Monday, August 29, 2016

The Building Is On Fire

I have a friend who is a middle school special education teacher with Seattle Public Schools, a woman with two masters degrees who decided to go back to school in order to enter the profession in her 40's. She loves her job, but admits that it's like running into a burning building each day: she sees herself as saving the kids as much as teaching them. She has chosen to specialize in teaching children for whom school hasn't been a particularly good fit, kids with diagnosable conditions and disabilities. She runs into that building each day fully aware of the problems with our public schools, but she doesn't do it for the school or even the money: she does it for the kids, which is why she runs back in there each day to fight the battles with bureaucracy and high stakes testing and the dilettante-ish meddling of politicians and corporate-style education reformers. She tells me some of those stories, but mostly, when we talk it's about those "in the cracks" moments when these kids actually learn something.

She is a white hat teacher, for sure, and she tells me that while she may disagree with her colleagues about what fires actually need to be put out (or even what constitutes a fire), they all feel the same way about needing to save the kids because they all at least agree that the building is on fire.

That is not how teaching ought to be, of course, and I'm sure the burning building metaphor strikes many of you as overly dramatic, but I ask you this: if it isn't on fire, then why are teachers fleeing the profession in droves? Significant teacher shortages are being reported right across the nation and judging by enrollments in teaching colleges, which has fallen by over 50 percent in some places, the problem is going to get worse in the coming decades. States like Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and California consider the shortage so severe that many are calling it a crisis.

From Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet column in the Washington Post:

The reasons why this is happening are important. Teachers always come and go, but in recent years there are some new reasons for the turnover. Polls show that public school teachers today are more disillusioned about their jobs than they have been in many years. One 2013 poll found that teachers satisfaction had declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent very satisfied, the lowest level in 25 years. Fifty-one percent of teachers reported feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points reporting that level in 1985.

It's not a coincidence that this dramatic drop in job satisfaction has coincided with the imposition of corporate-style education "reform" measures:

Earlier this year, NPR also reported on the national teacher shortage . . . Noting the dramatic drop in enrollment in teacher education programs (a 74 percent drop in less than 10 years in California) . . . attributed at least part of the problem to the way the corporate reforms have impacted the profession . . . the Common Core and its battles, high-stakes testing, the erosion of tenure, and the evaluation of teachers by test scores, have all contributed to the crisis.

In fact, only 20 percent of teachers would recommend teaching as a profession: 80 percent are warning us about the burning building.

This is a tragedy, a fire set by the corporate reformers who started from the wrong-headed premise that "bad teaching" was the problem with our public schools. They've now created a situation in which too many schools are scrambling to just put warm adult bodies in front of classrooms. Some districts have even waived teaching qualifications to fill positions, others are recruiting administrators, and many children are going entire school years under the tutelage of a series of substitutes.

I know there are some who would argue that setting fire to the entire public school system is the best way forward, but that's not a rational approach, one based upon the "shock doctrine" lies about a failing school system that were used to get the corporate foot in the door in the first place. Our public schools, like all democratic institutions, are far from perfect, but for most kids, most of the time, they have a history of success. Our most significant "education" problem is poverty: when adjusted for our extraordinarily high poverty rates (one in five American children and over half of public school students live in poverty) American schools stand with the best in the world. If the corporate reformers really wanted to "save" our schools, they would turn their billions towards addressing the epidemic of poverty where they could actually do some good. Instead, they're setting fires from which teachers must either flee or save the children. A teacher's working conditions are a child's learning conditions. The "reformers" have clearly made it worse.

The promise of public education underpins democracy. I will always support public schools because without them enlightened self-governance cannot occur. Of course we can do better, much better, that is the nature of democracy, but first we need to stamp out the fires set by the corporate reformers and we do that by listening to and supporting the teachers who, every day, run into those burning buildings.

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