a way to address it that doesn’t totally alienate or totally please anyone—what kind of compromising sell-outs would ever allow some “half” measure to trump their perfect views? And that’s where we are; few seem able to let go of political affiliations in order to get things done, even if the things are only small, incremental steps which only begin to nibble at the edges of the problem. We personalize and demonize to the point where our atmosphere is so poisoned that breathing it in pushes mentally ill individuals to turn a softball field into a target range.
That awful outcome is thankfully still relatively rare and we’ll never be sure how much our contentious, partisan bickering contributed to any one deranged person’s actions, but it certainly doesn’t help. And even more importantly, our vindictive, personality-driven sniping has created a system where reasons and truths don’t matter nearly as much as getting a win for our side. How else can you explain so many people voting against their interests for those whose chief agenda is shrinking governmental help for those who really need it in order to make the rich richer? How else can you explain so many rejecting election results with “He’s not my President” comments before the inauguration even took place, not to mention belittling the intelligence of anyone so stupid as to vote for 45?
This really isn’t about how much you abhor Trump or despise Pelosi or are disgusted by Ryan or hate listening to Schumer or want to scream at McConnell or would love to tell off Warren. I do understand the negative emotions which certain voices and appearances can trigger regardless of the content of what the person says—I still have nightmares about the patronizing, condescending lectures one lawyer used by our school board for many years would give us ignorant, misguided teachers about how broke the district was (while he was earning some $250 an hour, by the way) during negotiation sessions. But part of maturity and experience is the ability to get past all the trivial irritations to reach a better reality. And reality is the key word here: The idealistic fantasies demagogues evoke will definitely appeal to our ids and stir us to anger and mistrust of those who disagree with our fearless leader’s vision, but just like our dreams of winning the lottery, reality will insist on dragging those dreams back to our actual financial condition.
There’s no easy answer to this problem; once our irrational, fearful, hateful emotions have been tapped, it’s very hard not to overreact when those buttons are pushed. For me, anything coming from Ryan or McConnell (or Lord help us all, Kellyanne) trigger my dark side and make it hard even to listen to them, much less trying to glean something positive from their words. We all need some release for our feelings so that we can sift through our prejudices and Pavlovian training in order to find common ground on which we can build something, anything, which can inch our country in a positive direction. Yes, it will still gall me every time Trump utters something hypocritical or the opposite of what he promised mere months ago to say nothing about the constant lying, but ranting about what a buffoon he is will not accomplish anything except to give me a fleeting, empty sense of satisfaction.
I certainly do appreciate Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, and Steven Colbert (I’m so happy he’s begun incorporating more of his Colbert Report’s sharpness into his monologues) for providing me with many opportunities to keep calm despite Jeffery Lord’s constant appearances on news shows—and I know that some of you feel the same way every time Bernie comes on. Being able to laugh about it helps some, but we’ve got to access our logical Spock-ian sides when it comes to the issues we need to address. You might poo-poo my concerns about the environment, but can’t we at least agree that renewable energy industries could be a great source of economic activity? Everybody knows that good-paying jobs lead to a thriving middle class which solves a myriad of our social ills. And I have to accept my goal that nobody but the police and military have guns—Use a camera to shoot animals, or if you must, at least make it harder by using a bow and arrow!—is not going to happen any time soon, but that doesn’t mean that gun owners can’t agree that background checks, waiting periods, and certain restrictions on devastating weapons make sense. Oh, and let’s throw in bringing guns to bars and schools; I taught for 33 years, and the thought that the school was full of packing teachers as we went over math problems and had discussions on Shakespeare would definitely not have made me feel safer. And do I really have to point out how counterintuitive it is to mix alcohol and weapons?
I’m not hopeful we can make any real progress in this area soon. The leader of our country finally admitted there was Russian interference in our election only to blame Obama for not doing enough to solve the crisis he has been claiming for months was a hoax and a witch hunt. Meanwhile, at #trumpcare, a poster writes, “Karma’s a bitch… the racist Trump supporters who will die if #Trumpcare is passed, will have paid the ultimate price for their stupidity.” This could take a while, but at some point we all need to give civility and compromise a try.
