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Teaching in America: Education reform should start with empowering teachers

Teaching in America: Empowering teachers, valuing their professionalism, should be the goal of education reform - not shame and blame.
Teaching in America: Empowering teachers, valuing their professionalism, should be the goal of education reform - not shame and blame.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

Great Neck public school children mark a historic milestone this year: its 200th anniversary as a public school system, making it one of the oldest in the country.

As Superintendent Thomas Dolan notes, the Union Free School District Number 7 began as a public school entity in 1814. That's during the second administration of President James Madison - the War of 1812 was still underway.

"The Great Neck Common School District Number 7 was created in 1814, two years after New York became the first state in the country to pass a law that mandated a state-wide public school system," according to an article, "Lucky Seven," by Richard Match and This is Great Neck by The League of Women Voters of Great Neck. "The Woolley's Brook School was built east of what is now Middle Neck Road opposite Old Mill Road. School was free of charge but did not become compulsory up to age 14 until 1874. It was common practice during this period for school to be in session six days a week for twelve months a year, divided into quarters so that students could drop out for a few months during crop season.

It is good to take this little sojourn back in time because the current controversies surrounding public education - curriculum, teacher pay and taxes as just a few - are really nothing new.

Thomas Jefferson believed public education vital in order to produce an educated citizenry that could preserve, bolster and advance democracy. It was always up to localities to provide the funding for public education - as opposed to the federal or state government - but there seems to have always been a sense of begrudging the expenditure, or for the political and economic powers to use public education for a more self-serving purpose. For example, as industrialization was taking hold in the 1820-1840s, free public education was envisioned as a means of supplying a docile workforce" for factories and mines.

Recall the scene in "October Sky" - based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner's son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to take up rocketry as his ticket out of a life in the coal mines. Principal Turner scolds Miss Riley, the science teacher who has been encouraging Homer: "Miss Riley, our job is to give these kids an education... Not false hopes.... once in a while a lucky one will get out on a football scholarship. The rest of ‘em work in the mines."

Today, hardly anyone would question that education is the single most significant factor to upward mobility, the great equalizer that is the essence of the American Dream,

In her New York Times review of ‘The Teacher Wars,’ by Dana Goldstein, Claudia Wallis notes, "America loves to dream an impossible dream when it comes to education. We see our public schools as the bedrock of the equal-opportunity society we wish to be, the land where a poor boy in a log cabin — or a bungalow in Honolulu — can grow up to be president. And teachers are the angel-magicians who make it all happen.

"But throughout the history of American public education, this dream has bumped up against some harsh realities. Teachers are, by and large, poorly trained and ill equipped to flatten social, racial and ­economic barriers. Their pay is pathetic (a median of $54,000 in 2012, versus $70,000 for a dental hygienist). So too are the conditions in which they often work. Notions about what constitutes good instruction have always been shockingly vague, and ideas about what to teach and how to measure learning are subject to politics and passing fads.

"In 'The Teacher Wars,' her lively account of the history of teaching, Dana Goldstein traces the numerous trends that have shaped 'the most controversial profession in America.' Along the way, she demonstrates that almost every idea for reforming education over the past 25 years has been tried before — and failed to make a meaningful difference. Long before Wendy Kopp dreamed up Teach for America to place Ivy Leaguers in public schools, we had the Teacher Corps. Before that, Catharine Beecher — 'America’s first media darling school reformer' — was recruiting proper East Coast spinsters to go west to teach the unlettered children of pioneers. Decades before we had digital databases to measure teacher performance, administrators in New York, Tennessee, Michigan and elsewhere were devising merit-pay systems based on similar ideas. And 35 years before the Gates Foundation became the 2,000-pound gorilla in American education, the Ford Foundation was throwing its weight around the classroom chasing a similar goal of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor."

Indeed, there is nothing so glaringly ironic as the language in the law establishing charter schools in New York State, signed by then-Governor George Pataki, in which it states that because public schools are so regimented, charter schools are necessary to be incubators of educational innovation, unfettered by the very mandates and restrictions put into place by the state.

Any thoughtful analysis of what is going on in public education would conclude that there is a conspiracy to destroy it - and more purposefully destroy teacher unions.

Conservative think tanks have set their aim at destroying teacher unions and public education for decades, going back at least to the 1983 "Nation at Risk" report, which they have used year after year to argue that quality of education is somehow disconnected from expenditure (in no other enterprise is that the case). And Conservatives also have made opposition to Common Core their new cause celebre, on par with Climate Change Denial - not for the reasons they should be concerned, the over-testing and over-reliance on tests instead of properly funding public schools, properly training and paying teachers.

