Sunday, May 31, 2015

If You Write about Education, Shouldn't You Talk to Educators?

Sometimes, you have to wonder. 

Do the people who write about American education ever talk to educators? And do they know they should?

Those questions came to mind again when I read “The Education Assassins,” a recent editorial in The New York Times.

The title was slick and hooked my attention. Luckily, no actual bullets flew, but it turned out there were those who hoped to eliminate the U. S. Department of Education.

Typically, the author, Frank Bruni, made mocking reference to Governor Rick Perry, who wanted to eliminate the Department, but couldn't remember which one. Common Core was also mentioned. Readers learned that Jeb Bush was for Common Core. Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat made a cameo appearance in the column. So did Lamar Alexander, former U. S. Secretary of Education, now, like Murray, interested in reducing the Department's sway. 

Indeed, if Ms. Murray and Mr. Alexander have their way, new legislation might hamstring Mr. Duncan. 

“There’d be no federal say, for example, in how (or if) public schoolteachers are evaluated. If the bill passes—and it has significant bipartisan support—the department would be a shadow of itself,” Mr. Bruni warned.

Naturally, he talked to several school reformers, none of whom ever taught, to get insights for his editorial. And what story about U. S. education would be complete without Joel I. Klein adding a bit of folksy wisdom? Without federal involvement, the former chancellor of the New York City Schools insisted, Some states will do good stuff, but there will also be laggards and a lot of happy talk.”

I found myself thinking: “Who knows ‘happy talk’ better than Mr. Klein?” (He certainly knows very little about teaching.)

When Mr. Klein ran the NYC schools he routinely faulted teachers. He insisted “grading schools” was key to improvement. He was all for charter schools, never realizing charter schools might drain off capable students, leaving kids with disadvantages concentrated in neighborhood schools.

Mr. Klein never realized this might happen because Mr. Klein is a lawyer by trade, hired by a billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg (who never taught) to run the schools. Certainly, Mayor Bloomberg’s attitude was clear. He once said the problem in education was that we no longer hired teachers from the top of their college classes. They came from the bottom twenty percent, “and not of the best schools.”

Yes. Teachers were the problem. Sure, sure. Sure they were.

At this point, I began to ponder some of the myriad problems every frontline educator can see. I thought back to poor Mike, who missed 106 days of class in one year, not because he was sick but because his mother allowed it, when I had him in seventh grade. I thought about how, while Klein and Bloomberg were spending their days bashing teachers and hatching plans to increase the weight of standardized test scores in determining teacher pay, they missed an obvious obstacle.

That is: 200,000 New York City students, roughly 1 in 5, missed a month or more of classes every year.

Nevertheless, I kept reading. I was praying Mr. Bruni might talk to a real teacher or principal or school counselor. Several think tank reformers were quoted. A politician called Duncan “a helpful voice” during his six years as head of the Department of Education. 

Again, I found myself wondering: “Duncan? The poor man hasn’t strung two sentences together in six long years to indicate he has any idea what challenges frontline educators face.”

What, then, does Mr. Bruni miss in the end?

He misses what almost all writers about education today miss. No one asks educators who survived the slaughter at Sandy Hook how much “grading schools” might have helped on that sanguine day. 

No one talks to the principal at my wife’s old school about tying teacher pay to test scores, and how that might compare to being chased from her building by a knife-wielding, schizophrenic mother. 

No one offers suggestions for what frontline educators might do to aid the 6,000,000 children who are victims of abuse and neglect every year in the United States. 

No one goes into a tough Chicago neighborhood, where Mr. Duncan once ran the schools, and asks teachers, “What help could you use in meeting the needs of teens who happen to be gang members?”

No one ever asks.

I spent thirty-three years with the Loveland City Schools, a highly-regarded system, just outside Cincinnati. And if the Department of Education ever did anything to help me or help my peers or help students, I am not aware of it. The bureaucrats, politicians and reformers talk blithely about what educators must do.

They never talk to educators.

They don’t talk to Chris Burke, now principal at Loveland Middle School, and an educator I greatly respect, who says increased standardized testing has been detrimental, forcing his staff to spend nineteen days on test administration this year. “It’s all about compliance,” he tells me, with a hint of resignation. He mentions, to my surprise, that 35% of seventh graders at LMS opted out this year.