For as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other, we have had teachers, those attempting to help others to increase their knowledge more rapidly than relying totally on first-hand experience. Yet despite our millenniums of practice, we have yet to figure out what makes one person better than someone else at this ancient practice. It seems counterintuitive that given the billions and billions we spend educating our children that we still don’t understand how to detect and evaluate so crucial a skill. These two reports, “Peering Around the Corner” and “No Guarantees,” published this past winter by Bellwether Education Partners, however, come to exactly that conclusion.
In these papers, the authors looked at eleven different states in order to assess how well the various hoops that prospective and current teachers have to leap through in order to begin or continue teaching classes work. The goal (and probably assumption) was that a careful study of the various ways we attempt to make sure that our teachers teach effectively would yield the key components of that which makes teachers better. Their conclusion (a summary of which can be found in this article based on the reports as well as this newspaper account) was that, “We don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers.” Despite licensure, teacher education programs, evaluation systems, in-service institutes, and hundreds of experts touting various different paths to teaching excellence (all of which generate heaps of revenue for the providers, often at taxpayer expense), the only useful predictor on how good teachers are going to be this year is how good they were last year. And for those new to teaching, there isn’t any difference-making training that would accurately ensure a first-year teacher would be successful. Yep, we spend billions and billions on standardized tests and training programs that don’t improve current teachers or predict who will be any good.
This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been claiming “artist” status for teachers for many years. Teaching requires such an intense combination of contradictory traits—obsessive organization has to co-exist with the necessary flexibility to adapt to current conditions. (If that makes no sense to you, then you’ve never had the joy of trying to conduct a lesson that needed careful concentration during a period when the first significant snowfall occurs. And no, I never taught below eighth grade, with the last twenty-five years spent in a high school—teenagers are just as distracted by crystalized water falling from the sky as kindergarteners.) You need to have a passion for your subject matter as well as being able to relate to the things that matter to your students, which is generally anything but your subject matter. Every day, you face from twenty-five to one hundred fifty kids with the goal of having unique, individual interactions with as many of them as you can as well as meeting educational standards often imposed by those who know nothing about your students. No day or class period will be anywhere close to the same as the day before, no matter how diligently you try to replicate previous successes. Most importantly, every day, your kids come to you expecting consistent professionalism, enthusiasm, and talent, despite their being all over the place in their emotions, motivation, and willingness to cooperate.
Of course nobody could find a system that could address all those skills, much less provide readily digested steps that would guarantee improvement in those expected to possess them. In my eBook, Snowflake Schools, I argue that the key traits any aspiring teacher should have are a good work ethic, creativity, self-discipline, communication skills, and a “Golden Rule” morality. Those qualities can only be assessed over the long haul; you can’t determine if people will consistently behave in those ways unless you observe them for months and years. And we all know those qualities don’t come easily—we have to fight to maintain them and will have periods where we are more successful in their execution than others. It’s a fool’s errand to try to in-service teachers on a good work ethic, for example. Yes, you could definitely provide expert help on some techniques your teachers might not have considered—especially for those new to the profession—but you couldn’t “make” them work harder if they weren’t driven to do so.
We also have to recognize that we can’t expect artists to conform to one set pattern of behavior. The quest for uniform teacher performance ignores the unique abilities and personalities every human has. Some teachers are very orderly, controlled, and matter-of-fact; some will be more spontaneous, funny, and wacky; and some will scare the living snot out of students without saying a word. All those types can be excellent instructors who might have a positive impact on your child. Teaching is not a popularity contest, and many kids need that tough task-master to push them harder while others flourish with a caring, supportive soul who remembers everybody’s birthday and always gives out treats around holidays. Like any relationship, some of our characteristics will mesh and others clash with our friends, family, and workmates. Teachers exist in a nebulous area somewhere between and part of all three of those categories, and you children will see them at various times as “buddy,” “boss,” and “relative,” with all the connotations those labels bring. No, teachers don’t exist completely in any of those realms and the Venn diagram for any individual teacher will tilt more toward one than the other two, but once you recognize how complex that dynamic is, you can begin to understand how impossible it is to provide step-by-step instruction for teachers to improve. Maybe one teacher needs some work on his empathy while another could get better at using her free time to plan for future classes while a third has troubles with classroom discipline while the next is way behind in the technology necessary to make the material much more interesting and accessible but the next…
Just as students with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders must have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) crafted and evaluated every year by their special education teachers/case managers, every teacher’s improvement plan is unique to that particular teacher. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for teacher institutes and opportunities for teachers to be exposed to new ideas. It does mean, however, that the school climate needs to recognize how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher so that those new ideas/techniques/insights are presented as concepts to be considered, not THE way things now need to be done. No matter how many PowerPoint slides are shown, how many catchy acronyms are coined, or how much administrative arm-twisting is used; teachers will assimilate other ideas into their systems much the way we all take in food. Some will be delicious and immediately incorporated into our regular diets, some will revolt us and be rejected forever, and some will have a few interesting flavors that we will revisit only after altering the recipe and/or preparation methods.
