Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stop Hijacking the Education System with Hijinks by Frank McCourt

Teachers looking for respect from politicians need to run for office themselves

City Hall

January 14th, 2008

By Frank McCourt

At what point in American history did politicians hijack public education? They think nothing of barging into classrooms across the country, shunting teachers aside and reading to children who wonder who they are in the first place, wonder who is this person boring us to death with his prose drone?

We all remember former Vice President Dan Quayle’s foray into spelling when, campaigning for a second term, he told a class of elementary school kids that potato was spelled potatoe. We remember how President George W. Bush read a story about a goat to children in Florida while the World Trade Center burned. Imagine a politician daring to enter the professional space of doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists, interior decorators. Imagine.

The kids are primed well in advance, told this person coming here tomorrow is very, very important, that they better behave themselves and show respect to this very important person who will be reading to them, this person taking time out from a hectic schedule to show his/her interest in education.

But teachers are fair game. Here come the press people, the camera operators, the advance men or women and, hold it right there outside the classroom for the big smile and the apt comment on the state of the schools, the solon himself, today’s captivating reader, the one who will show the teacher how it’s done.

Politician enters room, acknowledges existence of teacher, limp handshake, faint smile, head nod.

Some teachers are flattered, of course. They’ll be right up there on TV tonight, and tomorrow the kids will rush in all excited after seeing themselves and their teacher on the news.

Oh, wow!

There’s Joey. There’s Sandra. Yeah, and there’s a glimpse of teacher being recognized by politician. (Teacher has the sickly smile of one aware she is being used. But don’t be like that, Teacher Lady. After all, you were singled out, checked out, background looked into, political affiliation determined before this politician was invited to invade your domain. You are going to be on TV, recognized, however briefly, before politician sits warily on three-legged stool to bore your kids to death with a story he never heard of before today.)

So, there’s the teacher, there’s the politician, there are the children. And we know where the power is. We know that whatever happens in the classroom, however effective the teacher, however accomplished or failing the kids are, it is the politician who controls the purse strings of education. We know when you sit on the pot of gold you can dictate what should be taught, how it should be taught, and who should teach it.

We are talking, of course, about the United States of America. It may be different in other countries where there is respect for teachers, where, in the matter of teaching and learning, they are heeded.

What do we hear in public education about the pursuit of wisdom? Nothing. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have decided the way to improve the schools is through testing, testing, testing. Unless they test well we don’t like our children. We brag to neighbors and other parents that our Jonathan scored way up there on that No Child Left Behind test and if all the children scored way up there we’d get more money from Washington. And what right-minded citizen wouldn’t want that? Politicians from different states and localities are over the moon when “their” kids score high on this test and that test.

Then there are the teachers. Oh, well. Those silly people in public schools went into the profession thinking they’d teach, you know, excite the kids. Forget the test, the quiz, the exam.

Politicians bark: Hold it right there, Teacher Lady. We don’t care what you do in the classroom as long as it can be measured and tested. We want results. Understand? Results. I mean, you’re not Socrates blathering away under a tree. If we’re doling out funds, we wanna know what you people are up to in the classroom.

So … back to the drawing board, teacher. Think results. Teach to the test because if you don’t, your representatives downtown, upstate and in D.C. will sit on the pot of gold ’til you come to your senses. Principals and bureaucrats in general will question your professionalism and you know what that means, teacher. To have your professionalism questioned by people who long ago fled the classroom is a serious matter. You might lose your good job, teacher. What would happen to the children?

Oh, the children. Don’t worry about them. Teachers will soon be replaced with robots capable of administering tests. Everything will be multiple choice and robots certainly know how to handle that. Curiosity will be discouraged and there will be no departure from the test-driven curriculum.

And you, teacher? What will you do with yourself?

Try politics. That way you can re-enter the classroom and, get this: you’ll be respected. You can read to the kids a story about a woman who wanted to be a teacher but was replaced by a robot because politicians wanted results and the politicians got their way because they know more about education than the teacher in the classroom, don’t they?

Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for “Angela’s Ashes.” The author and memoirist is a former New York City teacher.


The Perimeter Primate said...

This was a great essay. I posted it on two Oakland listserves (one for parents and one for teachers).

Thanks, Norm.

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