The Bad Ass Teachers Association, Diane Ravitch, and every other teacher advocacy group make a strategic error when they argue that there is no crisis in American public education and that our public schools are doing better than they have ever done.
It is a strategic error for several reasons all of which weaken the argument against the corporate reforms that are sweeping the nation. It is a strategic error because it portrays public school teachers as being in complete denial and overly defensive.
The truth is that our systems of public education are in a deep state of crisis and it is a crisis in which teachers bear only a modest share of the responsibility and are as much the victims of the crisis as are the students in their classrooms.
While it is true that our nation’s top students are learning more than at any time in the history of public education we could make an argument that even the interests of these accomplished youngsters are being compromised by the crisis in education. The sad truth is that the students at the other end of the academic success continuum may be learning less than at any time in the history of public education.
The overwhelming majority of our nation’s public school teachers are heroes of the first order as they dedicate their lives and careers to serving the interests of our nation’s children. Yes, there are bad teachers just like there are underperforming members of every other population of professional men and women. Do teachers need to do a better job of policing their own? Absolutely! Do teachers’ unions and associations need to do a better job of serving the interests of both their members and the teaching profession? Absolutely!
When examining the problems of our systems of public education, no one is guiltless, teachers included. The flip side of that statement is that when examining the problems of our systems of public education, no group of people does more for the children in America than the men and women who stand in front of our classrooms. When examined with an objective eye, in the midst of all of the forces that conspire to thwart their efforts, what public school teachers accomplish is nothing short of remarkable.
The truth is that teachers deserve all of the support we can give them and they deserve none of the mounting blame and criticism that is heaped upon their heads and shoulders, unmercifully. It is also true that teachers need their unions and their associations. These are, after all, the only entities that support the efforts of teachers consistently. We do not plan to let the teacher organizations off the hook, however, as they are no different than any other business organization and need to relentlessly re-examine their mission, their strategic objectives, and retool themselves in an ever-changing political environment.
The one thing about which we can be sure is that very little of that which has worked in the past can be expected to work in the future.
Let us examine the evidence for the argument that our systems of public education are in a state of crisis. For the benefit or our teachers we are going to save the empirical evidence for later. The compelling truth is that teachers know in their hearts that public education is in crisis because they deal with the reality of it every single day in their classrooms.
You know it every day when the emphasis you are asked to place is more on test preparation than sustained learning. You know it every day that you must move your class on to a new lesson when you know there are students who are not yet ready; students who do not yet understand yesterday’s material and will be even less prepared to understand what is presented to them tomorrow.
You know when you deal with the disruption of students who will not behave and will not try and when their parents are convinced that you are being unfair to their child.
You know it when you deal with students who could be honor students if only they would try. You know it when parents of such students seem to have no more ability to motivate their children than you do.
You see it when you experience, first hand, the performance gap between the white and minority students in your classrooms and you know that many of the students who are failing place no value at all on education and neither do many of their parents.
You know it when, at the end of a school year you are approached by administrators asking what you can do to help a student improve his or her grade so they are able to graduate with their class; students who have done little or nothing to earn that grade for an entire semester or school year.
You know it when you look at children who are weighed down by the crushing burden of a range of disadvantages: disadvantages with which the students are as powerless to deal as are you, their teachers.
The empirical evidence for the crisis is so overwhelming is seems almost pointless to rehash the data. That teachers are unfairly blamed for the results of the standardized competency examinations administered in their respective states does not mitigate the fact that far too many children are failing.
There is the performance gap between white and black students, and between white and other minority students a gap that show no sign of narrowing and yet is rarely the topic of frank discourse.
NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results that show that a full 60 percent of American students are below proficiency in virtually every subject of inquiry and anywhere from 85 to 90 percent of minority students are below proficiency. Contrary to the arguments of so many of the defenders of public education, the demarcation line between proficiency and below is the one that counts. NAEP defines “proficient” in several ways but the most noteworthy is the assertion that students must be able to use in real-life situations what they have learned in school. Anything less than this is simply unacceptable no matter how much we might wish, otherwise. After all, if we cannot use knowledge or skills in real life then we have not really learned.
So, the reader may ask, what are teachers to do in the face of the unreasonable scrutiny and the unfair burden of blame heaped on them by reformers and many of the families they exist to serve? It is so easy for teachers to feel overwhelmed by the forces that impede their ability to do what they know must be done.
The answers to these questions are the subject of my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.
For the purpose of today’s subject, the answer is that teachers need to stand tall and declare, going beyond what the Bad Ass Teachers are declaring:
“Damn right the system is in crisis and we’re through taking the blame for an antiquated educational structure and process that has not been substantially altered for more than a century.”
“We are through taking the blame for what may be the lowest level of student motivation to learn on the part of students in decades.”
“We are sick and tired of being held responsible for the cavernous disparity in the levels of preparation of students when they arrive at our door for their first day of school.”
“We are fed up with being blamed for the burgeoning population of American parents who have lost hope and faith in the American Dream and no longer believe that an education provides a way out for their sons and daughters.”
And, “We categorically reject responsibility for a reality that the combined power of the influence of the peer group and social media, both of which are fueled by the power of Madison Avenue, has made it exponentially more difficult for parents to sustain their role as the biggest influence in the lives of their pre- and post-pubescent children.”
When parents have ceased being the major influencing force in the lives of their children it will be that much more difficult for teachers to preserve their own level of influence in the lives of those same children.
But complaining about these realities will only take teachers so far. The operative question is what can be done about these challenges and right now, in this point in history, the only ones coming forth with what they believe to be a solution, however ill-advised it may be, are the corporate and government reformers with their “runaway train of misguided educational reforms.”
The Bad Ass Teacher Association, by taking a stand and shouting that they “aren’t going to take it anymore,” has positioned itself to play a lead role in countering the “reformers” with real and meaningful reforms of our educational process. In my next post, I will publish and open letter to the Bad Ass Teachers of America challenging them to take the lead in changing this reality and offering a comprehensive plan of action as a place to begin.