But the overall approach should flow from the foundation that only the individual teacher will be able to figure out if the basic ingredients show any promise at all. A teacher’s rejecting suggested methodology should not just be tolerated, but encouraged. Only when teachers are trusted to know that which will be most effective for their classrooms can outsiders have the slightest chance of helping them with modifications and changes that could help them improve. It should come as no surprise that most experts have no clue on training good teachers. It’s an idiotic question in the first place. Good teaching comes from good teachers and there are countless ways to be one.
I recognize that this seems a totally self-serving and ridiculously convenient view, especially coming from someone who used to be a teacher. “Yeah, right, Jim—no matter what a teacher does, as you’ve outlined it here, you will find a glib way to make it seem okay. That’s precisely the lack of accountability which has led to teachers and their unions being perceived as status quo guardians who couldn’t care less about how well our kids learn as long as everyone accepts that they know best. There has to be a way to determine if a teacher is capable of performing your so-called ‘art’ well enough to justify the huge salaries you believe they should earn. You’ve already praised tenure laws and unions despite their protecting the incompetent, and you have ceaselessly denigrated the only objective means of assessing teacher quality—standardized tests—as poor measures of student learning. With that kind of impenetrable protection, incompetent teachers can continue to be horrible their entire careers, leading to the mediocrity we’ve endured ever since collective bargaining laws gave teachers and unions preferential treatment. And don’t get me started on your obscene pension plans, of which you are currently benefitting! C’mon!”
Okay, that’s quite a lot for me to cover, despite its being a self-created rhetorical barrage which should normally consist of a lot more softball questions. Believe it or not, I do have responses to all of that, but there’s no way I could adequately discuss them in a single blog entry. (And I have countered those criticisms before in other blog entries—many of which you could find on this site.) However, in the near future, I will try to deal with the key issue analyzed in this particular essay—how can you differentiate between a good teacher and a bad one. There are unmistakable characteristics that, despite all my emphasis on different teaching styles being valuable, should be absolute necessities and which are observable, thus capable of being assessed in order to rid the teaching profession of those who shouldn’t be in it. Of course there are bad teachers; and to address another of the points my hypothetical critic made previously, school districts have four years (in Illinois, and multiple years in most states) to determine if a new hire has what it takes to be a good teacher.
Be that as it may, we’ll take a look at some characteristics we should expect from all teachers next time.
Last time, we introduced the topic of “Corporate Reform,” a broad label which includes many groups with various approaches to improving public education. Despite their varied specialties (from charter schools to vouchers to technology to standardized testing being linked to teacher evaluations to the Common Core to the elimination of teacher rights, such as tenure and unions), the key commonality these organizations share is that the bulk of their funding comes from billionaires who amassed fortunes through business dealings, which is where the “corporate” part of the label comes in. My key point in the previous article was that we critics of these reformers (of which I am a strident one) tend to let that label do all our talking for us without a more reasoned and specific analysis of what these many different movements entail. But that kind of broad-brushed attack is no more convincing to me than those who claim all schools are terrible and that we need to start from scratch in rebuilding education in America. We need to understand the specifics of what these people want for education in order to ward off that which is counter to the best interests of our kids. And what better place to start than with one of the original education-focused billionaires—Bill Gates.
Gates is the most notable among those who earned a fortune, stepped back from his business role, and leapt into charitable works designed to improve society. And I do believe his motives are generally positive; he does want to assist in making society better. Given his obsession for detail and desire for control, however, he hasn’t been content to find really significant people already in the education field to support, but instead has attempted to head the reform movement himself, along with his wife, Mindy. Thus, the bulk of his time and money goes to the Bill and Mindy Gates Foundation. That key distinction is what has made Gates suspect right from the start: The obvious question is, “Who the hell is Bill Gates to determine what’s best for America’s schools?” I believe that’s still at the crux of why we need to be extremely wary of anything coming from Bill or his foundation. He gets to make the call on what’s good or bad, not the teachers doing the work who are the only ones who have a solid understanding of what’s going on in their classrooms. In our country, apparently, his willingness to sign checks has allowed him to bypass the usual requirement for practical expertise and proven results before rising to positions of leadership. To hear Gates speak, one would assume he came to his current perch after years teaching, more years administrating, further years researching as a professor in one of our top universities, and even more years at various levels of government working to improve and make laws that would advance public education. But actually, no, he made gazillions selling software, and he’s using those gazillions to pursue his hobby, which is saving public education.