Katie Rose and Jenn Ramage, two dedicated young teachers, join the conversation, calling the testing process “nuts.”

“Nineteen days,” Katie exclaims. “Can you believe it? And forget Reconstruction [which the curriculum says she should cover at year’s end]. I only had one day left to cover the Civil War.”

Her disgust in the face of all this piddling interference with real attempts to educate teens is clear.

I’ve been working on a book about teaching for some time, myself. And I keep asking every teacher or retired principal or counselor I meet what they think about the direction we’re headed. I try to pose one question in the most neutral tone possible: “Do you think all the testing and recent changes in education have enhanced learning, hurt learning, or had, basically, a neutral effect?”

At a wedding in California a few weeks ago, I sat down beside a woman who turned out to be a retired elementary school principal. When I got to the word “hurt” in my usual query she interrupted. 

“HURT,” she said emphatically. “Does anyone say anything else?”

I laughed and said she had to let me finish. “But, to be honest, no,” I admitted. “They don’t.”

That’s what those who write about education might discover if they ever took time to ask. The growing backlash against testing, the bitter disdain for Mr. Duncan among frontline educators (the NEA called for his resignation in 2014), the willingness to shut down the U. S. Department of Education, these are not matters of mere politics.

These issues affect educators and the children they deal with every day.

When I asked Jeane Weisbrod, my old friend, who retired recently after a career in Loveland, she told me me she resented all the testing because it meant “sacrifice of valuable instructional time.”

I was talking with current staff members, and retirees, during a ceremony to honor Jeane and Diane Sullivan, a retiring art teacher, and Ora Sue Peabody, a fine school secretary, who was hanging up the phone for good in July. 

Jane Barre, former Loveland Middle School principal, called the metastasizing testing burden “lunacy” when I asked her opinion. Jane went on to serve as assistant superintendent for another local district after she left Loveland. When she began that job testing took up ten percent of her time. By 2009, testing ate up half her day, making it hard to accomplish anything else of substance. Diane chimed in to say she felt sorry for younger teachers who would have to deal with this mess for years to come. Like Diogenes, but stopping occasionally to sample the brownies, I was looking for anyone who felt our “leaders” in Washington knew what they were doing. Sue Lundy and Lauren Cripe, two of the best educators I ever knew (Sue is retired; Lauren just finished her tenth year) agreed all the testing was terrible. 

Sue called it “crazy.”

So, there you have it. That’s what Mr. Bruni missed. Those who work with children, or have worked with children, believe Secretary Duncan and the politicians have absolutely led us down the wrong path. 

They believe learning has suffered harm.

In fact, if we want to help children, here’s what we might do. Take part of the $70 billion spent by the Department of Education every year. Hire more counselors and more psychologists to work directly with kids. Get creative if you want to aid our nation’s youth. Take $20 billion and award $20,000 college scholarships to a million high school seniors every year. Use another $20 billion to help 1.6 million children who experience homelessness, who suffer both in and out of school. 

That would provide $12,500 in good housing for each child.

I think real educators, those in the academic trenches, could come up with all kinds of ways to use money and manpower to improve the lives of the boys and girls they work with every day. Arne Duncan? Let him go into a classroom in an inner city Chicago school. Let him work with teens in gangs.

Joel I. Klein? Let him have a chance to teach, too. He can work with kids who've been sexually abused at home and see how much “grading schools” matters.

If Mr. Bruni were to ask me, or ask most of my old colleagues and friends, what we thought about the Department of Education, I suspect most of us would say, “Sure. Scrap it. And scrap all the standardized tests.”

Those tests cost $1.7 billion annually.

I’d tell him: “Take that money and divide it among 17,000,000 elementary school students. Let each child take $100 to the nearest book store. Let them buy books—and see if reading scores don’t go up faster than they have in the last fifteen years, despite this absurd fetish for all the standardized tests.”

If nothing else, if you are writing about education, start by talking to people who actually do the educating. 

Spend more money on books. That might help students improve reading scores.


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 for a little bit cheaper. 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.

I actually taught for 33 years, more than all nine U. S. Secretaries of Education, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Stephen Brill and about a hundred more “school reformers” combined.

Yep. Combined!

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