is it legitimate to go public with what you sent? We are about to find out.
On July 30, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post had an op ed, Civil rights groups are picking the wrong fight with President Obama. Marcus was writing in response to the open letter from 7 Civil Rights groups (that link is a PDF) challenging the President on his Blueprint for Education. The President had pushed back in a speech at the Urban League. Marcus took the President's side and criticized the Civil Rights groups. She was also more than a little insulting to teachers unions.
Like many opinion writers, Marcus apparently does not understand the reality of education, so I wrote her a letter, with a copy to Jay Mathews, former principal education writer of the Post. Mathews acknowledged the letter, Marcus did not. I wrote her again. I have still received no response.
So I have decided to do the following
- I want to quote two parts of the piece Marcus posted, her beginning paragraph
There is, it turns out, something more galling than teachers unions fighting against proposals that would improve education for students in the worst-performing schools. At least the teachers unions are, presumably, acting in the economic self-interest of their members.
and her concluding paragraph
Obama comes to the education debate from the perspective of a community organizer who saw, firsthand, children who were not learning in schools that were failing them. His mission, as president, to change this situation is one that civil rights groups should be cheering, not picking apart.
- I am posting (slightly edited) the contents of the email I sent Marcus. I think the points I made are worthy of further discussion, even if Marcus decided not to even acknowledge my having sent them.
Here are the contents of that email:
Subject: I think you miss the real points in your op ed today
Date: Jul 30, 2010 8:46 AM
Much of what Obama and Duncan are advocating in Race to the Top not only have no track record of success, but in some cases here is clear evidence that the approaches do not work. In the meantime, the administration is insisting upon structural changes that may well be destructive - not only of maintaining good teacher staffs in school, but of the learning of students.
You will note that I have copied Jay Mathews on this. Jay and I have known one another for a decade and he can vouch for me as being committed to the well-being of students. If you have any doubt on that, I was the selectee this past year for Prince George's County Public Schools for your paper's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.
The entire approach of this administration towards education is seriously flawed. It is unnecessarily hostile towards teachers and teachers unions. When people attempt to explain this, they are not listened to.
Prior to yesterday's radio town hall meeting, Arne Duncan had held two conference calls with groups of teachers, the first a group of National Board Certified teachers (I am one, but did not participate in the call because of a conflict, but am well aware of what happened), the second with a group of teachers from the group Teachers Letters to Obama (of which I am now a member of the steering committee at the request of the organizers, although I was not a participant at the time of the call). In each case teachers who participated in the calls came away with the clear impression that Duncan did not listen, that all he wanted to do was repeat his talking points, and to claim that teachers misunderstood - RttT, the Blue Print, etc. The 2nd phone call went so badly that several things happened.
- Duncan called two of the organizers, xxxxx xxxx and xxxxx xxxxx, and spoke with them directly.
- I received a call from the Education department wanting to better understand how they were coming across to teachers.
I fully accept that Duncan and Obama believe they are doing the right thing. The problem is, the upper staff of the Education department has a lot of people with the attitudes of a small segment - think tanks, self-described reformers, etc., who are advocating positions with no research base and who immediately attack anyone who questions them as not being committed to the well-being of children.
As a professional teacher who gave up a far more lucrative career in data processing as I approached 50 to dedicate myself to the wellbeing of students and thus the future of this nation, I strongly resent that kind of attitude. And I am also more than mildly irritated at your rhetoric on a subject on which you apparently lack the appropriate understanding.
Let me point out a couple of things totally missing in your piece.
- Many of us opposing what this administration is doing are NOT arguing for the status quo. In fact, many of us would make changes that are far more radical. We have offered proposals which don't fit into the current rhetorical frame, and so they get rejected.
