Saturday, November 23, 2013

Does Arne Duncan Realize that Teachers and Students Are Dying?

Two education stories captured my attention this week. One that involved U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seemed stupid.

The other turned my stomach.

We now know the accused killer of Colleen Ritzer, a Massachusetts high school teacher, has been charged with aggravated rape. Ritzer, 24, was murdered in a second floor women’s bathroom at Danvers High in October. Apparently she asked the accused killer to stay after school and prepare for a test. The suspect was a 14-year old freshman in one of her math classes.

“The indictments returned today reveal horrific and unspeakable acts,” a district attorney noted. He’s right. The details are awful. Philip Chism, the accused, is said to have planned the crime in detail and left a note behind.

“I hate you all,” it read.

Why does this story touch me? If for no other reason, because I have two daughters about the same age as Colleen Ritzer. I worked with wonderful young female teachers throughout my career. This could have been any of them.

And what do our “leaders” say about these kinds of incidents? They hardly notice. Duncan travels the country talking blithely about Common Core Standards. He thinks a curriculum can fix what’s wrong with schools. Does he ever wonder?

What would Duncan say to Michael Lansberry? Lansberry survived a tour of duty in Afghanistan but was shot down on the playground at Sparks Middle School the same week Ritzer was raped and killed. This time the assailant was a 12-year-old boy. Lansberry was trying to stop him from shooting his classmates. The boy killed Lansberry. Then he killed himself.

I’m sick of such stories.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. The people who want to fix our schools have settled on the idea that the biggest problem is teachers. Like Ritzer should be the focus of all their fixing. These arrogant fools say teachers are too lazy—too unionized—too dumb. Read a typical editorial in the New York Times if you don’t believe me. It’s titled: “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn?” Listen to Mayor Michael Bloomberg talk about education. Watch Waiting for Superman, a truly stupid film produced by Davis Guggenheim, about five good kids and America’s “failing schools.”

I know kids. I taught 33 years. I know there are way, way more good kids than bad. Still, there are young people like Ritzer’s killer. Will we ever learn? That’s the question the New York Times editorial poses.

“We will never learn,” I want to say to our leaders. “Not so long as we listen to you.”

Ms. Ritzer already had more experience in a classroom when she was murdered than Duncan, Bloomberg and Guggenheim combined. You’d think these insufferable asses might notice and be more humble. Instead, they enjoy kicking teachers in the teeth. Consider Bloomberg and his School Chancellor, Joel Klein. Klein never taught either. They said the way to fix U. S. education was to grade schools.

Well, what “grade” do we give Danvers High? Does the school get an “F” if a young teacher was raped and killed in a bathroom?

Is that our focus?

Duncan talks about how we need more charter schools. Real teachers wonder: Would Chism have been less deeply troubled, less violent if he attended a charter school?

There are others who insist you can “fix education” by handing out vouchers and letting parents decide what schools their children attend. Suppose Chism’s parents had had a voucher. Would the same exclusive private school that was happy to enroll Mr. Guggenheim’s children have allowed Philip through the front door? Of course not.

What in god’s name do our leaders ever do to help teachers? What did they ever do to make the job of Ritzer and Lansberry easier? Not one damn thing. They only required them to complete more paperwork—made them try to prove they were really teaching.

It makes me sick.

Which of our leaders was within a hundred miles of Sandy Hook Elementary on the day of the terrible massacre? Which of them jumped in front of the gunman and tried to shield those poor kids? Bloomberg might be rich enough to build a personal fortress out of giant piles of money. But it was a young teacher, Victoria Soto, 27, who gave her life trying to save a classroom of six and seven-year-old children. Soto put her body in the line of fire and died in the attempt. So, how much did it matter what college she attended before she entered the teaching profession? (See Bloomberg comment linked above.)

Will we ever learn? That’s a critical question.

Do our leaders truly believe you can fix schools without fixing society? Most of the worst problems in schools have roots in neighborhoods and homes that surround them. Tell us what education plan you have to address the matter of pregnant mothers who smoke meth. What good is any curriculum if one baby is born in America every hour addicted to opiates? Do you really believe Common Core standards are the key? Well then, read about the father who stuck his newborn in a freezer to stop her from crying. Consider the dad who threatened his daughter with an AK-47 because she got a “B” on an assignment. Or “google” the phrase: “Father kills…”

You may not know, but Duncan rose to fame by “reforming” the Chicago Public School system. One of his brilliant ideas was to close “failing schools” and send students to different buildings. Want to guess what happened? The kids with serious problems brought their serious problems with them to new schools. Nothing was actually fixed. Sure:  I know public schools must do what they can to help every child. But if a young man belongs to a gang, a vexing problem in the Windy City, blaming teachers for low test scores is worse than no solution at all.

You want to “fix the schools?” Explain how all your fixing would have helped Darryl Green. The 16-year-old Chicagoan was gunned down recently because he refused to join a gang.

(Hey, I have a great idea to help him. Why not make it harder for teachers to get tenure?)

