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Overcoming Despair as we Fight for Our Schools

This week I got the following message from a teacher colleague.

It seems clear to me that the DOE has made its deal with the devil in its awarding of i3 Grants. The top five "winners" include TFA & KIPP who have the "highest scores."
I can NOT believe that we are going to turn our schools over to business. I feel angry, bitter, and dismissed after the measly little $30 million for the National Writing Project was cut from the budget in order to make room for these charlatans.
It appears that the best hope for professional development for teachers includes throwing enough people at the wall and see who sticks. For those who don't, our kids will pay in terms of varying instruction.
I also find it highly ironic that the awarding of grant money is based on a "Standardize Scaled Score" as if that justifies awarding the money. Hey, they used statistics. It must be true.
I am feeling despair.

Mary Tedrow

Mary Tedrow is not alone. I am feeling rather discouraged myself, after our largely fruitless efforts to convince Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration to shift their policies.

However, we must not despair.

We endured eight long years of the Bush administration, understanding that you could expect nothing but doubletalk, deception and attacks from him and his appointees. Our problem now is that we were lifted, more than even most in this nation, by the euphoric hopes raised by the Obama campaign. Throughout the Democratic primary, both Obama and Clinton pledged to end the punitive elements of No Child Left Behind and extend real support to teachers in public schools. Although Obama emphasized accountability, he spoke eloquently of a new era of "mutual responsibility." In a speech to the NEA in July of 2008, Obama said,


I am tired of hearing teachers blamed for our problems. I want to lead a new era of mutual responsibility in education. One where we all come together, parents and educators and the NEA and the leaders in Washington, citizens all across America united for the sake of our children's success.

Obama addressed parents, and sought to inspire them to turn off the televisions and get their children focused on school. He has provided greater resources for schools -- but because of the nationwide recession, schools have less money than ever.

But as we all know, education policy and federal funding has continued down same the train tracks laid by Bush and Spellings, with some rhetorical tributes to civil rights and equity used to justify the process.

This is bigger than Obama. Just as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue like some kind of juggernaut, in spite of the wishes of the voters and even many political leaders. Our system is a machine that operates behind the facade created by our political leaders.

We are in a war of attrition with the business-people who think they know best for our schools. Some of them are driven by visions of profits from schools. Some want to knock out our unions, since teachers are the last large sector of organized people in the nation. Some think our work can be done better and cheaper if we can streamline things and make the workforce more compliant and flexible.

They have a multi-pronged attack under way. They are undermining our unions by relentless attacks that portray these organizations as protectors of bad teachers and self-interested clubs. They are seeking to bring in supposedly superior replacements -- recent college graduates who specialize in raising test scores. They seek to narrowly define student achievement as test score gains so as to simplify our work and make it easy to separate the "good" teachers from the "bad."

And now, as reported in today's New York Times, there is a gold rush of consultants who promise to turn around schools in short order, with little or no track record of success.

We teachers have been almost entirely on the defensive. We have become accustomed to back-pedaling, to conceding that yes, there are some bad teachers, and yes, sometimes it is difficult to fire them.

But the Achilles heel of this assault on our profession is that the solutions it offers DO NOT WORK, even by the narrow test score terms used to justify them. In New York, recent investigations have revealed that the test score gains that were used to tout the benefits of mayoral control were an illusion, created by tests that were made easier to pass. Year after year research continues to show that teachers become more and more effective as they gain experience, at least up until year five. How then can a program like Teach For America serve as a systemic improvement, when the majority of its interns are gone from the classroom after three years? An in-depth comparison of charter schools reveals they are no better than regular public schools.

We are part of what has become an overwhelming consensus of educators who share this understanding. We know that our struggling schools need real support, in the form of time for teachers to collaborate and grow together. They need resources to respond to the ongoing crises their students face -- counseling to deal with violence in their neighborhoods, nutritional services to deal with chronic health issues caused by hunger and obesity. We need tutoring programs, recreational programs, music and art programs to bring our students back to life and give them hope for the future.

As a profession, we need a degree of autonomy and genuine responsibility. Just as a doctor must be trusted to diagnose and prescribe medications to his patients, teachers need the ability to respond to our students, and work together at our schools to develop challenging and relevant curriculum that engages our students and inspires them to learn. Our students are not served by one-size-fits all canned curriculum, or a revolving set of novice teachers. They are best served by a stable core of teachers at their school, who develops a deep understanding of these students, their community, and sustained work with their parents to support their learning.

It is our job to continue to point this out, and as drops of rain on a stone, these truths are wearing down the phony facade of education reform
. Obama's speech at the National Urban League last month was a desperate shoring up of what has become a failed set of policies. They are not failed because we say so, or because they are going to collapse on their own. They are failed because they have not worked, will not work, and cannot work.

We continue to offer a clear positive alternative along with our critique. The advantage of our alternative is that it offers the chance to activate and energize a profession that has been demoralized and sidelined. Some combination of political and economic forces would prefer that we stay that way. We will bear witness to this alternative, and to continue to point out the false path we remain on. We cannot despair. Our students need us.

What do you think? Are you feeling despair? How do we stay strong in what we believe?

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