Sunday, August 30, 2015

Irony, Education Reform and Teacher Shortages

I love irony. Irony makes me laugh. I look for it in my daily life and seek it out in my reading and in my television viewing. Just today I was leaving the local car wash when I noticed the cemetery across the street was called Riverview Cemetery. I had to wonder how many of the residents of the Riverview Cemetery were enjoying that river view. I pictured the cemetery plot salesperson telling a grieving widow that her dead husband would be able to enjoy a pleasant river view in his final resting place.

Irony is, of course, the discrepancy between reality and appearance or the discrepancy between what is said and what is done. I would imagine that like me you studied irony in high school. Perhaps you encountered irony through The Rime of the Ancient Mariner lost at sea:

                                Water, water everywhere
                                Nor any drop to drink.

Or perhaps it was in Hamlet, when that old blow hard Polonius declares:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. 

Or perhaps you remember the plight of poor Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, reviled and literally marked for life because of her out of wedlock encounter with the Reverend Dimmesdale, who continues to enjoy the adulation of his flock because she refuses to give him up.

History is replete with ironic moments, also. Otto Lilienthal, the creator of the glider, declared it to be one of the safest modes of transportation in the world, shortly before he was killed flying his own invention. And who can forget that George W. Bush, in the shadow of 9/11, said that only through American military intervention could the Middle East achieve freedom and democracy.

Despite all the evidence of irony in our daily lives, in our reading and our schooling, it is, dare I say “ironic” that it appears that corporate education reformers don’t get irony.

These reformers tell us that education reform is the “civil rights issue of our time.” And how are they going to make sure that poor minority children in the inner city get their civil right to a good education? Why by denying their civil rights, of course. The very foundation of the most lauded charter school chains like KIPP and Eva Moscowitz’s Success Academies is a militaristic behavior code, driven by a desire to make children into compliant test taking automatons. Harsh discipline for minor infractions is the rule.

Good order, routine and discipline are necessary for learning. Many charter schools, however, have turned this understanding into a culture based on shaming. Kids are shamed in front of their fellow students by wearing yellow shirts or by being singled out in line or by having their test scores displayed in the hallway for all to see. Connecticut school principal Ann Evans de Bernard has characterized the KIPP schooling approach as colonialism. So the great irony here, is that in order to solve the “civil rights issue of our time”, education reformers want to take poor, mostly black and brown students back to the plantation and crack the whip.

Reformster Andy Smarick has a low irony quotient as well. In a recent article on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog Flypaper, Smarick quotes Founding Father, John Dickinson. ““Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” He goes on to say that education reformers need to park the ideology and pay attention to experience. He is concerned that ideology is driving too many reforms and that these reforms are failing because they have not been rooted in experience. Who does he recommend that reformers turn to for such experience? Why non-other than older reformsters like Checker Finn and Bruno Manno, who discovered some of the problems that attend to relying on market forces to control school quality.

What Smarick misses is that the Dickinson quote might suggest that if reformers wanted to get things right, they could have tried asking veteran teachers and career educators rather than non-educators of like mind. Smarick says listen to the voice of experience, but those teachers? Well, no, never mind; let’s just keep talking to each other.

And even more recently we are reading about teacher shortages. This gives education reformers an opportunity to double down on the irony of the failure to recognize irony. After years of blaming teacher quality for the failures of the American education system, of working assiduously to undermine teacher job protections and simultaneously stripping teachers of autonomy in their classrooms, education reformers blame the economy for the apparent teacher shortage. As Peter Greene has pointed out, if you are worried about the teacher shortage, make prospective teachers a better offer – more money, more job security, more say in what is taught and how. Talented people are not attracted to low paying, high-risk, low autonomy jobs. But instead of suggesting the road to attracting more and better teachers is through making the work more attractive, reformsters recommend loosening of teacher certification rules.

So as I understand the reform agenda, repeated attacks on the teaching profession is not the problem. The problem is, instead, the economy. We can expect to attract the best and brightest to a profession that has low pay, low esteem and low stability. That does not sound like any law of supply and demand that I read about.

Next, we can solve the teacher shortage by loosening certification requirements, so that anyone who can prove s/he is breathing can teach. This seems to be the direction that states like North Carolina and Kansas are going. As I understand this argument, it goes something like this, teachers and their unions are the problem in education, so let’s solve the problem by putting even less qualified, less knowledgeable people in the classroom. I have to wonder how many reformsters go to a doctor who is unlicensed and received five weeks of medical training in the summer.

So there we have it. Teachers suck, but we need more teachers. Good teachers matter, so let’s open up the path to teaching to anyone who can draw breath. Doubling down on the irony.

In time I believe that the education reform movement will die from the emptiness of its own ideas and because change in education requires too much hard work for the dilettante. They will get bored and take all their foundation money somewhere else. When that happens the fate of the public schools may at last return to the life-long educators, who understand the issues and who have real solutions that include a frontal attack on poverty and a high level of respect for the teachers on the front lines.

Now won’t that be ironic.