Thursday, June 23, 2016

Teacher lessons

What I decided while reading Dana Goldstein's The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession is that perhaps it should be a qualification for high political office to have attended some of our public schools.

That would let me out -- also Trump and perhaps the Prez, though he did go to public kindergarten. HRC, on the other hand, enjoyed a good specimen of the middle class white public education available to the post-World War II generation. (I'm not making an endorsement, just noting a fact.) Perhaps people with power would be a little less mesmerized by the sort of cyclical educational fads that have long washed over public schools if they'd experienced this non-system themselves.

Goldstein chronicles it all: how missionary zeal in the 19th century led to recruitment of unmarried women into teaching -- and locked them into low status and low pay when states realized they were much cheaper than men. How teachers unions have swung back and forth between adopting ruthlessly practical political alliances of convenience with conservative forces or becoming advocates for racial and economic equity, to the point of being called, and sometimes being, "communists".

Having arrived in New York City amid the racial backlash that flared when Black nationalist parents, activists and teachers confronted a largely white labor organization concerned to protect teachers' hard won job protections, I appreciated her narrative of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict of 1968. Right wingers will read this and note the prominence of a meddling Ford Foundation in that community insurrection; many of us will note that racial segregation and unequal schooling are perhaps even more prevalent today as they were then. See Nicole Hannah-Jones on "Choosing a school for my daughter in a segregated city" published just last week.

Another poorly grounded recurrent enthusiasm has gripped public education repeatedly: the idea that somewhere, somehow, there must be people who, if drawn into the teaching profession, would solve all problems. First there were middle class young women shipped to the 19th century west to "civilize" the pioneers. In the middle of the 20th century there was the Teacher Corps, a sort of domestic analogue of the Peace Corps. Lately there has been the controversial Teach for America program out of which came Michelle Rhee who thought she could fire her way to teacher excellence when heading the Washington DC schools -- and ran into a community that supported its teachers. There are no miracles when it comes to bringing and keeping talented teachers into the profession, Goldstein writes:

Underperforming teachers were not hiding some sort of amazing skill set they failed to use either because they were too lazy or were disgruntled about low pay.

Teaching is hard, most people who take up the job realize they can't do it after a year or so, schools are repeatedly "reformed" from various directions -- and some teachers and schools even succeed in enabling students to learn something. They have an easier time doing that in direct proportion to the economic and cultural security of the parents and communities the children come from.

There are no miracles to be achieved by generating massive data sets through over-frequent testing of students either, though that hope also springs up periodically.

Goldstein's book did a terrific job of providing a historical frame within which I can think about education controversies as they fly by. I'm pretty sure that, whatever the schools need, it is not going to come from bystanders like me who never experienced them. It seems clear the schools need more money and an authentic societal commitment to educating all children, not any quick-fix gimmick. But let the people who work in them and the parents whose kids attend them work this out; they don't need foundations, billionaires, entrepreneurs, politicians and con artists. Better public education is hard work. And essential.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Yes, for people who have never attended public schools they are the Great Unknown, blackboard jungles, havens of mediocrity, etc. etc.
My entire education has been in public institutions, with the exception of a graduate program at Reed College. My experiences were varied. My children attended a combination of public and private schools, which were all high quality. And my grandkids, as I've mentioned, are getting well educated in underfunded and crowded schools in Seattle. Academic success is just a given for children like them, practically independent of the learning conditions in their schools. But I am very impressed with how well the teachers deal with the logistics of educating so many chldren.
My husband's entire education was in public schools. He went to Berkeley and got his PhD from Wisconsin. That was in the days when the best resources possible were available for a lot of young people virtually free of charge.
I would say that my best higher education experience was at Portland State University because of the superior faculty.

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