Franz Kafka and the Metamorphosis of Teacher Evaluations


One morning, when Mr. K woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his classroom into a horrible insect.


He lay on his segmented brown belly propped against his teachers desk. He had fallen asleep trying to grade English papers again.


His armor-like back ached and wiry thin antennae kept bobbing into view like stray hairs. If he lifted his head a little, he could see his many tiny legs waving about helplessly each holding a pen or pencil.


“What’s happened to me?” he thought.


It wasn’t a dream.


“Oh well.” he shrugged, “I have papers to grade,” and he began to attack the pile of high school essays on literary surrealism.


But before he could even finish the first one, the Commandant sauntered in. At least she liked to call herself that. She was really just a first year principal. Last year she had taught in a classroom right down the hall.


“Mr. K! What is this!?” she demanded.


“You used to call me Franz…”


He was shocked when he heard his own voice answering, it could hardly be recognized as the voice he had had before. As if from deep inside him, there was a painful and uncontrollable squeaking mixed in with it. Mr. K had wanted to give a full answer and explain everything, but before he could finish, the Commandant said, “You haven’t turned in your pre-observation report for your value-added evaluation.”


“Um, yes, I did. I emailed it to you yesterday.”


“You haven’t made references to Danielson’s framework or which Common Core State Standards you’ll be teaching to… How am I going to fairly evaluate your teaching if you don’t make explicit reference to pedagogues like Danielson… and Gates?”


“Half of my evaluation is supposed to come from observation. Couldn’t you just observe me? I told you what I was going to be teaching. Isn’t that enough? I have papers to grade.”


“Of course not, Mr. K! This is a teaching evaluation! Not a grading evaluation!”


“But my students worked all week on these papers. I need to make comments so they can revise them.”


“Do students get a chance to revise their essays on our state mandated standardized writing test?”


“Not really…”


“Then just give them an Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic and move on to the important work – your evaluation.”


“I thought teaching was the important work.”


“Certainly not. We’re in the evaluation business. We evaluate the students work on their standardized tests so we can tell how well their teachers are performing. That’s the other half of your evaluation, Mr. K – your students’ test scores.”


“But that doesn’t make sense. You can’t evaluate teachers based on a test made to evaluate students. That’s like judging the sturdiness of your shoes based on the sturdiness of your socks.”


“Sure we can! It’s a practice championed by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, himself!”


“But he has no education background. He’s just a CEO. And even he said schools could put the brakes on it for another year.”


“Time is money, Mr. K.”


“No it isn’t. Look. Most VAM studies have shown that teachers account for only about 1% to 14% of variability in test scores.”


“Come, come, Mr. K! You sell yourself short. Having an effective teacher is the most important factor in a child’s academic success!”


“Yes, having a good teacher is the most important factor IN THE SCHOOL BUILDING. But variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, resources, class size, motivation, attendance, health… Shall I go on?”




“Really? You want to evaluate me based on test scores for students some of whom I may not even teach?”




“I teach the lower level Language Arts students. I have more children with disabilities and English Language Learners so my students scores – even their progress – will be lower than their peers because they face greater learning challenges. That’s fair?”


“Maybe next year we’ll give you the gifted classes.”


“That’s worse! How can you judge me on progress when the gifted children have already reached an academic ceiling?”


“You’ve got nothing but excuses, Mr. K, and as they say at my old alma mater, Teach for America, ‘There are no shortcuts. There are no excuses.’”


“That’s rich coming from an organization that trains teachers in 5 weeks. Let me ask you a question, Ms. Commandant. Has VAM ever been shown to accurately evaluate teacher performance?”


“Uh. No, but…”


“Has its use ever been shown to increase student learning?”


“No, but…”


“Is it endorsed by the nation’s leading scholarly organizations like, say, The American Statistical Association?”


“No, I think the words ‘junk science’ were even thrown about…”


“And you think that you can determine whether I get to keep my job or not based on this deeply flawed methodology? Do you want to be sued for wrongful termination?”


“Sued!? Oh goodie! We get to hold a trial!”




