Friday, September 14, 2012

No more pencils, no more books....

I want to say something about the Chicago teachers.  I want to express my solidarity with them by saying something pithy and insightful about their struggle, about their problems, about what they are on strike for (even as NPR tells me they're about to settle.  Better late than never, huh?).

And I don't know enough about it to do that.

Digby has a post about it which starts off excoriating people who aren't teachers, people whose ignorance makes them experts on problems, and I don't want to be one of them nor to trash all of them; but the addendum at the end of the post is something I can respond to.  It's the story of her brother-in-law nearly losing his job because he assigned a book which offended some parents.  That's a story I can relate to.

Not because it has ever happened to me, or ever will.  My books are chosen for me by the community college where I teach, and my students are adults:  I am insulated from the complaints of parents because, by law, I can't even tell the parents what their children's grades are.  I'm certainly not worried about offending some mother's delicate sensibilities over what idea I've exposed her precious child to.  But I've been a pastor, and it's safe to say I'm a pastor in official concept only now because I lost my job due to ideas that offended some people.  Parents, most of them, but that had little or nothing to do with it.  Or maybe it did, since I was the age of most of their children.

Anyway, I have been in that position where your every utterance, your every action, your every deed, where ever you are, is subject to scrutiny, and where people are sharpening their long knives just waiting for the opportunity to do you in.  It's not a pretty place to be, especially because, as a pastor, just as a public school teacher, you have more responsibility than you do authority.  Administrators and principals and state legislatures and parents are all convinced you need to be told how to do your job, and all want to see the paperwork to be sure you are doing your job (I've skirted the edge of public-school type teaching, and it is definitely not for me), and then want to sit in the classroom and "evaluate" you based on whether you make them happy or not (the students are not a fit judge of that!  And sometimes they are; more often, actually, they're not.).  I've sat and stood and walked through rooms where I knew everything I did was being weighed and found wanting, was being weighed and measured and criticized and decided against me, no matter what I did.  I've been focused solely on my job, only to have hundreds of bosses who all wanted me to know they knew what my job was, and it wasn't what I was doing, or what the rest of my "bosses" thought I should be doing.

I've seen teaching from that side:  you stand before the classroom and take command, but your power is limited and your responsibilities are great, and if the students don't learn because it's like trying to educate bricks, it's your fault.   And if a classroom should learn, should actually respond to what you say, should actually take something from what you did and keep it for their own,, then it's only what you are supposed to do.  I've been in the position where everyone says it's the children who are most important, or the church, or God, and yet you knew better than to believe any of that; or you should have.

I agree with Digby:  I can remember when teachers were the backbone of society, when the teacher's word was law, even unto my parents.  Even when my father disagreed with a teacher (and he did, strongly, once, in all my memory of public school) he would not let me think of her as anyone but my teacher, and I had to respect that.  I grew up the same way in church:  respect the pastor, even if you disagree with him.

I feel like an old man, an old conservative man, when I say I've seen all of that eroded.  I'd like to get mad at the MSNBC panel, as Digby does.  But they aren't even representative of the derision of teaching in America today.  They are just one more spit in the ocean.

I don't know what happened.  Corey Robin says it's because upper class families hate teachers,  Maybe so; my father was a white collar professional, but he came from working class roots.  He only went to college because of FDR's GI bill, not because he came from a long line of Ivy Leaguers.  I do know people who spend A LOT of money sending their kids to private schools, and they want to be assured their kids have the best teachers possible (and the toughest.  In matters of pedagogy, Dewey still hasn't had much impact beyond The New School).  But perhaps those aren't the upper class families Robin means.  The people I know still work for a living, despite the massive remunerations they receive; and they know their kids won't live like that without hard work and an excellent education and a driving ambition, and private schools are bought as incubators of personal ambition.

