Teachers Fight Back

The anger around the takeover of public education by corporate interests in America, and the use of standardized tests to measure the value of students and teachers has reached boiling point. The purpose of education has been hijacked by those who believe in a ‘bottom line’, and the teachers are justifiably furious.

Mr. Duncan,
I read your Teacher Appreciation Week letter to teachers, and had at first decided not to respond. Upon further thought, I realized I do have a few things to say.

I’ll begin with a small sample of relevant adjectives just to get them out of the way: condescending, arrogant, insulting, misleading, patronizing, egotistic, supercilious, haughty, insolent, peremptory, cavalier, imperious, conceited, contemptuous, pompous, audacious, brazen, insincere, superficial, contrived, garish, hollow, pedantic, shallow, swindling, boorish, predictable, duplicitous, pitchy, obtuse, banal, scheming, hackneyed, and quotidian. Again, it’s just a small sample; but since your attention to teacher input is minimal, I wanted to put a lot into the first paragraph.

Your lead sentence, “I have worked in education for much of my life”, immediately establishes your tone of condescension; for your 20-year “education” career lacks even one day as a classroom teacher. You, Mr. Duncan, are the poster-child for the prevailing attitude in corporate-style education reform: that the number one prerequisite for educational expertise is never having been a teacher.

Your stated goal is that teachers be “…treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society.”

Really?

How many other professionals are the last ones consulted about their own profession; and are then summarily ignored when policy decisions are made? How many other professionals are so distrusted that sweeping federal legislation is passed to “force” them to do their jobs? And what dignities did you award teachers when you publicly praised the mass firing of teachers in Rhode Island?

You acknowledge teacher’s concerns about No Child Left Behind, yet you continue touting the same old rhetoric: “In today’s economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children – English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty – to learn and succeed.”

What other professions are held to impossible standards of perfection? Do we demand that police officers eliminate all crime, or that doctors cure all patients? Of course we don’t.

There are no parallel claims of “in today’s society, there is no acceptable crime rate”, or “we rightly expect all patients – those with end-stage cancers, heart failure, and multiple gunshot wounds – to thrive into old age.” When it comes to other professions, respect and common sense prevail.

Your condescension continues with “developing better assessments so [teachers] will have useful information to guide instruction…” Excuse me, but I am a skilled, experienced, and licensed professional. I don’t need an outsourced standardized test – marketed by people who haven’t set foot in my school – to tell me how my students are doing.

I know how my students are doing because I work directly with them. I learn their strengths and weaknesses through first-hand experience, and I know how to tailor instruction to meet each student’s needs. To suggest otherwise insults both me and my profession.

You want to “…restore the status of the teaching profession…” Mr. Duncan, you built your career defiling the teaching profession. Your signature effort, Race to the Top, is the largest de-professionalizing, demoralizing, sweeter-carrot-and-sharper-stick public education policy in U.S. history. You literally bribed cash-starved states to enshrine in statute the very reforms teachers have spoken against.

You imply that teachers are the bottom-feeders among academics. You want more of “America’s top
college students” to enter the profession. If by “top college students” you mean those with high GPA’s from prestigious, pricey schools then the answer is simple: a five-fold increase in teaching salaries.

You see, Mr. Duncan, those “top” college students come largely from our nation’s wealthiest families. They simply will not spend a fortune on an elite college education to pursue a 500% drop in socioeconomic status relative to their parents.

You assume that “top” college students automatically make better teachers. How, exactly, will a 21-year-old, silver-spoon-fed ivy-league graduate establish rapport with inner-city kids? You think they’d be better at it than an experienced teacher from a working-class family, with their own rough edges or checkered past, who can actually relate to those kids? Your ignorance of human nature is astounding.

As to your concluding sentence, “I hear you, I value you, and I respect you”; no, you don’t, and you don’t, and you don’t. In fact, I don’t believe you even wrote this letter for teachers.

I think you sense a shift in public opinion. Parents are starting to see through the façade; and recognize the privatization and for-profit education reform movement for what it is. And they’ve begun to organize – Parents Across America, is one example.

To save yourself, you need to reinforce the illusion that you’re doing what’s best for public education. So youplay nice with teachers for one day – not for the teachers but for your public audience.

You also need to reassure those who leverage their wealth – and have clearly bought your loyalties – that you’re still on their side. Your letter is riddled with all the right buzzwords and catch phrases to do just that:

“…to change and improve federal law to invest in teachers” sounds like a wink-nod to TFA that federal dollars are headed their way.

“…sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth” can be nothing other than value-added standardized testing; a mill-stone for teachers but a boon to the for-profit testing industry.

“…transform teaching from the factory model…to one built for the information age” alludes to systemicreplacement of living teachers with virtual ones – bolstering the near monopoly of one software giant who believes the “babysitting” function of public schools is the only reason not to go 100% virtual.

“…recognize and reward great teaching” is stale code for “merit pay”; which is stale code for “bribe for test scores”; which comes down to “justification to pay most teachers less.” Lower teacher salaries, in turn, will free up money for standardized tests, new computer software, and other profitable pursuits.

No doubt some will dismiss what I’ve said as paranoid delusion. What they call paranoia I call paying attention. Mr. Duncan, teachers hear what you say. We also watch what you do, and we are paying attention.

Working with kids every day, our baloney-detectors are in fine form. We’ve heard the double-speak before; and we don’t believe the dog ate your homework. Coming from children, double-speak is expected and it provides important teachable moments. Coming from adults, it’s just sad.

Despite our best efforts, some folks never outgrow their disingenuous, manipulative, self-serving approach to life. Of that, Mr. Duncan, you are a shining example.

By David Reber

David Reber teaches High School biology in Lawrence, Kansas. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from the University of Kansas, and a…
Read more