“All done. Let’s bring in the machine from the penal colony.”


“Wait, but… What did I do wrong?”


“You’ll see. The nature of your crime will be slowly carved into your back over a period of 12 hours.”


“Won’t that be excruciatingly painful?”


“Blame tenure. If it wasn’t for due process rights I wouldn’t even have to do that much.”


“Great. Didn’t you notice I’ve turned into a giant insect and have a thick layer of chitin across my shoulders?”


“Mr. K, I’m an administrator! I notice everything!”


And the moral of the story is… No one knows. Common Core requires us to read more nonfiction texts.


(rim shot)



Life or Death Professional Development


You know what’s funny about school shootings?

It’s the only time the public still universally loves teachers.

We don’t trust them with collective bargaining rights. We don’t think they deserve a decent salary. Heck! We don’t even trust their judgement to design their own teaching standards, lead their own classrooms or be evaluated by their own principals!

But when armed assailants show up at school, then we think teachers are just great.

When angry teens arrive rifles strapped to their trench-coated backs, carrying duffel bags full of ammunition – then teachers are heroes.

I guess you can’t standardize your way past a bullet.

My school district had an outstanding training today. Administration brought in current and retired FBI agents, local law enforcement and EMTs to practice active shooter drills with the teachers.

We spent the morning learning about common factors between various school shootings, what to look for to stop the violence before it even begins and what strategies we should consider if we’re ever in such a situation.

This may sound a bit vague but the trainers asked us specifically not to give away the details. They fear if too much of this becomes common knowledge, mass shooters will better be able to prepare for their killings. So in deference to law enforcement, I’m not going to get into any specifics that might help a shooter increase his body count.

The afternoon was taken up with various scenarios. We were split into groups and given roles to play as a law enforcement officer took on the role of a school shooter.

The officer had a gun filled with blanks. We were given the opportunity to hear what it sounds like to have a gun go off in our building at various distances. It certainly wasn’t what I expected but gave us an excellent point of reference in case the real thing ever happened.

Probably the most frightening scenarios were in our own classrooms. I was sent to the room where I teach with a group of teachers who would play the role of students. Then we practiced locking down.

When the announcement was made, I locked my door, had the “students” turn over the desks for cover and turned off the light. One of the “students” was an army veteran so he tied his leather belt to the doorknob making it harder to open.

We heard the shooter walking the halls, screaming at others, even knocking on our door and trying unsuccessfully to get inside.

However, in the very next room, he broke in causing real damage to the door. He made the teachers kneel on the ground and asked them if they had children, if they wanted to live before shooting them with blanks.

When it was over, their faces were bloodless and scared.

During another scenario, I was only able to save one student in my room before the shooter arrived. I looked right at the shooter before slamming my door shut. There was just no time to do more.

The two of us hid along the wall with the lights out. We even tried our army friend’s belt trick but it did no good. The shooter broke through the door breaking the belt. I had my chair raised above my head and brought it down gently on his gun arm as he entered the room.

He turned to me and said “that was a good idea,” before shooting me. In my defense, had this been real and not practice, I would have brought the chair down with much more force. But dead I remained until police swept the room and the scenario ended.

A friend of mine in another room said the shooter entered her classroom and asked, “Who’s the teacher!?” My friend rose from the floor and said it was her. He took her outside of the room at gun point, turned her around and told her to run. She said she tried to follow his directions but her legs barely obeyed her. She doesn’t remember if he shot her.

Others froze in the halls against lockers or on the floor becoming easy targets as the shooter approached.

At one point he yelled, “Where’s the principal!?” Another friend calmly gave him directions how to get to the office. “Just go out these doors, make a left…” But by then the principal had already run from the building. She admitted to feeling horrible after she was safe.

We did a few other scenarios where the shooter approached us in areas where there was much less cover and you had to decide immediately what to do, where to go. It became something of a mad dash. One of the teachers even fell and broke her nose. She was treated on the scene by EMTs and taken to the hospital.

