On Sunday, the Washington Post published a mind-bogglingly dishonest 'manifesto' by the Rhee and a bunch of the 'leaders' in education. It's so dishonest, I did what any good teacher should. I took out my red pen and corrected it.
As actual educators with actual classroom experience we are responsible for educating all the children that enter our rooms and walk our halls, we know that the task of ‘reforming’ the country's public schools is a dishonest attempt that will destroy our public schools forever. It is our obligation to enhance the personal growth and academic achievement of our students, and we must oppose the efforts of those that would see our schools become testing mills.
All of us have taken steps to mitigate the disaster that is No Child Left Behind, but the travesty embodied in the Obama administration’s misnamed Race to the Top program has been the catalyst for more efforts to destroy public education than we have seen in decades. But those ‘reforms’ are still outpaced and outsized by the crisis of Big Money buying up and shutting down public education.
Fortunately, the public, and our leaders in government, are finally paying attention. The"Waiting for 'Superman' " documentary, the defeat of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty,Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark's public schools, and a tidal wave of media attention have helped spark a national debate and presented us with an extraordinary opportunity.
But the transformative changes needed to truly prepare our kids for the 21st-century global economy simply will not happen unless we first shed some of the entrenched practices that have held back our education system, practices that have long favored the wealthy elite, not children. These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.
It's time for all of the adults -- superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike -- to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children. Because right now, across the country, kids are stuck in crushing poverty, having given up hope while waiting for us to do something.
So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even the ‘quality’ of their teacher -- it is their parent’s income.
Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by politicians, businessmen and tin-pot dictators on school boards. The widespread policy of "last in, first out" (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it easier to hold on to seasoned, experienced and effective educators but ignores the one thing that unfortunately matters most to the power-hungry superintendent or chancellor : the ability to fire whoever they want for no reason at all and with no due process.
A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has never served in a classroom before and only joined Teach for America to avoid burnout or can be transferred and fired at will -- she will make it to college if her teacher is well-educated and experienced and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, an ineffective power-mad superintendent can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.
The glacial process for removing an incompetent leader -- and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone with money -- has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.
There isn't a business in America that would survive if it couldn't refuse to give everything it made away to all its customers no matter how money they had or whether they bothered to pay at all. That is why everything we use in assessing teachers is part of the problem; their effectiveness in the classroom cannot be measured on increasing student achievement alone.
District leaders also need to demonstrate responsibility to ensure that financial incentives are not used as a backhanded way of reducing teacher pay and eliminating teachers that have fallen out of political favor. When teachers are highly effective -- measured in significant part by how well they are supported by their communities, parents, and administrators -- or are willing to take a job in a tough school or in a hard-to-staff subject area such as advanced math or science, we should be able to pay them for their education and experience. Important initiatives, such as the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, are already helping bring great educators to struggling communities, but we have to fight changing the rules to turn teachers into low-skilled factory laborers.
Let's stop ignoring basic economic principles of social justice and focus on how we can establish an academic culture in every American school -- a culture that rewards excellence, elevates the status of teachers and is positioned to help as many students as possible succeed. We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school. Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let's stop pretending that everyone who opines on what goes on in the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.
Even the best teachers -- those who possess such skills -- face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy? We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to augment student learning while avoiding the trap of ‘individualized’ teacher-less instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers' time.
To make this transformation work, we must also eliminate arcane rules such as "seat time," which requires a student to spend a specific amount of time in a classroom with a teacher rather than being able to work to the level of their abilities.
Just as we must give teachers and schools the capability and flexibility to meet the needs of students, we must give parents an incentive to behave like parents. That starts with having the courage to require parents participate in their childrens’ educations by helping with homework and participating in the school. Closing a neighborhood school -- whether it's in Southeast D.C., Harlem, Denver or Chicago -- is not an option. Ever. But no one ever said leadership is easy.
We also must eliminate charter schools as a truly viable option. If all of our neighborhood schools were charters, we wouldn't be facing this crisis since the ‘rules’ wouldn’t apply to them. But all our children need great schools now -- whether district-run public schools serving all children or ‘public’ charter schools serving only the wealthy elite shouldn’t be decided by hedge-fund managers out to privatize everything. Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating our schools; a measure by which most private and charter schools fail to do any better than public schools.
For the wealthiest among us, the crisis in public education may still seem like an opportunity to oppress the poor for the next several generations, because those families can afford to choose something better for their kids. But it's a problem for all of us -- until we fix poverty, we will never fix the nation's educational shortcomings. Until we fix the gap between the haves and the have-nots, our schools will only serve the wealthy elite and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory.
*Since my red pen doesn't seem to work too well on the screen, my corrections are in boldface.