IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE A TEACHER you’ve probably noticed something strange about education reformers these days.
You could pile up their combined experience in teaching and add a stack of baloney sandwiches and still not have the equivalent of one thirty-year veteran in a first grade, or middle school science, or high school Latin classroom.
So, whenever we hear Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg or Michelle Rhee or various governors talking about what they would do to fix schools, if they were doing the fixing, it’s like asking me or my father to talk about what we would have done if we had ever been in combat. My father was an officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II; but he did duty as a weatherman and never left the States.
In keeping with family tradition, I enlisted in the Marines in December 1968. After boot camp I wasn’t sent to Vietnam. I was sent to supply school and did my “fighting” behind a desk in California. I was more likely to get sunburned at the beach on weekends or die inhaling “White Out” while correcting typos than to be hit by bullets or step on a booby trap.
It would be the height of arrogance to style myself a “hero.”
Unfortunately, humility never stops the non-combatant types in U. S. education from portraying themselves as Medal of Honor winners. They don’t do any fighting but love to tell the combat veterans what they ought to do to win the war to fix the schools.
Just imagine what might happen if these bold reformers lived in a world that operated on similar principles. It would be a world where no experience was required to qualify an individual as an expert, in education, heart surgery, or airplane maintenance.
First, let’s send Mayor Bloomberg to the doctor. He’s having heart trouble. So he drops in on John Sears, the plumber. John taps his chest a few times with a pipe wrench and says the mayor needs a valve replaced. “We’ll run 1/2 galvanized piping while we’re at it,” Sears explains.
“My god,” replies the billionaire businessman, “do you know anything about heart surgery?”
“As much as you know about teaching,” Sears retorts.
Meanwhile, Michelle Rhee heads for the auto repair shop because her “check engine” light is blinking. She’s driving a Ferrari, purchased with a few of the fat speaker’s fees she earns by talking about fixing schools. She pulls into a McDonald’s and asks the acne-faced young lady at the drive-thru to step outside and consider the problem. The teen rolls her eyes; but when Rhee offers $100 merit pay agrees to do what she can. The teen studies the matter briefly then tells Rhee she needs oil and pours two gallons of used deep fry fat into her gas tank.
“This is going to be great,” Rhee says as she speeds away.
Finally, several governors and members of state legislatures board a 747 bound for Tahiti. A company that runs for-profit charter schools and another company that designs standardized tests are paying all expenses and sending everyone to a conference on education reform and a week’s vacation in that Pacific paradise.
Ohio Governor John Kasich is nervous before he flies and asks about pilot experience. “Don’t worry,” a flight attendant tells him. “U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is at the controls. He hasn’t ever flown a plane before but he has watched planes take off. Besides, he went to Harvard.”
Suddenly, Kasich feels better.
His seatmate, Chris Christie, isn’t quite convinced. The governor of New Jersey is kind of wedged in his seat, anyway. “Uh, who’s the co-pilot, just in case?” he wonders.
“Not to worry, sir,” the attendant smiles reassuringly. “Our co-pilot is Snooki, of Jersey Shore fame.”
“Ah, a solid citizen and a constituent,” Christie replies. He feels better and asks the attendant for an extra bag of peanuts.
Sitting across the aisle, the majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate is hard at work. He’s wearing one of those Cheeseheads, which he thinks might come in handy as a flotation device should the plane go down over water. Obviously, he knows just about as much when it comes to airplanes as all the passengers aboard, combined, know about teaching. But he’s drafting new legislation on his laptop—actually, he’s cutting and pasting language provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council—which will fundamentally alter public education in his state.
“May I ask,” he says, “who did the pre-flight safety check? I hope they knew what they were doing.”
“Only the most knowledgeable mechanics are allowed to work on our planes,” the attendant assures him. “Glenn Beck, who knows everything, signed off on engine maintenance. And that new kid, from Teach for America, checked flight controls.”
“Does the new kid actually know how to do a safety check?” the senator wonders.
“Of course not,” the attendant admits. “But she’s really smart. Besides, what do any of you know about how schools really work? Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll exit before takeoff and go back to my real job. Trust me. You’ll be fine.”
“What do you normally do for a living?” asks Governor Christie. His words sound a little garbled because his mouth is full of half-chewed legumes.
“I’m a special education teacher from Newark, your home state. Twenty-four years in the classroom, if you care, devoted to helping kids with serious problems. Well, gentlemen, have a safe trip. You’re in the same good hands as American education reform today. And if there’s any trouble, don’t worry, there are plenty of parachutes.”
“You might need two,” Kasich says, poking a bit of fun at the chunky chief executive from Jersey. “Who did you say packed those parachutes?” Mr. Kasich asks more seriously.
“We hire out that job to the Vile Anvil Company of Lima, Ohio, sir. Remember? Non-union workers. People earning minimum wage. You gave the owners a huge tax break to bring anvil-making jobs to Ohio and promised they wouldn’t have to worry about a lot of government safety inspections. What can possibly go wrong? You’re in the hands of anvil-making experts.”
The special education teacher smiles knowingly as she gathers personal items and heads back to the boarding gate.