Let me start this post by thanking each of you in the field of teaching for your service. I really do appreciate that, it involves more sacrifice than most people realize or appreciate. Teachers give up countless hours with their own families to spend it with the children of others and to improve the lives of children that are not theirs. It truly is a career of service to improve people’s lives and our society. God bless you for your work.Now that I’ve related my respect and admiration for you, I will probably say some things that may, at a minimum, make some educators uncomfortable, and may even make some angry. A part of me hopes that this will stir that much emotion in you. I hope it will inspire you to recreate a scene from the movie “Network” where someone went to the window and shouted out, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
(scene from “Network”)
I bring you one simple truth: your profession is under attack. It started with people who I really believe were well-intentioned, even if misguided. Those people thought that a Utopia could exist where all (not most, not many, not almost everyone, but 100%) students would achieve at a set proficiency level if we just mandated it. Schools would improve because the law said they had to. In theory, it sounded great- what educator wouldn’t say ALL kids can achieve? In reality, we know that it’s just not realistic to expect 100% of students to achieve at the same level at a pre-determined time. I’ve often likened it to saying by the end of the year all students in a PE class will run a 6 minute mile. We won’t take into account any physical disabilities they many have, nor will we take into account what their fitness level is at the beginning of the year. If you happen to be a school that the government gives additional money to because your students are in an area where most students are poor and maybe they haven’t had prior training in running or haven’t been provided with quality shoes to run in, well, the government will solve that by taking the money back from those schools if they don’t reach the 100% level. Sounds a little crazy if you are not an educator, but if you are, you know that it IS NCLB in a very concise package. This was a difficult thing for educators to take, but it was really just the beginning. That was coming from the federal level, so to a teacher in their classroom in Missouri, it seemed far away, plus, it wouldn’t really affect them for years to come.
A little economics lesson
Then something else happened: the economy tanked. The bubble burst. Greedy people looking to make more money loaned money to people that they knew couldn’t afford to pay it back. People borrowed money they knew they couldn’t afford to pay back. The economy was a delicate house of cards that collapsed with the mortgage crisis. Rather than this just affecting a segment industry, its effects were felt in ALL industries. Companies began laying off, people had less money, people spent less money, companies made less money, companies laid people off. The cycle continued over and over. As more people were unemployed and had less money to spend, social programs were burdened more. Less money being spent meant less money in the coffers of state treasuries. State governments are not like the federal government, they cannot pass this debt on to the children of your grandchildren. They are forced to have balanced budgets. If they don’t have it, they can’t spend it. Things that were the responsibility of the state governments were now underfunded, even as the expenses for those programs continued to grow. Education falls into this category. Legislators had to choose where to allocate the limited funds they had due to reduced tax revenues. Most legislators recognized that education was an important function of the state government and attempted to keep funding at adequate levels. Every now and then a bill would be filed that tried to reallocate some of that money under the label of scholarships (seemed the least offensive) and more blatantly, tax credits and vouchers to private entities, namely private schools. The pie got smaller and smaller and the expenses continued to grow for public schools. This led us to where we are today.
This isn’t just about money
As educators, we understand that finances are tight. They are tight statewide and they are tight on a local level. Many educators have had their salaries frozen in many districts, even as they continued to spend more of their own money to get more training and advanced degrees. Most teachers understand that legislators can’t give us money that doesn’t exist.
What is disconcerting for me (and should be for all educators) is that this has gone beyond money, and there is a pervasive attitude of derision aimed at educators. Not only are bills being filed at a rate like no other time to divert funds into charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits, but bills are now being filed that take direct aim on the very people in the classroom, all under the umbrella of “reform”. For the life of me, I can’t understand where these thoughts and beliefs are rooted. In this session alone in Missouri, bills have been filed in both the House and Senate to remove teacher tenure, create a tiered system of paying teachers (with no credit given for advanced degrees or professional development), to remove any protection for teachers that have seniority during layoffs, and to remove due process for teachers that are removed at the end of their contract.
