Monday, May 2, 2016

The Opening Pages of Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching.

Here are the opening pages to Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching. Chaucer is quoted on war (werre). 

I believe school reformers who talk about fixing schools know almost nothing about the real war to save children. 

Woot = knows.

Grunts = foot soldiers in the Vietnam War; in education, the men and women who do all the fighting.


Talk to the Grunts

“Ther is many a man that creith ‘Werre!  werre!
that woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”
Geoffrey Chaucer

I don’t drink much. Besides, it’s seven a.m. and I’m hardly awake. “Not again,” I mutter, rubbing my eyes and adding a string of expletives.

I hold in my hands another stinging editorial directed at teachers. This one, from The New York Times, carries the headline:


The author is assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. So you might assume he knows what he’s talking about.

            (You’d be wrong.)

He starts by outlining a “tidal wave” of school reforms since 1983. I taught for decades. So I remember them all. The professor lists vouchers, charter schools, state standardized tests, No Child Left Behind and “Race to the Top.” With implementation of Common Core in the offing a fresh round of reforms is about to commence.

He leaves out a laundry list of changes veteran educators might include but sums up results. U. S. K-12 education remains “stubbornly mediocre.”

I feel myself wavering. Is it too early for bourbon?


What is it we keep failing to learn? Apparently, the problem with education in this country is teachers.

According to the professor we have too many dumb ones manning the classrooms. Only 23% come from the top third of their college classes. What about Finland, a country whose schools are almost too good to be true? Finland has smart teachers. America needs to find smart teachers, under some rocks or something, and pronto.

As a former teacher, suddenly I feel like such a dolt.

“Well,” I wonder, “will we ever learn?” 

I set the editorial aside and gather my wits. I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I was a good teacher. I don’t think I’m hallucinating when I say I worked with a number of excellent educators and all kinds of good ones during my career. Call me stupid, I guess, but I would argue that teachers come in the same varieties, excellent, good, fair, and poor, as lumberjacks, car mechanics, Congress persons and Harvard professors.

I tell myself: “You can do your bit to answer the professor’s question if you do it right.”

The dilemma is how? How write a book about education that might offer useful insights? How capture the interest of some fraction of the general reading public? And is there some way to poke all the self-styled “education experts” where it hurts most?

I mean—in the ego.

Perhaps some sleazy sex and the right title might help: Fifty Shades of Grade Book? Nope. No way that’s going to sell.

All I did was spend my career in a large rectangular room in close company with teens. All I offer is a memoir about life in the classroom, a love story about working with thousands of kids.
Still, I’m compelled to try.

First, I mean this book as a defense of good educators—an explanation of what they do—and a look at the daunting problems they confront. There are plenty of bad books to choose from if you want to read about what teachers do wrong.

I also believe my book has value because of what it’s not. I won’t be offering the latest plan to fix the schools. I’m not an authority in the fixing field. I’m not Steven Brill or Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee. U. S. Secretary of Education Duncan and former Washington, D. C. School Chancellor Rhee we shall meet again. Brill is the prototypical critic and school fixer—a lawyer—who wrote a book about education, lambasting teachers: Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill never bothered to teach. He studied “war” at a safe remove and didn’t have to worry about getting killed or maimed.

What do I know? Part of what I know I know because I sat in class as if in a coma during my own misspent youth. Another chunk I know because I dropped out of college in 1968 and joined the Marines. I know what I know, in part, because I’ve pedaled a bike across the United States.

Most of what I know I learned by teaching: American and Ancient World History, for thirty-three years, at the seventh and eighth grade levels, for Loveland City Schools, near Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s not an especially long tenure in the classroom. Nevertheless, it represents more time spent working with kids than Rhee and Brill and all nine U. S. Secretaries of Education combined. That fact alone ought to tell us something.


Naturally, training in history informs my thinking. More than two thousand years ago, when ancient Greeks named their Seven Wise Men, they placed Thales, scientist and philosopher, at the top of their list. Thales was once asked, “What is hard?” 

“To know thyself,” he replied.
“What is easy?”

“To give advice.”
America’s teachers know what Thales meant. Since passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, the focus of school reform has been almost entirely on those at the front of the classroom. Will we ever learn, the Harvard professor wonders? I’m not sure. But I suspect you might have asked any of four million U. S. educators and they could have told you the utopian law was flawed from the start.