On the other hand, I've never really seen the American upper class as arbiters of public taste in much of anything, so Robin's thesis leaves me a bit flummoxed.  Maybe Rick Perlstein is right, and the main problem here is Rahm Emanuel's personality.  And maybe this is the lesson:

The teachers’ response to this abuse is something all of us should be paying attention to. If Chapter 1 of the American people’s modern grass-roots fight against the plutocracy was the demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the spring of 2011, and Chapter 2 was the Occupy encampments of that summer, the Chicago Teachers Union’s stand against Emanuel should go down as Chapter 3. It’s been inspiration to anyone frustrated that people have forgotten how good it feels to stand up to bullies — and how effective it can be.
 I'm with Digby:  the idea that 1/3rd of the teachers (per Nicholas Kristof, who really ought to know better than to quote Professor Otto Yerass) are "bad"  is not only vague and amorphous (is a teacher who assigns Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" to high school seniors "bad"?  Discuss.), it's a ludicrous swipe from a comfortable distance.  Far too easy to stand off and identify "failure" in generic terms to people you don't really know.  Corey Robin hits that nail on the head:

But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition.
 It's a condition we live with, until "they" are taking "our" money, and then we are easily convinced "they" are not giving "us" our money's worth.  Although I think Matt Yglesias is only half-right:  we may resent unions which drive up taxes with their salary demands, but what we really resent is teachers demanding a living wage.  It wasn't that long ago that public school teachers were mostly women (probably still are, come to think of it), and they were expected to a) live off their husband's salaries, or b) not be so greedy, after all, they had two incomes, or c), not be married; the "spinster;"  the "old maid."  Well, she didn't need much money to live in rented housing, brew tea, and feed a cat, now, did she?

And private school teachers, by the way, make less than public school teachers; at least on average.  They teach private school because the parents are more supportive, by and large,  and because the kids are the product of selection, not just of the neighborhood.  These things make a difference, over the years.  But private schools tend to hold onto the money as tightly as public schools do.

I still don't know what to tell you.  Don't get me started on "teacher evaluations."  Let Diane Ravitch tell you about them.  I have nothing interesting to say about charter schools except what I know about how disastrous they were in Texas.  Diane Ravitch is a better resource on that, too.  School reform through free enterprise?  Ms. Ravitch has that also (and not for the first time do I remember what an idiot Stephen Brill is.  These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.)  She can even give you helpful suggestions on what we should do.

I got all of those from Corey Robin, at the end of that post I linked.  There is much out there, and I suppose if you can read it you should thank a teacher.  But if you can think about it, you should really thank a teacher.

Maybe we need a new narrative.  I'm sure the internet is not wanting for explanations and solutions to thise problems.  A new narrative is an attractive place to start.  But new narratives require "new styles of architecture, a change of heart."  Getting that, I'm not so sure about.  Because more and more I am convinced the greatest conspiracy extant in the world today is the one against thinking.  It is easier to be sure your knowledge is right, than to be sure your thinking is sound.

Jesus teaches us that the first among us shall be last of all and servant of all.  The Didache teaches us that the labourer is worthy of his hire.  But the irony is that a culture which calls itself Christian so soon forgets another title for Jesus was "Teacher."


  1. Sherri2:04 PM

    If you want to learn a whole lot more about school reform, read Diane Ravitch's book, The Life and Death of the Great American School System.

    The question I always want to ask the "reformers" is then what? Okay, let's give you the magical power to identify and fire the poor performing teachers. Then what? What happens next? Do you find Super Teachers to replace them? Do you just keep firing teachers until morale improves?

    Bill Gates is one of the prime movers and funders behind school reform, and this method of evaluating teachers sounds like a cheaper and quicker method of bringing Microsoft performance reviews to education. At Microsoft, employees are given performance rankings from 1 to 5, with 1 the highest (I think, they flip it every so often.) Ten percent of the company has to be given 5's, every year. At Microsoft, since there aren't anything like test scores to use, that means that there are "calibration meetings" that happen starting among managers that have a few reports and moving up the chain, until all the politicking and horse-trading is down and all the buckets have been filled with the right numbers. This is the system that our philanthrocapitalists think will make society better, but it's obviously too expensive and time-consuming to do with teachers, so let's use these handy-dandy test scores. Never mind that they're noisy and probably don't tell us much about the students, much less the teachers. They're here, and that's good enough.