- Because we are teachers and in some cases union activists does not make us hostile to change. But we will fight against the easy and intellectually sloppy attack that unions are protecting bad teachers. That is no more correct than saying requiring police and prosecutors to follow the requirements of the Bill of Rights protects criminals. The protections are for all of us - in education for good teachers who might be disliked by vindictive administrators or school boards, in the criminal justice system to protect against political prosecutions, prosecutions of minority religions and political opinions. We point out, regularly, that the problem is NOT the unions, but that administrators fail to do their jobs in (a) hiring, (b) monitoring and supporting struggling teachers (most of whom CAN be turned into at least effective teachers), and (c) properly documenting the steps taken as prerequisites to dismissal. We would also point out that as teachers we rarely have any role in hiring or dismissal. Some teachers do perform the role of mentors and advisers - I have had 5 student teachers, two of which have later taught with me in my school. I serve as a mentor to candidates for National Board Certification. I have been a department chair. I serve as an unofficial mentor to new and struggling teachers. In the first two of those roles I receive nominal compensation that does not come close to covering the time involved, in the last I receive neither compensation nor time off from other duties. If teachers are going to have to take on such additional roles, (1) we should be trained, (2) we should be compensated either by additional pay and/or reduction of other responsibilities. Most teachers have their own families. I can take on more because my wife and I have no children of our own.
- If unions are such a problem, please explain the following two facts. (1) The states with the highest test scores are all heavily unionized while those with the lowest are right to work states; (2) there is a higher rate of dismissal of experienced teachers in unionized states than there is in non-unionized states. Now, in the case of test scores, I am well aware that correlation is not causation, but since the self-styled "reformers" always use test scores to make their arguments, I would think it would be incumbent upon them to explain the situation described in #1.
- The policies we have been pursuing over the past several decades have failed. Please remember, A Nation at Risk claimed our economy would be at jeopardy because of our schools, yet it was the economies of places like Japan that were in theory going to surpass us that collapsed. Perhaps that is why some of the Asian countries we so fear are going in the opposite direction educationally than we are - Korea is REDUCING class time; China is beginning to focus on creativity. Yet we argue for more class time, and what we are doing is eliminating creativity. We are turning school into a task rather than the excitement of learning with which kids usually arrive at school, but which by middle school is disappearing - having taught every grade from 7 through 12, I can tell you that by middle school kids are already making the economic decision - will this be on the test? If it's not, and if all our emphasis is on tests, that is a logical path for them to take, even as it is reductive of real learning. Perhaps that is why on international comparisons, as misunderstood as they are, at the elementary level we are near the top, but by high school we see our ranking drop - and a caution, ordinal position may not indicate a significant difference in position, even if the tests were comparing apples to apples, which in many cases they are not.
The approach the administration is taking is flawed on many levels. Duncan advocates for mayoral control. Yet there is a history of such an approach, and it has not worked. Let's go back to test scores again. During the period of mayoral control in Chicago, performance essentially remained flat or declined. There was one year of a bump of test scores. But that was because the cut scores were changed for political purposes - Richie Daley and Rod Blagojevich were both facing reelection. In the case of Chicago, even the normally supportive Chicago Tribune has pointed out that there was NO increase in performance during the tenures of Duncan and Vallas. In fact, where schools were "reconstituted" and "improvements" were claimed, it was comparing the test scores of different groups of students within the same school. This has been well documented, including by people like Tony Bryk. Recent stories have demonstrated the lack of improvement in NY under the administration of Bloomberg and Klein.
Unions came into existence to provide more of an equal playing field with management. That was true in industry, it is true in education. Making unions the target is destructive of the well-being of the American people, not just in education. Isn't it interesting that as unions have declined the inequity between management and the ordinary worker has skyrocketed? Republicans would be very happy to see teachers' unions - and other unions - destroyed.
There is so much more I could include in this, but it is long enough already.
What if politicians were being held to anything like the standard people wish to apply to the schools?
What if businessmen?
What if the military?
Schools and teachers become easy targets, because since almost everyone has at some point been in a classroom they think that gives them an expertise they do not have. They think nothing of being a teacher for a day, while they would never think of being a doctor for a day, or letting a lawyer for a day handle their lawsuit or their criminal defense.
Teaching should be a highly skilled profession. One reason we have some teachers who are not as skilled is the kind of training they receive is insufficient - although that does NOT justify thereby having the constant turnover of approaches like Teach for America. We do need to change the training. We need to increase the compensation. We need to improve the working conditions.
I am somewhat lucky, in that I now work in a school that understands I am very much outside the lines in how I teach but also very effective. Eleanor Roosevelt gives me a great deal of flexibility to use my best judgment in how to teach. I have too many students - last year at one point two of my AP classes had 38 students, although they dropped - to 37. Most teachers do not have such flexibility.