All-in-all, it was a thoughtful and fascinating training. It’s unfortunate we need to take the time away from academic concerns, but it is necessary. Our trainers called it “fear inoculation.” They said it would help us be less frightened, more able to act if the real thing ever were to happen.

The irony is that our public schools ARE safe – safer even than our homes. You have a better chance of being struck by lightening than you do being involved in a mass shooting. But these things do happen and it’s best to be prepared.

It certainly brought home the experience for me. I know what I’d do. I’d protect my students with my last breath. I think most teachers would. It’s who we are.

We don’t get into teaching for the salary or tenure. We certainly don’t do it for the standardization, dwindling autonomy, and fading professional regard.

We do it for the children.

I was honored to have this article featured on Freshly Pressed.

Perfect Strangers: Racial Injustice as a Symptom of Continuing School Segregation


I remember faces.


Names fade over time, but after more than a decade of teaching in impoverished Western Pennsylvania schools, I still remember all my students’ faces. I remember the smiles, the mischievous looks, the winks, the fronting, the brows knit in concentration and the rare honest smiles when they surprised themselves that they really can do the impossible.


Most of those faces are brown though mine is white.


Does that matter? Sometimes I lie to myself and say it doesn’t. We’re all just people, after all. Sure we have different stories, different cultures. What does it matter how much melanin we have in our skins?


But it does matter.


All those brown-skinned faces walking in-and-out of my life everyday are in real danger. I’ve seen their pictures in the newspaper – gunned down, wounded by a stray bullet, sometimes even pulling the trigger. These aren’t strangers. They were my students. They came to my class almost every day and sat right there in those desks. I may still have their writing journals locked away in a drawer and I can read about what they wanted from life. I can read my pen-marked critiques on their papers – a beautiful image here, bad spelling and grammar there, did that really happen to you, excellent creativity…


And in a week there will be a whole new group. They’ll take those same seats and look up to me with the fear of the future shinning in their eyes. As time goes on, it’ll get easier to hide, but on that first day it will be piercing like a knife. It’ll be my job to calm them, to let them know it’ll be alright – at least for a while.


I love my students, but I don’t know what they go through. Even when they tell me. The only gun I ever saw as a child was a BB gun. The only dead body I saw was on TV or in the movies. The police never followed me through a department store. I never knew what it was like to go hungry, to wonder who my father is, to wonder when he’s coming back from prison, to wonder what he did to end up there so far away from me.


Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin – they could have been my students. Eric Garner could have been any of their fathers. And they were murdered – each and all – for no reason except they had brown faces. Meanwhile, white lips strained, white cheeks filled with blood and white foreheads creased with furrows as they killed these boys and men. But it didn’t matter. The White World – my world – would let their murderers go. They had only shut the eyes on black faces. A misdemeanor at most.


It’s a shock to me, but not to my students. It just reaffirms the fear I’ve seen in their eyes. And no matter what I do, I will always be a part of that White World where they can be gunned down for nothing. Will I rise my voice in protest once their bodies lie cold in the ground? Is that what I’m doing now? Does it matter?


In the adult world, black and white keep so apart, so distinct. We live in different areas of the city, work at different jobs, go to different entertainments. Separation breeds fear. Maybe if we knew each other better, maybe if we saw each other every day, maybe it would make a difference.


It used to be the job of the public schools to introduce us to each other. We used to go to class together side-by-side. Many of us even ate lunch together, played sports together, even got in trouble together.


Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal but it taught us something important: we couldn’t know what it was like to BE each other – you have to live a life to really know what that’s like – but at least we knew the other person was human, too.


Among all the educational “advances” of increased standardized testing, ipads and data walls, we’ve lost one of the most important lessons we could teach each other: each other.


Some schools – not all schools – still teach that. Certain schools that are given the most oversight, squeezed financially and bad mouthed in the press – the kind that serve impoverished populations. They’re the only kind that still mix. My kind.


But our educational policy of the past few decades has been to segregate public schools of all stripes – encouraging charter schools and private schools and taking the remaining public schools and making sure they serve mostly one race or another.


