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What Are the Winners Thinking?

Dear Diane,

It's a winter wonderland here—with ice glistening on all the branches. Except that some of those branches are now no longer connected to trees, and our lawn is filled with limbs. After our electricity went out, we finally trooped off to my daughter's house for the night. It's still not on as we approach another night.

So I haven't been thinking about what to write. I feel our case is so obvious and irrefutable, and well-documented that the only people who disagree with us won't be persuaded by anything we say. Leonie Haimson's Class Size Matters website has continuing, non-stop ammunition for your case and mine, Diane.

So I turned to my friend Linda Nathan's blog, which tells all about the life of her school (Boston Arts Academy in Boston). This very innovative school—based on habits of mind and graduation by real exhibitions of knowledge and skill—is a reminder of why "ordinary" public schools can, with the full support of a union, do remarkable things. We have such examples all over the country, if we can make sure they don't disappear under the pressure to fall in line with the latest reform ("deform") ideas. Next time folks ask, "but what else can we do?"—tell them to write me, and I'll send them places they can visit.

Linda is an example of someone who has been at this longstanding struggle to change the norms of schooling for a very long time. She, with Larry Myatt, founded the Fenway High School 25 years ago, which also has had a remarkable history of success. In short, it's not unions that stop us. And I think both Linda and I would say that having a union school made our life easier, not harder. The Boston union, like New York UFT, has for the most part seen our kind of work as enhancing teacher power over the critical decisions that affect young people's lives. My default position: decisions should be made as close to the action as possible.

How did this current nonsense happen—all this "children first" talk, as though adults are a danger to the young? Or the default position of viewing teachers as bad, unless otherwise proven. Of course, I was sometimes furious at the teachers my kids had. But I find infuriating teachers in the private sector, too. It's not easy to know who is a good doctor either. I "fired" two in my lifetime. One doctor told me I had just had a massive heart attack, and I should go check in at the nearby (10 blocks away) emergency room. Fortunately I ran into a friend who hailed a taxi and got me there. (It turned out I didn't have a heart attack.) The other prescribed a medication that caused spectacular pain because someone forgot to check the rate at which it ought to be administered. Still, both these doctors are loved by friends of mine who dismiss my experience as an aberration. Maybe so.

When I started Mission Hill I hired two teachers who had been fired by a local private school, and I never regretted it. I hired a third who had been fired (yes, it can be done) from a local public school. In addition, I've had very direct personal evidence about how easy it is to "get rid" of teachers—if the superintendent and/or principal want to badly enough. In fact, it's too easy. And the impact on school morale—for parents, kids, and teachers—is often ignored because those fired are often great teachers.

I read a news article the other day that highlighted four or five young teachers who might lose their jobs if "last in, first out" layoff policies aren't toppled. I was sad, but imagine what the stories might read like if we were looking at four or five senior teachers (say in their 50s). All over America folks with or without college degrees are losing their jobs in their 50s because they cost too much and are soon likely to be able to retire with pensions! Try finding a new job when you're 50.

I fear we're back, public-policy-wise, to the year I was born, 1931, when most of what we know as the American dream was still to come. We talk a lot about "the good old days," but we forget that it took sweat and tears to win the battles that created that large middle class. And that even at its best we have had greater poverty than any of our European competitors.

Read Paul Krugman's piece in Monday's New York Times about why even if we had 100 percent college graduation rates, it wouldn't help the jobs picture. When we panic people and miseducate them they fall for false solutions. The solution to our economic woes lies in restoring our determination to recreate a healthy economy that works for most of the people most of the time; one that cries "shame" when the reckless rich play games with the hard-earned money of their fellow Americans and expect the victims to clean up after them while they get away scot-free. The only one we really went after was Bernard Madoff—maybe because he fleeced the rich? (He also fleeced a lot of do-good causes I care about.)

My husband just called, the lights have gone on at home. As I say that, I am reminded of 1945, when we all celebrated the lights going on all over the world! One of our readers thinks I have false nostalgia about that period. Probably true. I was 14 and it seemed that a new day had dawned. I believed in the myth of progress—and knew it would just get better and better. I wish my grandchildren could feel that way today, even if it's mythic. We could use some of that enthusiasm to take on the future. So I take heart that all over the world the "bosses" are worrying about their restless subjects. It may be that we shall lose most of these battles, but it assures me that the lights have not gone out.

But it also makes me wonder what the "winners" are thinking. They may have insured their children's futures, but in the long run we all live on the same planet.

Deborah

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