On the Other Hand

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As the pressure to “reform” public education has mounted, I have written and spoken against adopting a business model or factory model in which our children are the products to which value must be added, value measurable by numbers meant to translate eventually to dollars. I am saddened by the recent death of Dr. Donald Graves, an outstanding educator whose book, Testing Is Not Teaching, I continue to find inspiring and encouraging, like a voice crying out in the wilderness of dehumanization, the current desert of the human spirit. I find the billionaires-generated push toward privatization nauseating as I brace for the waves of hatred and ignorant blame coming at teachers after the release of the propaganda film, “Waiting for Superman.”

Even so, I am haunted by Jonathan Kozol’s books, Amazing Grace and The Shame of the Nation (the latter subtitled, The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America). I just saw the title of an editorial reprinted in our local newspaper from the Newark Star Ledger, “Poor kids deserve escape options too.” I haven’t read it. I assume it refers to charter schools, the bogus salvation of our children in what we call “urban” settings. Note: “urban” has become code for non-white; the white word for urban is “metropolitan.” Charter schools are, I suspect, just a step toward privatization, and my nightmare image is of school children in uniforms with a “W” on each little chest greeted at the door of their school by a senior citizen saying, “Welcome to Walton School Number 246173. Here’s your Walmart points card for coming today.”

But. I am still haunted. No, teachers cannot fix the massive societal inequalities that persist in the ghetto-ized sectors of our nation, and they will be able to help the children less and less as they are reduced to scripted puppets, trainers rather than educators. Yes, it’s terribly convenient to reduce students’ progress to a number, a score, that is supposed to tell all that needs to be known about their “progress” in learning. Correction, progress is now their “value added” as little products for consumption by businesses. The number is magic. It empowers managers to evaluate, control, punish, and reward teachers without having to know anything about teaching or about children’s learning. The number gives authority without knowledge and control without wisdom to people outside the profession and outside all that the word “profession” means.

But. I am still haunted. Sure, we are using blame inflicted upon the vulnerable and unpopular (teachers) to avoid the truth about the gross inequalities in our society. We are naming a scapegoat to avoid having to face and correct those inequalities. And we are being hypocritical. As teachers are regimented and scripted into all-teach-the-same-way-on-the-same-page puppets, how in the world are we to distinguish the more effective ones from the less so? Oh yeah, the magic number, the score, which will guarantee that the teachers of poor, shamed, disadvantaged children will always be the “bad” teachers. Then complete privatization will present itself as the only solution left, since we just can’t get good teachers in poor, urban areas. And, yes, as is true where I live and work, “urban” can be quite rural or small town, if you get the colors right.

Okay, I peeked at the editorial. It’s even worse than I thought. Here’s the brilliant logic: if charter schools and voucher plans are enabled to take away the best students, won’t seeing they are losing their best make the public schools work harder? Maybe we should try that logic on businesses: take away their best leaders and workers so they’ll do better. Maybe it’s already been done with editorial writers.

But. We can’t just defend the way things are, either. I know it’s hard to remember change is needed when you’re under constant, vicious attack by rich politicians and their billionaire masters. But we can’t keep losing millions of our children to hopelessness and violence. We can’t.

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