Two sides have come together in common cause for an Education Reform that takes teachers out of the equation: the corporate entities - like News Corp and Bill Gates - who advocate for "market approach" and "school choice" are making billions of dollars in tax money on online teaching tools and testing and privatized charter schools - and political entities who want to be rid of teacher unions.

Take for example charter schools - part of the so-called "market based" "school choice" movement (which simply justifies steering public money into private or parochial schools). In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina succeeded in not just uprooting blacks from their neighborhoods but gave the political forces the ability to replace virtually all public schools (and unionized teachers) with charter schools.

The National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" spot on the phenomenon was eerie, in the way the students (and teachers) recite back slogans in a pattern you would associate with Mao Zedong and the Red Guard.

"Kids cannot wear colors that are not the school's colors. They cannot walk outside the blue lines painted on the floors. Too many accessories, too much bling - all banned. Carver's strict approach to discipline and academics were devised not by a central administration or school board, but by collegiate academies - one of 42 private nonprofit organizations that have pretty much taken over public education in New Orleans. Each one of the 85 charter schools under this system has its own curriculum, its own hiring policies. The expectation - results, namely high test scores."

If you listen to the NPR report though, what you are hearing is children being controlled. You are hearing a model that is valued for discipline - not for instilling the ability to think creatively or analytically, or, heaven forbid, challenge authority.

But no where has it been found that charter schools are appreciably better than public schools - that is when you control for such factors as smaller schools, smaller classroom size, longer days, newer school buildings, more resources, plus the support of families who value education and self-select their children into charter schools. Oh yes, also take out the fact that charter schools don't typically have special needs children, and I'm betting they have an easy way to expel back to public schools their behavioral problems. And many have been shut down (too late to help those kids who endured them) for bad performance.

You know what they aren't telling you? The average experience of a teacher in charter school (don't even have to be certified in some settings, certainly not union members - only about 12 percent of the nation’s charter schools afford union representation for teachers).

As Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter write in the New York Times (Aug. 30), "An astounding 24 percent of charter school teachers leave their school each year, double the rate of turnover in traditional public schools....

"On average, charter schools are even more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools, according to the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. The diminished teacher influence and increased segregation might be tolerable if charter schools regularly outperformed traditional public schools, but in reality, although much media attention is showered on high-flying charter chains like KIPP and Success Academy, on the whole charters do about the same."

Put these two ideas together: that charter schools embrace this highly controlled, formulized, rote teaching method with the fact that most charter schools are in disadvantaged, minority communities (after all, that's how they justify diverting public money), and what you have is an educational system designed to mold compliant workers for the 21st century.

And if you thought Teach for America is the panacea, it isn't.

It may seem very noble to bring idealistic Ivy Leaguers in front of a classroom of underprivileged kids, as if modeling and osmosis, alone are enough to impart necessary skills. But a good heart and mind only go so far - there is so much more to teaching, which as Horace Mann recognized 160 years ago, is a profession and a craft.

"In the weeks between accepting the offer to join TFA and the start of our training, I was told by e-mail that 'as a 2011 corps member and leader, you have a deep personal and collective responsibility to ground everything you do in your belief that the educational inequality that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is both our nation’s most fundamental injustice and a solvable problem. This mindset,' I was reminded, 'is at the core of our Teach For America—Metro Atlanta Community'," writes Olivia Blanchard, "I Quit Teach for America," in The Atlantic.

"That [five-week] classroom training [of 9 well-behaved third graders] was completely unlike the situation I now faced in Atlanta: teaching math and science to two 20-person groups of rotating, difficult fifth-graders—fifth-graders so difficult that multiple substitute teachers would vow never to teach fifth grade at our school again.

"I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings."

And it goes on from there.

The anti-teacher, blame-the-teacher movement has taken its toll - 50% of teachers leave before 5 years, the very point at which they would first be true professionals.

I recently met a first grade teacher who works in Harlem. She is an exception - she is starting her 7th year in teaching. Every year, she says, the mandates for what and how she teaches changes. She is overwhelmed with paperwork, data collection. Until Thanksgiving, she says, "it's all about testing, testing, testing. When do these kids have fun?" She used a time-trusted technique of veteran teachers, which is inconceivable to the idealistic neonates: don't smile for the first 2 months, in order to establish authority."

Instead of "Child First," as former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein named his education initiative before going off to head Rupert Murdoch-News Corp's education division, it is CYA - cover your ass.

Differentiated learning that takes into account individual children's needs? In the Accountability-Teach to the Test Regimen, there is no time, let alone the ability to provide individualized instruction within a highly scripted programs designed to make teaching "teacher proof."

