Wednesday, August 03, 2011

This Is What We Are Up Against

(Note: Let me just warn you that I go all out in this one. I'm inappropriate, I'm not a man of peace, I let my freak flag fly. And there's swearing, not from me, but in the videos, all of which are worth watching, especially the second one. Don't say you weren't warned.)

Actor Matt Damon has stepped forward as a powerful, articulate opponent of the Bill Gates-Arne Duncan drill-and-kill approach to education reform and a defender of public school teachers. Last Saturday he gave a nice, straight-forward, common sense speech at the Save Our Schools (SOS) rally in Washington, DC. This one you can watch with the kids in the room.

I'm grateful that he's stepped forward to lend his star-power to the cause of children and education. He's an actor, so you can imagine it's much better to watch it, but if you don't want to take the time, here is the transcript:

I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were empowered to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill-and-kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. ... Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

Afterwards, he did some interviews, including with Reason TV. It's not the nice, tidy, well-considered speech he gave before the audience of thousands. It's salty and angry. He clearly does not suffer fools well, but in it's way it's every bit as articulate and powerful a defense of teachers.

If you're not familiar with Reason TV, you should know that they're a media outlet with a purist Libertarian point-of-view. (You should probably stop reading right now if you consider yourself a Libertarian.) These are folks who advocate for the kind of economic anarchy that appeals to intellectually precocious 12-year-old boys. This unregulated, free-market ideology, which has been adopted by too many in business and government, is underpinned by the simplistic and juvenile notion that we're all ultimately and equally motivated by greed. I remember how satisfying it felt back then to read the Libertarian bible Atlas Shrugged. It was as if I'd discovered the formula for how to clean up all those messy human relations: money as the unambiguous measuring stick, "the invisible hand" and all that.

As I grew up, however, I put away my childish playthings and began to understand that most people are not motivated primarily by greed, in fact few people are, including myself. Most business people are, certain kinds of criminals are, perhaps politicians are, but most people are not. Our motivations are far, far more complex than what can be understood by what Damon calls the "MBA-style mindset." If I were primarily motivated by money, I would have gone into business, or corporate law, or one of those other soulless professions like interviewing people for Reason TV. And although Damon puts this smug woman and her wise guy cameraman in their place (neither of whom probably know that the "fire the bottom 10 percent" concept comes from former GE CEO Jack Welch, who takes pride in being called "cruel and Darwinian") they are apparently, and sadly, incapable of understanding they are being schooled.

What I want to do after watching this is provide Damon with a kind of second-hand "genius in the stairwell" in which he would go on to say something like:

"In fact I think you are a s***ty cameraman. I don't know anything about being a cameraman, just like these businessmen and politicians don't know anything about being teachers, but I've made up a standardized test and it shows that you should be fired . . . No wait, I've actually just given her a standardized test and she failed it, so I'm going to fire you."

The Reason TV people demonstrate the mindset teachers are up against: business people like Bill Gates for whom "cruel" and "Darwinian" are virtues; people like Arne Duncan for whom "education" is demonstrated by filling in all the right black dots, building a nifty resume, and working those contacts, the special talents that come with an Ivy League education. (I'm not saying there aren't other good things about those schools, only that those are the characteristics that make degrees from those places so lucrative.). I'm starting to realize that these are people who simply cannot hear us when we try to explain our profession and our motivations. It's not possible for this particular kind of ideologue to understand that each child is an "individual puzzle" a teacher must solve, rather than a product that just needs to be moved to the next stage of the assembly line or plotted on a spreadsheet. It's not credible to them when we say the job itself is an incentive; that you can lure us with all the carrots and flog us with all the sticks you want, and the results will be exactly the same, because what we are here to do is educate, not churn out a generation of regurgitating test takers. All they can hear is "lazy" and "avoiding accountability."

But that's what they want, test-takers, because that's who they are. These are people who have adopted selfishness as a virtue, greed as good, and stockholder's value above all else. And if you can't test it, if you can't measure it, especially in terms of money, it has no value.