What he says: The foundation celebrated its fifteenth year of existence this past October, and Gates was interviewed and gave speeches at various foundation activities. His overall view: “Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests. This is the combination of advances we are backing that we believe will transform America’s schools—and at the center of it all is an effective teacher.”
Nobody would contradict or disagree with any of that. Okay, you probably could find some who would, but I’m talking about rational, reasonable people. The problem I have with Gates’s objectives, right from the start, though, is that he’s assuming a common, single, universal definition for all those subjective qualities he enumerates—“high standards,” “effective teacher,” and of course, the incredibly easy-to-determine-objectively “support to be phenomenal.” But when you read what Gates has said about public education and see his programs, you get a strong sense that he believes he can find the correct formula which will lead to what he defines all those things as. That belief—that there’s a single method to do a complicated activity involving human interactions (which flies in the face of our history, not to mention how education has worked)—informs the rest of Gates’s approaches and leads him only to things which can be quantifiable. Data is king to Bill, and it’s understandable that a computer software engineer would believe that there is a code to be unlocked in every aspect of life.
You can see this over and over in his comments which are based on the research HIS people have done. For example, the Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project (see http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED540956.pdf) has identified the nine principles for improving teaching: Set goals, use multiple measures, balance weights, monitor validity, ensure reliability, assure accuracy, make meaningful distinctions, prioritize feedback and support, and use data for decisions at all levels. Not too much to attack in that either, but once again the Foundation is acting as if all those subjective ideas can be objectified to the point of formulaic applications. “Meaningful distinctions”? C’mon, you can’t get much more subjective than that, but of course, I forget: If you apply data to your views, you will be able to reach consensus on the most meaningful distinctions, right?
Well, no, it just doesn’t work like that when you’re attempting to analyze the millions of variables that go into assessing which technique is most effective for one human being leading twenty-five younger human beings in getting those twenty-five to understand, retain, and apply skills that we believe will be useful to our world. Change even one of those twenty-six people—to say nothing of the school environment, the community culture, or the resources available for a school district—and your results will also change. We will never be able to create a lesson, school organization plan, district improvement blue print, state standardized test, or federal set of standards which will be useful in all situations for all teachers and students.
Teachers have known this for their entire working lives, as the lesson plan that killed for one class dies painfully one period later. Something as basic as the time of day can play a huge factor in how teachers have to plan for their classes. I regularly had three English I Honors classes in my schedule with one early in the day, another around lunch, and the third the last period of the day. And I had to change how my day’s plans would be structured based on my early period’s sleepier, less alert responses; my lunch period’s short attention spans, especially when I had the joy of a split period schedule (half of class, lunch, second half of class. Yeah, they really do that some times. My department would be assigned these kinds of classes since they wouldn’t split P.E. or science lab classes, but it’s “no problem” for English), and the over-excitement and/or mental fatigue of my last period classes. Things are different every year, semester, quarter, week, day, and period when you teach. No matter how set in your ways you become—which is a danger in any profession, but seems especially problematic in teaching—the constant fluctuations in everything means that a certain flexibility is crucial to any effective teacher. And that means Bill’s “phenomenal support” will only be phenomenal if it matches what teachers want, which is fluid, based on how things change.
Plus, it would be foolish to ignore the reality of how that wonderfully effective teacher is also subject to life changes that will alter how she/he does the job. Part of the experience factor of teaching is that after doing the job for years (the exact time span will vary, although Bill will try to crack that code too, I’m sure), you just know how to do certain things that make your classroom effective and have jettisoned the things that weren’t, in corporate vernacular, “cost effective,” in terms of return (learning) for investment (time and effort). And like all superior artists (be they athletic or performing), the effective teacher will make use of that experience to give the appearance of effortless artistry. Having watched enough sports and listened to enough music in my time, I have come to accept the cliché that the great ones make it look easy. Michael Jordan would probably be my generation’s shining example of an amazing performer who seemed to glide through his world with the greatest of ease. Walter in his prime was the same way. But given the mundane commonality of teaching as well as its significant cost, few can recognize the unique artistry that thousands of teachers have in their performance arenas. Instead, we try to objectify and standardize what they do since we all contribute to their salaries and demand concrete results as if our kids were high-end automobiles still under warranty.
