It's wrong to characterize this string of protests in Detroit as selfish actions taken by a minority of teachers--or a union-driven overreaction to a belt-tightening. There's a lot at stake here, beginning with the survival of a major public school system. Think this could never happen in your state or district? There doesn't seem to be much to prevent collapse of public education in Detroit, except for the professional courage of its teachers.
Today, a group of Detroit teachers--fed up with Darnell Earley, the same Emergency Manager who presided over the Flint water scandal, and a raft of further harmful offenses to real Detroit children and their education--organized a sick-out. They did so in frustration, knowing full well they would be accused of greediness, or keeping children from their federally subsidized meals. They did so knowing they will be labeled "unprofessional," led around by their unions (false)--when their actions represent what is ultimately the core of what professionalism means: autonomy over important work.
Am I cynical about education in 2016? No more cynical---or positive--than I've ever been. I long ago learned that being upbeat and honey-not-vinegar is no more effective than being critical, cranky and pushy in getting what we need to preserve public education. And let's be clear: that's the goal. There are many facets to the goal, around testing, standardization, funding, governance, "data" and the steady erosion of the democratic concept of public good. In the end, however, all the shouting boils down to one thing: Will genuinely public--not publicly funded, privately managed-- education survive and thrive?
Themes around quality education are woven into Michael Moore's latest film: From France, delicious fresh-food school lunches, including a cheese course, designed to make students healthier and more conscious of good eating habits. Free college educations for all students in Slovenia (including American ex-pats, escaping absurd loan debt back home). Enlightened, non-punitive sex education. Teachers who feel entirely autonomous in their classrooms. European teachers who pity American educators, because their work is evaluated by their students' testing data.
How can we live in a nation where someone like Ramone Williams doesn't want to be a "distraction" to his fellow scholars? It's gratifying to read about all the families who offered Ramone a safe, warm place to stay over the holidays--and to think that, temporarily, he has enough money to finish a college degree and launch his adult life. But what about the other 56,000 students patching together their holiday "vacation" around donated food and temporary shelters--are they also trying to avoid being a distraction to the American academic conscience? Aren't we supposed to be Education Nation?
This was not an optimistic conversation. I don't have a list of all the things we touched on in my dinner with Alfie Kohn--from data mining to innovative curriculum to building better teachers--but there was little about which we disagreed. This is not a golden age for public education--or for the public's valuing of education (two different, but interwoven, things). We talked as two professionals--a veteran practitioner and an education thinker--deeply concerned, deeply worried about the direction that America has embraced, in an effort to improve our education system.
There is not and never has never been a "War on Christmas" in public schools. Everyone in America gets Christmas, for weeks, whether they want it or not. The First Amendment lets us sort this out, school by school, keeping educational integrity uppermost. School leaders can serve as models of inclusive and respectful citizenship--a more admirable goal than majority domination.
It strikes me that we are shaping our education system around the media-driven idea that only some ideas and abilities matter and must be pursued, full-bore. Other ideas--say, the potential of representative democracy, or caring for our fellow humans--may be nice, but are completely secondary to striving and winning, nose to the grit stone. What good is a growth mindset if the things you feel most passionate about doing and being are undervalued?
Who's really in charge of explaining school-embedded teacher leadership, selecting the right goals and purposes for individual classrooms? Who is inspiring teachers to find their own paths--based on the own carefully honed experience and observations--to lead? Is what we're seeing about teacher leadership in the media driven by the big cannons--the federal government, the well-funded organizations and grant-receiving universities--rather than actual teachers working in grubby classrooms, scattered across the country?
When authentic, experienced teacher leaders step out of their boxes to speak about education issues, they always run the risk of stepping on the toes--or in the limelight--of someone above them in the pecking order. Simply expressing a widely shared viewpoint feels like subordination to some school leaders. When teachers have a national platform and thousands of readers or fans--when their voice and leadership are elevated--they become a threat.