I'm reminded of this funny, but very disturbing "report" from The Daily Show, in which a group of Harvard and MIT MBA students are interviewed about why they refuse to sign a code of ethics.

When I saw this at the time, and when I watch it now, it shakes my soul. How can we allow these children to walk freely in the streets? I certainly wouldn't want them anywhere near my child, and thank God we don't pay teachers enough to lure people like this into education. Is this really what Harvard and MIT are doing? It sounds to me like they are brainwashing kids into a kind of institutionalized sociopathy. The children in this piece frighten me more than any street tough and they will certainly do more damage to society.

But these are the top business schools in the country, so this must be how Bill Gates wants them. This must be how he wants your kids: cruel, Darwinian, and easy to measure.

This is what we are up against.


Anonymous said...

Love the post. Our education system scares me at this point because of the fact that it does not encourage, or reward, sparking that "love affair" with learning.

One thing to add, Bill Gates, while certainly a greedy individual, was a Harvard dropout, and is currently supporting a website called the Khan academy. I believe they are trying out a new process in which the students watch their lessons online at home, and then work on "homework" at school. Just a little sidenote.

As I said, great post, made more powerful by your passion for the subject.

Dawn said...

as a homeschooling parent -- and a preschool teacher here in Canada --i can honestly say that "standardized" testing served no positive purpose for my children.. the thought of it literally made my son ill - headaches, stress, and the like. When i opt-ed out on his behalf -- it was frowned upon -- so we are fortunate to homeschool -- BUT- i have amazing memories of school and the teachers there that helped me become a free thinker-- of course, that was way before they decided that a child's potential was "measurable" -- i share your frustrations and outrage-- just wanted to say thanks for your dedication to the children and to the teachers -- i share your fighting spirit .
light and peace to you -- and all the amazing teachers i have met online and in the world...
Namaste Dawn ..

Carrie said...

Love this post... Accountability is one thing, but using standardized testing to obtain that accountability is insane. Even our kindergarteners are tested at an alarming rate. This takes away all freedom from teachers as they cannot sway too far away from what's on the test or their students won't pass and then the teacher is in trouble. I can't imagine there are too many kindergarten teachers excited about forcing a 3 hour literacy block instead of more hands on activities and active learning that is more developmentally appropriate. In Michigan the average passing standardized tests is around ~35%. Is it really that our children are illiterate and can't do math... or is it the test that's broken? There are other factors (parents) as well but that's for a different post I suppose.

Kim said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am a former public high school teacher who quit teaching and took my kids out of public school to get away from the testing mentality. It's horrible to see what is becoming of our public school system.

Great post.

Cave Momma said...

Love your post. Everything. My husband is a high school teacher and he feels just about the same way about all this and standardized testing. We decided to homeschool our kids because of these very reasons. I find it frightening and very very sad. I only hope it changes one day.

Aunt Annie said...

As usual, we're flying the same flag in educational terms, even if we're in different countries! Well spoken, and thanks so much for sharing the Damon videos in particular. I love your addition to the commentary there- you should send it to him!

I wonder how much of the 'greed is good' mentality can be traced back to the US's lack of a public health care system? When you have to have money to afford medical care, you would surely get the feeling that money can buy everything, including life. Over here in Australia most of us have no such illusions; because we all have access to pretty decent emergency care without losing our house, the general public mostly can separate the value of money from the value of essentials such as health and education.

Just a thought... mind you, we are fighting a similar battle here against the introduction of standardised testing as a measure of teaching excellence, thanks to a similar mentality in some of our supposed 'leaders' who are simply too far removed from daily reality and leaning so far to the right (in both sides of politics) that they are in danger of falling out of the tree.

Unknown said...

If I was as well spoken as you, this is exactly what I would say! I loved this post. I had, before I read your post linked Mr. Damon's video on FB. Brilliant. I love your attitude, Teacher Tom!!

FiFiUK said...