Which brings us back to Bill. His drive to figure out education hasn’t born much fruit so far. Two of his major initiatives have essentially been dropped by any and all educational practitioners. (One of the saddest perversions in our etymological history is the sadistic abuse public education leaders have perpetuated on the word, “initiative.” There is no message that generates more fear, anger, depression, and horror in any faculty cafeteria in America than the news that the school district is about to embark on a new “initiative.”) The Gates Foundation’s Small Schools Initiative and its data-gathering plan, InBloom, had negligible impact despite tens of millions invested. Rather than detail them, since they’re both essentially dead, I’ll let you read their autopsies (Small Schools and InBloom). And now the foundation is pushing its Measures of Effective Teaching Project as the latest “savior” of public education. Lord knows, most teachers are at best skeptical of most evaluation models, so one would hope this Gates initiative is more productive than the previous two billion or so the foundation has spent. Thus far, however, there is little to support that it will do anything more than burn valuable work time as teachers go through the motions of jumping through Bill and Mindy’s hoops until this too passes into oblivion (and consumes even more than the $45,000,000 it already has.
In the most charitable analysis possible, the Gates Foundation has done very little to improve the lot of any students while expending billions that could have been used on more beneficial pursuits. One day, perhaps, Bill Gates will understand how complex and individual teaching really is, and seek out ways to form partnerships with teachers to better the economic fundamentals which hurt so many families which don’t have the resources to focus enough on their children’s’ educations (for more on that, check out this article). Until that time, the Gates Foundation will continue to use its extensive cache of cash to do little besides keeping Bill in the spotlight and distracting everyone from the real possibilities for improving public education which would entail encouraging every teacher to seek his/her own unique path to teacher effectiveness. If you would like to read more on Bill’s educational exploits, you can check the following articles in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, and Washington Post again.
For more on freeing teachers to be the best they can be, check out my eBook Snowflake Schools. You can read entire chapters here.
As we begin 2016 with a new federal public education policy in place (The Every Student Succeeds Act, which we’ll take a more detailed look at in the near future), it seems appropriate to review that which preceded it: recently retired Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s last seven years as Washington’s education leader.
It’s important to recognize and be transparent about one’s biases right from the start: As a retired junior high and high school English teacher of thirty-three years, I have been a supporter of Barak Obama from the time he was a relatively unknown Senator from Illinois. In many ways—health care, energy, economic directions, equal rights issues, gun control, tax code, and many other domestic policies—I believe he has done an excellent job, or at least (in the case of gun control, specifically) articulated a view with which I agree. His foreign policy has seemed much less successful to me; but my expertise there is minimal at best, and it’s debatable just how much one leader can influence the world in this day and age. His greatest failing during his two terms in office, however (from my vantage point at least), has been how federal education policy was managed by his appointee, Arne Duncan.
The problems with the previous administration’s key education initiative, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, were clearly understood and negatively impacting schools when Duncan took over in 2009. Basically, school districts were required to use standardized testing to determine how well they were doing, with schools considered “Failing,” if a single sub-group population of students (based on race, special needs, and/or economic status—often representing a very small percentage of all a school’s students) did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on those tests, with the standard for AYP being set by the federal government. By 2014, 100% of all students were to be achieving at the “meets or exceeds standards” level on these tests, regardless of the fact that each year a different set of students would be taking the tests. (One-twelfth of the students from the previous year would have graduated, for example, meaning that the overall group would be at least 8% changed from one year to the next.) Regardless of the specifics of NCLB, the law pushed schools in the direction of using standardized tests as created by for-profit companies as the single most important metric in evaluating how effective or “good” a school was. Again, my biases shine through, but I believe a school as excellent as Hinsdale South High School (where I worked for twenty-five years) being rated as “failing” several years in a row based on NCLB, shows just how misguided this policy was.
