Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Big Words from School Reformers, Small Deeds: An Aesop Fable

BIG WORDS. Small deeds.
Joel I. Klein, former New York City schools chancellor (left); U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (center), Michelle Rhee, head of Students First (right). 

Okay, teachers. Think back to the end of your first year. What did you know? You knew how hard it was going to be to be a teacher. You knew you could improve.

You also suspected that there would never be a day that would not end without the same nagging question. How could you have done more to help your students? You already understood that teaching would never be easy.

I taught 33 years, myself, and always knew what I did mattered in kids’ lives. It just isn’t ever, ever, ever going to be easy.

Not ever. Not one day.

Since I know how hard it is to help kids, I get tired of school reformers who offer up big plans to “fix the schools.” Here’s something impossible not to notice. These reformers are big with words but small in deeds. They almost never teach.

A fable by Aesop sums up the situation.

The Water Snake, the Viper, and the Frogs
There once was a viper that went to a pond to drink. But the water snake who watched the pond didn’t like him trespassing. The two began to argue. Finally they decided to fight. Whoever won would be king of both land and water.
Just before the fight began the frogs of the pond approached the viper. “We hate the water snake,” they assured him. “When the battle begins we will help you defeat him.”
 The viper and the water snake were soon joined in furious combat. They grappled and twisted and rolled about.
All the frogs did was sit there and keep up their useless croaking. In the end, the viper was victorious. But he was furious with the frogs since they had failed to come to his aid.
Why, you useless frogs!” he shouted. “You didn’t help a bit. All you did was sing your stupid songs.” 
“But you should have known that we had nothing else to offer,” replied the frogs. “We have only the sound of our voices.”

Who then are some of the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious frogs in the education pond?

One annoying croaker is U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He never spent any time in a classroom. He never did any fighting.

But he does believe Common Core will improve any pond.

Wendy Kopp founded a program to train other frogs and named it Teach for America. Kopp never spent a day at the front of a classroom. She once told a reporter, “[I]f if I had taught, I wouldn’t have started Teach for America.”

Well, duh.

Michelle Rhee is the loudest bullfrog in the land. She taught for three years! She then told other frogs she knew everything there ever was to know about teaching. She headed for Washington, D.C. to straighten out that pond. She croaked and croaked and croaked and fired hundreds of “bad” teachers. Then she gave bonuses to “good” teachers who raised standardized test scores. It was a amphibian miracle! Well, it was until USA Today uncovered a huge cheating scandal. This debacle involved many of the “good” schools and teachers Rhee had rewarded.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sat by the pond and promised he was going to fix New York City education. He said what we needed were smarter vipers. And everyone listened to Bloomberg—because he was rich and he attended Harvard. Bloomberg never taught one measly hour. He had no desire to help fight the water snake.

Nope. None at all.

Joel I. Klein, Bloomberg’s school chancellor, did tutor briefly, once, way back in the 60s! That made him an “expert” among frogs and he decided the viper wasn’t fighting hard enough. He insisted that the way to make the pond better was to grade the viper. Klein got tired after sitting eight years on the shore and went back to giving legal advice for $2 million per year (plus bonuses!).

Klein is a frog lawyer not a frog hero.

Bill Gates? He won’t help fight the water snake. But he might open his checkbook! One time he donated $892,000 to help fund an “expert panel” to give advice to the New York Board of Regents in shaping school policy. Eleven frogs filled places on the panel. Each frog was paid $189,000. Six frogs never taught a day in their lives. The five other frogs had a total of ten years in teaching, with one additional year spent as a principal. Again, these frogs learned everything about schools quickly and so when they sung all the other frogs listened.

Ronald J. Packard built his own pond and named it K-12, Inc. His pond offers online education and Mr. Packard makes a little profit. He never teaches. That goes without saying. Before he started his pond he was a hedge fund manager. Now he is paid for his melodious croaking. In five years (2009 to 2013) he earned $19.4 million in compensation.

William Bennett was first chairman of the board at K-12, Inc. Bennett was Secretary of Education when Ronald Reagan was president. Bennett never taught. Don’t be stupid. He learned to croak by working in a think tank with other bold frogs.

The current chairman of K-12 is Steven Tisch. This is almost funny—but he never taught either. He did hop about and run a tobacco company, however. In 1994 he told Congress he didn’t believe smoking caused cancer.

Margaret Spellings is a frog that loves high-stakes testing. She was also a big fan of No Child Left Behind, which all frogs agreed in chorus was going to fix the problems in U. S. education. Remember all that loud singing! Even the toads and the tree frogs said NCLB was going to work just great! Spellings never gave students any tests in a classroom. She’s you’re your typical frog that never tried teaching. She did work on an education reform committee in Texas, however, before taking over the U. S. Department of Education.

Rod Paige is a toad of the Bufo houstonensis variety. (You can look it up.) He preceded Spelling as Secretary of Education. Paige taught at the college level, never in grades K-12. Later he performed his own toad miracles as superintendent of the Houston City Schools. During his tenure several high schools reported reducing dropout rates to ZERO.

All the other frogs croaked happily in appreciation.

Sadly, it was soon shown that one school reporting no dropouts had...um...463. An audit turned up a few extra dropouts.

Okay, get picky—there were at least 3,000 unreported in the old pond down in Texas.

There are many other frogs we might mention; but let us finish with a frog author. Steven Brill wrote a book called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill hopped about like a frog in a frying pan and blamed the problems in education on teachers’ unions. But when it came to fighting the water snake he stayed safe on the sidelines. His teaching experience: 0 years, 0 days, 0 hours.

In his book he focused on the success of one charter pond in New York City—and Jessica Reid, one dedicated non-union teacher. Even working at a charter pond turned out to be surprisingly hard, surprising to Brill, at least.

Reid, the heroine of Brill’s tale quit teaching before Brill's book even saw print.

Reid was a real teacher—not a frog sitting and croaking beside the pond. And like all teachers she learned teaching can be hard.

So there you have it, teachers. An Aesop fable about school reformers. Enjoy your summer break. You’ll have plenty of fighting to do again in August when you head back to your classrooms.

Just don’t expect any help from the frogs on the sideline.


  1. Too true, yet the problem with fables is that no one takes them seriously, so they can be dismissed easily... the whole situation is perceived as a horror story with everyone looking for the silver bullet that will instantly save the day when it's really a wilderness that needs the long "hoe" to carefully tend it into a garden.

    1. Amen. I agree: no silver bullet. The only way I ever found to insure that students were learning was to make sure all of us were working hard at our lessons.