The administration offers words that are in theory supportive of teachers, recognizing that you can NOT make major improvements in education without teachers. And yet it simultaneously approves and advocates for approaches that are hostile towards teaching. Two examples come to mind - both Obama and Duncan originally approved of firing all the teachers at Central Falls, and Duncan once said (and then had to walk back) that Katrina was the best thing ever to happen to education in New Orleans. On the latter, perhaps rather than accepting the self-promotion of the likes of Paul Vallas, you ought to read what Lance Hill at Tulane has put together over the past few years.
And that raises a key point - the voices of those outside the supposed consensus on "reform" do not get heard. We get op ed writers like you who do not fully understand education writing columns like you did. Yes, there are some exceptions - in your paper Valerie Strauss is now providing a venue for other voices to be heard. Two reasons for the impact of Diane Ravitch's book are (1) she was such a major name in education she could not be ignored, and (b) she was acknowledging that the approach she had supported hoping it would make a difference was wrong. Yet since the book has come out, when Diane has tried to talk with people in the administration, they do not want to listen.
Nor do they want to listen to members of Congress. Duncan faces a great deal of skepticism and even hostility from the senior Democratic members of George Miller's committee. I have solid evidence that several do not trust him.
But they also do not want to undercut the President politically, so find themselves in a bind.
Teachers are angry. If you doubt that, look what happened in Florida to the proposal to tie teacher compensation to student test scores (something that is stupid even with value-added assessment, but that would be a separate long explanation). Because teachers organized, and got additional support from parents and others, Gov. Crist decided to veto the bill, and now is likely to get elected with the full support of Florida teachers.
There are around 4 million unionized teachers in this country. In a number of close elections, our participation or lack thereof can make a real difference. There are some politicians who understand this.
That is a separate issue. The real issue is ultimately this - what this administration is doing will do more damage to public education than was done in the 8 years of the previous administration. What this administration is doing has the real potential to drive the teachers you want and need from the profession. I am 64. I can retire at any point and go do something else. I am on record that I will continue to teach as long as I can do so with integrity. What this administration is doing is making that ever more difficult. At some point I will decide the 12-14 hour days (including the time spent outside of formal class time) are simply not worth it.
I urge you to consider, if you are going to write about education, that you take the time to better educate yourself to the issues that are involved.
I usually enjoy your columns. Quite obviously this one hit a nerve.
I debated writing this as an open letter and posting it at Daily Kos and elsewhere. I decided for now to simply write directly to you with a copy to Jay.
Jay and I do not always agree. Despite that we remain friends. I think it fair to say that Jay usually finds it worthwhile to listen to what I have to say - even if he disagrees, he finds it requires him to make his arguments more precise and cogent. In that sense our relationship is a little like that he had with the late Jerry Bracey.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I did not plan what I was going to write. I sat down and wrote this in one draft. That will explain at least some of the disorganization.
Ken Bernstein aka teacherken in the blogosphere.
You will note the following, which I repeat because of what I am now doing: I debated writing this as an open letter and posting it at Daily Kos and elsewhere. I decided for now to simply write directly to you with a copy to Jay.
I would have hoped for at least an acknowledgment. The one I received from Jay acknowledged that the points I was raising had some importance.
You, dear readers, now have the opportunity to do several things.
A. You can criticize me on any of a number of grounds:
1. for not having done this as an open letter originally
2. for reprinting something I sent as an email
3. for the contents of the email I sent
On point 1, perhaps I should have done it just as a blog post. As for #2, please note the words I have repeated from the email - I did not say I would never post them, and find now that I feel as I should.
B. You can choose to offer your own thoughts either on this thread or elsewhere on what Marcus offered in her piece.
I am not going to engage in close monitoring of this diary. I will, as is my custom, read all comments.
Let me close by explaining at least part of my rationale for posting this now. There has been an ongoing problem of people like Marcus who lack expertise in education accepting a definition of "reform" that excludes the insights and experiences of educators, being framed mainly from think tanks, businessmen, politicians, and advocacy groups. The voices of teachers get excluded. Every piece such as this by Marcus perpetuates the problem. I had hoped to engage her in dialog so that she could see her perspective was limited. Perhaps how I went about it was wrong. I really cannot say.
I have been debating since I sent a second email, also not acknowledged, whether I would go public with this. I have decided I will, and now, before I return to the start of another school year seems an appropriate time.
Hence this diary.