Charter schools have always been about segregation. They were invented in The South after Brown v. Board of Education as a means to facilitate white flight. Now these mostly for-profit ventures are set up in impoverished neighborhoods to suck out the black kids and bleach the public schools a more respectable color. Or sometimes they do just the opposite – enticing away the white kids. Remember charters can accept whoever they want. They don’t have to take everyone. The bottom line is profit.


School vouchers are just the same. What’s a school voucher but a free ticket to get away from all those brown faces? Marketers claim they want to help the black kids go to private schools, yet those same vouchers never provide enough money to completely cover tuition. They end up being a boast for more affluent white kids to get away from all those stifling black faces.


For those left behind in public schools, we have Common Core. It’s job is to feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline by sucking the life out of education. For instance, imagine being told to constantly read every text three times looking for different things each time. A poem – three times. A short story – three times. A nonfiction piece – three times. That will kill any love of reading for sure – especially if you didn’t have much to begin with! Policymakers like Bill Gates decry low graduation rates but then make huge dividends from the for-profit prisons that sweep up these same dropouts.


For a country that prides itself on being a melting pot, we certainly work hard to keep the various ingredients separate. I wonder if changing our education policies would make a difference. After all, it’s harder to fear the known. It’s harder to kill someone when you see them as a person. It’s harder to ignore the injustices of lost opportunity, unfair funding, senseless murder.


I live my professional life among brown faces. Most days I give my time, my strength, my thoughts to helping them, loving them. I don’t want to keep losing them. I want to be able to do more than just dim the fear in their eyes. I want to do more than just give them platitudes. I want more than to dry their tears after the violence is done. I want to stop if from happening in the first place.


Please help. Fight segregating education policies. Or else be haunted by the faces of all colors we fail.

Reformers Standardize – Teachers Individualize

head in book
If you turn on the TV these days, you’re bound to come across a news program talking about education reform. You’ll see at least five talking heads – not one of whom is an actual school teacher.


And no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that.


You’ll find actors, sports stars, politicians, hedge fund managers, vulture capitalists, economists… anyone but a living, breathing educator. If you’re lucky, you might find someone like Michelle Rhee who taught for about three years before becoming a professional education reformer and then was embroiled in various cheating scandals.


Would we find this acceptable if it were in other fields? I wonder if a panel on medical reform held without a single doctor would have the same gravitas. Maybe a discussion on safe ways to fly an airplane without any airplane pilots would be well received. ‘Laws Without Lawyers’ would sure be an informative talk! Heck! We even hire ex-athletes and coaches to go on ESPN and talk about the games they, themselves, played and/or coached!


Only in the field of education do we find The Professional completely superfluous. Much has been made of the public’s disregard for teachers: the idea that since you’ve graduated high school, you know what it means to be a teacher. You don’t.


You don’t get a teaching certification digging around in a Crackerjack box. People earn genuine college degrees in this – many of them get masters and doctorates. Those degrees even require you to go out and do some actual teaching! Let me assure you, none of it entails reminiscing about your old high school days and all the teachers who were mean to you.


So why does the public love reformers but hate teachers so much? I think it’s because we let them define the debate and frame the narrative.


“He who frames the question wins the debate,” goes the old saying. Though erroneously attributed to Randall Terry (There is no evidence he was the first to use it), it’s true.


We’ve let the Michelle Rhee’s of the world do exactly this. To see how, ask yourself the following question: What do we call THEM?


The answer: Education reformers. Some of us try to put a disparaging “Corporate” at the front, but by then the damage is done.


They’re the “reformers,” and what do we call those who oppose them? We don’t even really have a name. Nothing except “TEACHERS!” said with a sneer! Or maybe they’ll try to stick in “UNIONS!” with that same sarcasm! Even if you don’t belong to a union, even if you aren’t a teacher, they’ll try to tie you to those pejorative terms: “You’re in the pay of the teacher’s unions!” Heaven help us!