Even if our leaders did nothing but shut up it might help. It might help if they tried to be realistic—to stop acting like teachers are the problem. Do that in memory of Colleen Ritzer, Michael Lansberry, and all those slaughtered at Sandy Hook. That would be a start. Then if someone like Mayor Bloomberg still wants to fix everything he can roll up his sleeves and pitch in and help. I suggest he start by working with high-risk kids like Shaaliver Douse. At age 14, Douse was already a member of a violent New York City street gang. He had two gun-related arrests on his record, including one for attempted murder. This past August he was killed by police after he was spotted shooting at another teen and chasing him down the street.

I say let Mr. Duncan step out of his office and march right into a classroom. Let him work one-on-one with the boy who shot up Chardon High School here in Ohio in 2012. There’s a truly terrible story, especially if you consider the shooter’s conduct during his trial. Forget the new Common Core Standards, Secretary Duncan.

This is your chance to make a difference.

Will we ever learn? This can’t be that hard to grasp. Secretary Duncan graduated from Harvard. He can’t be that dumb. But what was the U. S. Secretary of Education talking about this week? He was touting the cure-all powers of a new national curriculum. The dropout rate in America is too high, he told reporters. Is it because of gangs? Does it have anything to do with drug abuse? Crazy parents? Chronic absenteeism? Or endemic violence?

Oh no.

Kids drop out, says Duncan, because school is too easy. Teachers are the problem. They don’t set high enough standards.

That’s like saying it was Colleen Ritzer’s fault. God help me, I wish our leaders would shut up. If they know nothing, let them hold their tongues.

Say a prayer for the teachers and students we've lost.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at and I can probably send you a copy direct, a little more cheaply. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning. 


  1. I am a teacher. This made me cry. Thank you.

    1. It's the only natural reaction. I only wish our leaders would help those of you who are still teaching.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. I'm sorry, I removed your comment by mistake. Nuts/

  2. Mike Harris commented via Facebook: To care would mean "investment".......not the kind they are accustomed to but the one most of us know all too well........the one involving flesh and blood, time, engagement and miles of marching........things "they" can only trivialize and dismiss............

  3. I don't know if you can be dumb and graduate from Harvard, but I suspect you can be misled much easier than someone wh graduated from a state school.

    1. Why you skeptic you! And Bloomberg went to Harvard. Michelle Rhee, also an Ivy Leaguer. Not knocking it; my daughter went to Yale. But it doesn't make you a sage, that's for sure.

  4. I earned my BA at Williams and Earned a Masters of Education (in Reading) with grades at the top. I entered teaching as a second career. Big mistake, first couldnt get a professional cert because I didn't pass the math section of the GK (know math to teach reading?). The people who make decisions about education are not street smart, they read about things but they dont have firsthand experience nor are they in a school or classroom everyday.
    Also, I learned the only place education isnt valued is in education; how ironic. This post is right on, there are rampant social problems and low IQs because moms did drugs pregnant. These kids will not succeed mandating higher standards and more tests. We need school psychologists and a return to vocational school.
    I work at a Charter school, they are NOT better than any other school. This image is the result of government saying they're better so long and so often the public believes it.
    Your words made my eyes well up, im frusrated too. Our country pays and adores atheletes so much its sickening; even when the sports figures are felons, drug users etc. Conversely, teachers who care for America's children are undervalued.
    Thanks for writing this piece. I hope they put you on CNN so you can speak about this to a larger audience.

    1. Thanks, Pam. I hope you and all the other young teachers can make it in today's education world. It would be nice if our leaders actually helped you.

    2. John, I really appreciate your work. This piece, especially, hits to the heart of the matter and is very moving.

      I agree with everything Pam had to say, except for the CNN part, but only because if you do end up on a national network, I want America to actually WATCH you...

  5. Anne Matthews replied via In Defense of Teachers on Facebook (after first quoting Herodotus, which I approved: Well we must use what we can. lol My husband is greek cypriot so I kind of have an advantage. I am an American living in europe though and a former public school art teacher. I have a new perspective about education since living in Europe. American does so many things right but the direction its going in is kind of scary. This corporate structure that is being imposed on schools is really almost immoral in some ways. I hope people can find a way to empower the teachers. I think quality universities should offer teaching degrees for free. It would galvanize the field of education.

    1. Should have quotation marks before "Well... and after education."

  6. Marta Diels Crow responded on Facebook to a comment by another teacher. The last lines are what worry me--that people like Duncan only make the job harder for real teachers: "Anne, we have job training in our schools in Ohio (and other states). It's called Career Tech (or the old word, vocational) education. I work at Penta Career Center in Perrsyburg, Ohio. It is a phenomenal vocational training school. Our academic teachers are really struggling with all of the new stuff (SLOs, OTES, Common Core) they now have to worry about. They are AWESOME teachers who are being ruined. It's too bad when these amazing teachers are becoming more worried about this stuff than the students they have. And sadly, as a special education teacher in her 33rd year, I am glad I'm retiring in a year or two."

  7. Wish I could retire. We teach on fear of students, parents, admin., politicians.

    1. Your comment is what I fear, that many teachers are losing their love for the work.

  8. I think it is less that people are losing their love for teaching as they are burning out from all the testing, PLCs, etc. I love to teach, but I hate all of the other stuff that gets in the way of the teaching. I have lately been feeling like every teacher needs to be assigned a secretary just to do all the paperwork.

    1. I've been trying to tell members of a writers' group I'm in that this is what I fear is happening. I think it's the IRS model of education: bury everyone in regulations and forms and complex paperwork.

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