  2. Sherri--

    Charles Pierce made an excellent point about "reform" in quoting a striking teacher in Chicago:

    "It's funny," said Patrice Thomas. "The world 'reform' seems like it means a different thing to some people. To us, it means air-conditioning when it's hot, and class sizes that are somewhat manageable."

    Thomas is a special-needs case manager at the Barbara Vick Center, an early-childhood education center on the city's South Side that serves 300-odd children between the ages of three and six, a significant number of them with special needs.

    Read more:

    I leave the link should anyone wish to follow it. I include the second paragraph because those are the kids who will NEVER go to a charter or private school (unless Daddy is Romney). Those are the kids no one mentions and, really, no "reformer" cares about.

  3. At Microsoft, employees are given performance rankings from 1 to 5, with 1 the highest (I think, they flip it every so often.) Ten percent of the company has to be given 5's, every year.

    Somebody, in other words, has to fail, in order to make the rest of us think we have "succeeded." After all, without losers, how will we know who the winners are?

    I knew an RC priest at seminary who wondered why our seminary used that model. His RC seminary kept everyone in the seminary until that individual was ready to leave, not until they'd completed an arbitrary set of tasks based on an equally arbitrary timeline.

    There are alternatives. But most of what passes for education reform is "Same song, second verse! A little bit louder and a little bit worse!"

  4. What a fine post, Rmj. My sympathy lies with the teachers. Yes, there is the occasional poor teacher with tenure (if there is still such a thing as tenure), but teachers do much more than teach. The public schools must take all comers and teach and care for and about children with widely varied abilities and backgrounds, including a number from severely stressed families.

    I'm learning a bit more about the local schools since I am now a part-time mom to the children of my son, who is a single dad, with full custody on his son and half-time custody of his daughter. I'm with my 12 year old grandson in the afternoons until his dad gets home from work.

    My grandson, who has been diagnosed with ADHD attended one of the local Roman Catholic elementary schools through the 5th grade. The school did not cope well with children who were challenges. Last year was a kind of nightmare, and I don't know if I could have helped my grandson through another year at the school. Some of his "infractions" were so minor that I wondered why the teachers and principal made so much of them and contacted parents about them. Since he was going into the 6th grade, which is the first year of middle school in the public schools, my son decided to transfer him.

    Last night, my son and I went to the open house at the new school, sort of cringing to hear how the first few weeks had gone, even though we had not yet had a call from the principal's office. All the teachers said he was smart and doing well. My son and I looked at each other, wondering if they were talking about another child. My grandson is a challenge to my son and to me and his grandfather, so we know. It's early days yet in school, but we hope and pray that the better times continue.

    Sorry to give you my life story as a preface, but I have a point. All of the teachers we met were energetic, enthusiastic, and seemed to love what they were doing. We were most impressed with what we saw and heard, and I would stand up for them in a heartbeat.

    My granddaughter breezed through the RC elementary school and is now in honors classes at the RC high school. What can I say? The private school is not for every child. My granddaughter knew what she had to do to play the game. She's a bit of a rebel, but she mostly stays within the boundaries. My grandson is not good at playing the game. If you win him over, he will cooperate most of the time. The teachers last year did not win him over, and he had the reputation as "a difficult child". I'm not saying the fault lay with the teachers, but we hope the fresh start will lead to better times.

    Alas, Robert, you seemed to be not very good at playing the church game, but I would be proud to have you as my pastor.

  5. My daughter attended private school until 9th grade. I respect all teachers, but especially those in public schools.

    Thanks for the story, Mimi.