In the court of public opinion, the facts don’t matter. This is where we’ve lost. It doesn’t matter that the state and federal government has been trying out the pet projects of these “reformers” for at least a dozen years and none of their promises have come true. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, high-stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers – it’s all the same snake oil they keep selling the public again-and-again…  AND PEOPLE KEEP BUYING IT!


But what choice do they have? These are the “reformers.” If I’m against them, what am I? An obstructionist? Am I in favor of the status quo? Do I just want to keep things the way they are?


Of course not! But we’re stuck without a name to call ourselves and, to be honest, a more accurate (but polite) term to call them.


Let me offer a solution.


We’ve seen that the reformers really aren’t reformers at all. They’re “STANDARDIZERS.” Isn’t that, after all, the goal of all their botched and bungled education efforts?


Our national and state education policies push for students and teachers to be evaluated on standardized tests. Teachers must use common standards from which to design their lessons. Many times, teachers are required to read their lessons right from a standardized script. It’s all about making students and teachers march in line to the ca-ching of the cash register as public money flows into privateers’ pockets. (Who do you think pays for all those tests and test prep? You do, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer!)


Even the debate on teacher tenure is about standardization. The shadowy AstroTurf organizations financing these attacks want teachers to shut up and get in line. No more due process so they can fire whoever they want, whenever they want. No more talking out against these failed reforms. No more push back. Just read from the script, do your test prep, proctor your standardized tests and when you’ve either quit or your salary is too expensive, it’s time for you to go into another field.


STANDARDIZERS want our public schools to look like the educational equivalent of Walmart or McDonalds. On any given day, walk into an 8th grade class in a school in Brooklyn and walk into one in Kansas City or Los Angeles or anywhere in the country and you’ll see the same lesson being taught the same way by your easily replaceable and inexperienced teacher.


Many of us oppose this goal. We think this isn’t the best way to educate our children. But what do you call us? What term best characterizes our educational outlook and goals not just by contrast to what STANDARDIZERS do but also positively describes what we think a good educational system should look like?


I’d suggest “INDIVIDUALIZERS.” After all, that’s what good teachers do. We individualize children’s education.


We construct our lessons so that they address the various learning styles of our students. We let students make choices and hold them responsible for those choices. We talk to parents and psychologists and make decisions based on our students needs. We thoroughly read our students IEPs and abide by them (instead of just ignoring them like the STANDARDIZERS do). We meet kids where they are and help them progress from there. We don’t start at some arbitrary standard. We don’t tell them facts are all that matter. We cherish their opinions and help them make stronger arguments based on facts.


This includes school funding. STANDARDIZERS say they want every school to get equal funding! That sounds great – equality – but what we need is equity. Poorer schools require more funding than those that serve a wealthier population. Impoverished students need extra tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other wraparound services for the things that – for whatever reason – don’t get provided at home. And there are an awful lot of kids in need. A majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families. Poor kids just cost more to educate.


The rest of the industrialized world knows this and funds schools accordingly. We’re one of the few countries that willfully refuses to do it. It’s like the racist who claims he “can’t see color.” STANDARDIZERS won’t see poverty. They also won’t see that many of these impoverished children are minorities, either.


A sure way to tell if you’re talking to a STANDARDIZER is if he says that we need to stop wasting money on schools that don’t work and start investing in ones that do. It just means he thinks rich kids deserve more money than poor kids. You don’t think STANDARDIZERS want all this mechanized horror for their own kids, do you?


Despite what they say, STANDARDIZERS know standardization isn’t what’s really best for children. You can tell by where they send their own kids – private and parochial schools that don’t have to abide by their own standardized policies! (Wow! Isn’t that a shock!?)


This robotic utopia isn’t for their own children. If you walk into a rich school – probably a charter, parochial or private school – you won’t see standardization. If they want public schools to be Mickey Dees, they want their kids schools to be a celebrity chef’s burger bistro selling made-to-order patties of Kobe beef topped with Foie Gras! And there’s nothing wrong with that, BUT it’s awfully telling that what they want for their own children is too good for yours and mine.


So to review, Corporate Education Reform is all about standardization. Those who oppose it are in favor of individualization.