But the promises of politicians and pronouncements of policy makers were unequivocal. By 2014 every child was going to be proficient in reading and math. Not 88%. Not 96%. Every single one.

In the thirteen years since NCLB was enacted into law, countless editorials and TV reports have bolstered one theme. Google: “education crisis in America” and 300,000,000 results pile up. Don’t have time to do all that reading? Here’s the capsule version: America’s schools are failing. Teachers are at fault.

Ms. Rhee became a brand name in school reform, turning up on television during one stretch as frequently as Law and Order reruns. In 2008 she graced the cover of Time, broom in hand, promising to clean out all the lousy teachers in Washington, D. C. and fix the biggest problem in education. Sweep! Just like that! Even Oprah gave Rhee, who taught for only three years, some televised love.

Meanwhile, “Fox News and Friends” did an interview with John Legend, the singer, and asked him to comment on school-related issues. The segment, titled “America’s Education Crisis,” was accompanied by tags like: “The Trouble with Schools,” “A Broken System” and “Teachers Behaving Badly,” lest viewers miss the point.

On CNN Campbell Brown hosted a series called “America’s Schools in Crisis,” leading off with talk about “broken” and “failing” schools. When Geoffrey Canada, who runs a charter school in Harlem, insisted that “the people who produce the children are the teachers,” Brown let that stand without batting either of her lovely green eyes. I remember scratching my head, trying to figure out how my teachers produced me or how they produced my four kids.

Well, good job, teachers! All my children turned out fine.

And so it came to pass.

The “heroes” of school reform sounded the charge, stood back, and let educators storm enemy lines. Tens of billions were spent to implement NCLB. Hundreds of millions of hours were devoted by teachers to preparing for, and by students to taking, standardized tests.

Standards didn’t rise. 

They fell.

President Obama rode into office in 2009, promising to fix flaws in how NCLB was implemented. A “race to the bottom,” he said, had been touched off when states lowered standards to avoid punishment under complex provisions of the law.

Mr. Obama would task Arne Duncan, ninth Secretary of Education, with leading a “Race to the Top.” Fresh billions would be offered to states if they created more charter schools and linked teacher pay to scores on standardized tests.

“It’s all about the talent,” Duncan assured any who would listen. It’s all about teachers.

In 2010 Davis Guggenheim set out to discover what was wrong with U. S. public education. (His view may have been impaired because he sent his children to elite private institutions.) In a critically-acclaimed documentary, Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim put a finger on what he saw as the issue. Rhee featured prominently, sneering at the efforts of      D. C. teachers. While viewers watched in disbelief the film seemed to strip away the last fig leaf of doubt, “revealing” teachers in all their sloth and shame. The message of the movie, focusing narrowly on five children trying to escape “awful” public schools and get into charters, boiled down to this: If families could pick their schools problems in education would fade away.

I remember watching with disgust as Guggenheim painted a simplistic picture.

Yet, Brent Staples, critiquing the film for The New York Times, could come away from a viewing stunned and impressed. Readers who planned to see the movie, he warned, should take along handkerchiefs. Staples left no doubt who filled the villain’s role: “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

(Hmm…maybe I should title my book: 98.6°. Or: I Was a Teacher! I Had a Pulse!)

If assessments in the Times were harsh, educators had to take two steps back to avoid fire and brimstone from the right. Ann Coulter, in Godless, slammed teachers’ unions, labeled public schools “the Left’s madrassas,” and compared the U. S. education system to Soviet era factories, staying open even though products were hopelessly defective.

At best public schools were:

…nothing but expensive babysitting arrangements, helpfully keeping hoodlums off the streets during daylight hours. At worst, they are criminal training labs, where teachers sexually abuse the children between drinking binges and acts of grand larceny.

Neil Boortz, in Somebody’s Gotta Say It, argued that the danger went deeper. Teachers weren’t just incompetent. They were a threat to the Republic.

“Our government schools are killing the spirit of our children and, in the process, our country,” he groaned. “Our wonderful government educational system produces graduating classes of young Neanderthals with no sense of individuality, no sense of self-worth, and no understanding of what it means to live in a truly free society.”

Somebody had to say it—even if what Boortz had to say was incredibly stupid. So he spewed. “Teachers’ unions pose a graver long-term threat to freedom, prosperity and the future of this country than do Islamic terrorists.”
(If he was right it would indicate a need to scan teachers’ baggage more carefully at airports.)

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