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Consuming Our Teachers


One of my dearest friends used to be the managing editor of our county-wide newspaper, an award-winning, steadily growing daily. Because it was a mid-sized local paper, most of her reporters were fresh out of J-school. They would work for a few years, grow into a writing style, gain political savvy and benefit from her eagle editing eye--then look for a job at a bigger paper, doing something besides covering school news and township board meetings.

A few years ago, Big Journo Conglomerate bought out her string of smallish, hometown newspapers. She was busier than ever, coaching novice reporters on shaping and arranging Big C's bland, pre-packaged content, trying to retain local flavor. Then--Conglomerate let the two most expensive and experienced editors go--with no warning. Not dissatisfied, just downsizing--a story we're hearing all the time. My friend was out of a job.

So--Thanks for your years of hard, creative work, riding out the worst of times with us, caring about the community we served. But we've hired part-time stringers and $30/story free-lancers to do your job. Don't let the door...

So it goes. We no longer value experienced, expert service. Not when we can get just-OK service from cheap newbies. It's the WalMartization of Everything American--Always Low Prices. Always.

Quality? Eh. Who cares about quality? Who knows what quality really is? Quality has been redefined, in many of our institutions: Temp nurses in walk-in clinics. "Freeway flyers" in higher education. Outsourcing legal work to India and engineering work to China.

There's a lack of moral integrity in these aspects of the consumer society: the denigration of public service, choosing convenience, price and flash over community-building, the elevation of novelty over proven excellence, disconnecting from commitment. And of course, this is the story in education, too:

LIFO, Michelle Rhee's new trumped-up boogeyman that's theoretically destroying education.

"Roundtables" of venture capitalists in education, meeting to decide how to hone media messages about teachers. For example: Wouldn't it be better and cheaper if new graduates from our top colleges got those teaching jobs, kind of like competitive two-year paid internships? Or: Teacher tenure is dragging down student learning!

• School governance models that pay teachers for reaching specific achievement-data goals rather than teaching kids. Fail to reach your goals? We turn your school over to a charter operator--or simply pay you less.

My friend is no longer a journalist. Now she's a journo-preneur. She creates beautiful, elegant websites, and runs a local on-line news and features magazine out of her home. She's very good at what she does. But she no longer has a salary or benefit package--and she doesn't do deep-dive investigative journalism.

I miss the extended human-interest narratives she did for the paper. I remember one remarkable story, a conversation with the parents of two daughters who were killed by a loathsome drifter, while walking along a wooded road near their home. How do you get past that, go on to find purpose in life? These people did, and she told their story with an exquisitely insightful tenderness.

But--there's no market for local stories like that anymore. These days, you can tune into the "news" you want, and buy pre-filtered investigative stories to align with your entertainment and political tastes. You don't have to listen to "boring" analyses of how Wall Street has run off with all your money and blamed you. As the late Neil Postman observed, we're amusing ourselves to death.

We no longer feel bound to invest in our local schools, either--developing trust, working through thorny classroom problems with veteran teachers, building a cadre of effective practitioners over time, running for the school board as community service. We're education consumers now. We take what we need from education, and don't trouble ourselves with those who haven't figured out how to take advantage of the system. Their loss.

No more talk of schooling for informed citizenship or a better world. Teach for America alum--now real teacher--Anna Martin bravely noted in her Washington Post column that in this entrepreneurial approach, we're actually feeding into the "interchangeable widget" theory of teacher development and production. There's a market for deep-dive, passion-based, exploratory learning, but it's out of reach for most ed-consumers.

Who's driving this school-as-marketplace, educator-as-entrepreneur movement? Who benefits?

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