Enter Duncan in 2009 with a clear mandate to address NCLB’s problems. But, instead of attempting to rectify the obvious failures of NCLB’s direction, he increased the importance of outside influences on schools with his Race to the Top program which doled out federal money only to schools deemed deserving based on criteria such as tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests—making them even more important to school districts than they had been previously. More Duncan policies were pushing schools to adopt standards created by those with no understanding of or experience with specific schools (the Common Core), as well as encouraging for-profit corporations to take over public schools, greatly increasing the number of charters in the country. The term, “Corporate Reform,” basically describes Duncan’s philosophy: More centralized control of schools achieved through weakening teachers’ rights and local school boards’ power in order to give state and federal governments more say in how schools are run. The goal was to use data (standardized tests) to identify poor-performing teachers, principals, and schools so that those resources could be redirected to privately run charters. Vouchers and tax credits were also favored, in theory so that parents could have more choice in which school received their tax revenue. Under some proposals along these lines, public funds could even be spent on private or parochial schools.
In short, Duncan presided over a period of the federal government’s trying to make public schools more like private businesses. If a business provides a good product (by Duncan’s criteria for schools, high standardized test scores and low costs), then it will attract more customers (parents who want their children to attend that school). If the product is inferior (poor test scores or high costs), the company (school) should go out of business (close) to be replaced by those who will do a better job using a different business model (privately run charter schools funded with public funds) and fostering more competition for customers (parents shopping for schools among different charter and public school options).
Although there have been a few positives with this model—high school graduation rates have increased, and there have been modest improvements on some standardized test scores—overall, Duncan did not improve education in America. For every small gain, there have been much larger losses. Excessive standardized testing has led to a narrowing of schools’ curriculums, especially since only English and math tests counted when evaluating a school’s worth. Art, music, and physical education programs have suffered, with some schools dropping elective courses and even programs. Teachers now spend way too much time trying to prepare students for these tests, despite believing test prep to be a poor use of class time. And the results have shown little improvement in the test scores in comparison to other countries, many of whom do significantly less testing.
In the meantime, tests have stressed everyone, while enriching testing companies. Teacher dissatisfaction—difficult to measure accurately, I will concede—seems to have increased. My direct evidence is mostly anecdotal, but I do come from a teaching family and have had contact over the years with hundreds of teachers; and from what I’ve seen, teachers are significantly unhappier now than they were twenty years ago. And some evidence of this has cropped up in recent years as the baby-boom generation of teachers has retired. Many school districts are having difficulty in finding capable replacements as the profession of teaching has suffered the erosion of hard-earned rights and status in the public’s eyes with many outside “experts” attacking tenure as a refuge for incompetent, lazy slackers. The Common Core has also negatively influenced schools as teachers were compelled to change successful methods and programs in order to comply with what the experts had determined was “better.” One of the poorly understood aspects of Duncan’s granting schools waivers from meeting the aforementioned AYP targets of NCLB was his then being able to pressure schools into adopting the common core—the federal government’s “ransom” for not enforcing the unrealistic goals set for all schools by those completely unfamiliar with them.
Teachers’ feelings of powerlessness, lack of respect, and not being valued have increased to the point where many of my former colleagues are simply serving their time until retirement, encouraging students to stay away from the teaching profession, and/or leaving the field entirely for better working conditions and pay. The steady progress teachers made in the 1980s and 90s has given way to stagnation and regression. And despite all the time, effort, and billions of dollars spent on these federal initiatives, neither Race to the Top nor Common Core has improved public education for students, teachers, or parents.
In short, very few in the education field are sorry to see Arne Duncan go. That’s not to say that he was evil or bigoted or mean-spirited (unlike several of the current Republican Presidential candidates), but he pushed our schools in a negative direction. (And you really observant readers will notice how I’ve loosed my avalanche of criticism on Duncan, as though President Obama had nothing to do with this. He clearly has, and I do believe it has been his major shortcoming.) As mentioned earlier, we’ll take a look at the new federal law passed last month in the coming weeks, and it’s way too soon to evaluate the new Secretary of Education (who will probably be in office barely a year anyway); but Arne Duncan’s legacy (with Obama’s imprimatur) is not one that many will see in a positive way.
If you would like to see more analysis of Duncan’s seven years in office, you can check out the following sources, listed here by their publisher: The American Spectator, The Nation, Vox, Socialist Worker, The New York Times, this one from The Washington Post, and another one from The Washington Post. For more analysis of positive directions for public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools—you can find entire chapters here.