Or to put it in a soundbite: Reformers Standardize – Teachers Individualize.


I think if we start talking about it like this, we may see a change. Every time a STANDARDIZER tries to frame it their way, correct them. Don’t let anyone characterize the status quo as “reform” without correcting them that it’s actually about standardization. We need individualization.


It will take time, and we need to continue making the arguments we’re already making about why this is true. But eventually things might change.


One day in the not-so-distant future, you might turn on a TV news program about education reform and hear from – GASP! – a teacher!



NOTE: Many Individualizers self-identify with activist groups to oppose the work of standardization. For example, some call themselves BATS or Badass Teachers since they belong to the Badass Teachers Association. (I know I do!) And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I think we need a close synonym, a broader blanket term for the entire aggregate of people who oppose standardization. Not everyone will want to be called a Badass Teacher. But we can all be Individualizers. And, moreover, the use of that term in contrast to “standardizer” helps us frame the narrative in a more truthful way than that currently being popularized.

Shhhh! Who’s Silencing the Debate on Real Education Reform?


“Well, I, I mean, they’re trying to silence the debate that’s a really important debate that we should be having in this country.”
-Campbell Brown on The Colbert Report, July 31, 2014


Yes, Campbell Brown. You’re absolutely right. Someone is trying to silence an important debate we’re trying to have about public education. But who?


The former CNN anchorwoman thinks teachers are to blame. She made the above comment as part of her publicity tour to promote her New York lawsuit attacking teacher tenure. Colbert had asked her why her appearance on his show moved people to protest outside his studio.


Her answer above was that the protestors were silencing debate – she was in effect demonizing those who disagree with her, many of whom are teachers. It was a cheap propaganda move that somehow manages to be both grossly incorrect and – from another vantage point – absolutely factual.


On the face of it, protestors aren’t silencing debate – they’re just taking part in it. A debate with only one side is not a debate; it’s a monologue.


Parents, students and teachers standing politely on the sidewalk holding handmade sign aren’t silencing anyone. Strongly worded tweets with clever hashtags aren’t silencing anyone. They just don’t agree with Brown.


But no worries. The ex-TV-personality is using her well-financed megaphone to shout over all these little people just fine. The secret donors (she still won’t say who they are) funding Brown are getting their message across like a thunderclap. The money being pumped into the few remaining media giants to discredit public servants rights is still making it to the right palms and greasing them nicely. As a result, talking heads across the nation from Joe Scarborough (who doesn’t know any better) to Whoopie Goldberg (who really should) go on TV to tell the traditionally Conservative bedtime story of a rampant horde of bad teachers who allegedly can’t be fired because of tenure. Ooooh! Scary!


This is so clearly nonsense it staggers the mind that it even needs debunking. But we might as well address the three most glaring falsehoods.


First, Brown and company are fighting a straw man. No one wants bad teachers to keep their jobs. Teachers don’t want it. Unions don’t want it. No one wants it.


Second, tenured teachers do not have a job for life. In fact, teacher tenure only means due process. It just means a teacher can’t be fired without administrators providing a good reason to do so. Therefore, if there are countless multitudes of bad teachers infesting our schools, administrators don’t need Brown and company to do a thing. Administrators can fire every bad teacher in America TODAY if they just gather the evidence and make a case.


Finally, we must ask ourselves how many bad teachers are out there? Are their armies of educators not doing their jobs resulting in poor academic outcomes for our children? The answer is unequivocally NO. Even the anti-tenure crowd admit there are very few bad teachers working in our public schools. That’s one of the things that makes this so absurd!


The Vergara v. California decision, which emboldened people like Brown to attack teacher tenure elsewhere, makes this plain. The case, which found teacher tenure to violate students rights, hinged on this fact. How many bad teachers are there in California? The prosecution’s chief witness, Arizona State Education Prof. David Berliner, put the number at 1-3% – a statistic that he later admitted was a “guesstimate.” (Look for this verdict to be overturned soon.)


