If your life was changed because of one great teacher, raise your hand.
Mine was changed by about five great teachers. I write today because I had an English teacher who expected the very best I could give when I was 17 years old. Mr. Johnson didn't give anyone an A on their essay, ever. You counted yourself lucky to get a D. If you got a D, you didn't have to rewrite it unless you wanted to. Anything lower than that meant a full rewrite with many scathing comments. We hated it and we hated his droll method of teaching then, but my Facebook friends and I agree now that he was probably one of the most influential teachers we had.
Oh, and he was a union guy. All our teachers were. But that was before the days of Proposition 13, when teachers were paid to be good teachers and not produce standardized test results, though I also credit Mr. Johnson's coaching with passing AP test results that year. After Proposition 13 and in the years since, the trend is to turn education over to the profiteers via charter schools and online learning, all in the name of "budget savings."
The skills Mr. Johnson taught me cannot be measured by standardized tests and value-added evaluations.
Mr. Johnson is long-retired. I don't know if he's still alive, even. But I do know that if we keep going the way of charter schools and vouchers, the Mr. Johnsons of this world won't spend their time teaching. You'd have to be insane to do that. He was a lot of things, but he wasn't insane.
Diane Ravitch's column in today's Washington Post paints a picture of our education system that should concern us all, whether or not we have kids. Yes, this is something I have to remind my neighbors about when they complain that they have no children yet pay taxes for education. An educated society is a prosperous one. We all benefit from educating children, even children of undocumented workers.
Governors and state legislatures heed these messages. How could they not? In state after state, men with vast personal fortunes invest in campaigns to end teachers' tenure, end seniority (now called Last In, First Out, or LIFO), and clear the way for private takeovers of public schools, where teachers work with no job rights at all. Understandably, the message is embraced by right-wing governors like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Rick Scott of Florida, but also by Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Daniel Malloy of Connecticut, as well as independent Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, the richest foundation in the United States, the Gates Foundation, pours hundreds of millions of dollars into a project to find the perfect teacher evaluation system, thus reinforcing the "reform" narrative that the best way to fix what ails public education is to create a foolproof way to find and fire those malingering bad teachers. Where the Gates Foundation leads, many other foundations follow, sure that this philanthropic behemoth is wisest because it has the most money and presumably the best thinking.
The one thing Ravitch didn't mention that I wish she had? The alliance Gates and ALEC have forged, which is directly related to the goals of these right-wing governors. Remember, this is the purpose of their $300,000+ grant to ALEC:
Purpose: to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement
Here's the problem. The "more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes" include crazy ideas like shaming teachers, firing them even though they're effective simply because their evaluations don't meet "value-added" benchmarks, opening more charter schools with money from the likes of WalMart, DeVos and Gates, and basically undermine all of the foundations of our public school system. Yes, this is something we'd expect right-wing governors to embrace, but could we possibly get our President and those budget-minded Democrats to repudiate it?
Here is what's in store if we don't find a way to stop the erosion and destruction of public schools, via Dissent Magazine and Joanne Barkin:
Ed reformers liven up their websites with photographs of happy-looking school children, many of them minorities: the kids are busy at work or smiling into the camera. Meanwhile, their self-appointed benefactors ally with politicians who are slashing school budgets, cutting social services and benefits, gutting jobs programs, undercutting health-care reform, pummeling public sector unions, and passing laws that make it harder for the children’s parents to vote. The disconnect between what ed reformers claim to be doing for low-income children and what they actually bring about boggles the mind.
Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the “public” in public education. Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one—not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.
I don't know how to say this loudly enough to be heard by those who need to hear it. Our public schools are in jeopardy, and by extension, our democracy. We cannot profitize the schools and expect democracy to survive. One need only look at the mess in Florida after Rick Scott's hatchet job on public schools to understand this. In my very own neighborhood, the only high performing public school with Latino students was closed to make way for an underperforming charter school that is now fraught with political division and may be at risk of being closed by the district.
In two months, my youngest child will graduate from a public school. She has gone to public schools all her life. Her high school is one of those "at-risk" schools under No Child Left Behind. As I write this, she has been accepted to nine out of ten universities she applied to, including ones that only accept 5 percent of those who apply. She is waiting for a decision from one more: Stanford. She didn't get those acceptances simply because she worked hard and was bright. She got them because she had dedicated, caring teachers who came from the community where they now teach. I repeat: this is a school that has been classified as an at-risk school and as a result has had to anticipate the withdrawal of federal funds if they do not raise test scores.
What's wrong with that picture?