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Teach Party Express


Last month, while holding a community forum at a cafe in a small northern Michigan town, Senator Carl Levin was hit in the face with a pie--about five minutes after he had made some quiet remarks about the alarming level of media-grabbing rage in this political season.

Senator Levin--whom Jon Stewart describes as "a kindly old shoemaker"--is neither slick nor hotheaded himself. Levin is a man who has dedicated his entire life to hard work and public service. Whether you agree with his politics or not (full disclosure: I voted for Levin six times), it's hard to see him as anything other than a genuine statesman. We need more Carl Levins, on both sides of the aisle, thoughtful policy-makers who weigh the issues, gather input--then proceed with caution.

Or at least that's what I used to think: thoughtful and informed will always win the day.

Unfortunately, "thoughtful and informed" got Carl Levin comments like these--suggesting that he deserves to be pelted with manure. So much for civic discourse.

The idea that our public schools in America are an embarrassment--irreparably broken and staffed by lazy, dim-bulb academic leftovers--dominates the angry national conversation about education. The narrative is repeated endlessly in news magazines and overdone documentaries.

Time magazine begins its recent cover story on "fixing" public schools with an anecdote from a 19-year old dropout, who--thank goodness--has picked up a GED and is now attending community college. What's the reason that she dropped out? Her fifth grade teacher was discouraging, she says. And in sixth grade, she couldn't transfer to a charter school, because it was full. So she dropped out. Four years later.

This is not research. This is the latter-day equivalent of Ronald Reagan-era tales about welfare queens buying chateaubriand with food stamps. Only this time the disgraced parties are middle class teachers, who are somehow portrayed as sponging off the system by investing years in teaching poor kids.

There's plenty wrong with the schools and future prospects of children in generational poverty--but casting the people and organizations who currently work with our neediest kids as the villains in a glossy melodrama is foolish and counterproductive, especially since we currently have no well-researched, slam-dunk plans to invest in those children, long-term.

Successful turnaround stories are marked by idiosyncratic circumstances. The science of turnarounds is weak and devoid of practical, effective strategies for educators to employ. Examples of large-scale, system-wide turnarounds are nonexistent. A lot of work needs to be done before the odds of turning around failing schools begin to tip in a favorable direction.

So why aren't teachers out there making their own inflammatory films and outrageous statements? Why don't we carry insulting signs, wear funny hats and gather on the Mall in large numbers for no discernible purpose other than seizing media attention?

Why are we dutifully taking pies in the face instead?

Probably for the same reason that teachers continue to show up in crumbling schools in shoot-em-up neighborhoods, and put up with abysmal leadership and policy churn: because they care more about kids than they do the spotlight.

NBC is now promoting Education Nation, a week-long media fest which appears to be designed to promote the default story: Our schools are failing. Shame on teachers. Punish, privatize, then pay enormous bonuses for test scores. NBC's programming features a special Town Hall for teachers, which my friend Renee Moore describes as isolating us at a "kiddie table," while the real reformers make Important Decisions.

NBC has set up a Facebook page promoting Education Nation, and they're having some trouble because teachers keep flinging little verbal pies in wall posts there, especially at the Department of Education, which has adopted unresearched, market-based educational theories.

This is not traditional teacher behavior. We're usually on the side of being polite, taking turns and following directions. Respectful. The Carl Levins of education policy. But--as Diane Ravitch recently said, about NBC's plans: "Being invited to listen is not participation and does not show respect."

Maybe NBC and the Department of Education need to take a cue from Senator Levin: "I'm more than willing to hear from people who disagree with me."

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