But let’s do like the judge and accept this statistic for a moment. If only 1-3% of a student’s teachers aren’t doing a good job, how can that possibly result in that child doing badly through all his years in school? If true, this would mean on average some students have at most one bad teacher during their entire academic careers while others have none. One bad teacher is enough to make you a bad student? Forever? Even before you had that teacher? This doesn’t exactly pass the smell test.


So even by the less than rigorous standards set by the anti-tenure crowd, bad teachers are like four leaf clovers. They exist but you’d have to look for a long time to find one. Yet we’re spending all this time and money to eradicate mythical bad teachers while doing absolutely nothing to help the true majority of teachers who execute their jobs with passion and diligence.


Therefore, Brown is wrong. Protesting anti-tenure efforts does NOT silence debate. However, she’s also correct. A debate IS being silenced – the debate over corporate education reform. And it’s Brown and company who are doing it.


Teachers have had enough of decades of top down, corporate education policies failing miserably and then being resurrected from the dead, given a new name and failing again – all the time with no evidence they’ll work the second, third or fourth time. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, school vouchers, charter schools – it’s all the same Kool-Aid just in different flavors.


The biggest resistance to these policies has come mainly from teachers. Yes, parents, administrators and policy-minded individuals have joined this fight, too, but it’s teachers who have been most visible making the argument against these policies.


And the resistance is only getting stronger. Just this summer the largest teachers union in the country, the National Education Association, voted for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. The reason? His support and proliferation of these same proven destructive policies. Similarly, the second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, cheekily voted to put Duncan on an improvement plan. Either he changes his ways and supports real reform efforts or else he should step down.


How interesting that when grassroots teachers groups are clamoring for a change in our failed education policies, shadowy AstroTurf organizations appear from nowhere to attack teacher’s rights! Moreover, the rights they’re attacking are the ones that allow teachers to take such a stand in the first place!


Without due process rights, teachers would not be able to speak out against the horrendous injustices being done to students in their classrooms without fear of being fired in retaliation. Without tenure, school districts do not need to provide a teacher with notice, summary of charges, or a hearing before summarily kicking them out the door. So if untenured teachers speak out, administrators and school boards can fire them at will. Teachers are witnesses to the abuses of our current educational policy – should we make them mute, as well?


Unlike policymakers, teachers see the results of these top-down directives every day. Teachers see their students ground down under the pressure of months of administration-mandated test prep. Teachers see the weeks of class time wasted as students take the tests. Though explicitly told not to read the questions students are being asked and even threatened with legal action if they divulge the content of the tests, teachers see how badly worded and inappropriate the questions are.


Teachers see the love of reading dim from their students eyes as Common Core initiatives imply that the only reason to open a book is to score well on a test. They see the increased emphasis on facts and figures and any connection to the students lives, to forming valid opinions, to real critical thinking being dismissed as – of all things – not rigorous enough!


Without tenure, we lose the most vocal critics of the very policies that are holding our public schools back and stopping our children from succeeding. Apologists like Michelle Rhee, Duncan and Brown will tell you our schools are failing because of bad teachers. But if you listen to the professionals in the room where these policies are being enacted, you’ll hear the real story: it is corporate education reform that is failing our schools.


It makes one wonder again about those anonymous donors of Campbell Brown. Could they be the same people pushing for these destructive policies? Almost definitely.


The Board of Directors for her organization prosecuting this case, Partnership for Educational Justice, reads like a who’s who of vulture capitalists and corporate education reformers. Her own husband, Dan Senor, sits on the board of Rhee’s poisonous Students First.


We have here the worst conflict of interest imaginable. Corporate education reformers are funding an attack on their biggest critics – teachers – in order to silence them.


Campbell Brown may play the victim crying that the debate on teacher tenure is being silenced. But the truth is that she’s part of a well-financed effort to silence the resistance to their destructive and noxious education policies.

