Monday, April 11, 2011

Kick Me, I'm a Public School Teacher

Posted: 04/11/11 01:15 AM ET

It has been three decades since I saw the commercial, but I will never forget that proud group of Americans who stood singing a terribly old fashioned song that began with the lyrics "Look for the union label."
The union label is hard to find these days and if you look on the backs of members of NEA and AFT, the label you will probably see says, "Kick me, I'm a teacher."
At a time when teacher unions should be trumpeting the successes of teachers and schools across the United States, the supposedly powerful teacher representatives have turned from tigers to tabbies, allowing the perception of educators to be changed from people who devote their time and passion to making sure children receive the best education possible to overpaid, selfish bureaucrats reaching tenure then napping until it is time for a golden-plated retirement.
During this time when teacher tenure laws are being struck down and dubious plans to base pay on poorly written standardized tests are making their way through state legislatures and have seemingly received the stamp of approval from Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration, our union representatives appear more intent on playing defense and giving up the very things that have made our public education system great.
Teachers would never have had to hit the streets in Wisconsin if their case had been presented to the court of popular opinion well in advance of the actions of Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature.
If our American education system is going to survive the onslaught from those who want to privatize our schools and reserve our top dollar education to those from the wealthiest families, while everyone else is groomed for low paying, non-union jobs, it is a time for a new approach:
1. Change the perception of American public school teachers
The face of public education must be the classroom teacher, not the union lawyer or the long-entrenched bureaucrat. These teachers should relentlessly promote the successes we have every day, the successes no one is talking about. We cannot sit idly and allow people like Michelle Rhee to be seen as "reformers," while we are seen as the ones who are standing in the way.
2. Respond to the lies that are being spread by "reformers"
People still have the image of Michelle Rhee with the broom sweeping out the underperforming teachers and closing neighborhood schools. Why are so few presenting the image of her as the woman whose greatest supposed successes are likely the results of cheating on standardized tests?
Why are we allowing the reformers to strike down tenure laws and make it seem as if the biggest problem is experienced teachers? They always show one or two excellent young teachers who are shown the door when there are cutbacks being made, but no one is making the logical argument that for the most part students are better off with experienced teachers if a choice has to be made.
And why isn't anyone asking the biggest question. If education is so important (and it is) why are we making massive cutbacks and forcing these choices?
The biggest lie, the one spelled out on the cover of Newsweek last year. What needs to be done to improve schools? "Fire bad teachers." It was written over and over again on that iconic cover that seems to describe the educational reform movement. Poverty does not play a role. Parents do not play a role. The only ones who hold the key to education are those who stand in front of the classroom.
3. Present a plan that will truly improve our educational system

As many successes as we have in public schools, it cannot be denied there are problems, but why do we remain impotent on the sidelines while legislators with no idea of what goes in a classroom are making decisions that affect our livelihood, and more importantly, the lives of millions of American children?
Let's implement a system for gradually working rookie teachers into the classroom instead of throwing them in cold. A one-year paid internship, working with one or better yet two master teachers would do wonders to cut down on the high percentage of teachers who leave after their first year. Let the young teachers see how veterans handle seemingly overwhelming problems and then when they are faced with those problems they will not seem insurmountable.
Devise a better way to judge students' accomplishment than high stakes standardized tests and the teach to the test philosophy that they create every time. Limit standardized tests to two per year. For instance, eighth graders would be tested at the end of the year and then at the beginning of the next year, the new eighth graders would take the exact same test to give educators an idea of how to plan their instruction for the coming year. At the end of the year, a different test covering the same basic curriculum goals would be given. This would replace the stranglehold testing companies have over our schools with their test prep materials, practice standardized tests and practice test for the practice tests. As long as schools try to game the system, the standardized tests mean nothing. We should also add a writing portion similar to the SAT. This has been done in Missouri for years, but was eliminated this year due to budget cuts.
We should also present plans that would stress innovation in education rather than closing schools, firing teachers, and adding the same privatization factors that have done so much to bring our current economic situation. Community outreach programs designed to aid both in education and to dealing with the poverty problems facing our youth would make more of an impact than any of the so-called reforms.

Things look as bleak for American public schools as I have ever seen them in my lifetime. There are days when I attend meetings that center around accountability, statistics, and everything except what can we do to actually reach the children, and I wonder why anyone would ever enter this profession.
It is when I step into the classroom and I see these children, this portrait in miniature of the American Dream and I know why I am a teacher and I know I will do everything I can to make sure these children have the opportunities I have had.
That is the message we need to send to the American people.

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