This is a pretty good reflection on what is happening here in the UK too. I think it's frightening that so many people across the world can share the shameful attitudes of the employees of Reason TV (we are so lucky to not have that kind of TV in your face over here) and Gates et al. The UK government hides under the cover of claiming it will focus more on the classroom, teaching and learning, but no matter how they dress it up the testing and accountability issues remain at the forefront of everything they propose. Thanks Teacher Tom for sharing this, otherwise many of your fellow teachers in the UK might not have had the chance to see it.

polly said...

Right on, Tom! If this small piece could get even a fraction of the air-play the **** debt ceiling disgrace did, maybe someone would care enough to listen. Gates puts all his education funding into high-school programs, and we all know it's too late by then! I did not allow my kids to attend schools on days they were giving standardized tests --- it cost one of them a $1000 scholarship - I consider that black mail.

Anonymous said...

Same BS going down in New Zealand as well... tragedy that we let politicians near our kids!

Great post!!


Anonymous said...

I'm a Canaian elementary school teacher, and we're knee-deep in the standardized testing battle up here too.

Right now, the biggest educational buzzword in Ontario is "differentiated instruction" (aka what teachers already do). So the irony is that while we're supposed to be teaching them like the individuals they are, the government is testing them like they're all the same.

I'm a firm believer that neither education nor healthcare should be run like corporations. What do we value more, people or profits?


April McCauley said...

My child is in preschool and I don't have any experience at all with public school (past my own, 20 years ago), but it is looming. I am wondering if there are any legitimate studies that show a correlation between test scores while in school and personal satisfaction later in life. For example, if you were 90 percentile in fourth grade what bearing does that have on your self-evaluated contentment with your own ability to function in society, provide for yourself, and participate in your community when you are 40?

Just curious, because it seems that testing is to evaluate the teachers or further-education-readiness at 18, but not life preparedness for the long term. ??

Honey said...

This is one of the reasons I homeschool. I have so many teacher friends and parents of public schoolers that are constantly sharing stories that would curl your hair. They're always telling me how lucky we are.

When my daughter, 10, discovered you have to have permission to use the bathroom she was outraged. Her response? "But that's a basic human rite!" What are we learning when we have to learn how to properly ask permission to do what comes naturally to our bodies?

One teacher friend, whom we adore due to her gentle child supportive and empowering approach, is one of those public educators. She has lost her job every year and yet, others don't. The teacher that's been there forever and actually throws her WIG at the children!!! was one who stayed. Another school, the teacher that kept a bottle of whiskey in her filing cabinet and would take snorts through the day in her "coffee". These so called teachers stayed...but those who looked forward to kids, educated theirselves, saw the children as people not scores were let go.

Teachers are the ones that educate the children. What kind of world do we live in when we pay surgeons to do boob jobs better than the teachers that inspire our kids?

I think there should be testing and a pay based on performance for teachers. Pay teachers that love what they're doing, who bring joy to the children, put the test into the kids hands and that of the parents and let them score the teachers. Look at the portfolios. See what the kids know...not what they can spit out and forget. Get rid of the teachers that scare children and send the standardized testing with them.

My niece is going into 6th grade and she didn't know how to use the library. You can't even say it's due to the digital world because she didn't know what/how to look up/research on google either. Even my 3 year old knows that when she wants to listen to music about cats and dogs but songs that have only one or the other she says cats and/or dogs. (She has older siblings and a mother that went to school for journalism so..we may be odd. ;) ) But, teach children how to find what they're interested in...spark the fire of learning and teach them how to add fuel. Odds are...with a good spark and some kindling they'll have a long slow burn with all the lovely logs they find as they now have the initiative to find their own firewood.

And,Bill needs to stick with what he know; computers.


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Anonymous said...

A couple of the videos are not working and I would like to watch them. Can you provide links to where you found them?

Teacher Tom said...

@anonymous . . . Thanks for tipping me to the vanishing videos. I believe the first one was okay, right? I've now provided a new link to the second one. The third one, and it's pretty awesome, is apparently not viewable everywhere outside the US. I found in on Comedy Central's website. It is an episode of The Daily Show, Aug. 12, 2009, called MBA Ethics Oath. I've tried updating it in the post with a more recent link. Hopefully it will work for you; it does for me. If not, here's a direct link: