What’s Your Favorite Gimmick?
I will start by simply saying that I know I don’t have easy solutions for the problems we are seeing in urban districts. Are there teachers who expect too little of students, or perhaps of themselves? Yes, unfortunately there are. Children who don’t have adequate background knowledge or support at home? Yes, far too many of them. Should people in the field of education have been more proactive and responsive to a changing society? Absolutely. I would even go so far as to say that as a society we have not placed equal value, or corresponding funds and other resources, on all citizens who enter our public school system. Without a doubt, we have plenty of challenges that need to be addressed. However, there are too many odd, unfounded remedies to “fix'” our problems in public education and mostly they involve gimmicks that are little more than smoke and mirrors. In our “reality” TV society, sexy, splashy and vociferous action gets far more attention than a methodical, academic approach. The federal government may have asserted a need for “evidence-based practice” in education, but administration seems far removed from that requirement. Heck, just about anything goes.
One interesting trend, disguised as magic solution, is that of placing non-education people into positions of leadership in urban districts. An emphasis on corporate practices in the superintendent’s office is, in some cities, considered a valid and proper substitute for one of pedagogy. When did we decide as a society that it would be a good idea to put people completely or relatively unfamiliar with the realities of working in the classroom into the important position of deciding how to run a school or a district? Could I start shopping my resume into, maybe the upper echelons of the law profession? Mine is a good, strong resume, I’m highly qualified in my own field. Surely these skills-transfers work reciprocally, as with people entering education administration… Hmm, maybe my resume would go over well in the business world. I could apply for a management position or maybe even CEO. I’ve managed my own classroom budget, I could even apply for CFO somewhere if I set my mind to it…
Another really damaging movement is the increased vilification of teachers. When I was a kid, teachers were generally treated with respect and it was assumed that most of them were doing their work out of genuine desire to help others. They obviously weren’t doing it for the cash. Now it’s common to doubt teacher motives and intentions, it’s common to paint all teachers with the brush that’s really only appropriate for the few who don’t act as professionals. Big cities seem almost proud of the wretched means they use to devalue or dispose of teachers, often with active engagement of the newspapers in the blood-sport. There’s plenty of talk about the crucial role of teacher effectiveness in student achievement. The other side of that issue is not getting equal coverage–teachers are frequently expected to produce astonishing results in the classroom (read: test scores) with minimal resources provided to help them in that endeavor. We are held to a contradictory, tangled bundle of standards and any real or perceived failure to meet them only proves the point of the naysayers. Human beings are fallible, and employees in all fields have been known to make errors. Witness, for example, recent controversies involving the Denver Police Force, which strike me as far more disturbing than low test scores.
Another troubling measure, masquerading as a sure fix to education woes, is the insidious movement to devalue teachers unions. Detractors in the press delight in labeling teachers unions obstructionist, insisting that they are designed more to protect ineffective members than to ensure progress in the nation’s schools. Statements to that effect have been repeated so many times, they’ve achieved a status of dogma in some circles. Somehow, we just aren’t seeing the same kind of relentless criticism directed at other fields or their unions. I don’t see blame assigned to firefighter or police unions when cities experience more fires or higher crime levels. I have yet to hear calls for charter police forces or suggestions that firefighters without unions would clearly perform much better. It makes many of us wonder just who is pulling the puppet strings in determining education policy and whether it’s the teachers unions that they dislike or just the way that some of us dress.