Frustration: Teachers, non-teachers & education policy
I suspect that if any "educational elites" ever read any of my stuff, they quickly come to the conclusion that I am an educational Neanderthal. They probably picture me as a character from one of the Geico cavemen commercials. But I wonder if they have any idea how many of us Neanderthals there are. After one of my recent posts, Denine left the following comment:
As a first year teacher, I often feel like I am the only one who sees the "reality" in public education. I read your blog and realize that I am not alone.
The most gratifying thing from the writing I've done, whether it's in this blog or in the book I wrote, has been getting comments like that. I can't count the number of times that teachers approached me personally or wrote me letters telling me something to the effect that they felt like they could have written the book I wrote because it expressed exactly what they had been thinking. When I heard things like that, I felt like I had succeeded in what I was trying to do.
There are a lot of teachers who agree that one of the biggest problems in American education is that there are a lot of kids who don't try very hard, and that there are a lot of forces in our society that push them in that direction. There are a lot of teachers who agree about the disastrous effects that disruptive and apathetic students have on other kids stuck in classes with them. There are a lot of teachers who are frustrated because they lack the power to do anything meaningful to deal with these problems and they are expected to provide quality educational opportunities to all their kids despite them. I believe that unless something is done about these problems, education--at least in public schools--will never improve significantly no matter what other nifty reforms are imposed upon us. I've found that there are a lot of teacher who feel the same way.
I don't mean to speak for Denine, but I think she was expressing that sentiment when she also said this:
"I feel like I am at a total loss when it comes to solutions for so many of the problems in public education. I feel like most of my fellow teachers have given up and just accept things as they are. They all just tell me that I will do the same thing, too, in a few years when I realize that things are not going to change."
In a couple of posts in the past, I have expressed my frustration about discussing educational issues with non-teachers. Some non-teachers get offended by this, but I'm really not trying to give offense. I'm not saying that non-teachers have no right to an opinion on educational matters, and I'm not even saying that because they have never taught in a classroom that their opinions automatically have less validity than teachers. In fact, on some educational issues, they might even have more. Nevertheless, the experience of being in a classroom day after day does matter. It does give one a perspective on some things in education that you can't possibly have without it. Why does it seem like that perspective is ignored?
What is so frustrating about being in education, especially with the media and the elites of the nation constantly harping about how poor a job we're doing, is that policy is made by people who do not live their lives by teaching in classrooms. Policy is made by politicians, superintendents, and the like, and they seem to be most influenced by journalists, business leaders, high-brows from universities, and others who know nothing about what day to day life in a K-12 classroom is actually like. Yes, I know, someone might argue that our unions are very involved in making policy, but I'm not sure when the last time was that most of those union leaders were actually in the trenches of the classroom. I do know that our unions have failed miserably to express the concerns that I'm talking about.
This morning as I was watching CNN, a little item flashed across their screens saying that the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has announced that he believes we need to have a longer school year. Now, I am not against that. Heck, it would probably mean that I'd make more money. But let's face it, the biggest concerns about education in America have to do with our lowest achievers, and any teacher can tell you that the overwhelming majority of our low achievers don't try very hard. If you are going to do anything meaningful about that, the first thing that must be addressed is their lack of effort. Any teacher could also tell you that adding days to our school year will do absolutely nothing about that. But then, Arne Duncan was never a teacher.
Last week I posted about the effort in the Minnesota State Legislature to pass a law forcing kids to stay in school until they are 18-years-old. Any high school teacher I know could tell you that forcing every kid to stay in school is a bad idea. But the chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carlos Mariani, thinks it is a great idea. Surprise, surprise, Rep. Mariani is not a teacher. His former occupation before becoming a state legislator in 1990 is listed as consultant--whatever that means! The superintendent of the St. Paul schools, however, thinks Mariani has a swell idea. She made this wonderful sounding and incredibly naive statement about it: "When kids drop out, everyone loses." Anyone who has ever taught in a high school classroom can tell you how wrong that statement is, but then Ms. Carstarphan has never been a teacher. Her career before becoming the head of the St. Paul schools: a photographer and then a wiz-bang administrator.
I wish I had an answer for what to do about this, but I'm afraid I don't. All I can do, I guess, is to keep on blogging, and hope that others who've had similar experiences to mine do the same. But for those of you who are not teachers, I hope you'll have some patience with people like me when I complain about non-teachers and educational policy. I'm sure teachers aren't completely alone in this respect, but I don't know how many other people have occupations where the key decisions for them are consistently made by people who seem to have no idea what they are doing.