Happy New Gregorian Year 2010! Let's hope the incoming year, and decade, will be an improvement on the outgoing one.
Thanks for forwarding this article from Alexander Russo. You may have noticed that the latest issue of the AFT journal, American Educator, starts off with a piece by Arne Duncan heralding a new era for our profession.
Our public schools have had many problems, some of which should have been honestly addressed collectively by our profession long ago.
These have, in my opinion, two main sources -- firstly, societal problems -- dare one say pathologies -- that have historical and economic roots. These, afflicting, in different ways, both affluent suburbs and poorer urban and rural areas, cannot be solved by the schools. Primarily, they have to be dealt with by the society at large, both at the community level and nationally. This is not an easy task, as it needs a degree of introspection, reflection and collective effort that is not customary. And it also involves a level of discomfort which our society is averse to. Although the schools cannot solve these societal problems, the teaching community should have taken an active role in partnering with parents to draw attention to the almost insuperable difficulties they create in the schools, making teaching and learning very difficult.
In addition, the schools have long been afflicted by structural problems. I will not go in depth into these here, because they involve specific details that have been neglected or glossed over for many years. The details differ by grade level and by subject area. E.D. Hersh, whose article also appears in the same issue, touches upon some of the problems -- the neglect of systematic content, the overemphasis on methodology, and the subservience of the educational community to diktats dealt out by schools of education.
One may not necessarily, however, jump from this to an endorsement of a national curriculum, Singapore style -- as advanced in yet another article in this rather remarkable issue.
One of the problems we face here in NY State, in the high schools, is the unproductive pressures attendant on teaching crammed content in Regents classes to woefully unprepared and unwilling students. The pace at which this material needs to be taught, and the "curves" used by the State to "adjust" the examination scores at the end make this a truly criminal enterprise. National and State education departments have a role to play in setting guidelines and suggesting curricula. But without the flexibility and feedback mechanisms that we have been too long without, we tend to get rigid impositions that throttle creativity and create a most unpleasant setting in which to even attempt to teach or learn.
If one sees all of what appears in this issue of The American Educator in a favorable light, one may say that the AFT, under Randi Weingarten, is being open-minded about alternatives to our current system. However, when one notices that none of this punditry is balanced by perspectives from working professionals that argue and contradict with force where needed, one senses, once again, a massive sellout under way. We are being readied, if you can call it that, even at the official UFT intellectual journal level, for radical changes that are once again being imposed on us by external powers, far from the ranks and from the wisdom-base of dedicated and experienced practitioners. Is it in our interest, or in the interest of the children we teach, that this is being done? If you believe in Santa Claus, you'll buy that one. This may, perhaps, explain the timing of this issue.
Our union, is, essentially, allowing our journal to be used as a mouthpiece for this imposition, which amounts to the destruction of the public school system as we know it. In the name of professionalism, we are, unfortunately, being set to be even further de-professionalized.
One of the hallmarks of a profession is self-governance. University administrators in serious departments tend to be no more or less than professors who take their turn at administration for a few years before returning to their real jobs. But if you are a private in the army, the chances of your ever becoming an officer are slim. In our profession, we have had a separate supervisory class for too long. But at least in the past its members were drawn from our ranks, and there was an expectation that they were seasoned teachers. This too did not always work out too well. But now we are faced with the situation in which the corporate model of supervision is being thrust on us. And in that model, experience in labor is the least of the considerations.
The basic logical error, that is not being challenged by us collectively, and least of all by our union, is the scapegoating of the teaching profession for the problems in our schools.
In my opinion, the teaching profession, and its union representatives, are guilty of one primary sin -- that of not educating the public about the problems we face in the schools -- both the social ones (which are primarily responsible for the collapse of many schools) as well as the structural ones, including the two, often concurrent extremes of crammed curricula, almost impossible to teach or master coherently, and the ideological impositions of the ivory-tower schools of education, which have made even straight-forward "teaching" a culpability in the profession that used to call itself by that name.
These three things alone, combined, make it a miracle that we are still able to get anything done in the schools -- and for this, we have to look, with awe, at the effort and time invested by so many teachers and their students, often in extremely discouraging and stressful circumstances. Add to this the ever-present problems of sheer numbers -- hardly ever raised by these pundits -- the hundreds of homework, lab, examination, and other papers one needs to plow through weekly, and the near-impossibility of giving quality attention to individual students.
The standard argument given, in the past, and even now, against discussing these issues publicly is that any mention of problems in the schools would make us look bad. But how long could one honestly expect to sweep these under the rug? If we did not address these issues, who would? Could we truly expect sincere parents to just stand by forever?
One should, of course, highlight all our achievements. But a honest airing of the problems was long overdue. Without it, how could we ever hope to solve them? And should we be surprised, as those with interests of their own, and little or no knowledge of the real problems, once again blame us for the problems, advocating solutions based on the patently false, but amazingly uncontested, hypothesis that teachers are the cause, or a primary cause, of academic failures?
It is still not too late to join together collectively to seek solutions for the problems in the schools. This does not mean imposing yet another set of arbitrary "best practices" on our long-suffering colleagues, nor imposing content and examinations that are unteachable and impossible except by what amounts to force-feeding and fraud. Rather, it is gathering together to determine what are the minimal basic rights and working conditions that sincere teachers and their students need to do their specific jobs -- that of teaching and learning. Those who view this as too narrow a focus are welcome to widen it to social and other issues that are clearly relevant and important -- but without these minimal rights and working conditions, practical, down-to-earth things, agreed to and actively advocated, we will find ourselves in a position no different from that of our union leaders -- that of playing perpetual defense -- being, in their case, accommodating, or in the case of some us, confrontational -- and, in either case, losing out. Defense cannot be played to win. Only offense. And how can we launch an offense without a positive agenda, a minimal vision for the future of our profession, our selves and our wards?
Should we be content to forever rail against the Bloombergs, Kleins, Rhees, Duncans -- even "our own" Weingartens et al? Or should we be discontent with that, and put these folks on the defense instead?
the Washington Post have reminded readers that their story on Arne
Duncan represented a dramatic change from its previous reporting a year
ago? I think they should have.
A couple of days ago, the Washington Post ran a critical front-page article about Arne Duncan's legacy in Chicago (here)
Last year at just about this time the paper ran a very different account
on the Obama pick for education secretary -- even though Chicago's
lackluster NAEP results and other problems were already apparent. [see
picture at left]
Readers will recall that I was nearly apoplectic
about the superficial and credulous coverage that Obama's pick was
getting from the national press -- and the shady claims that Duncan's
team was making on his behalf (here
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