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Paul Horton: Will Career Teachers Be Crowded Out by Corporate Reform?

Guest post by Paul Horton.


The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

-- Orwell

I can still remember my Econ 101 Professor define "the Crowding Out Effect." He told us in his endearing urbane twang that the "crowding out effect" prevented long term economic recovery from a recession when too much public investment did not allow private investment to rekindle economic growth. Probably the last LBJ Keynesian at a major Texas university, he defended high levels of public spending during recessions. He was endearingly folksy, someone who knew how to tell stories about New Deal price supports in historical and ethical contexts.

Lately, however, the phrase "crowding out effect" has begun to take on a different meaning for me. I am one of the dwindling breed of early seventies idealists who entered the teaching profession before teacher's unions had any clout, when one who chose to teach had to work one or two extra jobs to pay for auto insurance, a room, and food.

Many teachers who have put in at least thirty years feel as though we have made real sacrifices to remain teachers. My Econ 101 professor would call this an opportunity cost. We thought it was honorable to sacrifice the income potential that a more lucrative profession would afford us. We paid our dues, and apprenticed under master teachers. On the home front, many of us had second thoughts about the virtues of sacrifice and honor when we realized how expensive raising children could be. At least if we were poor, we could think highly of ourselves.

My how things have changed! Most of us cannot believe what is happening to our profession now.

Now we feel "crowded out" by a national corporate education reform agenda that has no place for creativity or craftsmanship. Many of our educational leaders at the U.S. Department of Education, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Students First who have spent very little time in the classroom, claim to know everything that is best for Education. Because they have a lot of money to throw around, media outlets give them every opportunity to voice their agenda. No one in power stops to ask us anything about what we know: we have become superfluous, dead branches of a dying tree that must be pruned back by people who don't know much about trees.

These leaders and others like them (both Democratic and Republican) embrace the "rational choice theory" of education. They are dismantling a once proud public education system, practically giving it away to private investors and education corporations who push multiple choice tests, computerized essay grading, and digitalized instruction. These leaders want to scale-up charter and virtual schools and to reduce the costs of public education by busting unions. They are rapidly replacing the curricular choices made by experienced, master teachers with efficiency rhetoric, scaling metrics, and time and motion studies. In short, they are turning schools into high-tech assembly lines.

As a History teacher, I view this development with great trepidation. As a leader of History teachers in a large state, I feel like drawing a line in the sand. My discipline is under attack. No one out there is saying that history is unimportant, but most studies reveal that it is in decline. We are losing a shared sense of understanding ourselves as a people that can only come from the telling and retelling of stories. Without stories that help us understand the world, we are lost.

Many of our students spend more time watching YouTube and reading Wikipedia than reading books. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and now Race To The Top (RTTT) and the Common Core Standards have focused learning on factoids or short works of fiction and historical documents. Although the close reading advocated by the Common Core Standards is a very important skill to develop, it must be balanced by developing a larger story about history that allows one to form an individual identity within a much bigger story.

My conservative friends are well aware of this problem and call for a return to the "Exceptionalist" narrative of American History. As a working historian, I see the issues differently, though I do believe that we need to attempt to teach a complex narrative that allows us to see history from many different perspectives. This is the approach that was pioneered by Thucydides in the Western tradition.

In calling for close reading and analysis of short fiction and historical documents, the Common Core Standards are in many ways very admirable. With this approach, however, the pendulum has been swung too far in the opposite direction of content tests based on discrete bits of information. Under NCLB and state exit test regimes, content factoids ruled the curriculum. Now, under RTTT and the Common Core Standards, the focus on developing skills has replaced content knowledge as a focus. Our commitment to provide our children a rigorous, liberal education is compromised with either regime because education dollars flow from private foundations and public coffers to support one narrow testing regime or the other. In either case, the emphasis is out of balance and made worse when standardized tests and the administrative imperative to raise scores warp and narrow teaching and expectations.

What gets left behind, however, is what students desperately need to be "college ready" in non Science-Technology-Engineering-and Mathematics (STEM) fields: reading great works of history and literature and writing the types of extended research papers and projects that most great colleges and universities demand. I know what many of "the best" colleges want because I teach at a school that is under great pressure to prepare students for these institutions. Short essays of the type required for Common Core, based on the analysis of a limited number of documents, while important, are not enough.

