Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Teacher of the Year Portends the Future of Public Schools
Listening to 2005 National Teacher of the Year Jason Kamras, you get the sense that this guy is on to something. Unfortunately for public education, what he is on to is pretty scary.
To make this point, listen to what Kamras said in response to the question, "What do we need to do to close the achievement gap?"
It all comes down to people — getting quality teachers and school leaders to serve in our public schools, and in particular in communities that have struggled … I don’t define quality in traditional terms – how many years of experience you have, or if you have a master’s, or if you’ve taken all the right education courses. Rather [I define quality] in terms of your belief in the ability of all children to learn and achieve at high levels, and your ability to bring that to fruition – to effectively help all children learn at high levels.
Sounds good. Then again, who could argue against such a feel-good bromide?
But listen more closely as he is asked, "How do we get more high-quality teachers and school leaders to serve in public schools?"
I really thought about that a lot this year. … One, we need to establish that definition of quality, so we know what we are talking about. … Number two, we need to face a difficult truth, and that is that not all educators, not all school leaders serving in America, are effectively serving their children. And I’ve really taken this year to challenge my professional unions and in general the status quo to be a lot more progressive about embracing policies that make it easier to transition out people who are consistently ineffective. I think that’s really important. It not only helps to remove those who are not adequately serving children, but it also helps retain really effective people, because really effective, ambitious people want to go to work with other ambitious, effective people. And when they feel they are struggling against a system that doesn’t have that — that’s one of the biggest reasons why people leave education.
The second thing [we need to do to attract high quality teachers and leaders] is we need to create school environments that are really attractive to ambitious, high performing people. What I mean by that is we need to get rid of the “it’s always been done that way so that’s why we’re doing it” attitude in education. Ambitious teachers and school leaders want to try new things, they want to push the envelope . . .
What's both nauseating and disturbing to me is Kamras's use of the word "progressive" to sugar-coat union busting and to gloss over what most real progressives take as axiomatic, i.e., that the achievement gap has an awful lot to do with the income gap between the haves and the have nots.
Sure, there are lots and lots of really bad teachers in public schools who have no business being in a classroom. But there are even more really good teachers who not only need but deserve basic job security, the ability to negotiate the terms and conditions under which they work, and to have a powerful say about what to teach and how to teach it. Ironically, it's the unions that help preserve and defend the things that Kamras says that we need to do more of, i.e., retain effective and ambitious people. After all, without basic rights as a worker, without any kind of job security, without the ability to determine what happens in your classroom, and without the ability to try new, unconventional approaches, no one will stay in the teaching profession, especially "ambitious, effective people" who "want to push the envelope."
Moreover, there is a growing number of teachers who are directly challenging their administrations not because they are lazy, good-for-nothing, stand-in-the-way-of-educating-our kids types, but they are genuinely concerned as professional educators about the deteriorating quality of the educational plans they are being told to follow. One such group of courageous educators is known as The Downer 5. They took on the administration because they opposed the use of Open Court in their school. The result? All of them were "involuntarily transferred" to other schools in the district. The logic? Bust up the trouble-makers, punish them for their intransigence, and set a precdent for others.
Labor unions are supposed to protect the rights of their members. They're supposed to give their members the assurance that if a disagreement occurs between them and their administrative management, that they will have their grievances heard and fairly addressed. Absent this process, absent these provisions, and absent these assurances, teachers cannot stand up against the injustice they are seeing in their classrooms. But even with union representation in place, most teachers I know are unwilling to challenge or even question the practices that are arising in their schools in response to NCLB, practices like teaching to the test, excluding non tested-subjects like art, music, science, and foreign languages, and teaching to the "bubble kids."
And why are they unwilling to speak out against these things? Because they will be fired if they do.
But Kamras's rhetoric comes as no surprise, given his background: he is a product of Teach for America. Along with the other mostly white, privileged elitists who enter and exit Teach for America, Kamras is convinced that all teachers have to do is work harder, longer, and better. Kamras adopts the conventional TFA line and says nothing about the roles that the local, state, and federal governments should play in closing the achievement gap. And, like others from TFA, he takes the "poverty is no excuse" line.
Just listen to him here:
I’ve seen my own students who face extraordinary challenges in their lives succeed at very high levels, and I’ve seen many examples across the country of schools teaching in environments and neighborhoods where most people say, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything because of the poverty. We can’t do anything because of instability in the home, we can’t do anything because of gangs.’ But the students in those classrooms and in those schools that have been really successful are doing extraordinarily well in very difficult circumstances. The one constant I’ve found where I see an example like that is they just have extraordinary teachers and school leaders.
As if all of this weren't bad enough, the thing that really, really bothers me about Kamras is the fact that he dresses himself up as a civil rights activist:
I challenge our national leaders to step up to the national plate and really use the bully pulpit — and I’m not just talking political leaders, I’m talking entertainment leaders, religious leaders, business leaders — to spread the message that one of the most powerful and patriotic ways to serve your nation is to serve as a teacher or as a school leader. If we fail as a country to provide an excellent education for every child, then we not only rob them of their civil and human rights, but we also jeopardize our democracy and definitely jeopardize our future ability to compete in the world.
Come on, Jason. You can do better than that. If you want to issue a meaningful challenge, here's one for you: never talk about school reform without also talking about broader socioeconomic reform. Let's reduce the size of every classroom in America. Let's provide high-quality, ongoing, school-based professional development for every teacher in America. But let's also provide free, high-quality healthcare services for every child. Let's pay the parents of these children a decent wage so they can afford the kinds of things that middle-class parents take for granted, things like piano lessons and dance classes or even -- shudder to think of it -- books.
Yes, our schools need a lot of work. Teachers need a lot of help. But let's help them, not blame them.