Saturday, May 21, 2011

Heroes Who Don't Fight: America's Education Reformers

I TAUGHT FOR 33 YEARS, SO I INTEND TO USE MY BLOG to defend good public school teachers whenever possible. 

Still, you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to know there are bad teachers. We used to joke of a colleague at my school that you could have replaced him with a cardboard cutout with his picture and students wouldn’t have noticed the difference for months. 

So, yeah, we need to do more to weed the dandelions in the classroom. 

When I started doing research for a book about education, however, I was stunned to find out how little time our nation’s “leading” education reformers have spent in the classroom. On November 30, 1979, for example, President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler first United States Secretary of Education.                                                           

It marked the start of a bizarre trend.  

Hufstedler was charged with leading the battle to save U. S. education; but in 1979, at the start of my fifth year in a classroom, I already had more teaching experience than the new Secretary of Education. In fact, I had her beat by four years and two months. Hufstedler never taught a day in her life. She probably knew no more about teaching than I did about driving a car at the Indianapolis Speedway, playing concert piano with the London Symphony, or performing brain surgery. 

Mr. Carter simply plucked her from the federal bench. 

Terrel Bell, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, came next in 1981. Bell was originally tasked with dismantling the whole Department, an idea most teachers might now support, but he was, at least, a man who had at tried his hand at teaching for a living. 

William Bennett, Reagan’s second appointee and third to hold the coveted position as Education Czar was another teaching virgin. Big Bill didn’t come out of a classroom. He came striding out of a think tank and immediately started lecturing teachers about their failings.

Later he wrote a thick book about “virtue.”  

Later still, he admitted having a serious gambling addiction and blowing eight million dollars in Las Vegas casinos. 

Lauro Cavazos Jr. was fourth in line, coming to the Department of Education straight from the university level, having never spent a day in his life working with elementary or secondary level students. He didn’t last long in office, either.

Cavasos was forced to resign after an investigation into misuse of frequent flier miles. 

Lamar Alexander was next. His first taste of Washington, D. C. life had not come in a public school—of course not—but as a legislative assistant to Senator Howard Baker. Alexander did meet his wife during a softball game for Senate staffers. So that was kind of cool. Later he was governor of Tennessee, where he won fame and got his face on a Time magazine cover for “reforming” his state’s schools.

Naturally, none of the reforming was done by his hand. Lamar was another virgin. Based on “his” success in Tennessee, however, Alexander was elevated to the cabinet post by President George H. W. Bush.  

President Clinton had the next crack at the problem and reached deep down into the classroom …no, no, no, we’re joking! He chose Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina as his U. S. Secretary of Education. Riley’s time in a classroom: 0 years, 0 months, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes. 


George W. Bush had two chances to get it right and blew them both, turning first to Rod Paige and later Margaret Spellings. Paige, at least, taught and coached at the college level; but his claim to fame was the “Houston Miracle” which supposedly occurred while he was in charge of that city’s schools. (This is not to be confused with the “Texas Miracle” performed by Governor Bush, which supposedly turned Texas schools into some of the nation’s finest.) In no time at all, Paige had inner-city high schools whipped into shape and principals were reporting zero dropouts. Clearly, Mr. Paige was a genius and President Bush tapped him to be Secretary of Education. 

Unfortunately, real teachers know that in the classroom miracles are in short supply; and the “Houston Miracle” turned out to be bogus. Reporters discovered that one Houston high school had reduced dropouts to zero simply by classifying all 462 students who left school during the year as “transfers.” 

Where they might have “transferred” to, whether another high school, or a nunnery, or even another planet, was a mystery. 

Meanwhile, Secretary Paige huffed and puffed and couldn’t make No Child Left Behind work. True: states initially reported stunning test-score gains. On closer examination almost all of the gains proved to have been achieved through sleight of hand. States simply made standardized tests easier to insure higher passing rates and avoid penalties under new federal legislation. 

Paige eventually gave way to Margaret Spellings, who came to understand the processes of education not by working in a classroom but by serving on an education reform commission down in Texas. Spellings did her fighting for children from the safe distance of the rear.

She fought for kids in spirit, you could say. 

Think I ever taught real students?
Think again, suckers.
(Arne Duncan)

By 2009, if you were a real teacher—and by that, I mean a good one—it seemed hard to imagine that education policy could get worse. And when President Obama took office you could only hope that wisdom might prevail. Instead, we soon found ourselves saddled with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan, you might recall, was the hero who “reformed” the Chicago Public Schools, a man who once, ha, ha, just joking again…who got his start in education in administration and kept on climbing the administrative ladder.

So you figure he learned everything there was to possibly know about the challenges faced by real teachers.

How about some of our other leading education reformers? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is a big name in reform. Never taught a day in his life did that pompous billionaire. His school chancellor for eight years, Joel I. Klein? He never taught, either. Bloomberg took it a step farther when Klein left his post and went back to earning millions annually as a corporate lawyer. The mayor appointed Kathleen Black to run the New York Public Schools. Not only had Black never taught, she had never attended the public schools, nor had she sent her own children to the public schools.

And don’t get me started on that banshee Michelle Rhee. Ms. Rhee did serve three years in the classroom but says she considered quitting after one. 

Three years, though—she lasted three years—which was plenty for her. Now she tours the nation giving talks about how much she knows about teaching.

IN ANY CASE, HERE’S HOW I SEE IT. I served two years in the United States Marines during the Vietnam War. That might sound impressive if you stopped right there. But I was a supply clerk and never once left the safety of Camp Pendleton, California.

For obvious reasons, then, I don’t pretend to know about combat.

That’s exactly the problem with most of our leading education reformers. They think they’re John Wayne; but just because Wayne died in a movie about Iwo Jima that doesn’t mean he knew anything about bloody combat.

Don’t get me wrong.

I spent three decades in the classroom and loved being a teacher. What I mean to say is this: You could find one kindergarten teacher, with six years of experience, or one seventh grade art teacher with eleven, or one high school physics instructor with twenty years in the classroom, and all would be more likely to understand the challenges of teaching than Rhee or Duncan or any of these other reforming ladies and gentlemen.

We need to start asking teachers what they think we need to do to reform American education. 


  1. John:
    I suspect this will get you churning. Susan and I are chatting, and I asked her "of all your teachers, grade school through high school, how would you rate the percentages, A through F?".
    My own answer (and she is harsher than I): A's, about 5%; B's, about 15%, C's, about 40%, D's, about 20%, F's, about 20% (if that adds to something other than 100%, that's probably due to David Dixon, the F-rated, sadistic math teacher in high school).
    Both of us can probably count "exceptional/life-changing teachers" on one hand. Admittedly, these are Akron and Spokane teachers, 40-some years ago, but, not a compelling story to relate.

  2. Hey, Tim, I guess you have to grade on a curve. Looking back 40 years, I don't remember who most of my teachers were. My experience in Loveland was more like 75% good and above.