My students tell me that college interviewers from the best colleges always ask about the most inspiring books that they have recently read. College interviewers often want to know about a significant study or research project that has transformed the way that a student sees and experiences the world. In short, they want breath and depth: they want to see a passion for knowing and a boundless curiosity that no multiple choice test or computer graded essay will ever be able to measure. History teachers generally love to encourage students to engage in these research projects, but depth and choice have become scarce under both NCLB and RTTT. Both regimes result in a narrower curriculum and less choice because administrators will push to focus resources and teachers exclusively on what is tested.

I collect stories about history teaching as I meet teachers from all over my state. Many history teachers are very concerned about the Common Core Standards. One history teacher in a well-funded suburb tells me that the History Department in his school has become the Humanities Department because the district's superintendent wants to hire more English teachers to "teach to the Common Core." In other words, History will be "crowded out" to accommodate more Common Core writing exercises to get his district's scores up (remember, history is not tested; writing and reading skills are). Another History teacher tells me that since being asked to teach to the Common Core, he has had to give up thirty to forty percent of his content. Still another teacher has told me that he has been forced to drop a major research paper assignment because the Common Core does not require depth of content knowledge, and his administrators want close reading of short works of fiction and nonfiction all the time. In another case, teachers in a nearby high school tell me that they have eliminated freshman World History because so much Social Studies time was taken away in grades K-8 drilling for nationally mandated tests, that most students failed history because they lacked any sense of context or chronology.

Many of my colleagues who write grants to fund professional development opportunities for History teachers tell me that the word on the street is that grant language must center on "Common Core Language" to have a chance for funding. The money is pouring into learning to teach the Common Core Standards, but little is left for mentoring young history teachers or funding area studies classes (the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Latin America). For World History teachers who are trying to build more dynamic courses that diverge from the European Civilization locus they learned in college twenty years ago, funds for retooling have all but evaporated.

English teachers around my state are also complaining about being pressured to quit teaching long novels: Dickens, Tolstoy, Melville, and Twain are being phased out to focus on shorter works of fiction and nonfiction. No doubt that there are abundant short works of great complexity available to inventive teachers, but longer narratives typically convey broader, more deeply evolved themes, characters, perspectives, and contexts that are more easily related to big picture historical developments. The New Critical close reading of the elements of a work emphasized by the Common Core Standards must be balanced by broader contextualization to allow students to frame their ideas and identities within broader frames of reference and analysis. We have to balance the trees with a 360' perspective of the forest.

What is missing from this picture? The hardworking experienced teacher who is skilled enough to delicately balance knowledge based content and depth with the development of writing skills that include both the short analytical papers encouraged by the Common Core Standards, and the longer research papers that will adequately prepare students for more demanding college classes. These teachers know how to push kids to read and write more. Students need to read much more and keep reading increasingly more difficult narrative works of fiction and nonfiction (not just snippets).

The experienced teacher is the key: the conductor, musician, coach, and magician-of-motivation all wrapped into one person. Those who push the corporate education reform agenda do not understand or have forgotten what a great teacher does, so their solutions "crowd out" experienced teachers. Rather than investing in the human potential of teachers and students, they choose to invest in "bubble tests" and self-paced digitalized learning that are good for the profits of education corporations, but lousy for kids, parents, and communities.

Many experienced teachers feel as though they are going through a "Cultural Revolution" that requires them to kowtow to a regime that denigrates experience, knowledge, and wisdom; a revolution that devalues the humanities and humanity in favor of shaping as much "human capital" as possible.

We need to invest in professional development and training that will nurture more master teachers rather than in private charters and education vendors that siphon public funds and resources into private ventures that can easily be outsourced or hidden from public view.

Experienced teachers have always played a vital role in modeling good practice for novice teachers. When our best teachers are effectively marginalized, professional growth becomes a fetishized commodity,

Public investment that subsidizes privatization is "crowding out" our teaching experience, knowledge, and wisdom. We are allowing the dismemberment of an institution that is the keystone of any democratic society. Didn't the Sophists find a way to be rid of that troublesome Socrates?

We are losing control of our shared memory. Can we afford to allow this to happen? Can we stand back and allow the very notion of "public" to be "crowded out"? Where is our Pericles?


Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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