I’ve joked to colleagues that public education is the only group that is now politically correct to take shots at. The media, through films like “Waiting For Superman” and the like, have created this perception that classrooms are full of lazy educators, doing the bare minimum and just biding their time until they retire, doing as little as possible with teacher unions protecting them. There is a belief by many legislators that we protect poor teachers with things like tenure and due process. I’ve had legislators tell me that a contract should only be binding on the teacher and not the district. Not one has been able to show me how removal of tenure and the creation of a tiered system that creates competition among teachers (not collaboration) will improve the education our children are receiving. The attacks on teachers have gone as far as hiding items in bills that have nothing to do with education. A bill about tax amnesty was working it’s way through the process last week, and it was discovered that there was a provision that would revoke the teaching certificate of a teacher who was more than 90 days behind on their taxes. Why this profession was singled out, I have no idea. Why not hair dressers, doctors, nail technicians, or any other profession that requires state certification-? Mind you, I don’t think they should be singled out either. Luckily, a Senator that realizes the value of educators was able to remove that provision from the bill. This is an example of the animosity and passive-aggressive behavior directed at teachers in our capitol.
The Charter School myth
Charter schools have been hailed as the savior to all education problems. Many believe that charter schools are something new, some even thinking that President Obama created the concept. Truth is, charters have been around for many years. Charter schools have scored higher than some schools on assessments. Charter schools have scored lower than some schools on assessments. Some charter schools have even scored similarly to other schools on assessments. The truth is, there is no statistical evidence that charters do better or worse than traditional schools.
I will be the first to agree that in the state of Missouri, we have long-term problems in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas in both drop out and graduation rates. Lots of money and programs have been directed at those two districts to remedy the problems. I wish I had an answer, I don’t. It is a legitimate problem. Expanding charter schools throughout the state won’t fix that problem. St. Louis and Kansas City have been allowed to have charters for years. Ironically, just as legislators are trying to expand charters, two long-time charter schools in Kansas City, Tolbert Academy and Don Bosco, are going to close at the end of this year due to low enrollment. Every tax dollar that is reallocated to a charter is one less dollar that is available to ALL public schools in Missouri. Again, legislators like to paint themselves as the knight on the white horse saving our education system because it’s so broken. THAT is the true myth: it’s not broken. The media points to international test scores as an indication that American education is in a crisis. The truth is, other countries want to emulate our system. In his book, “Catching Up Or Leading the Way”, Yong Zhao points out that almost all of the intellectual capitol (patents, copyrights, etc.) in the world is created in the United States. We encourage a creativity that encourages ALL talents to grow, not just test taking. There are tremendous things going on in classrooms all over our state, but stories about that aren’t “sexy” and no legislator makes a name for themselves by saying, “I will go to Jeffrerson City and keep the status quo”.
A matter of choice for my tax dollars?
For those that ask the question, “If I choose to send my child to a private school, why shouldn’t I get some of my tax money back since the local school doesn’t have to educate my child?”
I suggest an analogy for you: if I don’t care for the local police force, I may choose to hire my own private security firm to guard my home and property. Would it be reasonable for me to demand some of my tax money back to subsidize what I am paying the security firm since I am not using the services of the police department? Most of us would believe that the hiring of a private firm is your own choice, and your tax dollars go to protect all of us, for the good of all. Then I ask, if you choose to not utilize the educational services provided by your taxes, and you send your child to a private school, is that not similar? I have no issues with private education; I know great things are going on in those schools, as well. Again, the choice to send your child to a private school is just that: a choice. I just don’t feel that it can be done on the dime of taxpayers and take limited funds away from already strapped budgets.
So what do we do now?
I will wrap up with a final thought: this is a critical time in our profession, maybe more critical than any other time in our history. Recently, Missouri rolled out new standards as part of our School Improvement Process. In short, the process happened without much input from educators. Educators were not pleased with this process. In a collaborative effort not often seen, ALL education groups (MSTA, MNEA, MASSP, MASA, MAESP, and others) banded together to have their collective voices heard.
This needs to happen now. We need to demand the respect back that our profession so richly deserves. This is not comfortable behavior for most in education. We want to enrich lives, not be in confrontation, but the need for grass roots action is desperately needed now. You need to contact your legislators, be involved constituents, have your voices heard. If you are a member of MSTA, you need to join the Rapid Response team by sending an email to email@example.com. If you are a member of other organizations, check with them to see what you can do through them. If you don’t belong to any, contact your legislators. They need to hear your message. They need to be reminded that they represent US!! This really is a call to action- all educational groups need to be able to put any differences aside and band together during this dark period in education legislation.
Short of standing at a podium and pounding on it, I’m not sure I can be more passionate about this. I guess I have finally gotten to this point about my profession: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” I hope that you will become mad as well.