The latest target for the anti-teacher (that is, "Education Reform") crowd is teacher tenure.

Here's the problem with ending teacher tenure: With school budgets under such pressure (New York State's property tax cap being one of the most absurd), even good school districts would be under pressure to "excess" the most senior, therefore the highest paid, teachers in favor of new, cheap teachers (the added benefit is that they are insecure and malleable). Not to mention the ability for right wing school boards to fire teachers for teaching Evolution or Climate science, not to mention assigning "Harry Potter" for reading or an essay on "Why Bush Invaded Iraq".

The Accountability movement has been about shaming and blaming - posting test scores and ranking schools, even when the districts or schools test scores are separated by mere fractions.

People buy houses based on these comparisons, and housing values reflect demand for highly rated school districts. This is not a new phenomenon, as a quote on the GNPS website shows:

"We moved here because...we wanted a quiet place, hygienic, with a good school, preferably public, and good air. We got it all."-- Will Durant, Historian and Great Neck Parent, 1936

Newsday - which last year published the disastrous student results - this year has published a list by district of how its educators were evaluated: highly effective, effect, developing and ineffective.

Now, Great Neck has done extremely well (though you do not have a repeat of last year's hysteria over the fact that 30-40% of Great Neck students "failed" the ELA and Math exams - this year, the statewide percentage went up a few points, to about 30% achieving "proficiency". yet there was no hysteria.

Newsday didn't report student results this year because Governor Cuomo was forced to ease the high-stakes impact of standardized test results on students - at least until the Common Core curriculum becomes better entrenched - but that was really to ameliorate the voter backlash by raging parents whose children are being branded "inadequate" by the testing regime.

But Cuomo is continuing to use the test results to measure teacher performance. And that is the weapon they use to control teachers altogether. Even the most dedicated, well-meaning teachers are forced to teach to a test, devote time and resources to paperwork and data collection as opposed to actually teaching and working with children based on their individual needs and abilities.

Now this isn't sour grapes. The Great Neck School District continues to excel no matter what yardstick is applied (and the administration and teachers generally like the Common Core curriculum and embraced it early on).

Using Newsday's report, out of 599 educators in Great Neck, 98% were rated "highly effective" - the highest percentage of any Long Island district (this compares to 60.8% of Nassau, 52.9% of Suffolk and 56.7% for Long Island were rated "highly effective"); the remaining 14 educators (2%) were rated "effective" and no Great Neck educator was rated as "developing" or "ineffective."

But what are the tests measuring really? The ability to take a test. But by having a curriculum dominated by test preparation and test taking, that shapes teaching.

I find it interesting that at a time when employers are increasingly demanding higher critical thinking skills, the ability to innovative and to "think-out-of-the-box," that even to rebuild the Manufacturing sector requires much higher skills than factory workers of old, that the educational system would value wearing uniforms, the ability to repeat back rote recitation of slogans, and ingrain the idea that that there is a "right" answer to a constant stream of tests.

In all the stories of education - like "Up the down Staircase," "Stand and Deliver," "Freedom Writers" and even "October Sky" - the teachers have been mavericks, renegades bucking up against institutional forces, who have to go into their own pockets to provide the supplies their students need. Now those institutional forces have found new weapons with which to vanquish those mavericks.

Think of all the Hickams that were lost to the coal mines because they did not have an educational system - or educators- that allowed a child to flourish and realize his full potential; how much talent was lost to centuries of discrimination, segregation, and opportunities denied to women, minorities and the poor; how many Blacks, American Indians, immigrant children, women and poor who had the potential to be a Frederick Douglass, a George Carver, or Chen Niug Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee (born in China, who won the Nobel in Physics in 1957, while the nation of China has only 8 Nobel Laureates), or an astronaut like Dr. Mary Cleave (Great Neck North Class of 1975), but did not have the means.

It goes back to the basics: there is nothing more important to a child's success than a professional teacher whose primary focus and concern is the individual student. Teachers need to be nurtured, selected, valued and empowered as professionals.

It is good to be reminded of our 200-year heritage with public education, and also of this constant struggle for the realization of the values and ideals of public education, and how it fits in with our American Dream - or rather myth - of equal opportunity to rise based on one's talent and hard work. As we have seen, realizing these ideals has so far eluded us.

"A child’s course in life should not be determined by the zip code he’s born in, but by the strength of his work ethic and the scope of his dreams," Obama said in a speech on economic mobility.

See also:

Back-to-school testing surprise: 'You're "nonproficient" for college & career!'

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
© 2014 News & Photo Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. For editorial feature and photo information, go to or email 'Like' us on

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