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April Fool

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

My 11th grade English teacher would be very pleased to know that I remembered this, although neither memory nor desire are stirring much these days, educationally speaking.

We're in a waste land of education practice and policy. The good teachers can't teach in the ways that engage kids, because their scripted lessons are aimed solely at raising scores. Kids with learning difficulties are removed from the rolls in schools--the one place where they have a chance of improving their odds--so they won't bring those scores down. Teachers and their professional associations have become targets of low-information bullying. Education has moved to the bottom of the list in states' funding priorities.

And here's the worst thing. All the political juice and "innovative policy" in education are running in the same direction. Maybe the couplet I'm looking for is:

It's hard to be hopeful. A teaching colleague from Indiana, Cindi, reports that her staff received the following memo, late last month, from Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett:

Any plan aiming to dramatically improve our system of schools must be negotiated with input from teachers, administrators, superintendents, parents, union leaders, and politicians from both sides of the aisle. It must also take into account the real value of collective bargaining agreements between school corporations and unions. We have realized that teachers and their unions are the biggest influencers driving student success in our schools; SB 1 and SB 575 are obviously only the vision of a few and will not transform public school districts for the better--especially in urban districts.

Serious problems related to SB 1 and SB 575 have been brought to our attention by parents, teachers, and union leaders. SB 1 will create job insecurity for teachers who will be evaluated on factors outside of their control. SB 575 will limit the scope of teachers' contracts while compromising the professional protections teachers need. Like SB 1, SB 575 will reduce democracy in schools, putting control in the State's hands rather than in local communities.

Indiana's educators deserve respect and gratitude for dedicating their lives to preparing children for success. They are not the problem in our current system of schools. The organizations that represent them are necessary for their democratic voices to be heard in their workplaces. This legislative session, these organizations have convinced us at the Indiana Department of Education that there is only one road that will lead to success: the democratic process of negotiation.

Cindi says that tears of joy sprang to her eyes. A few minutes later, another e-mail, from school administrators: the first e-mail was hoax. Delete, please. The Superintendent had, in fact, sent an e-mail to Indiana school employees. Here's an excerpt from the real non-April-fool e-mail:

As in any profession, however, there are others for whom teaching is not or is no longer a good fit for their skills and abilities. And the learning opportunities for the students in those classrooms should not be sacrificed for those adults' job security. Sadly, this happens too often. Our educational system allows special interest groups to defend the status quo to protect adults at the expense of our children.

So much for hope and change.

Oddly, Superintendent Bennett begins his real message with a conciliatory ramble about those rare "good" teachers: They learn to drive small buses to transport students to compete in academic and enrichment events on weekends - and often pay for the fuel that goes into those gas tanks. They anonymously refill depleted student lunch account cards. They purchase classroom materials with their own money, and they grade papers during evening and weekend family time.

Unfortunately, Bennett seems to have lost sight of what true teacher professionalism is: expertise. Being an expert in subject discipline knowledge, a crackerjack instructor, a creator of engaging lessons and authentic assessments. Working effectively with parents and colleagues. Constantly fine-tuning your teaching practice, based on the work of your students.

Being a great teacher isn't about personal sacrifice or paying for things out of your own limited funds. Teachers are not missionaries. Cindi thinks Superintendent Bennett was trying to butter his teachers up--just the good ones, of course--before slamming them.

April fool.

Or, in the immortal words of George W. Bush:

Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- unh--you can't get fooled again.

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