The Real American Education Crisis

Arne Duncan

“There’s a crisis in education…”

“Our schools are in crisis…”

“Schools are failing…”

“We’re failing our kids…”

You hear some variation of the above almost every time the subject turns to American education – especially the public schools. It’s usually the first thing out of a corporate education reformer’s mouth before he/she unveils the disruptive, top-down, data-driven solution that will save us all. Davis Guggenheim made a famous corporate reform propaganda film claiming we were all “Waiting for Superman” to come save education. Well, if we’re waiting for superman, the above phrase and its variations are his theme music.

However, when we hear these words, the gut level reaction is to deny them. “What? Our schools are failing? Of course not!”

And then we look like deluded pollyannas trying to hide our heads in the sand from an obvious problem. Our schools are failing. It MUST be true. I heard Wolf Blitzer say it on CNN. The US Secretary of Education says it. The President even says it!

So I’d like to make a suggestion the next time you hear someone say this ubiquitous phrase. Agree with him.

Say, “Yes. Our schools are failing. Our state and federal education policy has failed them.”
Say, “We’ve spent billions of dollars on No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and none of it has helped kids learn any better!”

Say, “We’ve been trying high-stakes standardized testing, test prep and teacher accountability programs for at least the last dozen years with the sole goal of bringing up student test scores. It hasn’t worked.”

Give them the old saw that “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Tell them this is exactly what we’re doing in our school system. Common Core, value-added measures, school vouchers, charter schools – it’s all the same failed educational scheme that just doesn’t work.

They may want proof. Turn their attention to International PISA scores. (They’ll love that! Data! Drooool!)

We know that students from wealthy districts earn some of the best test scores in the world. It’s the kids entrenched in poverty that don’t do so well. AND (This will probably be news to your corporate education reformer interlocutor) a majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families.

Social science research over the last several decades has shown that two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors — and among the most powerful of those is economic status. That’s not exactly shocking: Kids exposed to destitution and all that comes with it have enough trouble just surviving, much less succeeding in school.

Then you can turn to real reform tactics – things that might actually help kids learn!
Things like increasing public money to fund extra tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other wraparound services at low-income schools.

Talk about equity (They’ll love that! They try to sell their snake oil as a cure for our Civil Rights abuses. Hit them with a real one!) Tell them high-poverty schools must finally receive the same amount of funding as schools in wealthy neighborhoods. Tell them we actually should do like the rest of those high achieving PISA nations and give high-poverty districts MORE funds than rich districts because combating poverty is expensive.

Tell them we need to help impoverished students’ parents – we need to expand the social safety net, raise the minimum wage, provide funding for daycare, single-payer healthcare, introduce a real jobs bill to get people back to work.

And if they shy away from poverty (Because they will! They don’t really want to solve society’s ills!) tell them how we need to change the antiquated school system, itself.

Yes, antiquated. Our public schools are still organized as if they were preparing kids to work in a factory. The industrial revolution has been over for some time now. Those mill jobs mostly have been shipped overseas and they aren’t coming back. Our schools need to educate kids for the jobs of the future – science and technology jobs, for instance.

How do you do that? You do exactly the opposite of what the corporate education reformers propose. When they say “standardize,” we should say “individualize.” It’s a head scratcher in the teaching profession these days that educators are told to individualize their lessons but standardize their tests.

We can change the paradigm by allowing students to have more of a say in their own educations as they get older. For instance, instead of arbitrarily forcing teachers to make their students read a certain percentage of nonfiction texts (i.e. Common Core), let the students pick a certain percentage of the texts they read based on… gulp… personal interest.

Let children follow their hearts. Teach them to be media savvy and computer literate, but don’t give them any answers. Help them find the answers.

That’s what a 21st Century education should look like, not children sitting all in a row filling in bubbles on a standardized test.

I offer this bit of advice not because I think we’ll convince the reformers. Let’s face it. They’re in the pockets of the rich and powerful who are making billions off of the poison these shills are selling. However, if we challenge this basic assumption, if we change the narrative, we may begin to convince the voting pubic.

To be fair, I think this has already begun. The tolerance for these top-down reform methods has started to wane. If we can shut down their schemes before they’ve even begun, we may have a chance of increasing erosion to their policies acceptance.

And then the crisis in education may actually find a solution.